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.

Let me continue with that Rees essay, “The MOOC Racket: Widespread online-only higher ed will be disastrous for students—and most professors,” which I learned about on the WPA-L mailing list. Rees probably didn’t write that headline– I doubt he would have wanted to conflate “MOOC” and “online only higher ed” like that– but you get the basic point that Rees is not a fan of the MOOCs.

And then, via Twitter and Rees’ blog, I came across political writer Jonathan Chait’s piece in New York magazine, “College Professors Are About to Get Really Mad at President Obama.”  Chait’s basic argument is that Obama’s call for “shorter degree paths or blending teaching with online learning” is a call for MOOCs, which college professors don’t like because it’s going to put them out of a job– or so says Jonathan Rees according to Chait, though not according to Rees. It’s well worth reading the “food fight” between these two, especially Rees’ follow-up on his blog titled “I hate Illinois Nazis.” I’m not sure the connection to The Blues Brothers Movie really works for me, but I enjoyed watching the 30 second clip on his web site.

Both of these pieces get some things wrong. Rees makes that “all MOOCs are the same” error, which I quoted above. And then he says this:

But the most common way to assess learning in the MOOCs offered by the largest providers is a single multiple-choice question after approximately five-minute chunks of pre-taped lectures. If I had told my tenure committee that I taught history this way, I’d be in another line of work right now. Anyone who has the slightest interest or expertise in education would never teach this way, even if they were paid to do so.

First off, every MOOC I’ve taken or browsed has involved assessment tools beyond a “single multiple-choice question” for every five minutes of video. I’ve written about these different assessment tools for over a year now. I’m not suggesting these other assessments are necessarily good, but it’s been more than multiple choice. Second, there are lots of classes– history included– taught in lecture hall formats where the grade is determined based on scantron/multiple choice tests. Again, I’m not saying that’s necessarily a good idea and maybe it doesn’t happen where Rees teaches, but it obviously is a way a lot of gen ed classes (including history) are taught. And if Rees were teaching a lecture hall section of history and he taught it like a small section class, I suspect his tenure committee would have asked why he didn’t get any scholarship or service work done and instead devoted so much time teaching.

Chait, who clearly doesn’t know anything about higher education (other than he went to college), is more wrong. He’s wrong about the politics, in assuming that MOOCs and online teaching are the same thing, and also in assuming that even Obama knows what he meant. There was a good piece in Inside Higher Ed, “‘Shake Up’ for Higher Ed” which suggests that Obama’s latest call for a “shake-up” is a work in progress at best. He’s also wrong about a whole bunch of other stuff:

MOOC stands for “massive open online course,” which is a super-cheap way to provide college instruction. It’s one of the tools Obama referenced as a solution to the tuition crisis. The concept is extremely new, and the trick is to develop it in such a way that you can weed out cheating, and ensure that students really learn. If you can do that, then prestigious universities can start providing degrees for their online courses, and you would have a powerful, extremely affordable new path for cash-strapped kids to obtain the benefits of a college degree.

Wrong wrong wrong. Everything I’ve read suggests that developing MOOCs is anything but “super-cheap,” anyone with even a passing interest in higher ed knows that costs are not being driven by instructional costs as much as they are by other factors, people who think that “weeding out cheating” is the one tricky problem to solve with MOOCs don’t know much about MOOCs (as I blogged about before), prestigious universities are never ever going to start providing degrees with these MOOC courses (see this post), and “cash-strapped kids” aren’t taking MOOCs now and are unlikely to do so in the foreseeable future (see this post). So unless a lot changes, wrong wrong wrong.

But I think they are both right about a couple of things. Rees is right that a lot of people jumping on the MOOC bandwagon want the fame and glory of being a “superprofessor.” I don’t think this is completely true because after reading some of the contributions from MOOC professors to the collection of essays on MOOCs I’m editing, I can see that there are many complex motivations beyond ego. And besides, a lot of professors do things to boost their ego and name recognition– like write in a blog a lot and mention that they’re editing a book about MOOCs. And I think that Chait is right that our goal ought to be design higher education so that it is effective and affordable for students, though he’s pretty much wrong about everything else.

