The MOOC is not dead, but maybe it should be

Five years after the New York Times anointed 2012 as the Year of the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), Udacity – the company founded by Sebastian Thrun, the self-described forefather of MOOCs – pronounced them dead.

This was met with no small resistance from staff and institutions continuing to produce MOOC content and courses. Is the MOOC, as Udacity says, a failed product – or have we not, as Arshad Ahmad and Barbara Oakley contest, given the product a true chance?

Within formal higher education, Udacity has long been criticied for their propulsion of (and profit from) the MOOC hype machine, securing government contracts in the United States to “fix” higher education, only to pivot away from the sector less than one year later.

The origin of the MOOC acronym came in 2008 to describe a course on the connective relationships of knowledge and individuals, a course around a learning theory remarkably different from the 2012 Stanford (and 2013 Udacity) MOOC promotion of democratised education through courseware. To now claim the MOOC dead is expected, a further chapter in the Udacity boondoggle that started with their direct benefit from the obfuscation of the MOOC acronym away from connecting disparate learners, to putting disparate learners on a platform.

If MOOCs are not dead, what are they doing? According to Ahmad and Oakley their core value remains in their potential, not for democratising education on a global scale but in the day-to-day innovative change of higher education. The international promises of MOOCs were grandiose and widely derided by distance education scholars at the time of their pronouncement. Innovation remains a key rallying cry for technology within academia, but under inspection this potential is not unrealised but unsubstantiated.

The ‘Wild West’ was colonised 100 years ago

The MOOC has been the most noteworthy beneficiary of what Evgeny Morozov calls Technological Solutionism, an historical perspective on sociopolitical change wherein discord is an obstacle that can be overcome by introducing a technological platform.

MOOC providers quickly marketed their products as a technological opportunity for social change, co-opting the Francis Bacon-attributed knowledge is power to promote access to the world’s best colleges and world’s best professors at no financial cost.

Access was free in that students did not have to pay out of pocket to engage course materials, but the learning experience was a far cry from the lofty expectations of the world’s best universities and the world’s best professors. The product was poor quality – in Thrun’s terms, “lousy”. The student experience consisted largely of lectures taken from the auditorium and recorded, not always in a studio or with proper recording equipment. Faculty lectures were largely flat, difficult to recite in an engaging fashion, and delivered by those trained in subject matter but not public speaking. The videos were supplemented by slide presentations, often done on green screen to imply the possibility of a faculty member interacting with the content (though this rarely happened). And the learning platforms hosting the videos were reductive, highlighting didactic quizzing and message boards as the community interaction for learning.

The results were middling; the revolution to democratise education had high enrollment but low completion, and unsatisfactory satisfaction. In response, faculty and developers engaged another rhetorical trope: the edge of discovery. MOOCs are new and we are learning, they said, using computer versioning parlance to both justify the prior problems while promising a better tomorrow in MOOC 2.0, MOOC 3.0, MOOC 4.0 and so on. Today’s MOOC was colonising the Wild West, and tomorrow’s MOOC would achieve at least some of the ambitions of the project. The videos and quizzes of today will be better tomorrow because we are doing the yeoman’s work of learning as we go.

On close inspection, however, there is nothing new about what MOOCs are doing in terms of teaching and learning. Online learning platforms as part of an institutional strategy are more than 20 years old, while the history of computer-aided instruction goes back well beyond 50 years. And for the duration of both concepts there has been research and criticism of the overly didactic learning experiences that result when learning design is considered in terms of platform ease, rather than learner need.

In terms of video quality, creators have a history of nearly 130 years of multimedia instruction, research, and critique from which to learn. Rather than engage with the history and further the work of academic filmmaking, it has become acceptable for faculty to view the medium as neutral and deliver a lecture to the camera. MOOC lore celebrates the notion of an educator auteur, as if a green screen and a camera in the basement make up for the absence of even the most rudimentary understanding of film production theory or multimedia pedagogy. Anecdotal accounts in mass media show faculty putting considerable hours into these projects, in the end creating an experience less engrossing than a PowerPoint presentation.

Left behind?

When faced with questions of quality and achieving outcomes, MOOC proponents pivot to an increase in the prospective audience for higher education. From an international perspective, these arguments point to stories of learners in developing nations taking courses. From the financial argument, these courses are providing low- and no-cost options for lifelong learning. MOOCs can reach those that higher education has left behind or is not considering in its strategic plans.

Yet, it is for the very reason of providing access to underrepresented populations that the global justification of MOOCs is a siren’s call. The research on MOOCs is clear in that the key indicators for success are previous success in higher education: higher education experience/matriculation, previous exposure to congruent material, and gainful employment. The attributes of the successful student match the attributes of what sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom calls the roaming autodidact, the visage of a self-motivated and previously articulated learner who happens to be white, male and from a Western country.

