The MOOC wars

I admit it, I'm slow on the uptake, but I had a lightbulb moment David Kernohan pointed me at Donald Clark's post on MOOCs "More action in 1 year than 1000" (no hype there then). As Brian Lamb has reported a wikipedia edit battle around MOOCs to remove the early MOOCers such as David Wiley and George Siemens from the picture has also taken place. Initially I thought this was just a bit of ignorance, but Clark's post made me understand – it is part of a wider narrative to portray MOOCs as a commercial solution that is sweeping away the complacency of higher education. 

So Clark dismisses the impact of early MOOCers, claiming it was Khan that caused it all: "It took a hedge fund manager to shake up education because he didn’t have any HE baggage." Why? Because it appeals to the narrative to have a saviour riding in from outside HE to save education. If you acknowledge that these ideas may have come from within HE then that could look like venture capitalists latching on to a good idea in universities and trying to make money from it. That doesn't sound as sexy and brave.

This is more than historical pedantry. I'm not saying all mentions of MOOCs must start with an agreed paragraph that acknowledges Downes, Wiley, Siemens, Couros, Cormier. The intention here is to create an explicit narrative, and as narratives are founded in history, it requires a careful construction of this to support the ongoing story. The narrative goes something like:

  1. Higher education is irretrievably broken
  2. MOOCs have come along from outside and shown how it can be done for free and at scale
  3. MOOCs can answer all your education issues and make a profit

Why do people like this narrative? For three reasons I'd suggest:

  1. It's sexy and revolutionary
  2. They have a commercial interest in it being accepted
  3. It appeals to their ego ("I'm such a revolutionary thinker, give me a keynote")

Of course it falls apart at any detailed inspection. Clark calls MOOCs a sustainable model. Are they? At the moment they rely on those boring, haven't changed in a 1000 years universities to pay the staff to create the courses. How sustainable is that when you've had the glorious revolution? Can they really meet all educational needs? The drop-out rate is high as we know, and they tend to suit experienced learners. They meet some needs and can be very exciting, but as the new universal solution they'd create a lot of problems for a lot of learners (which some brave company would then arise to meet). 

Open education wasn't sexy, it was about giving stuff away. Entrepreneurs don't like that model, hence Clark's dismissal of the OER movement (which, at the OU anyway is actually proving itself to be sustainable and part of normal business, but hey, we don't want to hear that). Universities have been around 1000 years – that must be bad, right? If a company had been around for 1000 years, I think we'd be saying it must have a pretty good model. And of course, no innovation ever comes from inside universities.

And all this takes away from the really good stuff in MOOCs. I love MOOCs, they advance open education, they allow experimentation, they do shake up thinking in a good way, they raise the profile of teaching. This is good, exciting stuff. 

On Twitter Mike Caulfield said it reminded him of this clip:

So I know Clark is just trolling for attention and one shouldn't respond, but it's worth highlighting this nonsense when it arises because it seeps in and reinforces the new narrative. Don't be mistaken, there is a genuine battle for the future happening here, and it starts by rewriting the past.


  1. Tim Hunt says:

    This continues to reinforce the MOOC ~= BOOK view in my mind. Writing undergraduate text books is rarely a path to fame and fortune. It only works because the “universities to pay the staff [who] create the [books / MOOCS]”.
    Was there a time in the past when people said “we won’t need universities any more, everyone can learn on their own from books?” Anyway, we know that is not true. Books can be a useful part of the deep, thorough 3-year education you get from an undergraduate degree. So can MOOCs, but I don’t see them going further than that.
    You can try saying “but MOOCs are more interactive” but that does not stand up to scrutiny. Good textbooks have always encouraged learners to interact with the material, but it has required more effort from the student. MOOCs make the interaction easier. Do they also make it more superficial? Time will tell.
    The only fundamentally new thing MOOCs bring, via the internet, is the ability to communicate with the other participants. The very early MOOCs harnessed that. In the more recent commercial offering that seems more of an added extra.

    1. There was indeed ‘a time in the past when people said “we won’t need universities any more, everyone can learn on their own from books”’.

      In 1483 the Augustinian biblical scholar Jacobo Filippo Foresti da Bergamo (1434-1520) in his oft reprinted Supplementum Chronicarum asked: ‘Why should old men be preferred to their juniors now that it is possible for the young by diligent study to acquire the same knowledge?’ (cited in Eisenstein1997 [1979]: 66). Autodidacticism or at least the pretence of autodidacticism was one of the points raised by the Benedictine scribe Filippo de Strata in his Polemic against printing published in 1473.

