The pro-MOOC coalition cannot hold.

1 08 2013

As you might imagine, I follow a lot of people on Twitter who have a different attitude towards MOOCs than I do. One of my favorites is the MOOC pioneer George Siemens. If you don’t know him, he’s one of those nice Canadian people who came up with the idea for MOOCs in the first place. Now though, both on his Twitter feed and on his blog, he gives the distinct impression of continually saying to himself, “What the heck have all these Americans done to our previously excellent idea?” To be honest, I still have trouble with the kinds of MOOCs that Siemens et. al. first imagined. Nevertheless, anybody whose ideas got mugged by a bunch of Clayton Christensen acolytes automatically has my sympathy.

Because I wanted to hear what MOOCs sounded like before MOOCmania began, I downloaded an old Tech Therapy podcast with Siemens on it the last time I was prepping my iPod for the gym. To summarize, Siemens saw MOOCs as 1) Experimental 2) Open 3) Intended for people who already have college degrees and 4) Not designed as a replacement for college courses.

Let’s cover these points in clumps of two:

MOOCs are: 1) Experimental and 2) Open. While Tenured Radical is right about it not being kosher to experiment on paying students, to me 2) cancels out 1). If you’re not paying to take the course, then you’re basically volunteering to be experimented upon with respect to developing new ways of learning.

It’s when students are being charged that things become dicey. I know less than nothing about institutional review boards, but that might be a reasonable concern. I do know this, though: If you’re being charged to take a course, it’s no longer open. A comment at Steven Krause’s blog summarizes this sentiment well:

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…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.

To be fair to the mainstream media, MOOC providers are actively encouraging them to confuse the two because it makes their endeavors seem like charity, or at best, research. They’re not. They’re either for-profit efforts backed by investors or brand extension strategies. But don’t tell that to the other half the pro-MOOC coalition, the well-meaning but naive techies who actually want to educate the world.

Unfortunately for them, even if MOOCs could accomplish such a thing, somebody still has to pay the bills.

MOOCs are: 3) Intended for people who already have college degrees and 4) Not designed as a replacement for college courses. When I was at the University of Denver a few weeks ago, the first speaker was an incredibly accomplished retired communications pioneer who was teaching a few classes there in his spare time. While he was remarkably reasonable with respect to the achievements and failures of MOOCs, he also said that while it’s not really clear what the business model for MOOCs is, he believed that they would find one eventually.

A lot of people are starting to wonder if that’s really the case. Just yesterday I saw an article from the Wall Street Journal that makes the problem that MOOC providers face abundantly clear:

“Nobody has any idea how it’s going to work,” says Dave Cormier, manager of Web communications and innovation at the University of Prince Edward Island, who was involved in earlier iterations of MOOCs a few years ago and has been credited with coining the term in 2008. “People have ideas of how to monetize it, but simply don’t have any evidence.”

Coursera, another firm with Stanford founders and $22 million in funding from Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and others, recently began notifying students that they can opt in to a job-placement service, where recruiters can access details of their class performance. But the company matched only a handful of students in its months-long pilot and is still determining the fee structure.

While he declines to provide dollar figures, co-founder Andrew Ng acknowledges “it’s still a business model that we’re fleshing out.”

MOOCs are “an innovation looking for a business model,” says Kevin Kinser, an associate professor of higher education policy at the State University of New York at Albany. Online courses may be valuable supplements to regular classes, but Mr. Kinser, whose research focuses on nontraditional higher education models, says it’s hard to see how they can be more than altruistic endeavors.

Altruistic endeavors would be fine with all those techies are genuinely interested in educating the world, but this will not make the VCs happy at all. Contrary to Siemens, the real money is in replacing college courses with MOOCs, but by doing so the MOOC providers are violating Siemens’ basic tenets. Worse yet, by rushing these efforts, the commercial MOOC providers are giving the more genuinely idealistic MOOC efforts a really bad name. After all, just try to explain the difference between a cMOOC and an xMOOC to someone who doesn’t know what a MOOC is in the first place. You might as well be speaking Greek.

This pro-MOOC coalition cannot hold indefinitely. MOOC providers can only wax poetically about the wonders of universal access to higher education for so long before their investors or Boards of Trustees will go into revolt. When that happens, the MOOC Messiah Squad is going to realize that they’ve been hoodwinked and maybe Siemens can go back to implementing his vision in peace.



6 responses

2 08 2013
Alan Levine (@cogdog)

“Experimented upon” yields a connotation of probes and electric shocks being applied to students. Experimenting with teaching has always happened with trying new techniques, materials, modalities.. It’s not necessarily poking at lab rats if an instructor is still adhering to course outcomes/objectives.

Can you explain more about ” I do know this, though: If you’re being charged to take a course, it’s no longer open.” ??

2 08 2013
Jonathan Rees

That’s easy, Alan. People w/o money can’t afford to take it.

9 08 2013
No! You should not do DS106 | doublemirror

[…] fit Siemens original definition of a massive open course (Young, 2011) as neatly summarised by Rees (2013), ‘Siemens saw MOOCs as 1) Experimental 2) Open 3) Intended for people who already have […]

9 08 2013
From MOOC to SMOC? | Juliette Levy

[…] the fate of MOOCs (see here;; […]

9 08 2013
Lisa M Lane

Does the *whole* thing have to be open, though? The first big MOOC, CCK08, had a core of 20+ enrolled students (including me) via the U of Manitoba – the other hundreds of people were open. But our stuff was official and graded by the instructors. A cool experience.

15 08 2013
An open letter to Stephen Downes. | More or Less Bunk

[…] about what you and George Siemens have been trying to do. As I wrote with respect to George a little while back, “anybody whose ideas got mugged by a bunch of Clayton Christensen acolytes automatically has […]

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