Whatever happened to the MOOC?

This post was originally written for wonkhe.com back in December. Unfortunately, for various reasons, it was never published and is now beginning to get out of date. I’ve tweaked it a little to make it a useful (I hope!) summary of the “state of the MOOC” round about the turn of the year.  This post is available under a Creative Commons CC-BY license.

It has been just over a year since I last wrote about the Massive Open Online Courses on Wonkhe, and since then we have climbed onto our Hype Cycle, crested the Peak of Expectation, and are currently speeding towards the Trough of Disillusionment.

For the uninitiated a MOOC can refer to

  • (a) A (generally) free-to-take online course building on the “artificial intelligence” open online course experiments by Sebastian Thrun at Stanford in 2011, and typified by Udacity, Coursera and FutureLearn.
  • (b) A free-to-take, (mostly) openly licensed online course building on the “Connectivism” ideas pioneered in 2008 by George Siemens, Dave Cormier, Rita Kop and Stephen Downes, and typified by a range of smaller courses based around learning networks.
  • (c) Other examples of open class and online delivery, usually influenced by connectivist ideas if not explicitly so. Examples include Phonar, H817open and ds106.
  • (d) “Something something INTERNETS something something LEARNING something FREE”. Typified by articles in Forbes, Fast Company and the New York Times written by people who claim to be journalists but haven’t done any research.

Rather than address an imagined “MOOC movement” as a whole, it makes more sense to look at each tendency in isolation, and with a greater emphasis on where the money and hype is. There is some overlap, but also a great deal of disdain/suspicion.

Type (a) MOOCs (sometimes known as xMOOCs, the “x” standing for “cool letter at the front”) are the ones that have been burning through all that venture capital money, and their thinking has turned towards more sustainable business models. Recent research (for example by Weller and Jordan) has made it clear that the early concerns are correct and that these courses do not retain student interest well, and that the early days of enormous interest and sign up at the launch of each MOOC have long gone. A recent MOOC research conference in Arlington, Texas (#MRI13) reiterated these long-standing concerns, now backed up by a great deal of data.

Even the acknowledged “founder” of this strand of MOOCs, Sebastian Thrun, has made statements appearing to back away from his earlier bombast, and the theorist whose ideas of “disruption” underpins the initial Thrun comments – Clayton Christiansen – has been the most significant and surprising move away from the business process arrogance that generated the education/natural disaster metaphors which were everywhere at the start of last year.

All those millions of dollars that venture capitalists have invested come with the expectation of financial return – or, at the very least, sustainability. But despite moderately-huge (on a social media scale) user numbers, financial returns are proving harder to come by.

Most of the major xMOOC platforms now appear to be moving (at greater or lesser speed) towards a corporate training model rather than directly replacing traditional Higher Education.  Where this leaves the corporate platform offerings from Instructure and Pearson, or the nascent mooc.org platform from Google and the pay-to-deliver operation EdX, remains to be seen. But early research around linking xMOOC activity to employment prospects has not been positive.

Microtrends within the xMOOC world include an attempt to engineer the narrative around “drop-outs” by redefining the actual term. Various people, most notably Martin Bean of the OU, have argued that the intention of the learner is more important than the scope of the course as planned and delivered – if a learner stays for one minute of one lecture, but gets something they value from the interaction, then (goes the argument) this is not a drop out but a success. (Maybe I would be tempted to argue that it is an indication that the courses are not what people want?)

And the early hype about a new generation of iterative (“artificially intelligent”) learning platforms has yet to be translated into actually gains in understanding about learning. Though more data is around, and – finally – more high quality, ethical, research is underway, the evidence cupboard is looking rather bare.

One notable champion of this strand of MOOC-life has been our very own David Willetts, who as appeared as MOOC cheerleader at a range of conferences throughout 2013. BIS commissioned Stephen Haggard to produce a MOOC literature review (pdf), which due to publication times mostly covers (formal and informal) work from 2012 and earlier.

On to cMOOCs, which have continued to tick over at a low level in 2013. These are not the MOOCs you are reading about in newspapers, but have primarily been aimed at educators and very experienced learners. Connectivism – briefly – is the idea that knowledge is mediated by a network of co-learners and resources, and that learning happens via the connections of these nodes. (See also Deleuze and Guattari (pdf)on rhizomes, and follow Dave Cormier’s rhizo14 cMOOC)

But Connectivism is a theory of learning that is very young, and needs a lot more work and analysis. Away from the xMOOC number-crunching, another major research topic concerns improvements and examples to strengthen this theoretical position.

The rise of the Open Course may be the beginnings of this evidence base (there are also some xMOOCs – in particular see #edcmooc at Edinburgh/Coursera  – experimenting with Connectivism). An open class occurs where a traditional course delivered to paying students for credit is shared with the wider world – in that anyone can have access to the content and assessment that traditional students have, and discussion between students inside and outside the classroom is promoted and encouraged.

An open course offers the paying learner the best of both worlds – the structure, support and accreditation of traditional HE, plus the global network and enormous range of resources offered online. And for open learners, it is a chance to experience the reality of class-based teaching and to build strong relationships with students and staff in an institution.

“That’s uncharacteristically positive!”, you may be thinking – and I would have to caveat that much more research is needed. But three out of five winners of “Reclaim Open” – a MacArthur Foundation/MIT/DML supported attempt to look at the truly interesting and beneficial work happening under the wider banner of open education – fit broadly into this category, Phonar at Coventry University, the FemTechNet DOCC, and the venerable DS106. So something to watch in the future as the MOOC hype dies down.

Ah yes, MOOC hype – I did promise a look at that, but instead of more detail I’m going to link to two longer articles that unpick some of the cultural and socio-political aspects of the issue. The first was presented by Audrey Watters at OpenEd13, the second by me at ALTC13.

If that’s all a bit TL;DR (though I would suggest that you did read them, or at least Audrey’s) – people have been going around for the last two years saying that MOOCs are going to utterly destroy every notion of traditional higher education in some kind of natural disaster, and it now appears that this is not the case. However, such nuanced messages take time to filter through to lazier headline writers and PR folks.

Writing about the #MRI13 conference, Bon Stewart initially suggested that this presents an opportunity to “challenge the empty narratives that your administrators or your faculty have been sold. Find ways to talk about why what you’re doing matters. Change the narrative from [MOOCs] back to what education is about: learning. End story.”

But her wider thinking suggests something different – the first conversation that needs to happen may be the one between the various actors in the wider “open education” field. There are basic disagreements around things like the definition of “open” – openly licensed (meaning everyone can use it) or “free of charge” (meaning you don’t have to pay – money – to see it) and every colour in between.

I’m fascinated by open education because it cuts right to the heart of the values and narratives of civilisation – what do we believe about education, about media, about the way we interact with culture, about employment, about uses of state funding? By covering only MOOCs in this post, I’ve missed out a lot of interesting stuff happening with Open Education Resources, Open Access to research (and research data)…

For further reading I would point to this recent CETIS publication (Yuan, Powell, Olivier 2014), which covers some of the technological and process trends around c- and x- MOOCs in more depth.

If you are interested in policy making in education you should be interested in open education. It is not going to stop.

3 thoughts on “Whatever happened to the MOOC?”


  • Paul M.A. Baker

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