Moving on (in no specific order):

  • Rob Jenkins has a pretty good piece in CHE, “Who is Driving the Online Locomotive?” Lots of good links here and (spoiler alert!) he sees the driving force for MOOCs as administrators and politicians. But again, we have here the error of assuming that MOOC only means “courses” for “credit” and not some other experience that is learning for learning’s sake, community, and other cMOOC values, and/or something a little less lofty like MOOCs as “edutainment” or as institutional marketing.
  • Keith Brennan’s “In Connectivism, No One Can Hear You Scream: a Guide to Understanding the MOOC Novice” is described as “an attempt to address a possible gap in Connectivist thinking, and its expression in cMOOCs.” Kind of a long read that gets into some complicated territory– motivation itself– but I think the points it makes are pretty accurate and maybe even obvious. Just because you present an opportunity to “learn” and “succeed”– as is the case with MOOCs generally– doesn’t mean people will be motivated to do so. The part that speaks most closely to some of my own disconnected experiences in MOOCs is the section “Helping Your Novices to Fail to Succeed;” the bullets there are “Watch your peers succeed, while you don’t;” “Too high cognitive load,” meaning basically way too much information within and around a MOOC all at once; “Decentralise the learning process” too much; and create “Tasks that are too complex with no guidance.” Stephen Downes has a well thought-out response to this here called “Connectivism and the Primal Scream.” Both of these are essays I can see coming back to, especially in the realm of that ever-present motivation problem in education.
  • Ghanashyam Sharma’s “A MOOC Delusion: Why Visions to Educate the World Are Absurd” is another piece about the colonizing/”McDonaldization” effect of MOOCs (and I think he means xMOOCs) globally and why the altruism of those who want to teach the world is misplaced. I’m not sure that Coursera is really altruistic– I mean, I don’t think they’re evil and I think they’re sincere when they talk about “teaching the world,” but I also think they want to make a lot of money.
  • Another piece I need to come back to but I’ll just note with a link for now: “MOOCagogy: Assessment, Networked Learning, and the Meta-MOOC” by Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel. It’s primarily a recap of the MOOC MOOC (another great resource for MOOC readings) and it focuses on community building in MOOCs.  It includes some interesting data on how the connections between participants were made via the MOOC, via Twitter, and so forth. But again, remember that there are MOOCs and there are MOOCs and these folks are clearly talking about the potential of the cMOOC rather than the xMOOC.
  • I thought I had blogged about the failure “hold” San Jose State is putting on its Udacity MOOCs for credit plan, but I guess not. Here’s a reasonably good summary from Slate, “University Suspends Online Classes After More Than Half the Students Fail.” Claire Potter uses this as an opportunity to rip hard into MOOCs with the not so subtly titled “F is for Failure; Or, Don’t Invent Your Pension in MOOCs Yet.” We’re talking xMOOCs here– specifically Udacity– and we’re talking about that distant dream/nightmare of MOOCs replacing actual college classes, but I think her critique– particularly against the corporate interests in MOOCs– is about right. Here’s my favorite passage:  “MOOCs are like the honey badger: by their very nature they slow down, swerve or stop for no one. They don’t give a $hit. As Oremus asks, ‘The question is, what university will be eager to offer up its students as the next lab rats in what amounts to a massive pedagogical R&D program by for-profit Silicon Valley startups?’ The answer is: the University of California and the State University of New York decided this spring to incorporate MOOCs to give them the option to hire fewer faculty relieve overcrowding in required courses.”
  • Perhaps not to be outdone, Cathy Davidson posted on her blog “Schadenfreude for the MOOC Is Not Joy for the Higher Ed Status Quo” in which she uses the failure at SJSU and Obama’s speech as way of generating a huge laundry list of things that need doing in higher ed.  Frankly, it feels like a lot of freewriting to me from someone who I think is very much interested in being a superprofessor in the land of MOOCs, and I think Davidson is confusing her definitions of MOOCs and of online education.
  • A couple multimedia opportunities: first, “Clay Shirky Says MOOCs Will Matter, but Worries About Corporate Players,” which is audio of an interview that CHE’s Jeffrey Young did with Shirky. It’s very Shirky-esque in that he makes a lot of pronouncements about the way things are/will be that are smart, though I don’t think he knows as much about MOOCs as he does about social media.  For example, Shirky seems to think that we’re beyond the value of degrees and credentials in society– that is, other than a few fields like law and medicine, you don’t need to have a college degree anymore. Says the guy with a degree from Yale and who teaches at NYU. The “skip the credential” thing is nonsense, but I do agree with a lot of the other things he has to say.  Shirky comes down surprisingly hard on “for profit” enterprises like Coursera and Udacity, lumping them into the same camp as “for profit” online schools like the University of Phoenix and academic publishing giants like Elsevier. Worth the 19 minutes.
  • Finally, you know MOOCs must be something when they show up on The Colbert Report in the form of guest Anant Agarwal, the president of edX and professor at MIT:

I don’t want to be too hard on Agarwal and Colbert is pretty relentless, but I have to say I think he does a pretty awful job here in selling the value of MOOCs and even of education.  He even said “online learning will raise all boats,” or trickle-down education.

