The MOOCs that ate themselves


[Image by David Kernohan]

Unless you’ve been in a very long meeting you can’t have missed the story about the Coursera/Georgia Tech MOOC that ran into difficulty and was cancelled (yes, we get the irony that it was Fundamentals of Online Education, no need to go on about it). The Georgia Tech MOOC was trying to do some different things, maybe they didn’t all work, but I don’t think it was the disaster it’s been portrayed as. In the early MOOC days this level of experimentation would have been accepted (I didn’t sign up for it, so I’m just going on the reports of others here). It seems that the level of expectation around MOOCs has made this level of flakiness unacceptable.

This is but the most publicly embarrassing example of a growing trend I’ve noticed. As MOOCs have become mainstream and high profile there is increasing pressure on them to be very high quality, robust and efficient. There is a good deal of brand reputation now invested in them. In short, they have become the equivalent of television broadcast. This means that they’re expensive to create, need to appeal to a broad demographic, and have high production values. If this is their direction then there are several inevitable outcomes:

  • They become unsustainable – a good MOOC is so expensive to put on that it simply isn’t worth doing. You’re providing it for free after all.
  • Only elite institutions offer them – given the expense, only those institutions who have the money, or the skills to produce broadcast quality content will provide them.
  • They are conservative – as Georgia Tech found, it’s better not to try anything risky or innovative, because the cost of failure is too great.
  • MOOC failure will be costly – if you fail publicly and damage your own, and your institution’s reputation, don’t expect them to give you promotion. So why risk it?

That’d be quite a depressing scenario, in such a short space of time MOOCs could have moved from the ‘we’re all in this together’ ethos to another form of broadcast controlled by a few. Hopefully people will still experiment with the cMOOC type approach, and offer a huge buyer-beware caveat. But unless we want to kill MOOCs, I’d suggest we all cut them a bit of slack as learners.


  • Amcunningham

    Do you class MIT’s Learning Creative Learning online course (they don’t mention MOOC) as a cMOOC? They are using google for everything by the looks of it and are very clear that is an experiment that they will be learning from too.

  • mweller

    I hadn’t seen that one. I’m not really bothered about classification, I think it’s more about approach and attitude. That type of warning/setting expectations sounds very sensible to me, and exactly what we will need to do to maintain a degree of democracy and experimentation I think.

  • Universityboy

    I’m enjoying the ride as institutions (and independents) experiment. Not knowing how things will play out, now is a good time to see what happens and get involved whenever an interesting course comes along. As you say, along with the excitement has come high expectations. But of what and why?
    Is the anger down to fear that MOOCs aren’t the all-embracing game-changer they’re so often hyped up to be? Is it because the term ‘MOOC’ is a catch-all that covers too much ground?
    Whatever the case, I’ve been checking out a number of courses in the background and I’ve signed up for the MIT Learning Creative Learning course, as @Amcunningham mentions. Whatever the platform and whether or not the course is labelled as a MOOC, I feel this is a time for exploration. The calls go up to embrace failure and uncertainty, but when either (or both) occur, that advice is too quickly forgotten.

  • Dkernohan

    @UniversityBoy’s second para nails it. What we are seeing here is not a reaction against MOOCs per se, more a reaction to the worst excesses of MOOC hype.
    Like most things in our world, MOOCs are a good idea in some situations for some people. During the inevitable backlash, we need to protect some of the truly innovative work (Phonar/PICBOD, Edinburgh’s Coursera stuff, FSLT… to give some UK examples that are combining the scale of the xMOOC with the humanity of the cMOOC) from being tarred with the same brush.

  • mweller

    @Sheila – yes, I think some of the problems with the Georgia Tech MOOV was they got their audience wrong, it might be an ok design for a smaller, more specialist group.
    @Universityboy – the point you make about how we’re always being told to embrace failure occurred to me after I’d written the post. Not a day goes by without someone posting some pithy quote on twitter about how we shouldn’t fear failure, and yet as soon as someone does fail, everyone is all over it.
    @David – I’m not sure it’s just MOOC-hype backlash (although there is something of that in it). I think it’s about being a victim of their own success, they’re reaching people now who don’t know the background and are applying the same demands as paid, formal education on them.

  • Patlockley

    I thought FOE Mooc was fine, the real problem was it was full of instructional designers and elearning people willing it to fail.
    A few people made a lot of noise and now it’s gone. Those people need to ask themselves why a lot of people now aren’t going to learn anything because of what they said.
    You might have done it differently, but you weren’t doing it full stop. So leave your ego some place else.
    On first impressions, I really liked FOEMooc, and I think using groups to help people network made sense (some cMOOCs seem really cliquey to me) and might have helped ameliorate for the huge dropout rate. I’ve found EDCMooc a bit thin content wise, but I think it shows some people want to hype in their criticism as much as they want to be hype in their actions. If your criticism is just fashion then your probably best outside a university. Maybe a gossip column?

  • mweller

    Thanks Pat – that reinforces the very quick impression I’d got of it (my PhD student said similar). One can imagine then asking people to do a prerquisite course, or diagnostic in order to take a MOOC – I wonder if they’re still MOOCs then?

  • Willwoods

    I agree with you Martin except that there’s a big underlying issue with the M. Massive. Expectations here about experimenting at massive scale. I think experimentation is needed here but also the ability to adapt quickly. It’s also about the change to what people expect to get now for free. With so many high quality free apps and free social media services it sets the bar quite high around user expectation for the poor educators with their string and glue. As an ed-tech community we can choose to say we’re experimenting but companies live and die on bad press these days and Universities also suffer from press slating negatively affecting the student footfall (or virtual footfall).

  • Lottruminates

    The irony, on multiple levels, plays out not in the incident but in the response to it.
    My first comment on the “failure” was to note that, if people would think about it for more than 5 seconds, they’d realize that this is precisely the kind of course where we should expect this to happen.
    My second thought was to question why so many ed techies who talk about embracing innovation and how if one doesn’t fail sometimes they surely aren’t being innovated were snarky about someone who tried some new techniques in a context that didn’t even exist a few short years ago.
    There’s not much interesting in most of the reactions and very little that’s interesting in the fact that the failure occurred. It demonstrates common principles. It shows just the institutional problems with experimentation that our driving many of my friends out of the field entirely, in part because Will Woods is exactly right about the problem but most, if not all, institutions are completely unequipped to implement the solutions.

  • Patlockley

    Following on from FOEmooc – I work for a Uni developing a MOOC course and it is really influencing how we approach it.
    In other news – one MOOC has also used a google doc, and it seems to have caused a lot of people to get lost and confused as well. But MIT ran this MOOC, and I guess no one fancies having a pop at MIT.
    Am not sure how people can best experiment and get better if PR is going to dissuade people from trying things.

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