Truths about MOOCs, Rees v Chait, and a bunch of other MOOC article links

It sure seems like there’s been a swing in both the education media and the main stream media against MOOCs as of late– that is, from what once seemed to me to be a blind faith of MOOCs being the next best thing, it seems like we’ve swung lately into a sort of a MOOCs are evil vein. I have links and miscellaneous thoughts after the break, but before I get there, let me suggest two important and frequently ignored “truths” about MOOCs to keep in mind as you browse through these and almost anything else about MOOCs, especially polemics about MOOCs.

Truth #1:  MOOCs and Online Education are NOT the same thing.  MOOCs are of course online, but most online courses are not MOOCs, even though almost every MSM article I read about MOOCs (and a lot in The Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed) collapse “MOOC” and “online education” into one thing. Furthermore, despite Daphne Koller’s belief that she and other MOOC enthusiasts at elite institutions invented online education with MOOCs, online courses have been around for a couple decades. And I’m not just talking about online universities of frankly dubious merit like the University of Phoenix. I’ve been teaching online at EMU for at least eight years now (not massive ones– 20 to 15 students), and I know online classes were happening here long before that. In fact, about one third of all college students are taking at least some courses online right now.

So when Obama said in one paragraph in an hour long speech the other day about how he wants to try to reinvent higher education by “testing new approaches to shorten the path to a degree or blending teaching with online learning to help students master material and earn credits in less time,” that doesn’t automatically mean MOOCs, despite what some folks (including Chait and a few others I link to below) might say. Of course, I’m not sure Obama really knows what he meant.

Truth #2: Broadly speaking, there are MOOCs and then there are MOOCs.Here’s how George Siemens, one of the Canadians credited with pioneering MOOCs in the first place, describes the difference between “cMOOCs” and “xMOOCs:”

Largely lost in the conversation around MOOCs is the different ideology that drives what are currently two broad MOOC offerings: the connectivist MOOCs (cMOOCs?) that I have been involved with since 2008 (with people like Stephen Downes, Jim Groom, Dave Cormier, Alan Levine, Wendy Drexler, Inge de Waard, Ray Schroeder, David Wiley, Alec Couros, and others) and the well-financed MOOCs by Coursera and edX (xMOOCS?).

Our MOOC model emphasizes creation, creativity, autonomy, and social networked learning. The Coursera model emphasizes a more traditional learning approach through video presentations and short quizzes and testing. Put another way, cMOOCs focus on knowledge creation and generation whereas xMOOCs focus on knowledge duplication. I’ve spoken with learners from different parts of the world who find xMOOCs extremely beneficial as they don’t have access to learning materials of that quality at their institutions. xMOOCs scale, they have prestigious universities supporting them, and they are well-funded. It is quite possible that they will address the “drill and grill” instructional methods that is receiving some criticism.

I’m not crazy about the terminology of “cMOOC” versus “xMOOC,” but you get the idea. The distinction is “connectivist” MOOCs are about open source tools, community, questioning the current model of higher ed, and not about credit, and “xMOOCs” are about containment, stand and deliver presentation, and for credit– or at least (hopefully) for money, though Coursera et al still haven’t figured out how they are going to make all that money. Siemens described running his MOOC “off the side of his desk” in conjunction with a more traditional course, while Coursera and edX are major corporate enterprises that are trying to be “courses” in and of themselves. cMOOCs were more about the open education movement and xMOOCs are more about re-inscribing the values of higher education as they exists– which is why, in my view, there is such an emphasis by the commercial MOOC providers on “elite” universities as content providers.

The distinction is important because polemic views about MOOCs usually depend on one of the different (and polemic) definitions of what a MOOC is in the first place.  Oddly, it reminds me of “grunge.” There was a documentary back in the mid-1990s called Hype! that recounted the way the Seattle music “scene” that became known as grunge went from a rebellious, counter-cultural thing to the mainstream of music and fashion via MTV, Nirvana, etc.. I wouldn’t say that the earlier scene was automatically more authentic than the one co-opted by the MSM, but the definitions, purposes, and values of “grunge” certainly changed once it got notice outside of dumpy little places in the Pacific Northwest.

