You can stop worrying about MOOCs now

I guess we all knew the MOOC bubble would burst sometime, but I'm saying it's happened this week – it just doesn't know it yet. The reason? Commercial MOOC providers have started making noises about becoming elearning courseware providers for standard education providers. 

So we have Clayton "I'll disrupt your breakfast" Christensen talking about "hybrid innovation". This turns out to be blended learning, which many people have been promoting for at least 15 years (although calling it hybrid innovation at least maintains the illusion that it's new and sexy for a while longer). That's not a bad thing, blended learning is an entirely sensible and appropriate response to combining the best of face to face teaching and the information rich resources of the net. It's just not very new.

Then Coursera make an announcement that they are going to explore "MOOC based learning on campus". I mean, what does that even mean? That's blended learning, or e-learning, and again, not exactly new. If you take the MOO out of MOOC you're left with just a C, and no-one's that interested in just a C. This follows on the back of Georgia Tech's not free, online Masters MOOC, which looks awfully like a not very well supported elearning course.

It's hard not to come to the conclusion that MOOCs are rather retreating from their initial promise/threat of world domination here. They're becoming a means of approaching elearning within traditional education systems. There's a couple of possible reasons for this.

The first might be that those Venture Capitalists are now demanding a solid and quick return on their investment. The initial open model isn't offering this any time soon, so a quicker route to pay back is to work with existing providers and students who are already paying. As people such as David Kernohan have been pointing out, the problem with MOOCs funded by VCs is that sooner (rather than later) they want their money back, and they'll make you shift your model to do that. The open access publisher FlatWorld Knowledge provide a useful precedent here – eventually the VCs wanted their money back and 'open' was the first thing to go.

The second, is that this is what they always intended to do anyway. Mike Caulfield called this long ago, as he helpfully sums up here (at my request, thanks Mike). Commercial MOOC providers were never really interested in being free providers of education – they wanted to become courseware providers to the education market. As he put it as early as 2012:

"We now understand the endgame here. We now get the business model. The idea is not “send your students to us!”. The idea is to become yet another online vendor of services to higher ed."

None of this is bad – a commercial elearning provider, that may be helpful. It's just not very exciting. And it certainly doesn't warrant the coverage it gets. Can you imagine if Coursera had launched as a provider of elearning content to universities? I don't think the media would have been as willing to reprint their every press release and promote them so uncritically. So it's been a smart game to push the 'future of education for everyone' line, but surely that game is up now?

So what about MOOCs, you know, those free, open courses? Is this the end of them? No, I don't think so, but maybe they can now become what we always wanted them to be, focused on access and experimentation and not hype and commercialism.


  1. I look forward to watching MOOCs develop without the hype. If you are right about the end of MOOCs as we know it, maybe the media will stop panting after them like… well, whatever.
    I would love to have an open discussion within our University community about running a MOOC without all the hype getting in the way, and senior management looking at them as nothing more than marketing and income tools.

  2. Techczech says:

    Hard to disagree with anything you say (not that it would stop me trying). Perhaps just a supplement that this is not that strange a path for innovation to happen. New technologies or techniques try to recreate existing processes in radical ways but then they loop back and do something just slightly different. The different ways video tried to make its way into education – film, TV, laser discs, CD-ROMs and now YouTube. They all brought something new to the party with a lot of hype but ultimately just being a way of somebody saying something to somebody else on the screen. I’m sure we’re not at the end of the cycle yet. The iPad is another example. It’s both just a bigger phone and a better transformer PC. But something about the combination made it radical.
    Not that I think the MOOCified VLEs of traditional institutions will be transformative to the same degree that iPads look to be but if you look at the typical VLE-based provision at large institutions, what even the poorer Coursera or Udacity courses offer is a marked improvement from the students’ perspective. And it can free time and space for the kinds of human interactions xMOOCs are not ideal for.
    I’m still going to be interested in running and taking part in alternative experimental MOOCs, though.

  3. mweller says:

    @Jesse – yes, there is a lot of interesting stuff to trial, and if we can remove some of the hype from it, I’m sure it’ll free up a lot of room.
    @Dominik – yep, I don’t disagree with what you say. I was kind of overstating it a bit I guess. I think the model that Coursera suggest here is one I’ve proposed myself – eg unis can share MOOCs and expand their curriculum. It’s just not the revolution that we’ve had pushed at us – and this is usually a good thing, it means things can actually become useful.

