27 November 2012

MOOCs, what about them?

MOOCs have caught the public eye and not just those of education professionals. The reason is that potentially they change the game of higher education. Not just because some claim they will (as does Sebastian Thrun of Udacity) but also because many fear or predict they will. So, engaging in ongoing debate about them is necessary, to steer their future development and to be prepared for their potential influence on higher education. At present, I am at the ASCILITE 2012 in Wellington, New Zealand, where this morning a 'great debate' was organised about MOOCs. The debate was lively, although it was a pity that the normative ('should MOOCs have a role in HE?') was not sufficiently divorced from the factual ('will MOOCs have a role in future HE?'). I here want to expand a little bit on two remarks I twittered during the debate. They regard the normative aspect of the debate.

cMOOCs aside - the Siemens and Downes kind which embrace networked or connectivist types of learning - the xMOOCs exemplify a development in higher education that mark a landslide. Private companies have always had a role in education and there is nothing wrong with that. However, with xMOOCs for the first time they may end up as helmsmen of higher  education. Sebastian Thrun predicts so much when he says that in five decades or so there's room for 10 universities only, the rest of the market being catered for by venture-capital sponsored companies such as Udacity, Coursera (or more likely, the companies that will have bought them). Is this what we really want? In my view, education in general and higher education in particular is a public good. The goals that it serves are manifold. They include preparing adolescents for the job market, but also educating them to become well-informed citizens who can make judgement calls. A viable democracy needs critical people. And then there is also the goal of helping these adolescents to find out who they are, what really interests them and what they want to do with the rest of their lives. I have a hard time believing that for-profit companies would be interested in promoting competencies and skills other than work-related ones. It is not a matter of blaming them for their disinterest in this, it is a matter of us deciding how we want to organise higher education: Run by a private company as a private good or by democratic institutions as a public good?

Second, MOOCs have been hailed as contributing to inclusion. Again, I have a hard time believing that MOOCs run by private companies will see this as their duty (I am still talking xMOOCs of course). They will, but only to the extent that providing courses for free is a means of 'scouting out' the really talented, almost as talented athletes, soccer players, etc.  (Cf On two kinds of MOOCs) True as this may be, you could still argue that a great many people in developing countries would still have access to high quality, higher education courses, which they otherwise would never have had. Although this is not entirely true - see the Open Educational Resources movement - there is also the issue of cultural imperialism. This will not be much of an issue for AI courses or courses learning to program with Python, but things start to change with courses on social network analysis and certainly with courses on social issues and culture. The developed world should make sure not to make the mistakes it has been making consistently all over again.

In conclusion, I think we should continue experimenting with MOOCs but at the same time we should be very suspicious of what Coursera and Udacity are doing with them lest in a year's time we academics have to admit we were lured into doing something we in retrospect had absolutely wanted to avoid. For those of you who want to read up a little bit on MOOCs, you may find a collection of 6 months of scoops here.

Note added January 3, 2013. There was an annoying mistake in the original text. In the final sentence of the one but final paragraph, it said developing world, which should have been developed. I have corrected this now.


  1. In my opinion, those xMOOCs can achieve the goals of the bottom two tiers of Bloom's taxonomy of learning outcomes, but never the upper tiers. If big xMOOCs become prevalent, teachers can do more activities focusing on achieving upper tiers of Bloom's taxonomy in their classes, which will be beneficial to both learners and teachers. Using xMOOCs we can flip classrooms more.

