The tungsten filament burning with a flame in the light bulb.Be careful what you wish for. Started back in 2009, this blog on academic technologies was hijacked in 2012 (“the Year of the MOOC“) by MOOCs. I felt so compelled to blog about these hyper-hyped (then much transmogrified) Massive Open Online Courses (getting less massive, less open, less fully online, and less course-like all the time) that, after one or two  retrospectives, I’m sort of at a loss when it comes to what to blog about these days, now that the once mighty MOOC zeppelin seems a deflated blimp. Not that I couldn’t find plenty to say about ed tech and online learning and so on BM (Before MOOCs). So I’ve decided to do a combination update/valedictory and move on. At least for the nonce.

There are two forks to the waning stream of stories on MOOCs. One still rings positive. The other, the dominant, is that they’re so over. Far from being the tsunamis or revolutions that would wash away or remake higher ed as we know it,  they’re at best a part of the “incremental change” that higher ed is seeing from technological and putatively disruptive incursions, or so says “The Sky Isn’t Falling,” a report on SXSWedu, “which featured cautious and intentional ways of trying out emerging technologies” and came to the general conclusion that “ed tech will continue to be used as a complement to traditional higher education.”

And this is what the advocates are saying. Meanwhile, some highly placed people are raining on the parade already past. Hillary Clinton, speaking at the Globalization of Higher Education conference earlier this week in Dallas, did not criticize MOOCs and online learning specifically, but she did (as cited in Inside Higher Ed) say there’s “no substitute for the kind of learning that takes place in a well-taught classroom,” and that “technology is a tool, not a teacher.” And former fellow Cabinet member, now UC President Janet Napolitano, “joins skeptics over online courses” (as Monday’s Reuter headline had it), specifically those big productions that are supposed to handle more students at a lower cost: “There’s a developing consensus that online learning is a tool for the toolbox, but it’s harder than it looks and if you do it right, it doesn’t save all that much money,” she said about the prospect of cheap online courses that might let California educate more students for less money.

From 30,000 feet, it may be hard to tell the kind of online courses we have been doing for the past two decades from the MOOCs of the past two years, but academic administrators, a little closer to the ground, have no such trouble. In the 11th annual report tracking online education in the US, it turns out that, in the space of just the past year, the number of academic leaders who thought MOOCs were sustainable online offerings dropped 5% (from 28% to 23%), and the number who had concerns about credits or credentials from MOOCs went up almost 10% (from 55% to 64%).  (By contrast, the number reporting that online education generally — not just MOOCs — was not critical to their institutions’ long term strategy dropped to an all-time low, below 10%.)

So are MOOCs just a blip? Given not just the attention but the investment afforded MOOCs, you would expect some resilience to them. But where will they flow, like water blocked in one channel but not another? Some sense of an answer may be in the very critiques and declarations of failure. The low completion rates are notorious, even in the popular press, and not least of all in the Times, which fed so much of the original hoopla with pundits like Brooks and Friedman and big spreads like the one on “the Year of the MOOC“; but in another sense the limits of their wide reach was a sign that being big didn’t mean reaching (and especially working for) everyone.  As the potential retracted, it essentially redefined the logical market: the successful students for MOOCs were those who were already college educated, and this was especially true of MOOCs that had that touted global reach.

Enter the latest news: Coursera has hired Richard C. Levine as its new CEO, and edX has Wendy Cebula as its new president and COO. Levine was the president of Yale, while Cebula was a Vistaprint executive (and it’s interesting that the open source provider should be the one to go with the corporate figure). But what they have in common, besides the intriguing synchronicity of these announcements, is expertise in  reaching beyond standard market definitions. Levine is an acknowledged leader in the internationalization of higher ed; Cebula is an expert in “global growth.” You can expect both of the remaining big three MOOC providers (now that Udacity has left higher ed for corporate e-learning) to go after the market for higher ed abroad that fits their strengths: the hungry but not the starving, the eager-to-be-elite. (There’s more to the reconfiguration of the major MOOC providers than these recent appointments signals, but I noted as much in an earlier post.)

So MOOCs will fill the interstices, and not the ones that most need filling. But we shouldn’t confuse the evolving business model with the lessons MOOCs have taught: that teaching (and its reach) can scale dramatically, that new modes and media make for new possibilities, that what might not succeed as a standalone may work well and complement or supplement. Cathy Davidson’s recent MOOC (to a considerable extent a MOOC on MOOCs) pulled out all the stops to show what a rich trove of possibilities that is, with layered readings, guest lectures, local as well as online discussion groups, multiple tiers of participation and evaluation. Even in this form (or array of forms), and pace Clinton and Napolitano, online learning is not just a (singular) technology or just a (singular) tool but a huge bag of tricks we’ve only begun to learn how to play with.

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