MOOCs: Too Much Hype or Not Enough?

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Map of the territory and area covered by prese...

Map of the territory and area covered by present-day Saudi Arabia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I just returned from an eLearning conference in Saudi Arabia and again, the topic of MOOCs came up.  But, they were discussed very differently at this conference than I have described in past posts.  For the past few years, I have noted that MOOCs are the easiest way to get attendance at eLearning conference presentations.  About 25-35% of conference sessions talked about the Massive Open Online Courses – mostly from a, “How You Can Do It” perspective although there were always a few asking if we should, “Believe The Hype?”

But at this conference, it was stated as official – “The Hype Is Over.”  This was stated emphatically by both an American keynote presenter and by the Director of eLearning for the main University in the Kingdom.  They both noted that MOOCs were just simply given too much credit out of the gate and that they often took away from the real conversation of eLearning.

Obviously, the folks at Coursera or Udacity would likely disagree with this position, but what about those without a stake in the race?  Are MOOCs dying or are they here to stay?

I’ve blogged a lot about MOOCs in the past.  It’s been hard not to if you’re an education blogger!  But I’ve noted the problems with first generation MOOCs.  Not to belabor the point, but we now know that most xMOOCs (meaning those with a broadcast, top-down model vs a “cMOOC” – the ‘c’ stands for constructivistic), are taken by people outside of the US.  They are not generally taken for the credit but for an individual “module” of content, hence the seriously low completion numbers.  More often than not, they are taken by people who already hold degrees.  They utilize a peer to peer evaluation methodology that has proven quite challenging (after all, how often do you find 10,000 people who can really help guide the other 90,000 on a difficult or complex topic?).  And on and on.

Then, there are the logistical issues raised over the past several years that do demand answers, at least in Higher Education.  And I’m not talking about whether MOOCs can make money – good for Coursera and Udacity who found working models by which to start paying back their investors, but most of the public couldn’t care less about that.  I’m talking about how to get credit for a MOOC.  Some recent, now famous, quotes talk about getting real college credit for one of the massive courses, while others explain that after the offer was put out, not a single student showed up and got credit.

So, what can we say about MOOCs, v1 today?  I think just about everyone, from Sebastian Thrun to the Department of Education likely agrees, if MOOCs are here to stay, it’s time to start looking at the next generation to answer some of the tough questions.

For instance, as I’ve noted before, a number of schools are working to crack the $10,000 Baccalaureate  degree.  To do so, it is likely that these schools and programs will need to employ the MOOC concept (whether their solutions need to include “massive” courses is yet to be determined).  That means using reusable, self-paced, socially networked courses to free up typical administrative or teaching overhead.  That means using more machine learning for grading, adaptivity, and personalization.

The next generation MOOC (I’ll go ahead and coin ngMOOC now – you’re welcome) will have to employ more of a feedback loop to the student.  Understanding the issues with social learning at scale, most progressive MOOC providers are finding ways to utilize graduate students, or simply more advanced students, like Seniors, who have already taken a course, to help push conversation and assessment.  By seeding courses with large clusters of “more knowledgeable others” (as Vygotsky would call them), providers theorize they can get at the kind of learning communities desired to make a MOOC work at scale.

So, essentially the next generation of MOOC combines the worlds of the xMOOC and the cMOOC, by using computers to do as much simulated instruction and assessment as possible, while making up for communication and community flaws through social construction.  Wait, maybe the next generation MOOC should be an “xcMOOC” – you’re welcome again.

If you follow my blogs, you know that my Center is creating a “Flipped MOOC” of sorts.  We’re designing what could be described as a distributed model for MOOCs, whereby the local instructor doesn’t go away, but creates a cyclical network of expertise to help their own students and any other students learn the concepts better.  Of course, as we throw in the elements of alternate reality gaming and curriculum integration, our MOOC starts to look like something else altogether.  So it probably isn’t the model of a next gen MOOC – but it’s fun to theorize.

So, back to the original question.  Are MOOCs over-hyped and dying?  I don’t think so.  That said, they seem to have lost their glimmer for many in Higher Education.  Like the term “data” from 2002-2007, gone are days where MOOCs dominate the headlines.  But I think education might take a lesson from data here.  I still believe that “big data” holds the key to true personalization in education.  And while a lot of administrators simply got tired of waiting for the smart engines and adaptive software, they are still being worked on and, in fact, are getting better every day.  MOOC providers may want to keep their eye on that ball, just as savvy administrators never left the data conversation.  Our ideas almost always get out ahead of expectation and ability to implement.  After all, we need something to shoot for and a good visionary can be worth their weight in gold!  So, I think those educators who continue down the MOOC road will have new opportunities opening up to them.  From more globalized student bodies to larger number of graduates to neo-millennial learning mirroring neo-millennial work, the next generation tool still holds promise.  But I think the concept will be less experimental and more closely aligned with the best practices we in eLearning have always known.

Perhaps that is the answer.  We don’t need a new letter in front of a MOOC.  Maybe we just need a new name for a MOOC.  You know, something like: eCourse.  Because at the end of the day, these massive courses may just be another way that any student can learn at any time.  The neo-millennial student portfolio may include a course on campus, a traditional eCourse, and a massive eCourse too.  And they may be taking 2 for credit and 1 broken up into badges so as to…oh wait – that’s another blog.

Good luck and good teaching.

Jeff Borden

About Jeff Borden

Jeff Borden is the former head of the Center for eLearning. He is also a consultant, speaker, professor, comedian, and trainer. As an Enriched Lecturer at Chaminade University and past college administrator, Dr. Borden has assisted faculty, administrators, executives, and even politicians in conceptualizing and designing eLearning programs globally. Recently he testified before the U.S. Congress’ Education Committee, keynoted a 6,000 audience member conference in Asia, and presented in the New Media Consortium’s Virtual Symposium for the Future.
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