MOOC,  openness

Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before

I told you so



No doubt most of you will have read the (unintentionally hilarious) interview with Udacity founder and the media's poster child for MOOCs, Sebastian Thrun. If you haven't the short version (minus the ego fanning and competitive cycling) is that Thrun has realised that not many people complete MOOCs, and that making them pay is a good incentiviser, so he's making Udacity an elearning corporate training company.

And there it is. After all that hype. All that "Napsterisation of higher education", the "end of universities", the "10 global providers of education" nonsense, what do we have? A corporate elearning company. As TS Eliot observed, the world ends not with a bang, but a whimper.

Everyone will blog about it (I expect there will be a wave of "the end of MOOCs" pieces by the very people who wrote "the end of universities" ones), and I can barely bring myself to add to the noise, but if you take a step back, it really is a fascinating, and telling case study in what happens when companies try to do openness. 

What is both interesting and depressing about it is the sheer predictability of it all. I commented a while back that FlatWorld Publishing provided a good warning. When the going gets tough, openness is the first casualty. Only last week George Siemens was railing against how people had opted for the easy option because openness was complex and messy. Thrun says it's because he is worried that the Udacity product was 'lousy', but you can bet those venture capitalists were whispering in his ear "where is the return on our investment?".

A couple of points worth noting: Thrun seems to have 'discovered' that open access, distance education students struggle to complete. I don't want to sound churlish here, but hey, the OU has known this for 40 years. It's why it spends a lot of money developing courses that have guidance and support built into the material, and also on a comprehensive support package, ranging from tutors, helpdesk, regional study centres and so on. But of course, none of the journalists and certainly not the new, revolutionary people at Udacity wanted to hear any of this. They could solve it all, and why hadn't higher education thought of this before? As Audrey Watters said to me on twitter:


I also like the way the article depicts Thrun as bravely digging into the data: "he was obsessing over a data point that was rarely mentioned in the breathless accounts about the power of new forms of free online education: the shockingly low number of students who actually finish the classes". That's right, no-one had noticed. If only someone had, say, plotted all of the MOOC completion data

Anyway, where does this leave us? Does it mean MOOCs are dead? Not really. It just means they aren't the massive world revolution none of us thought they were anyway. And it also suggests that universities, far from being swept away by MOOCs, are in fact the home of MOOCs. You see, MOOCs make sense as an adjunct to university business, they don't really make sense as a stand alone offering. One wonders if the likes of Shirky will be writing about how wonderful the university model of open education is. So in the end, far from being a portent of doom of the university model, MOOCs are a validation of universities and their robustness.

It's not the end of MOOCs, they just make more sense when you view them as part of the OER continuum. Actually I don't think Udacity's product is lousy – they have some really fine open material. It's their business model that's lousy. To quote the Smiths song of the title: "Nothing's changed, I still love you, only slightly less than I used to."


  • Sheilmcn

    Thanks for this post Martin, the mooc is dead long live the MOOC. I got an email from Sebastian this morning telling me about the “whole new course experience” designed “to make sure you succeed”, this is “personalised education, tailored to your goals for learning with us and optimized to get you the tech career you want”.
    He also thanks me for being “Udacious” (awesome!) and that I don’t need to worry as all their courseware remains available for free – even the quizzes . . .

  • Will Woods

    “….the world ends not with a bang, but a whimper.” …or in this case flatulence.
    This comes back to researching your market, and also that MOOCs are not revolutionary but rather complimentary element of distance education, alongside supported open learning.
    Does this mean that I can cash in my MOOC swear box yet? – It’s getting quite full now.

  • RMoeJo

    Great stuff. I went back to the Shirky article when this all came out (he wrote his treatise just over a year to the day of the Udacity announcement), and I’m interested to see how he moves forward in the wake of this argument. If the dominant narrative about universities is Ivy League and elite, and MOOCs were going to change those on the bottom of the pyramid, is 2+ years of hyperbole akin to pyramid erosion? This is not the death of MOOCs or universities, but the narrative has shifted further towards private enterprise, private money, private good…and there has been no benefit to anyone (save Anderssen Horrowitz)

  • Sukainaw

    I thought that (vomit-inducing) Thrun interview was a spoof when I first read it! Oh the irony of this … I also got my email from Udacity, niftily downgrading their courses to courseware aka a textbook. (Although I am quite enjoying my Udacity Statistics Course).
    Thinking about MOOCs as part of the OER continuum, would they then be the non-thinking person’s OER – less open (can’t re-use/remix) but already nicely packaged and ready to go?

  • mweller

    @Sheila – yes I got the same email. When I saw an email from Thrun in my inbox I thought he had been tracking my twitter conversation.
    @Will – still plenty of use for the M**C box yet
    @Rolin – it was a neat idea to go back to the original Shirky article. I liked your blog post very much (if others haven’t read it: )
    @Sukaina – ha, yes I know what you mean about a spoof. Thrun has become his own self parody. I wouldn’t diminish MOOCs as non-thinking person’s OER, they just meet a different need. Sometimes it’s really useful to have stuff packaged by an expert and to study with a cohort.

  • Steve_p_uk

    It’s interesting seeing the different perspectives on this.
    I’ve bored enough people in the past with my views on how MOOCs are not the future threat to HE. However, I don’t see Thrun’s change of view so much as a climb down as a move closer to the model that will be a threat to at least part of HE. That part being the part time sector.
    Affordable, relevant and on-demand courses, fully utilising the ubiquity of ‘tech’, will be a threat. ‘”An Introduction to Horse Dentistry” a seven week course starting next March’ was never going to be a threat.
    Yes, a variation on MOOCs will be a useful adjunct to existing HE delivery. But they are not ‘disruptive innovation’ (again, interesting to see the phrase used in the pejorative).
    But that disruption is coming. I’d like the OU to lead it rather than fall victim to it.

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