At the same time as MOOC advocates celebrate global access, they write off the notoriously low retention rates for completion, saying it is impossible to determine whether an enrollee seeks to finish a course. Ignoring such data means the sample size for review and iterative design comes from the roaming autodidacts, creating a system serving those who already do well, while stressing the intention is to reach those who do not.

Schrodinger’s MOOC

Whether the MOOC is dead or not is inconsequential; the learning phenomenon catalysed by the founders of Udacity and Coursera has not been shown to better affect the learners it has identified, despite significant financial and labour investment. Despite the earnestness of most MOOC professors, the efforts of development, implementation and assessment have not been shown to be worth their time. This should be unacceptable for higher education, and the promise that stems from the Enlightenment through to today.

The solution may start with research back into the histories of distance education as well as audiovisual materials. Professor Emeritus of Distance Education, Terry Anderson, posited a theorem in 2003 regarding the quality of distance education: if a student has one superior interaction inside of a course triumvirate (student-student, student-teacher, student-content), the importance of the other two interactions can be reduced, or potentially eliminated, without harming the learning experience. The earliest MOOCs, those existing before Udacity, trafficked in the student-teacher and student-student interactions, while the post-Udacity MOOCs have been heavily focused on student-content. In order to make good use of the energy and goodwill that has come to education through MOOC hype, the student-content interaction must be of a superior quality.

Creating such MOOCs will not be easy, as they will require platforms for learning that are interested not in correlating clicks and time in platform with evidence of learning, but instead cause epiphany moments for learners across the globe, here defining a learner as someone who does not yet know that which s/he loves. Here is where the rich history of educational film needs to be a staple of contemporary course design, from the importance of a proper production team, to the nuances of camera capture and image juxtaposition in editing. In 2017, the educational film needs to be more than a PowerPoint show. If we work across our campuses and across our domains to develop, we could colonise something new.

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4 responses to “The MOOC is not dead, but maybe it should be

  1. I read it implied via the Schrodinger reference (which is brilliant) calling it “the” Mooc implies a singular entity with bounded properties.”

    The” MOOC that was hyped and tanked was rather remote from the connectivist originals, the ones no newspapers covered, received no buckets of investment money, yet I see out there flowering below the radar as open connected learning. Or for the historical angle, Anna Ticknor’s “Victorian MOOC” http://hybridpedagogy.org/the-victorian-mooc/ pegged much more success than UdaCorsrXity did with almost an immeasurably minimal amount of capital input.

    Frankly, while death declarations are never a safe bet w/o a corpse, the Hyped MOOC, if not dead, is largely inconsequential, but as you suggest, there are always insights in the ash.

    Maybe this will change when someone tosses some blockchain personal analytics at the MOOC.

  2. I have followed nine MOOCs (Future learn) to the end and. have six certificates. Not studying to the end is your problem.

  3. Same as Jake’s comment. Pronouncing MOOCs “dead” because the average person is not motivated enough to complete them or even to extract valuable information from them is a judgement on the average person, not on MOOCs. I’ve completed >30 online courses, and yes I started following them after a regular university education, but nonetheless I successfully learned the basics of multiple disciplines I never studied before, so my background has really little influence. The people who go ahead in life are the instrinsically motivated ones, and MOOCs’ stats just make this fact more obvious. If you need someone else to motivate you, constantly remind you to be organized, take you by your hand all the time, you’re going nowhere in any case. This is true for MOOCs and for traditional/formal education as well, and we can see it in the high rates of unemployed and underemployed people with a formal degree. The fact they managed to complete it was just because of the constant supervision and external motivation, so it doesn’t mean much: once those things are gone and your lifelong learning and training completely depend on yourself, what are you going to do? Blame MOOCs? Wrong answer.

  4. Agree with Jake and Matthias – indeed the description of the offer (poor quality lectures from people not versed in public speaking) is pretty similar to my own experience of university – things may have moved on, but I expect not completely.

    I would also add that part of the failure appears to be the failure of MOOCs to create brands and assessment processes trusted by employers coupled with a lack of regulatory system. Most degrees are branding supported by a regulatory system – employers therefore trust UCL, LSE etc but not Udemy. And if students know that they aren’t going to risk investing hours and years in a MOOC for a worthless qualification. That has meant that MOOCs have not been able to replace undergraduate tuition but have populated the short course domain (in both free and relatively inexpensive subscription based models).

    Also the byproduct of MOOC development has been improvement in paid for course materials and a shift (which will become greater) to blended learning. If you look to Australia, the real challenge is going to be alternative providers and smart HEIs offering advanced adaptive e-learning. These blend the cost-effectiveness of MOOCs with the accreditation and support of established universities. This will leave universities with an advantage only in equipment intensive courses and historical tradition.

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