Rethinking MOOCx

Clay Shirky in Napster, Udacity and the Academy argues that the emergence of MOOCs will disrupt the system of higher education as we now know it. MOOCs, he argues, give us the opportunity to break the old model of  learning at “elite” schools.

I think I have two real issues with MOOCx and by that I mean the Coursera, EdX, Udacity brand, not the MOOCs that Dave Cormier, Athabasca, and Stephen Downes were working on (I’m not very familiar with those, so I can’t really comment on them, but from what I do know, they have a completely different theoretical model not addressed in this post).

MOOCs are disruptive – by their very nature they tell a different narrative to that of the traditional university. Different philosophically – education now available to all rather than the few with access to traditional universities. Different structurally – by removing the constraints of the classroom, education can take on any form.

The “major breakthrough” came when Thrun and Norvig launched their AI class and hundreds of thousands participated. While this was a watershed moment, it was hardly shocking as we already knew that we could educate many people at once, and knew also that it was only a matter of time and technology before we could educate many many many people at once. And hence the MOOCx was born. And it was at this point that the wider public began to take these massive courses seriously, but more importantly, it was at this point that the wider public began to take distance education in general seriously. But hundreds of thousands of students have been educated through a variety of distance education technologies at schools all over the world for scores of years. How is this different? Of course that fact that so many people were educated at once as part of one course, that’s a major difference. For me, however, there is another story being told.

With Thrun and Norvig’s Udacity, and later Coursera and EdX, now Stanford and MIT and Harvard and Yale and all the other “top-tier” universities became involved in MOOCx, all of a sudden here is this technology that will disrupt higher education as we presently know it. Finally we have distance education courses that pass the “quality” test. As much as Shirky rails against the elite school education, funny that he only notices the “disruptive” nature of DE offered by those very same schools. Funny how we all are falling over ourselves with delight – finally courses of the “elite” universities of the world are available to all.

So what?

Understand me, I am not criticising these schools for doing what they are doing – open education should always be encouraged, whoever the provider. Rather, I am skeptical of the reaction to what they have done. Everyone is excited only partly because thousands were educated at once, but more importantly I think because of who it is doing the educating. I strongly suspect that the only reason there was that sort of enrollment in the first place was because of who was offering it.

Is this so wrong?

Our thirst for content from these bastions of academe derives from the assumption that there is something special about the educational content specifically because it comes from these universities. This may have once been the case (although I doubt it outside of courses on the very cutting edge of new knowledge), but today, that knowledge is readily available for anyone wanting to take the time to look for it. Moreover, many others have already packaged that information for us and distributed it to us via OERs, Youtube, Ted, and all the other new media content providers.

In this way, these MOOCx, or rather our reaction to them, have not disrupted the Academy at all. To the contrary they reinforce the established academic canon in a sphere where a new, more egalitarian dispensation was gaining a foothold. To an extent these MOOCx and the automatic legitimacy they have been granted may have the result of delegitimising of all else before them. Of course, this too often is a necessary by product of “progress”: early innovators – true believers – often get trampled underfoot when the big boys join the party. So we accept it, bitterly maybe, but happy that open and distance learning is finally getting the recognition it deserves. This alone will disrupt the established order.

Look more closely. MOOCx are courses built to a familiar specification: Video lectures, readings, assignments, exams all carefully sequenced in a linear pattern. Exactly how is this supposed to disrupt the learning model whose weaknesses Shirky highlights when it mirrors that same model in an online environment? And so all those criticisms aimed at those courses in those same elite schools are as effectively applied to the MOOCx they produce. Can we really do no better? Has all the research done on how to design effective online learning been an exercise in futility? My fear is that the automatic legitimacy these elite schools bring to the table will also canonize their MOOCx model of distance learning or some close variant. Already when thinking of how to design our new courses I find myself subconsciously imagining a MOOCx-type design.

Don’t get me wrong, the idea that some of the world’s greatest intellects are teaching courses available to everyone is exciting. But really what do they have to add in a recorded lecture – their knowledge is already easily accessible. I would agree, some of them are electrifying personalities that I would love to listen to. But those are the exception rather than the rule. Let’s face it, professors at elite schools neither get hired nor promoted to tenure by virtue of their oratorical or teaching skills. I learned this quite early on as an undergraduate – like Shirky I was “fortunate” enough to study (very liberal use) at one of these “elite” schools – and stopped attending lectures. I simply read the textbook and did the problem sets. It was there also that I realised that the same stuff is taught at the elite schools and the “not so elite” schools.

Again, there were gifted lecturers and excellent teachers I encountered during four years of undergraduate study, but they were in the minority. Added to which, because there is so much content online even those gifted lecturers will hardly be adding to what is already freely available. For example, Dan Ariely is a fantastic lecturer – I’ve watched his talks on Ted and YouTube, read his books and some of his research reports. I was excited to take his course on Coursera until I learned that the content covered I’d already watched or read. Now it would have been worthwhile if the course afforded the opportunity of meeting the professor whether virtually or asynchronously but because of their size and design MOOCx make this nigh impossible.

Finally, these MOOCx lack what may be the most effective pedagogical tool – formative feedback (see Hattie & Timperley, 2007 and Hattie 2009). With courses this size it becomes near impossible to provide detailed, personalized, informational feedback to students. Similarly, student – instructor feedback is useless because even if formative feedback could be sensibly collected from the many many students, the course in its present configuration cannot be adjusted on the fly to respond to this type of feedback.

We must welcome MOOCx even with the baggage they bring. All efforts that widen access to education (and in this case hugely so) must be applauded. Are they disruptive? No, I don’t think so.

Finally, with 2U and their Semester online we have come circle. 2U has figured out how to monetize the model (and by the way they are being praised for their business model) – charge regular tuition and reduce class size to a maximum of 20 students. “What if online education was great” they say. “Great universities are driving online education forward (and changing the world)” they say. What is this fabulous new idea? A consortium of 10 great universities will offer their students the opportunity to study online for credit using the same model the MOOCx use (but at a cost and only 20 students per class).


Are you hearing the message people? Everthing in ODL that has been done till now has been “not great” – mediocre at best. So forget your collaborative learning models, forget your blogging to learn, your networked learning, your on and on and on … Real online learning has arrived.

Disruptive? I think not.

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