MOOC,  open courses


Was Incorporated...

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I thought I’d write a couple of posts around MOOCs, and in particular, the sudden awakening of senior management, media and companies to them. I don’t think this post is really saying much more than ‘hmm, interesting isn’t it?’. Having been involved on the periphery of MOOCs for a while, and knowing a lot of the real pioneers on first name terms (George, David, Stephen, Dave, Jim, Alec – see, I do know their first names), it’s been interesting to see the sudden adoption of MOOCs by others, most notably those in the US.

What we have been witnessing is the mainstreaming of the original MOOC concept. I feel kind of privileged in a way because it’s very rarely that you are close to something and see it go through this change. So it’s worth acknowledging that we are seeing this change, as so many times these things happen and later you think in retrospect, yes, that was the point that it altered.

With the Stanford AI course, then the announcement of Udacity, EdXcoursera, and Curtis Bonk’s course, it seems that barely a week has gone by without some major new announcement. As an advocate of open education I should be pleased about this, and I to a large extent I am. But I also have some niggling reservations.

The main change we are seeing is a form of institutionalisation of the MOOC approach. The previous generation was characterised by individuals – so, for example, Alec has run his course as an open one because he wanted to and could get away with it, not as a part of an institutional program at Regina. The next generation is seeing a more formal structure for delivering open courses. For Jim Groom now read MIT.

This is inevitable I suspect, at some point an idea becomes mainstreamed if it is to scale up. It also has a number of benefits. For a start it legitimises the open course approach to many, so it’s no longer “that bunch of Canadians” and therefore nothing to do with me. Secondly it streamlines the process by providing a template, platform and structure. This lowers the cost to entry in terms of the technical knowledge required. The third benefit is that it provides learners with a more robust and systematic approach. Some of the MOOC stuff previously has been experimental in nature and this has led to frustrations on the part of some learners. Lastly, and we can debate whether this is a benefit, it allows for models of commercialisation to be tested and employed. Ultimately this may make the MOOC approach more sustainable.

The upshot of all this should be that more open courses are available to more people. And that’s a good thing, which should be applauded and supported.

But I’m an academic so it’s my job to hedge things, so for all of these benefits, there are some downsides to this new phase of MOOCs.

I can’t help mourning the lack of the more experimental approach. For me, that was one of the great benefits of a MOOC – it allowed you to explore new pedagogy, technology, subject matter without being tied into the conventional restraints of a fee-paying curriculum. The new institutional MOOCs look very conventional in their approach and subject matter. But I suppose there is nothing to prevent the experimental ones still continuing.

My second misgiving is that while they are free, they are not open in the sense of being reusable and openly accessible. In general you have to sign up and get access to the course. It would be much more useful to be able to have access at all times and reuse elements in other courses. Free is very good, but interesting things happen when they’re open.

And lastly is the commercialisation element – I listed this as a benefit also, so it is ambiguous. If the model is that learners can pay if they want formal accreditation then that seems reasonable, as this will probably require some human input, and provides a means of funding course development. But when the MOOCs are set up as a commercial enterprise from the start you wonder how long before they are engaged in Facebook type data selling, for instance.

I also wonder if there isn’t an element of ‘if it wasn’t invented in the US it hasn’t been invented’ about much of this, and 10 years from now people will be writing papers that cite Stanford as the initiator of open courses.

Anyway, as I said at the start, interesting to watch it unfolding.



  • Dkernohan

    “and 10 years from now people will be writing papers that cite Stanford as the initiator of open courses.”
    I was interviewed recently by a journalist who claimed just that.

  • VanessaVaile

    Good summary of this transition period, clear, concise and to the point. I’m sharing with many colleague-skeptics whom I suspect of taking their opinions from highered and other media without questioning or examining them…hoping for open discussion among educators on both sides

  • mweller

    @Markus – thanks for the link, good post. You make a good point re ‘serious learning’. Learning does often have to be uncomfortable – for example we often find that the element students say they want to do the least (it used to be summer schools) ends up being the one they say they valued the most. In an open course the level of commitment is less in some ways, so it is easier to bail out when it gets uncomfortable. Financial commitment is actually a strong motivating factor to complete a course. Whether this just means we’ve been getting away with boring courses because people have paid for them or not is up for grabs I guess 🙂
    @David – ah, it’s started already. George who?
    @Vanessa – thanks, I agree it’s important to try and avoid either extreme eg dismissing them as unimportant or the “OMG, this is the future!” response.

  • DALupton

    I’m concerned about the implications for the academic workforced. Surely the expansion of MOOCs, once degrees are offered, will result in fewer academic jobs?

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