MOOCs: is your glass half empty or half full?


If there were a book called ‘MOOCs: A history’ it would need an update. For anyone following MOOCs, this past week’s big news has been MOOC provider Udacity and its CEO Sebastian Thrun’s decision to effectively stop being a MOOC provider and instead offer what looks like corporate elearning training and/or a standard online courses. As someone who is currently enrolled in a Udacity statistics course, I received an email inviting me to a whole new course experience designed to help me succeed where I would have access to  coaches to give personalised feedback and where I’d work on projects to integrate what I have learned. As to the status of its previous (free) courses, here is what Udacity has to say (emphasis mine): ‘Our courseware remains available for free. You can still watch all the videos, take all the quizzes, and sweat through the programming exercises on your own. But you might be missing out on a truly transformational learning experience. And you won’t earn the certificates that are recognized by industry.’ So it’s very clear that the free MOOC experience is definitely inferior to a (paid-for) transformational learning experience, and the (free) Statistics course I am currently enrolled in now no longer a course but… er… ‘courseware’.

Unsurprisingly has been a torrent of blog posts and Twitter chatter about what this means for MOOCs and the MOOC movement. Does this signify the death of the MOOC, or is this a mere failure of Udacity and Sebastian Thrun as George Siemens writes? Or is this really about what happens when you apply the Venture Capital model to education – that inevitably at some point, you need to make it pay and in Udacity’s case this means having to charge students. Audrey Watters points out that Udacity’s new development effectively decides what sort of students are desirable, and it’s not the ones for whom the open education movement was designed to help (those who need it most). A more charitable interpretation may be to see Udacity as a company experimenting with open and online learning and needing to find a sustainable business model. Udacity’s own rationale, as in this somewhat bizarre interview with Sebastian Thrun points to the company finding through data that serving content no matter how engagingly does not equate to learning for particular constituencies of students; in effect Thrun calls Udacity’s original offerings ‘lousy’ and states he never meant to disrupt the traditional four-year liberal arts college-style education anyway. So for Udacity perhaps the MOOC is dead, at least the ‘massive’ part and the ‘open’ part.

Udacity isn’t the only organisation to ‘realise’ this. Harvard is among a group of elite universities in the EdX tier looking at offering SPOCs (small private online classes) having ‘discovered’ that smaller classes allow for more successful teaching, assessment and accreditation, in ways MOOCs can’t. As Martin Weller points out in this blog post and as Tony Bates argues if any of these companies (and elite universities) had looked at the evidence and experiences of Online and Distance Education, perhaps some of these painful experiments might have been avoided.

But are we really back to square one? Does (successful) online learning always require smaller supported (and expensive) classes? Is the promise of offering education on a massive scale at little or no cost one that inevitably leads to a poorer level of education of those students? Certainly Udacity’s oft-cited experiment of offering foundational courses to San Jose students would seem to support this premise: the students who took Udacity courses achieved lower pass rates than students who had attended face to face classes (one interesting caveat is that these were students who might not have been able to attend face to face classes). And the research around MOOCs thus far clearly shows that more successful MOOC participants seems to be those who already have degrees and for whom the motivation is professional development, suggesting that that those perhaps in most need of education are least equipped to take advantage of the free learning available in MOOCs. So MOOCs have perhaps confirmed what we already knew, but I think it might be more fruitful to acknowledge this as a Massive Open Research Study which has validated some of the experiences and results of those working in online and distance education, rather than bemoaning (albeit with some justification) the fact that we (well some people) already knew about this and there is little to learn from the current xMOOCs.

After all, this is  a period of experimentation and arguably, if the (x)MOOC providers hadn’t laid their offerings on the table, pedagogy flaws and all, and invited (literally) the world to join in and participate, we probably wouldn’t have the validation of online and distance learning or the appetite for experimenting – a development has moved some campus-based universities to get excited about the potential of online learning. It’s an uncomfortable truth perhaps that it has taken elite universities to effect this shift (just as it was MIT who arguably ‘led’ the way with Open Educational Resources). Indeed there are some useful courses among xMOOC providers that can assist students with getting to grips with a field of knowledge and acting as a ‘networked textbook’ as Dave Cormier suggests and others which are going beyond the so-called behaviourist pedagogy ascribed to xMOOCs. (And frankly, Udacity was always quite different from Coursera or EdX (and FutureLearn) in that it was always geared towards a more workplace based approach and focussed primarily on technical skills).

So on the question of where now for MOOCS, I’d be tempted to see it as a ‘glass half full’ – lessons are being learned and opportunity beckons. Enabled by digital, networked and (sometimes) open technologies, MOOCs are only a part of broader changes in the way learning might be designed, delivered and assessed . The earlier MOOCs emanating from Canadian universities espoused a different pedagogical approach, which perhaps have greater potential for applying innovative pedagogy to online learning that could change the way people learn. MOOCs such as Connectivism and Connective Learning (CCK) and Personal Learning Environments and Knowledge Networks Online Course (PLENK) offered learning experiences which were (relatively) massive in scale, and applied connectivist principles where the course and curriculum were created and supported by the community of learners; these experiments continue to grow as the success of DS106 attests, but it’s also clear they don’t suit all types of students. Furthermore, the OER movement is still alive and kicking and with the launch of the OER University entering a new phase: the desire and commitment to provide meaningful education to those who need it, especially in developing countries.

We may have expected too much of MOOCs – it’s time to put them in their place.

Image courtesy of Free Digital Photos /

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