“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.