Massive Open Online Courses
Inevitably, the selection for 2012 is massive open online courses, or MOOC, with The New York Times declaring it “the year of the MOOC” (Pappano, 2012). We have looked at the roots of MOOC in the explorations of connectivist approaches, but more broadly the MOOC phenomenon can be viewed as the combination of several preceding technologies: some of the open approach of OER, the application of video, and the revolutionary hype of Web 2.0. The MOOC were an idea waiting to happen, with several people experimenting with the idea of running courses in the open. For example, photographer Jonathan Worth (2015) had been running an open photography course, Phonar (short for photography and narrative), which combined his formal students with informal learners, and used open platforms for discussions. This was, for him, a means of exploring how photographers operate in the new digital economy. And, as we have seen, educators such as George Siemens, Stephen Downes, and others had experimented with course design to examine connected pedagogies. These had attracted attention within the ed tech community, but MOOC were still widely unknown outside of the field. However, once Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun’s course on artificial intelligence attracted over 100,000 learners and almost as many headlines (Raith, 2011), the venture capitalist investment flooded in.
Perhaps more than any other ed tech in this book, MOOC generated a significant amount of media attention and hype; they are a case study still in the making. But now that the initial flurry of activity has died down, what can we say about MOOC?
First of all, their impact has been far less dramatic than has often been portrayed. Thrun famously declared that there will only be 10 global providers of higher education by 2022 (Leckart, 2012), and we can now assume that will not be the case. As I mentioned in the introduction, Shirky (2012) saw them as higher education’s “Napster moment.” Morgan (2016) argued that “MOOCs prove that universities can and should embrace online learning,” and Godin (2016) proclaimed MOOC to be the “first generation of online learning.” As well as overclaiming for the impact of MOOC, what many of these pieces have in common is a conflation of online learning with MOOCs. For instance, it didn’t take the development of MOOC to show universities that they should embrace online learning, as Morgan contended. The examples in this book demonstrate that universities have been embracing online learning for at least 15 years. Such overblown claims constitute a semantic, historical, and conceptual land-grab.
A consequence of this conflation is that, if MOOC and the online courses are synonymous, then MOOC are seen as the only way of realizing online learning. For example, Lewin (2013) published his article entitled “After Setbacks, Online Courses Are Rethought” in The New York Times on the problems of Thrun’s company, Udacity, and its approach to MOOC. In this narrative, MOOC failures become the failure of all online learning, and the future of MOOC becomes the future of all online learning.
Several problems began to emerge with MOOC after the initial enthusiasm, leading to the reining in of some of the ambitions. The key ones were:
Low Completion Rate — With around only 10% of registered students finishing the course, completion rates have been problematic for MOOC (Jordan, 2014).
Learner Demographics — Most successful MOOC learners were already well educated (Christensen et al., 2013), and this finding undermined claims of the MOOC democratizing learning.
Sustainability — We looked at e-learning costs in chapter 6. It came as no surprise then that, as MOOC became industrialized and required high-quality media outputs, its costs varied considerably, particularly when staff time, marketing, and support were factored in (Hollands & Tirthali, 2014). Finding sustainable business models that justified this expenditure has proven problematic.
These issues saw a change in tone around MOOC, with MOOC provider Coursera (2013) announcing that it was going to “explore MOOC based learning on campus.” This proposed system resembled conventional blended learning, or e-learning, but on a new platform. Similarly, Georgia Tech announced it was offering a master’s-level MOOC, which was not free (costing US$7,000), once again conflating online learning with MOOC, and Thrun’s company Udacity “pivoted” to focus on corporate training.
Perhaps a telling example of the MOOC hype and reality was the San Jose State University pilot. In January 2013, the university partnered with Udacity to offer a blended version of MOOC augmented by on-campus instruction. The intention was to offer large-scale, inexpensive education. It was launched with much fanfare, with Ferenstein (2013) claiming that it was “a move that spells the end of higher education as we know it.” He confidently predicted the pilot would succeed and expand to more universities. Instead, by December 2013, it was effectively finished “after a year of disappointing results and growing dismay among faculty members” (Straumsheim, 2013). This was portrayed as a failure of online education, but it demonstrated once again that support is the key element in provision, and that it cannot be provided cheaply.
What these examples illustrated was that MOOC providers were becoming platform companies to deliver e-learning within traditional education systems. It may have been cheaper than existing programs, but it was essentially the same model. Caulfield (2013a) suggested that commercial MOOC providers were never really interested in being free providers of education — they always wanted to become courseware providers to the education market. As he put it: “We now understand the endgame here. We now get the business model. The idea is not ‘send your students to us!’ The idea is to become yet another online vendor of services to higher ed” (para. 4). This is not necessarily a negative venture; a commercial e-learning provider could be helpful, and cheaper course options could benefit learners. But the arrival of new providers of LMS or e-learning content certainly doesn’t warrant the coverage it received at the time.
Aside from all the hyperbole, what practical applications of the MOOC emerged? The most obvious one is that millions of people signed up for them and found them an enjoyable and useful learning experience. For example, Farrow, Ward, Klekociuk, and Vickers (2017) reported on over 11,000 participants in a MOOC on understanding dementia. As educators, the rise of such courses and increased knowledge has to be seen as a positive outcome. There are also examples of their use in formal education to expand the curriculum; for example, the Delft University of Technology offers a “Virtual Exchange Programme,” whereby its campus-based students can take MOOC with other accredited providers and receive credit at Delft (Pickard, 2018). FutureLearn offers a program with the Open University and the University of Leeds, whereby learners’ gain credit for studying in MOOC and transfer these into the university to count towards a degree (Coughlan, 2016). While such models will not appeal to everyone, they do allow increased flexibility in the higher education offering.
