Uncle MOOC


Uncle MOOC will be looking after you for a few weeks…

A metaphor is always a handy way to get a grip on something new (as long as one is aware of its limitations). My attitude to MOOCs changes on a weekly basis, and so does my MOOC metaphor – I'm sure you've got one of your own: the MP3 of education, this year's SecondLife, industrial revolution applied to education, a giraffe smoking a cheroot rollerblading down the Champs-Elysees – it can be pretty much whatever you want. So here is this week's MOOC metaphor.

MOOCs are like the patronising uncle who has yet to have a child of his own. They are great fun for the nieces and nephews, they are inventive, playful, and the kids always look forward to them arriving. But this uncle secretly (and after a couple of beers, not so secretly) thinks he could do a better job at raising the kids than the parents. He may also think they prefer him to their actual mum and dad. "Why don't they do all the stuff I do with them?" he thinks. "I'm great at getting them out of a tantrum, I do my distraction technique and they forget it. I never see their dad doing that," he compliments himself. "I would have a set of rules that the kids would respect and obey, not this slapdash approach," he vows.

And then, of course, he has kids of his own. Suddenly he realises he has to work as well as raise the kids, that his distraction techniques don't work with a tired 6 month old at 3 in the morning, that he has to do it every single day and getting the basic stuff done like feeding, bathing, looking after them is a real achievement in itself. 

This is how I sometimes feel about MOOCs and their relationship to formal education. They are good fun, they offer something new, a lot of learners really enjoy them. But they shouldn't kid themselves they can do the robust, day to day stuff better than the existing system. If they had to, they'd soon find that a lot of their energy is spent on the not-so-fun stuff, because that is required of them. But, like our friendly uncle they do also make the parents think "maybe we should go to the zoo more often," and "he does know how to get the best out of Tommy, I could learn something there". 

So when I see pieces like this announcement that Georgia Tech are offering an online Masters (they don't even have the good grace to blush when they use the term 'MOOC 2.0") it begins to sound not unlike, ooh, I don't know, an Open University (but with cheaper staff support). This makes me think – this is the first signs of MOOCs discovering that it wasn't quite as easy as they thought, but they still like to dress it up as a revolution.

That's my metaphor for the week, I'm sure Dominik has some better ones. What's your MOOC metaphor?


  • Christina Hendricks

    I don’t have a good metaphor (really should think of one, but haven’t had enough tea yet this morning), but I couldn’t agree more with your points here that many MOOCs act like they can do a better job of education than higher ed (or other ed) institutions, without really taking on the job in a serious way. Not that all higher ed institutions do a great job–some courses are little more than MOOCs w/o the “open” part (nor are all MOOCs open, of course). I just don’t think the massive thing is going to do the job in the long run, for all courses, for an entire education. But maybe that’s just me speaking as a faculty member and loving when I get to teach small classes because I think those are just, well, really special situations.
    I do love taking a MOOC here and there, like going with an uncle to the zoo, as it’s a great way to learn some things, meet some people, make new connections (in some MOOCs, not usually the x ones). But I don’t take them terribly seriously; I only do what I have time and inclination to do, I don’t do everything, and I stop when the next new, shiny thing comes along. It’s kind of like being with someone you kind of should listen to but don’t have to, and you can get away with a lot that your parents wouldn’t let you get away with.
    So I like the uncle metaphor, only he’d be a lot more fun if he’d ditch the power drill (yikes) and stop talking so much about how great he is with kids.

  • Guy Cowley

    I am reminded of school biology and symbiosis – two organisms living together. This may be a long term, mutually beneficial relationship, like lichen or may be parasitic, with one organism benefiting from but not benefiting the other. If parasitic, it may be long term and benign, like mistletoe, or ultimately fatal for the host, like ivy.
    What is the type of symbiosis between xMOOCs and their FE sources? Will xMOOCs feed students to their hosts? Will xMOOCs draw students from their hosts? Will xMOOCs add value to their hosts, through any of the mooted business models, while depending on them for content?
    Whichever the model, there is clearly a dependence relationship, which may be fatal if unbalanced on either side. What is difficult to imagine is MOOCs ultimately surviving if they kill their hosts in the process.

  • Techczech

    Thanks for the plug Martin. And I think this is a great metaphor for the relationship of MOOCs to traditional education. I think it applies to much (if not all) of pedagogy reform movements. They are often based on people who put in unrealistic amounts of work or work in contexts where the consequences of their innovation are different. I plan to use it in my thinking in the future.
    But let me offer a different metaphor. MOOCs are like movie producers and authors sharing their movies or books on bit torrent sites. This is introduces their material to people who would have never tried it at full price or simply couldn’t have afforded it. It also eats to some of their profits but the expanded audience and consequently word of mouth is good in aggregate. This is what MOOCs must feel like to somebody in India, who could never see a course on NLP as it’s being taught in Stanford. Sure, they don’t get the full experience but it’s a lot better than before. I had this experience just this weekend with the Stanford NLP (Natural Language Processing not the neural stuff). I used to do NLP many years ago but needed a quick refresher. I watched a few intro videos and in an hour was up to speed. And I could see that if I’d been a complete newbie, I could have learned something useful. In the past, I could have gotten that same thing out of a textbook that costs $250, or simply have done without.
    I think that my metaphor can live alongside your metaphor. They are both partial and reflect only one part of the complex nature of the beast. I wrote up some more analogies on The problem is that in discussions we use these metaphors metonymically. Meaning that we use the stories underlying our metaphors to stand for the whole thing (which is really a synecdoche…).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *