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.