MOOC also raised the profile of ed tech, and open practice in particular. Even if MOOC themselves are only open in terms of enrolment and not in terms of licensing, their presence has a knock-on effect. For example, for many university libraries, curating their open access resources is not a priority because fee-paying students have access to those resources anyway. So, there is no real driver for educators to focus on open access above other resources. But when universities started creating MOOC, this placed pressure on people to use open access resources, because the open learners probably wouldn’t have library access privileges.
This is similar to the way social media drives open access, because if someone wants to share an article via social media, but then encounters a paywall, most people won’t actually access it. What this situation demonstrates is that openness in any form ultimately begets more openness. So, while we may bemoan the fact that MOOC themselves are not really open in the sense of openly licensed, they do form part of a larger system, which helps drive openness. This demonstrates that once the disruption narrative is abandoned, which positions MOOC as competitors to formal higher education, then there are a variety of ways in which they can be complementary.
What MOOC perhaps reveal more clearly are attitudes towards the role of educational technology, as evidenced by the reaction to them. In 2015, I wrote that they appealed to a certain narrative that effectively super-charged the interest in MOOC development:
I would contend that the reason MOOC attracted so much attention — and so little critical evaluation — is because they slotted neatly into a broader set of narratives, in a way that other forms of open education haven’t. There are two aspects to this broader narrative: the first is the framing of the problem as “education is broken,” and the second is the overriding Silicon Valley narrative that shapes the form of solutions. (Weller, 2015, p. 119)
In this, they are the prime example of how much of ed tech has been framed in recent years, not as a tool to be used within education but rather as tools to fix education. The justification for MOOC was often couched as a response to the rising costs of higher education (e.g., Lawton & Katsomitros, 2012). This argument cites the rising costs of higher education for students, often allied with the declining job market, which situates higher education as a poor return on investment. The proposal made around MOOC, then, was that an efficient, technology-driven solution could therefore reduce much of this excess cost. The same type of efficiency-based argument is sometimes seen with artificial intelligence and learning analytics. This is, obviously, a decidedly neo-liberal interpretation of the function of higher education, but even putting aside that critique, it is also a very U.S.-centric model, where higher education is paid for by students (and also now in the UK). In many countries, higher education is still seen as a public good, and higher education is free, or low cost. Higher education must be paid for somehow, obviously, and is usually financed through government funding, but in such an environment the assumption that students (or consumers) will begin to reject university for the more affordable option simply does not apply. It is telling that in all of the ed tech solutions to the rising cost of higher education, a different model for funding higher education is never proposed; the current student debt-based model is taken as absolute.
Much of this thinking is driven by Christensen’s (1997) concept of disruption, which is a much-loved theory in technology companies. Disruption has been widely criticized (Doss, 2014), but it persists as a core idea because it appeals to the narrative myths of the tech industry. However, while it does occur it is actually very rare. And when people talk of disrupting a sector, it is worth questioning if that is really their goal. For example, to disrupt education would mean sweeping away a whole industry. When it does happen, disruption is absolutely merciless — an entire industry is replaced by a new one. The emphasis is not on making improvements (which Christensen (1997) labels as sustaining technology), it is on completely overhauling a sector and replacing it with a new one. For those in that sector, it is effectively an extinction event. For those claiming or desiring disruption, the following three things must hold true:
• A complete, systemic change will overtake the sector.
• The current incumbents will not survive.
• The current incumbents are incapable of accommodating new technology.
This is the core of disruption, so if what is being proposed doesn’t entail these radical outcomes, then it’s not disruption — it may be technology innovation, it may be new hybrid models, but it is not disruption. If we examine that list with education in mind, then it does not look either desirable or likely. It would mean the closure of schools, colleges, and universities, the redundancy of thousands of educators, and the delivery of all education by new providers. That would be a major social shift and would cause significant upheaval.
One of the methods deployed by promoters of disruption is to label those who disagree with them as resistant to change. Educational technologists can be seen as having a role to play in counteracting this narrative. As a group, they are generally the people who have pushed for change, are keen to embrace technology and to explore possibilities. Their concerns cannot be as easily dismissed as a refusal to accept change or failure to understand the technology. Acting as translators for many of the claims, while also seeing the possibility for new technologies in a practical sense for students will become increasingly important roles for educational technologists.
While the celebrity rise of MOOC has been fascinating to witness, I can’t help mourning the move away from the more experimental approach that typified their start. One of the great benefits of early MOOC was that they created a space for educators to explore new pedagogy, technology, or subject matter, without being tied into the conventional restraints of a formal, fee-paying curriculum. The new institutional MOOC became very conventional in their approach and subject matter as the costs of their production rose, and their function as “shop window” came to the fore.
Another misgiving is that, while MOOC are free, they are usually not open in the sense of being reusable and openly accessible. The early MOOC explored the concept of openness in all its interpretations — content, technology, pedagogy, and boundaries. MOOC could have gone down a path where the open aspects were much more prevalent, as with OER. Free access is a significant starting point, but more interesting things happen when MOOC are fully open.
The raised profile of open education and online learning caused by MOOC may be beneficial in the long run, but the MOOC hype may be equally detrimental. The ed tech field needs to learn how to balance these developments. Millions of learners accessing high-quality material online is a positive, but the rush by colleges and universities to enter into prohibitive contracts, outsource expertise, and undermine their own staff has long-term consequences as well. These are all factors that are still playing out.