“I know a dead parrot when I see one and I’m looking at one right now.”

19 11 2013

“Oh God! He’s not going to write about Sebastian Thrun’s pivot again, is he?”

Well, not exactly. I’m going to write about Rebecca Schuman writing about Sebastian Thrun’s pivot. It begins:

Sebastian Thrun, godfather of the massive open online course, has quietly spread a plastic tarp on the floor, nudged his most famous educational invention into the center, and is about to pull the trigger.

It’s a wonderful article (and I’m not just saying that because she quotes me), but there’s a problem with that vivid metaphor. I would argue that Sebastian Thrun’s most famous educational innovation is already dead. In fact, it was pretty much dead on arrival.

Yes, I know that the MOOC hype continues unabated. And yes, I know that Thrun insisted this morning that his academic MOOCs are in fact only resting. Nevertheless, all of us living, breathing educators who actually know all of our students’ names understood that xMOOCs were a stupid idea from the moment we first heard about them because students who need higher education the most simply cannot teach themselves.

This fact explains why the problems that MOOC providers face go well beyond Udacity. Alex Usher has run the numbers, and he thinks that Coursera has only 15 months left before their VCs pull the plug. He’s more bullish on the future of edX, but check out this quote from Anant Argawal:

Education has been going on for hundreds of years and online technologies—people have been working with online technologies for, I would say, 30 years. However, intense experimentation and excitement [around education] has happened only in the past year or year-and-a-half. So this is Version 1.

Wait ’til you see Version 6.

So I think it’s too early to say that, “this doesn’t work,” or you know, something doesn’t work.

In my book that’s pretty close to admitting that, at the present time at least, they have a lousy product. “Sure our current prototype of a flying car doesn’t fly, but just give us 30 years!” Yes, edX has no VCs that can pull the plug, but eventually students (particularly students who may be asked to pay tuition in exchange for the MOOC experience) will begin to resent the fact that they’re being treated like guinea pigs and vote with their feet.

Luckily for those of us who are interested in real educational innovation, there are still other parrots in the pet store besides the Norwegian Blue. Connectivist MOOCs (or cMOOCs, as the jargon goes) predated the “Year of the MOOC” and will outlive them too. I’m still not sure if I can actually endorse them since getting crowdsourced out of your job is just as bad as being replaced by a superprofessor and an online mentor. Nevertheless, I am certainly not willing to pronounce them dead.

To me, the key difference between the live parrot and the dead one here is that cMOOCs are designed for people who already know how to learn. With this audience, under some circumstances (like problem-based learning, for example) they could make a wonderful pet for the right owner. Hand them to a penny-pinching administrator on the other hand, someone who’s determined to make one size fit all, and we’ll have to return our dead parrot about half an hour after we take it home.

In the meantime, Sebastian Thrun will go on to try to sell his Norwegian Blue to unsuspecting corporate customers, hoping they remain distracted long enough by its “beautiful plumage” so that he can slip out the back of the pet store.




15 responses

19 11 2013
Sporch Ezza

I would say that the idea of electronic technology as ‘revolutionary’ educational medium goes back to Thomas Edison’s phonograph if not farther. In a similar vein, I recently saw this quote: “If modern technology fulfills its promise, we are on the threshold of a revolution.… Lectures can be taped and stored and selected for viewing on demand.…” Aside from the verb “taped,” this quote is very reminiscent of MOOC hype, but it is in fact Kingman Brewster about 1963. Why would MOOCs be different from the unfulfilled promise of phonograph records or videotape, particularly given the absence of interactivity?

19 11 2013

Coincidence or intention, that you used a Monty Python skit for your title on the same day that the 6 surviving (“not dead!”) Pythons announced their planned reunion projects?

19 11 2013
Jonathan Rees

Coincidence. My brain runs all Python all the time. Most of the time I can surpress it.

19 11 2013

Oops, sorry, 5 surviving Pythons….

19 11 2013
20 11 2013

So how is Domino’s Pizza doing since they started their “our pizza really sucked, but we took your advice and now it’s much better” ad campaign?

Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

p.s. We should cancel our AHA panel, declare victory, and adjourn to toast our anti-MOOC prescience in the bar, Jonathan.

20 11 2013
Jonathan Rees


I wish. Unfortunately, there are still enough self-interested people out there who will try to sell the corpse, that I’m afraid that we still have to bang the parrot’s body on the table in order to prove that it is truly deceased.

22 11 2013

Jonathan, did you see this?


Freaking hilarious! Clearly, MOOCs have a big constituency among people who already know how to learn. I stand by my prediction that MOOCs might be a useful marketing/PR tool for unis and might serve the role that Elderhostel has served, but in terms of educating the uneducated, not so much!

22 11 2013

Say what you want, MOOCs are damned good for educating retired physics professors.

22 11 2013
MOOCs are not the Bad Guy | Testing Higher Ed

[…] has ensued has been a lot of football spiking and endzone dancing by people who felt that MOOCs were not the answer.  For instance, Jonathan Rees […]

22 11 2013
MOOC meltdown! : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

[…] I assume you’re all familiar with Sebastian Thrum’s “ooopsie–my bad” last week on the argument that MOOCs can educate the uneducated masses and at the same time make money for his deluded investors.  I haven’t had the time or energy to say “I told you so,” especially because Jonathan Rees has a nice round-up (with a bonus Monty Python joke and clip) of the issue. […]

23 11 2013

Your point about penny pinching administrators determined to make one size fit all is really the heart of the matter. Does anyone else remember the very catchy theme song of the TV show Square Pegs?

Square pegs, square pegs, square, square pegs
One size does not fit all

16 05 2014
“[T]he low end always wins.” | More or Less Bunk

[…] accepted his invitation to debate MOOCs with him, and of course he’s right. As I’ve written before, getting crowdsourced out of your job is no different than being replaced by an xMOOC. […]

6 05 2015
MOOC meltdown! | Historiann

[…] I assume you’re all familiar with Sebastian Thrum’s “ooopsie–my bad” last week on the argument that MOOCs can educate the uneducated masses and at the same time make money for his deluded investors.  I haven’t had the time or energy to say “I told you so,” especially because Jonathan Rees has a nice round-up (with a bonus Monty Python joke and clip) of the issue. […]

1 01 2017
Vern Shaddix

To compete with online courses some of the poorly ranking universities and colleges must have to be more competitive and that means giving a brilliant experience and service. http://www.jelt.com

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