My point is be very very careful of “collapsed” definitions of MOOCs. For example, Jonathan Rees’ writes this near the beginning of his Slate piece “The MOOC Racket: Widespread online-only higher ed will be disastrous for students—and most professors.”

MOOC stands for “massive open online course.” The term was coined by a group of Canadian academics in 2008 to represent a recently invented type of online class that depends upon small group interactions for most of the instruction. More recently, three instructors in the Stanford University computer science department appropriated that term to start two separate private education companies, Udacity and Coursera. Despite being free of charge, the MOOCs that these firms offer bear a more-than-passing resemblance to ordinary college classes—except they are delivered over the Internet to tens of thousands of people at once.

See what I mean? The “group of Canadians” were the same ones trying to make a distinction between their cMOOCs and Coursera and Udacity’s xMOOCs in the first place, and Rees basically bundles them all up into one group and calls them all bad, I assume because what he really is against are the xMOOCs of the world.

Okay, more after the jump.

Continue reading “Truths about MOOCs, Rees v Chait, and a bunch of other MOOC article links”

A couple of face-to-palm MOOC articles of late

What I really need to do is get back to some editing work on the collection of essays about the rapid rise of MOOCs, a collection I’m putting together with Charlie Lowe and that I hope will be out (both in paper and electronically) in fall. More on that coming soon, I am sure. But before I do that, I have been meaning to blog about a couple of articles/bits of news that I’ve come across in the last couple of weeks that just leave me, well, surprised.

First, “Coursera Snags $43-Million in Venture Capital” in their “second round” of financing, this on top of the $22 million it raised last year.  Here’s a link to Coursera’s blog post about all this. The only income Coursera has generated so far (according to this CHE piece) is through it’s “Signature Track” program.  As I blogged about here, it’s basically a way of taking proctored exams and otherwise getting your Coursera class to “count.” The Duke Composition MOOC allowed for this. According to CHE:

The program has generated more than $800,000 since January, a portion of which has gone to the universities that offered the Signature Track MOOCs on the Coursera platform. So far, Signature Track is the company’s “only significant source of revenue,” said Nikki Sequeira, a spokeswoman, via e-mail.

I realize the whole MOOC commerce thing is a moving target, and I know absolutely nothing about VC investing. But given everything we know about MOOCs so far– that there doesn’t seem to be an audience that is willing to pay anything for them— and given that Coursera keeps changing what business it is in (are they providing college credit? training? data for employers? taking on LMS companies like Blackboard?), it sure seems to me these investors would have been better off buying swampland someplace.

Then, on the very same day, CHE reported “Blackboard Announces New MOOC Platform.” Here’s a quote:

Blackboard, a company that makes software that many colleges use to run their classroom and online courses, announced on Wednesday that it was expanding its support for MOOCs, though it is relatively late to the much-talked-about trend of massive open online courses.

“We watched really carefully, and we thought about doing something” sooner, said Ray Henderson, president of Blackboard’s teaching and learning division, in an interview this week. “This is one of those times when we said this is a watch and develop, not jump on it.”

So basically, Coursera is trying to migrate into the LMS business and Blackboard is trying to migrate into the MOOC “business” (which isn’t really a business because there’s no money in it, but it is something that everyone is doing now).


By the way, this is probably as good as place as any to point out I wrote a book chapter about using blogs (specifically WordPress) to avoid things like Blackboard and Coursera.  It’s called “Blogs as an Alternative to Course Management Systems: Public, Interactive Teaching with a Round Peg in a Square Hole” and it’s in Designing Web-Based Applications for 21st Century Writing Classrooms. I have a long section in that chapter subtitled “What’s Wrong With Course Management Systems?” One of these days, I’ll post a bunch of that here.

Three brief thoughts on “A University’s Offer of Credit for a MOOC Gets No Takers”

I think I came across the CHE’s “A University’s Offer of Credit for a MOOC Gets No Takers” via someone’s twitter feed the other day. To me, it’s an important article to think about in terms of MOOCs and money.  Here’s a quote from the opening paragraphs:

It was big news last fall when Colorado State University-Global Campus became the first college in the United States to grant credit to students who passed a MOOC, or massive open online course.

For students, it meant a chance to get college credit on the cheap: $89, the cost of the required proctored exam, compared with the $1,050 that Colorado State charges for a comparable three-credit course.

That is a big discount.

