An open letter to Stephen Downes.

15 08 2013

Dear Stephen:

It’s really nice of you to have linked to my last post just as I’m sorta- kinda- trying to move beyond MOOC commentary, as I still remember our last discussion near the beginning of my long run of MOOC posts. Besides making me look up who you actually are, I’m afraid the rather blatant hostility you showed to faculty in those comments soured me on MOOCs of all kinds, including the better ones that you’ve been working on. I should have been more open-minded 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 my sympathy.” That goes for you too.

As I’ve learned more about this subject, I’ve come to realize that my problem with MOOCs isn’t really the MOOCs themselves, it’s with the power dynamic behind the way in which they’ve been championed and implemented (at least in the United States). For lack of better term, the MOOC “brand” has been weaponized and that’s given your original idea a bad name that it doesn’t deserve.

But, as you well know, your MOOCs and their MOOCs are not the same thing at all. In your recent post linking here, you write:

If he thinks free and open education no longer poses a threat to systems designed to serve an elite (and overcharge the masses) then fine. But the only thing past its best-before date is co-option and commercial exploitation of MOOCs. Free and open education will, meanwhile, prove surprisingly resilient.

I hope that’s right. After all those awful commercial MOOC providers inevitably go bankrupt, it would be awesome if interested students around the world had something to fall back upon. As long as these efforts supplement existing college opportunities rather than replace them, they will not unemploy anybody. And as many colleges sink for numerous non-MOOC related reasons, at least some type of higher education will still be available to people who lack the resources for the traditional kind.

Meanwhile, those of us amongst the faculty who are interested in creating a professor-centered edtech world can follow the innovations that you and others are working upon and use them to make our face-to-face and online classes better. While I still don’t think crowd-sourcing higher education can do what most of us do in our face-to-face classrooms every day, but thank you for your consistent struggle against the commercialism of what you all pioneered. To be specific: that’s what needs to be dismembered and buried separately, not the MOOC as originally conceived.

Maybe you folks up north can come up with a new acronym now that the last one has been spoiled? That way, you and George and everybody else around the world interested in doing more than just making a buck off the destruction of other people’s jobs can innovate in peace.






4 responses

15 08 2013

Like “Experimental Open Seminars”? Acronym EOS, goddess of the dawn…

18 08 2013
Bryan Alexander

“Maybe you folks up north can come up with a new acronym now that the last one has been spoiled?” They already have. Check out the cMOOC vs xMOOC distinction.

18 08 2013
Jonathan Rees


If they have to spend their time parsing the difference between cMOOCs and xMOOCs, they’ve already lost the war.

18 08 2013
Bryan Alexander

Maybe so. Ian Bogost and others have criticized that nomenclature. In my work I’ve found most academics don’t know the distinction, either by name or description.
But I was responding to your charge to the Canadians, which specified the MOOC acronym as “the last one”. The prefixed ones postdate it.

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