50 thoughts on “Truths about MOOCs, Rees v Chait, and a bunch of other MOOC article links”

  1. Steve,

    I know the difference between xMOOCs and cMOOCs, Slate gave me 1200 words to explain MOOCs for a general audience and get my point of view on them into the piece. I didn’t have space to parse.

    If you want my actual views on the two here it is: cMOOCs are better than xMOOCs from a pedagogical point of view, but from a labor standpoint they are exactly the same. It doesn’t matter whether a local professor is unemployed by a superprofessor or crowd-sourced out of existence because they are still unemployed.

    PS Yeah, the Blues Brothers connection is forced, but it amused me at the time I wrote it.

    1. That’s fair– I know places like Slate can make limits that are hard to explain the nuances. Still I think things collapsed a little too quickly.

      The labor issues are complicated, at least at this point. Let’s just assume for a second that xMOOCs are going to fade from the scene and we’re left with a variety of different kinds of cMOOCs. Since they aren’t for credit, I don’t see a lot of threat to tenure-track faculty, and since what would make a cMOOC attractive to anyone in the first place is taking a class from a “real professor,” I don’t know how much impact it would have on non-tenure-track labor. I guess what I’m getting at is for MOOCs of any flavor to become a serious threat academic labor, a whole lot of stuff is going to have to change. I worry a lot more about non-tenure-track adjuncts replacing faculty in more traditional university settings.

  2. Oops… just noticed two missing words. Could you please approve the following version and delete the previous one?
    Dear Steven, I appreciate your mention of my CHE essay on MOOCs and their professors’ desire to educate the world in your roundup. I am a regular reader of this blog, so I had been following the conversations about c versus x MOOCs. (Incidentally, I started being a fan of your blog in graduate school a few years ago). And I certainly think that cMOOCs are capable of doing a better job (even though cultural myopia doesn’t only occur at a dehumanizing scale; I’ve heard of horror stories from classrooms with seven students). But I didn’t make this distinction in the piece because it didn’t seem too relevant in the context of the blind spot on cross-cultural/transnational issues vis-a-vis effective teaching/learning online. Maybe I should have mentioned the greater “potential” that cMOOCs have for addressing the issue as a qualification for some of the comments on MOOCs in general.
    Regarding the issue of altruism that your comment focused on, I didn’t and wouldn’t consider the likes of Coursera to be altruistic at all. I could have made this clearer, but my point was that *because* for-profit companies are unlikely to pay attention to learners/learning across cultures, *it is for teachers* to do whatever we can as MOOCs evolve. It would be odd if someone actually believes that for-profit companies are driven by altruism as a goal (rather than a marketing tool/ploy); in fact, as businesses, they should be expected to be motivated by scale, efficiency, profit, and the like. In contrast, it seems to me that many of the teachers talking about their desire to make education accessible across the world are sincere about that desire (to use your term “sincerity”). It is with these fellow teachers that I wanted to share a thought about teaching/learning across cultures and other borders. Based on my personal experience, I just wanted to say that for *our* altruistic desire for educating the world to translate into effective learning/teaching, we must match that desire with understanding and sensitivity toward how the vastly different social, cultural, geopolitical, and other backgrounds shape/influence learners’ experience of our teaching.
    I truly enjoyed this roundup overall, as always. – Shyam

  3. Personally I think it’s time for mainstream journalists to get off their collective backsides and start defining their terms correctly. If a university is trying to make money or cover their costs by enticing students into a fee based part of their course, it’s by definition no longer a MOOC. The ‘MOOC’ bit is the loss leading online component (LLOC?) of their FEE BASED program.
    This is different from the ‘we’re only here to educate the world’ (and market our brand) philanthropic courses.
    Mainstream media seem to be confusing the two.

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