Yet almost a year after Global Campus made the announcement, officials are still waiting for their first credit bargain-hunters.

Not one student has taken the university up on its offer.

A lot of the article downplays this failure, pointing out that this particular class was targeted to a small market, it’s early in the history of MOOCs, the demographics of MOOCs are mostly older students, etc. In other words, it sort of concludes “but don’t worry, the MOOC revolution is still coming!”

Three brief thoughts:

Something similar happened with “traditional” online classes.  I am simultaneously too lazy and too busy to find the citation, but way back when the end of the university as we know was going to be brought about by more traditional and reasonably sized online classes. One of the major publishers decided they were going to offer courses like first year writing for credit directly, bypassing universities entirely. In other words, instead of taking a section of first year writing at EMU or even at a community college to transfer to EMU, students would take their class directly from Cengage (or whoever).  There were articles about how this was the end of the university, etc., and once again, no one signed up for these courses. The whole “take a course direct from the publisher” thing closed up within a year.

MOOCs have a serious audience problem.  “xMOOC” enthusiasts (e.g., Coursera, Udacity, and university administrators looking at dollar signs) keep arguing that they’re trying to extend access to education at a lower cost (and larger volume!) to young people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to college because of money, because of geography, etc. The problem– as this article points out– is that the vast majority of people participating in MOOCs right now aren’t these people; rather, they are older people who already have college degrees and who are taking MOOCs for “edutainment.”

This represents a complete miss of the audience Udacity and Coursera actually want and need to make any money at this. People taking MOOCs for edutainment are not going to pay anything for credit hours because they don’t want or need them.

Actual college students are not interested in cheap courses that might (or might not) transfer; they’re interested in a credential. In other words, while the gainfully employed and educated 30-something out there in the “first world” might take a MOOC about computer science or nutrition or whatever just because its interesting, 18-year-olds who want a college education won’t.  They’re not coming to places like EMU to take a class or two because it’s “edutaining;” they come to places like EMU go get a complete degree that they can leverage as experience and as a requirement for a job and/or graduate school.

College students are very specific in their goals.  They might not know what they want to major in and they might not know what they want to do after they get a degree, but they all are here for that credential/diploma/seal of approval. In fact, I would say that one of the more common reasons why students drop out is they come to the realization after a year or so worth of classes that they actually aren’t interested in a degree (though a lot of those students end up coming back to college a few years later).

In contrast, MOOC students are just kind of curious and looking for something to do that they find interesting and fulfilling. If you asked 100 college students if they would be doing all the work of college classes if there was no credential awarded at the end– that is, if they would just be doing all of this “just because”– I’d bet you that 98 of them would say “heck no!” In contrast, if you asked 100 MOOC students if they expected some kind of credential/diploma/seal of approval as a result of the work they put into the MOOC, I’d bet you that 98 of them would say “heck no!”

One closely related point here (three and a half points?): I’m not sure that the cost of tuition matters that much to most college students (and/or their parents). Of course it matters some. Cost of attendance is a factor students and parents have to consider, I think it costs way too much to go to college, and I think the U.S. would be dramatically better off in all sorts of ways if our society made public higher education free.

But even with all the attention rising tuition has received in the mainstream media in the last couple of years, it is clear that cost of attendance is not the primary decision about applying to and attending a particular university. If it was the main factor, then places like EMU and Washtenaw Community College would be turning students away and places like the more expensive U of Michigan just down the road would have to do all it could do to fill seats. Enrollment at EMU is up, but the U of M still turns away about two-thirds of its applicants.

Yet another miscellaneous MOOC link round-up

I’m not enrolled/participating in any MOOCs right now, I think pretty much for the first time in about a year. I’m busy with summer stuff (expect a gardening post soon), upcoming travel and other MOOC writing/editing things. There are plenty of  options to choose from on Coursera’s web site right now– including a course called “Introduction to Public Speaking” (and how exactly would that work?)– though I think the next one of these I’m going to take is going to be from Udacity (or someone else) and about something I know very little about (like math).

But I still wanted to post about a few of the links I’ve come across in the last couple of weeks. As has been the case before, this is mostly for me to come back to later on and it is not in a particular order– roughly chronological, I guess.

Continue reading “Yet another miscellaneous MOOC link round-up”