  4. Thank you for this analysis and the comments on it, mweller,Jesse and Dominik.
    It’s great that we’ll be able to call real MOOCs, in the original connective learning sense, MOOCs, and not cMOOcs anymore.
    I suppose that the signs had been on the wall, in the case of Coursera, for quite a while – but I at least didn’t understand where the pattern was leading.
    One of those signs was their zany mismanagement of their “internationalization” of course content via crowd-sourced participative subtitling on Universal Subtitles (now Amara), which they made such a hullabaloo about at first: see my “Amara autocaptions for Coursera videos” Feb 23, 2013 post.
    Then at the end of February, Coursera abruptly stopped adding videos and automatic captions to their Amara team, and told volunteers, but only the private wiki only accessible via Coursera login, they could copypaste the SRT files of their subtitles in pages of the same private wiki, as it doesn’t allow the upload of SRT files. Meanwhile, subtitling by those who hadn’t seen that message impressively picked up on the remaining videos of the Amara team, now that Coursera was not interfering with it anymore.
    In spite of that, sometime between April 8 and April 11, Coursera deleted the team, and on May 15, they announced in that they were
    “very happy to announce that we are teaming up with organizations around the world to create the “Global Translation Partner Program”. This means select courses will have all lectures fully translated into Arabic, Japanese, Kazakh, Portuguese, Russian, Turkish, and Ukrainian subtitles in the coming months! ”
    and the linked blog post specifies that these translations will be done a) for free; b) on Transifex.
    What this boils down to is that
    – the number of translation languages has been drastically reduced, excluding e.g. French, Spanish, Chinese – which are official UN languages – and Korean, 4 languages where subtitling had been particularly active on Amara
    – translating subtitles will become much more difficult on Transifex (as was possible on Amara), because translators will have no way to fix Coursera’s original automatic captions or to check them against the video.
    So their claiming that this is “a giant leap forward toward making high-quality education accessible to anyone, anywhere — regardless of what language they speak” is at best wishful thinking, but possibly just window dressing meant to draw more universities to offer courses on Coursera.
    Last thing, on the bright side: in spite of the deletion Coursera’s Amara team, all the Amara subtitling pages for Coursera videos are still retrievable, via the activities of the two profiles that used to post the videos and autocaptions there: (until the end of December 2012 – 204 pages of 20 activities each) (until the end of February 2013 – 400 pages of 20 activities each).
    Couldn’t this abundant material be of use for research projects about crowdsourced subtitling/translation? Isn’t there an algorithm for data-mining it?

  5. Like Jesse I too would like to see MOOCs developing without/beyond the hype – I think they can and do fulfil a need. I am most interested in seeing further development not in the technology or the business modelling, but the learning design.
    MOOCs present an interesting paradox in that large numbers sign up because they have ‘nothing to lose’. However, our fear of loss (financial/social) is the very thing that drives us to complete a course even when our intrinsic motivation to study is on the wane – or threatened by the myriad alternative fun and interesting ways to spend our time.
    Many people have been claiming the high drop-out rates on MOOCs aren’t a problem, but if someone really wants to complete a course and then doesn’t simply because they are a normal human being who is choosing short-term benefit over long-term gain, then that *is* a problem. Course designers need to recognise that learners need help making good decisions. They need to promote the gathering of commodities (such as badges and personal relationships) and use our natural loss-aversion to motivate us to continue with the learning activities. The MOOC I am doing at the moment (#cheatmooc) uses badges to good effect (they are working for me even though I know they are – rationally speaking – meaningless), but isn’t doing so well in scaffolding personal relationships. One way of doing this might be to ask those enrolling on a MOOC to score how committed they are to completing the course, and then arranging participants into like-scoring study-buddy pairs or small groups.
    Another MOOC area that needs development is the gathering of basic feedback from the 93% who slip away; at the very least, a ranking of the different factors influencing their withdrawal, and a considered response to the question ‘was there anything we could have done to persuade you to stay?’
    Essentially – MOOC designers need to appreciate the irrational and erring tendencies of human beings. Difficult, when they are human beings themselves and are therefore as much in denial as the rest of us.

  6. One of the reasons we don’t see more attention to access and experimentation is that higher education lacks a framework to value both. We value — and want to widen — access, but we don’t think of this in terms of access to experimentation. Typically we think of students who benefit from widening access as needing less experimental learning experiences: more structure, more mainstream content, better access to credentialling. I think we could change this a bit, and think about the wide range of learners for whom access to experimentation could be critical and a way of flourishing.
    I’ve just completed a MOOC, after many unsuccessful attempts, and Lindsay’s comment really helped me to see that this was to do with the human scale of the small groups that the platform has been designed to support. The content and the celebrity expert involved were really not the valuable part for me; and the creative exercises were puzzlingly unsatisfying. But I was really surprised to find how quickly I formed a sense of loyalty and commitment to the team I’d been assigned to, and I’ve heard this from other people who’ve tried VentureLab. In other words, I think we learn socially, and often in smaller groups.
    This platform also asks for an upfront commitment of time that will be put into the course. This isn’t used to match people, but is available as part of a fairly rich profile. So all this has a certain amount in common with online dating, in ways that I find interesting.
    (I’m so sorry if this post pops up twice. Much human error involved.)

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