      Eisenstein, Elizabeth L (1997) [1979] The printing press as an agent of change: communications and cultural transformations in early modern Europe, volumes I and II, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

  2. Guy Cowley says:

    I am not an academic but I am taking H817, which seems to be unusual. I hope it allows me to try to be neutral in the MOOC wars. It seems that we have two worlds here. I accept the argument that xMOOCs are run by commercial interests looking for a return but, by the same token, cMOOCs seem to be run by academics for academics. I can’t see the average college student having the skills, pedantic stamina or patience to construct their own learning environment and sieve out the conversations to which they can contribute as a mechanism for conventional learning. There seems to be a haughty disdain from academics for the idea of learning as a means to an end – to get the piece of paper that gets you the job or to get a usable skill – but this is the mass market.
    It seems to link back to the disconnect between research and teaching. I would certainly agree that we need pure theories on which to construct practice but I don’t agree that they are the same thing. Academics often do not seem to ‘get it’ when it comes to the realities of normal life.
    I agree that the commercial models are far from proven but, if they do eventually come through and we have thousands of people accessing education (in whatever terms you define it) for free, isn’t that a wonderful thing?
    My interest is in development education. Their experience is typically of a teacher-centred, repeat-the-facts world. For these markets xMOOCs are actually a step-up in terms of participation and self-determination. They wouldn’t be able to navigate or participate in a cMOOC.
    So to my eye it is horses for courses. cMOOCs paved the way but are not the universal answer. xMOOCS aren’t pretty but will be great if they can provide their free service in a sustainable way. H817open has been a laudable attempt to combine the two and has worked well. Perhaps participants should stop the war and just pursue their differing ends?

  3. Dkernohan says:

    Nicely done Martin. This narrative thing is something I’ve been banging on about for a while now. :-)
    We are in some danger of losing control of the “making education more betterer” story. We need to get better at telling our story, and at pointing out the flaws in theirs. And we need to avoid getting caught up in the panic and destruction that is the first act of their story.

  4. Mdeimann says:

    Excellent post Martin. It reminds me of the book “Winning the Story Wars” ( which I am currently reading.
    It seems like a global phenomenon as we in Germany experience the same battle as you described. Some weeks ago, a prestigious magazine published a leading article which tried to argue that Khan is the founding father of the MOOC. Usually they can do better journalism.

  5. mweller says:

    @Tim – I’d disagree that MOOCs are just like books in that the ability to connect and communicate seems a significant difference to me. But in that they represent a technology that complements higher ed I’d agree – as I suggested here, ( one could see a number of ways in which they could benefit unis.
    @Guy – I wasn’t trying to argue that cMOOC = good, xMOOC = bad. I agree xMOOCs are absolutely what you want for many subjects and many learners prefer them as without support they represent the model that offers the most guidance. I’d argue that your representation of academics as not getting it is a bit outdated – unis spend a _Lot_ of time on employability now. But yep, open courses that more people can take is a great thing, which is why I’ve been a fan of MOOCs for years. My argument here is more that there is a growing trend by some commercial MOOCers to want MOOCs to be _the_ solution. So for example Thrun suggests that in the future there will only be 10 education providers globally (presumably his company will be one of them). In order to realise this they have a vested interest in making people think the current model is unworkable. They don’t want a mixed economy. This is the narrative we should resist.
    @David – like I said I’m slow on the uptake – it went off ‘ah, of course, that’s why you need history to be a certain way’.

  6. Sukainaw says:

    I read the Donald Clark post a few days ago and was reminded of my history degree days – where history is written by the winners. Serious attempts at revisionism going on here. It’s unnecessarily polarising. I (well my kids) love Khan Academy but we don’t need to make it something it isn’t. It’s great as it is.

  7. VanessaVaile says:

    I’m with DKernohan and have been at the banging on as well. Polarizing it may be but ignoring it contributes to misinformation about education (what kind of oxymoron would that be?), not to mention extreme unfairness to the erased. Received history influences future directions and can stifle pesky ‘why’ questions

  8. Sjgknight says:

    I don’t want to sound too snarky about this, but I wonder if you can point to the edit history indicating a “wikipedia edit battle” around the early moocers?
    The 3rd line of the Wikipedia article points out that the openess of many moocs has been called into question. There is a section on history (inc. cmooc history), and connectivism. There is also a criticism section – it could do with improving, more people actively editing the article would be great.
    I blogged about Audrey’s post here:

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