MOOCs Are Dead! Long Live The MOOC!August 9, 2014 Jeff Borden
Do you remember all the way back in 2013? You know – the year North West was born, the Harlem Shake made its debut, and selfies changed phone texting rates. More notably, there was the bombing at the Boston Marathon, our climate proved that abnormal would be the new normal, and our planet lost Nelson Mandela. But for those of you who attend education conferences, you also likely remember 2013 as the year that showed 5-10 MOOC sessions on every program or agenda…
Some will say 2012 was the Year of the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), but 2013 was where all of the publicity started to catch up to the hype. And as someone who goes to 30 conferences a year, for me it was the year of MOOC overload! The “e-Vangelists” were out in full force with the over-promising and under-delivering of ed tech rhetoric. MOOCs were going to save Higher Education (or destroy it, depending on the session you attended); MOOCs would finally allow tiny State schools or small private colleges the ability to play on the national stage and compete with R-1’s and the Ivy League; and MOOCs would make education a true commodity, thereby creating a financially viable education-for-all system! MOOCs even made popular news media outlets like the NY Times and Time Magazine.
But then, almost as quickly as they took the world by storm, they disappeared. Long gone from the pages of the Posts and Heralds, good luck finding any mention of a “MOOC” in an education journal or website today. Read the course catalogues of most Universities today and you won’t find many if any MOOC offerings. Even some of the MOOC start-ups have “changed course” (See Udacity.) And I have now been to more than a dozen conferences in 2014 without a mention of MOOC in the program…
But, despite the fact that most people have (prematurely) dismissed MOOCs as an education experiment-gone-awry, like “Base 8 Math” or “No Child Left Behind”, a few people have kept their eye on the MOOC ball. And, like those who never faltered from the learning analytics conversation, the small but passionate few who learned important lessons from the MOOC fever of the past two years will likely be rewarded. Why? Because the lessons learned were valuable and important for ALL of education…not just eLearning and not just courses trying to reach 100,000 students. Take the following 5 examples:
- Pragmatic education matters.
I get the argument for liberal arts, well-rounded, holistic education. I’ve heard passionate educators make fantastic arguments about the dangers of technical-only degrees. Likewise, I get the argument for more pages in our textbooks leading to more freedom and creativity for teachers but also more options and possibilities for students. After all, one might argue that despite being a top tier PISA or TIMMS scoring country typically through a laser-focused approach (such as studying 1/3 as many math, language, and science topics in school compared to the USA) has not resulted in much creativity or entrepreneurialism. Yet those things have flourished in the US, where our textbooks are 3-5 times larger. Does more breadth and more topics equate to more interests and more creativity?
But I also know the other side of that argument. For some students, a technical degree is truly “best” for the person. Why? Because they don’t care about ancillary things…at least not enough to pay money for the study of it. Or, in some cases, the overwhelming need to provide for themselves or their families means they need the speediest possible degree, with no time for “extra” learning. Likewise, the point is well made that if we’re going to test our K-12 students on math, language, or science, we should only teach them what they are going to be tested on – no more. One underlying reason for Common Core is to cut down on 700 page math books, of which only 300 pages will ever be used by any one class.
So, a lesson learned from MOOCs is that both of these points of view matter. Here’s why. There were MILLIONS of sign-ups for courses that were not necessarily “get-a-raise-after-you-finish” courses. Courses about gamification (my personal favorite) or magic or alien life or graphic novels (etc) were plentiful. And people signed up in droves. So, regardless of the fact that most never finished, there was a desire for these (non-technical) experiences. But likewise, the fact that so many people took MOOCs not for the course, but for a section of the course is telling. “Extra” learning was not valuable enough to spend only their time – since most of these experiences cost nothing – and they desired only a nugget or two of information.
In other words, what is valuable to one learner is not necessarily valuable to any other learner.
- “Best” learning can be overlooked.
Similar to the above, what about the students who took the MOOC solely because it fit their schedule or helped them get on in life? I heard about this from many students and professors last year. I heard a lot of people say, “I don’t really learn that well online.” Or, “ I need to talk with people about X concept.” Or, “If only I could have had a lab available, the experience would have been much stronger.”
In other words, pedagogy can be easily overlooked for convenience or cost. The music industry never wanted to believe people would listen to .mp3 files because they didn’t have the quality of a CD. Boy were they wrong. Likewise, as educators I think it is in our best interest to realize that just because one modality provides better instructional or assessment models than another, doesn’t mean people won’t sacrifice out of need. As my favorite boss used to say, products and services are all about Time, Money, and Quality…PICK TWO!
- Progress updates work.
Take a MOOC today and you’ll come across an effective practice that all educators should use. It’s an email update that serves as an advanced organizer. As simple as, “Hey everyone, here’s what we covered last week and here’s what we’ll cover this week,” is a powerful way to keep people together, learning as a community, and contextually involved in the content. Whether teaching online or on-ground (or as a hybrid), this should be a regular practice.
- Social learning takes architecture.
I’ve posted several blogs about the trouble with MOOCs. Social learning is at the top of my personal list. Early MOOC creators soon realized that simply asking people to self-select viable learning communities was problematic. There was an assumption that crowdsourcing would take over and, as Vygotsky said so long ago, a “More Knowledgeable Other” would emerge to teach the others. But what happens when there is no single person more knowledgeable than anyone else? Or what about when people refuse to connect to a group? Just like a class with 90% lecture, students were left to their own devices far too much and as a result, very little actual learning took place.
- Education at scale can happen.
The final lesson I’ll discuss here is that education did get a “wake up” call of sorts. We CAN educate people at scale. As our planet zooms toward ten billion people, more and more of whom need better, longer, and more personalized education, we are more and more confronted with the fact that the model of bricks and mortar schools with one teacher to anywhere from 30-900 students just doesn’t work. So how do we scale “meaningful” education for all? How do we personalize education for all? How do we help people move on and be successful in life, whatever that may mean to them? MOOCs taught us that the answer must include education technology.
So, as much as MOOCs may be dead to many, long live the MOOC! I can’t wait to see how they evolve and become better over time. But more than that, they have given us some valuable insights into education. Let’s hope we learned some of those lessons…at scale.
Good luck and good teaching.
Dr. Jeff D Borden
VP of Instruction & Academic Strategy