We can officially declare massive open online courses (MOOCs) as the higher education buzzword for 2012. Between Coursera, edX and smaller open course offerings, nearly $100 million in funding has been directed toward MOOCs in that past 8 months. Newspapers from NYTimes to Globe and Mail to publications such as the Chronicle of Higher Education, TV programs such as NPR, radio programs such as CBC, and a few hundred thousand blog posts have contributed to the hype. In higher education, there is joyful abundance of opinions on the topic, ranging from breathless proclamations of their disruptive potential to general dismissal of any value. I’ve captured numerous articles here on diigo.
Largely lost in the conversation around MOOCs is the different ideology that drives what are currently two broad MOOC offerings: the connectivist MOOCs (cMOOCs?) that I have been involved with since 2008 (with people like Stephen Downes, Jim Groom, Dave Cormier, Alan Levine, Wendy Drexler, Inge de Waard, Ray Schroeder, David Wiley, Alec Couros, and others) and the well-financed MOOCs by Coursera and edX (xMOOCS?).
Our MOOC model emphasizes creation, creativity, autonomy, and social networked learning. The Coursera model emphasizes a more traditional learning approach through video presentations and short quizzes and testing. Put another way, cMOOCs focus on knowledge creation and generation whereas xMOOCs focus on knowledge duplication. I’ve spoken with learners from different parts of the world who find xMOOCs extremely beneficial as they don’t have access to learning materials of that quality at their institutions. xMOOCs scale, they have prestigious universities supporting them, and they are well-funded. It is quite possible that they will address the “drill and grill” instructional methods that is receiving some criticism.
Phil Hill, who has been an early and consistently informative voice on MOOCs addresses the different MOOCs in a recent post:
When analyzing the disruption potential of MOOCs, it is easy to forget that the actual concept is just 4 or 5 years old. Furthermore, the actual definition of the concept has undergone a significant change in the past 12 months as an entirely new branch has emerged.
He offers this diagram to detail the distinctions:
Well, the good intentions and featured best practices of Siemens and Downes exist in political and institutional realities. If institutions really wanted to sustain participatory learning, they would already be doing so, for instance, by reducing lectures and high-stakes testing, investing in teaching-intensive faculty and the like. Instead, driven less by cost concerns than a desire to standardize and control both faculty and curriculum, administrations rely more than ever on lectures and tests.
MOOCs are a platform
MOOCs, regardless of underlying ideology, are essentially a platform. Numerous opportunities exist for the development of an ecosystem for specialized functionality in the same way that Facebook, iTunes, and Twitter created an ecosystem for app innovation. I don’t know if MOOCs will be transformative in higher education. I’m not sure that they’ll be half as disruptive as some claim. They are, however, significant in that they are a large public experiment exploring the impact of the internet on education. Even if the current generation of MOOCs spectacularly crash and fade into oblivion, the legacy of top tier university research and growing public awareness of online learning will be dramatic.
Jeffrey Young, from the Chronicle of Higher Education, discusses the Coursera contract with University of Michigan, a contract that offers insight into possible commercialization strategies around MOOCs. The options presented assume MOOCs-as-a-platform.
In a previous article on the duplication theory of educational value, I stated that:
if something can be duplicated with limited costs, it can’t serve as a value point for higher education. Content is easily duplicated and has no value. What is valuable, however, is that which can’t be duplicated without additional input costs: personal feedback and assessment, contextualized and personalized navigation through complex topics, encouragement, questioning by a faculty member to promote deeper thinking, and a context and infrastructure of learning. Basically: human input costs make education valuable. We can’t duplicate personal interaction without spending more money. We can scale content, but we can’t scale encouragement. We can improve lecturing through peer teaching, but we can’t scale the timely interventions and nudges by faculty that influence deeper learning.
The value of MOOCs may not be the MOOCs themselves, but rather the plethora of new innovations and added services that are developed when MOOCs are treated as a platform (I addressed this in 2011 in the race to platform education).