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.