    1. Thanks for your comment!
      I have toyed with the Bloom idea too. If (the revised version of) that taxonomy represents an adequate hierarchical categorization of what there is too learn, it should help make sense of what you can and cannot learn with MOOCs. So I agree with you that, on face value, if there is a role for xMOOCs, it is restricted to learning to remember and comprehend, at best also apply; the higher faculties of analyzing, evaluating and creating are beyond xMOOCs, it would seem. However, I also always thought that closed question assessments were not able to test above comprehension, but I have learnt to admit that with cleverly drafted question analysis is in reach.
      Your second point is about educational policies. You seem to suggest that the time that the use of xMOOCs (or other OERs) frees up, can be used to teach higher order faculties in flipped classrooms. This assumes that the total number of teachers and the total time that have available remains unchanged. I have to admit that I am a bit cynical about this and believe that any time gained will immediately be used to fire teachers. Note that one of the main arguments behind xMOOCs in the US is the sky-rocketing tuition fees.

  2. I certainly believe that xMOOCs will play a larger role in providing educational experiences worldwide however, I also feel that there should be concern with regard to what type of role large corporations will play in the implementation and delivery of education via xMOOCs. How can one experience all of the diversity that comes with educational experiences with xMOOCs if they are financially controls by corporations with their own agendas?

    1. Thanks for your comment! I fully agree, which is why I argue that education is a public good and should stay there. However, note how large corporations already do have a large stake in eduction. Think text book publishers, VLE developers, but also for-profit schools and universities.

  3. Hi Peter, certainly agree with you that xMOOCs arent about inclusion. As you can see in my Open Learning and Network Democracy I see them as being about brand Universities grabbing market share in the globalisation of education, or, economically, 'business as usual'
    However if we dont want disruptive Universities in the USA hijacking learning agendas then we need to design positively for solutions we believe in, which Siemens and Downes have done with DOOKs, or cMOOCs as we now label them.
    I think we should be Building Democratic Learning and organising around EU i2020 by getting informal learning to drive, through the processes of co-creation, formal accreditation. We are experimenting with that in WikiQuals, more here;

  4. Thanks Fred! I (re)read your blogpost about wikiquals. When reading, I was struck by the diversity of innovation projects that are are going on in educational. I myself try to contribute to this with our research on networked learning. But there are so many connections with other developments (what is the future of social media?, how are we going to deal with privacy?) and there are so many hard policy questions to answer (who is responsible for the education of our children? should universities remain doing research and teaching?, etc.) that people may have gotten overwhelmed. Perhaps that is the reason they flock to xMOOCs as they built on a familiar model: a teacher teaching. The interjection of a camera is then the innovation. Whatever the reason for the popularity of xMOOCs, I agree with you that in the USA tuitions may force people to think of xMOOCs as an alternative, but venture capital is certainly interested in doing with xMOOCs to education what Facebook, Twitter etc have done to social media: get in there first. We should avoid to be naive about this in Europe (including the UK) and in the rest of the world for that matter. This is my most serious worry about xMOOCs, not their pedagogical inferiority. If xMOOCs provide an inferior learning experience, then people will simply run from them. Unless they cannot anymore because Coursera, Edacity and the like run our educational systems.

  5. I think there is a more profound problem in that the student, or learner, has become divorced from an understanding of learning. The dominant social understanding of education that plays out in the UK and the USA is that of social capital; accredited education has a value because it gets you a job. And, as Manuel Castells points out, we now self-mediatise ourselves, namely we rush to exploit ourselves before we are exploited. So an education system predicated on selling ourselves is part of a self-re-inforcing model of high-stakes assessment education. To the academic winner goes the economic spoils. xMOOCs are selling the same 'certainty' with the potential of being cheaper for institutions and seem to offer a way for them to remain as they are, selling privilege. Actually it is the institutions that have to change, from being bastions of self-regarding elitism, at least in the UK, to responding to the economic needs of the country on a wholly inclusive basis. We will need the collapse of the Euro and further economic collapse before elites in the UK become with transformative change. Hence the emergence of WikiQuas and other innovative projects. I think network learning is a key as will the networked institution.
    You might like The Entrepreneurial State by Mariana Mazzucato (Sussex) in which she argues that we need to move to the network as the unit of analysis, rather than institutions (p64) http://www.demos.co.uk/publications/theentrepreneurialstate


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