Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) is the most hyped educational buzzword of the last year. Alan Cann reflects on what still needs to be done after the hysteria dies down. You can read more about his adventures in the land of MOOC at:

I was hoping for replacement
When the sun burst through the sky.
– Neil Young.

Who put the mooc in the mooc, mooc, mooc, mooc, mooc?

MOOCs have had a reasonably long history, although the term itself is newer than the idea. In 2001 and 2002 the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in the USA funded the Carnegie Mellon University Open Learning Initiative and the MIT Open Courseware project which made course materials from these institutions freely available online under Creative Commons licences. The term MOOC was invented by David Cormier and Bryan Alexander at the University of Manitoba in Canada in 2008. In 2011 MIT OCW morphed into MITx and in 2012, MIT and Harvard joined together to form edX. Not wishing to be left out, a group of UK universities headed by the Open University announced Futurelearn late in 2012.

Show me the money

The course that really grabbed widespread attention was the Stanford University Artificial Intelligence course by Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun in the autumn of 2011 which attracted 160,000 registered students. 20,000 from 190 countries completed the course and received a “statement of accomplishment” from Stanford University. On the back of this, Thrun spun out the private company Udacity in 2012 and has subsequently raised over US$15 million in venture capital for the venture. Stanford professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller established Coursera shortly after, and have now attracted over US$22m venture capital. This is not a cottage industry. Rather, it reflects the market driven system of higher education in the USA, and increasingly, in the UK.

The Great Schism

The term MOOC reflects the educational philosophy of the early pioneers. Although free (as in free beer) is not part of the etymology, this is implicit, reflecting the origins of the movement in open source software and online distribution. While the offerings of private companies such as Udacity and Coursera remain freely available at the point of use, these are free as in free speech (which has to be paid for). As is the way with Internet companies, business models during the early rounds of capitalization consist of plentiful smoke, mirrors and optimism. Realistic business models are slowly beginning to emerge. Udacity led the way by offering to match “graduates” of its computer science courses with selected employers, including Google, and more recently, by developing employer-sponsored courses with partners such as Microsoft, NVIDIA and Wolfram. Coursera is developing similar employer-matching services and recently announced that it will begin charging students $30 to $100 for “verified certificates”.

More importantly, the privateers have departed from the original conception of MOOCs as “open”, meaning that there is unrestricted access to course materials under Creative Commons licences. The development of early MOOCs was strongly influenced by connectivism, based on concepts of networked knowledge and social learning. They were deliberately platform agnostic in contrast to the closed platforms developed and trumpeted by commercial players. To underline this distinction, Stephen Downes is credited with proposing the terms “cMOOC” and “xMOOC” to distinguish the two strands evolving from the early origins.

Is this a bubble I see before me?

Clearly it is, as defined by such large speculative cash inflows into non-profit making ventures. Although there have not yet been any public MOOC provider flotations following the ill-fated Facebook IPO, those of us who have been around this particular block before are haunted by the expensive and embarrassing failure of UKeU at a cost to the public purse of over £50m. This time around governments on both sides of the Atlantic are happy for private companies to bear the risk, and presumably to reap any future gains. Massive online courses imply global audiences, probably to the detriment of overseas student recruitment by public universities. Amazon and Starbucks illustrate how well successive UK governments have been able to recoup taxation on UK economic activity carried out by multinationals.

Never mind the quality, feel the width

No UK university and few schools now operate without an online virtual learning environment and no-one in their right mind doubts the value of online delivery in leveraging the efforts of academic staff and minimising costs. In spite of years of experience, the thorny issue of measuring quality in online education (and in higher education in general), remains substantially unresolved. Although there is much to be gleaned from the smorgasbord of free courses that online providers offer, irate blog posts from many users show there is still much to be learned in this field in terms of both pedagogy and “customer” service.

Udacity has developed an in house platform consisting of live mini-lectures via screen capture videos with integrated MCQs. By focussing on a limited range of courses spanning maths and computer science and by developing in house, Udacity has managed to present a fairly uniform interface to users (or students, if you will). Coursera faces a much bigger problem because it spans a wide range of content including humanities and arts courses. In response, it has developed an online peer grading model, although this has received criticism due to game playing and inappropriate behaviour by some course participants. The bigger problem Coursera faces is that its courses are poorly-adapted versions of content originally developed elsewhere by its partner institutions, lured in by fears of missing the boat and by Coursera’s promised revenue sharing model.

MOOCs as cargo cults

Far from the hype that MOOCs will replace traditional universities, anyone who studies the evidence soon sees that MOOCs are augmentation rather than replacement of formal educational models. It is fitting that universities should contribute to improving public knowledge by offering free online courses. But connectivism in particular is a step too far for most learners – particularly less experienced learners – who fail without the scaffolding provided by traditional degree structures and support. Across the board completion rates are low, typically less than 10%. While this may be a consequence of free (as in disposable), does it matter why people fail, only that they do? Doug Holton has notably skewered the MOOC hype as a cargo cult which fails to understand how education works. MOOCs are yet another example of the Innovator’s Dilemma – that new technologies displace rather than replace earlier technologies. Think newspapers – radio – television – Internet. Think private tutors – public universities – Internet. MOOCs are here to stay. But we all need to calm down and carry on. And a more thoughtful approach to pedagogical effectiveness wouldn’t hurt either.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the Impact of Social Sciences blog, nor of the London School of Economics.

About the author:

Alan Cann is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Leicester. His interests are science education and exploiting emerging social technologies to enhance student and researcher development. He is the author of two textbooks, has served on the editorial boards of several scientific and educational journals, and is serial blogger. He has worked as a consultant for numerous educational and scientific institutions, and has published extensively in the area of educational research and social technologies. See:

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