The End of the (MOOC) World is Nigh

Anyone remember Second Life? It started off as a bleeding edge tool that a few educators experimented in. Then it exploded in popularity, with proponents calling it a “game changer” and the “future of online learning.” Then people started questioning whether it was really that big of a deal. In no time you had two diametrically opposed camps set up: one that thought Second Life was a pointless waste of time, and another that started telling people that questioned it that it was here to stay and that they should get over it and move on. Then before you knew it…. Second Life completely disappeared out of the conversation – almost overnight.

Isolated incident? What about Google Wave? Same cycle (even though it was forced to be a bit under the radar at first because of the restricted access imposed by Google). Once people started dividing and taking extreme sides…. poof. It died.

That is pretty much the cycle you see with many education tools and concepts. Under-the-radar experimentation gives way to mass exposure and hype, which brings out people that question the hype, which devolves into rigid camps and opposing sides, and finally ending with the quick death of the tool or idea.

Blogs, e-books, Twitter, and all these other tools that live on seem to so do so because no one really knows if they work or not. When the proponents stay open and honest about the short comings of a tool they champion, that tools seems to stay around a lot longer.

When a tool or concept gets labeled disruptive before it actually disrupts anything…. it more often that not dies out. But not before people take extreme sides and miss out on the good points the “other” side is making. The good news is that services that still live on after the death of the hype cycle (like Second Life) still see a core of people that experiment and do interesting things.

So far this year, it seems like the same cycle has been set in motion for MOOCs. First sign was an Inside Higher Ed article that slams MOOCs for being “designed to impose, not improved learning, but a new business model on higher education, which opens the door for wide-scale profiteering.” There is a good point in that statement: the business model behind many MOOCs is questionable at best. But I would say this statement goes a bit too far in painting an extreme picture of ALL MOOCs. Which could be said about many of the points in the article – something good to think about, but possibly taken to a bit of an extreme viewpoint against MOOCs.

In response, Mark Smithers questions the Inside Higher Ed article and defends MOOCs by saying that “Much of the learning that takes place in MOOCs is of the highest quality.” Smithers gives no definition of what exactly he means by highest quality… and I have probably heard about 50 million definitions of what “highest quality” means in the past few months alone. Then add on top of that the fact that many researchers will tell you it is impossible to really rate how high the quality of learning is… I’m not sure you can really say that one way of the other.

[What I would say is that the current dominant model of MOOC skews heavily towards independent learning, multiple choice testing, talking head videos, and other passive learning techniques that social constructivist leaning people like me feel does not lead to high quality learning. That is up for debate even in the social constructivist circles…. but I think it is really hard to say definitely either way.]

I think both articles have good points that fans and critics of MOOCs should take to heart. But I also think both articles embrace hyperbole that is not helpful to the debate. I don’t know much about the authors of the Inside Higher Ed article (there are 6 of them for a 14 paragraph article), but I do follow Smithers and he consistently makes great points in his blog.

Now we have problems cropping up like a MOOC being pulled suddenly for no reason and this week a teacher leaving a MOOC possibly because students didn’t want to work to his standards (don’t sign up for a course and then whine that the instructor wants you to actually work hard). All part of the cycle that usually ends in the death of the “over-hype phase” of a tool or idea.

Not that it is bad for these over-hype phases to die. It brings out the true believers and gets rid of the posers.

I think what further exasperates the problem is that those of us in Educational Technology (myself included) forget to consider what a small fishbowl we occupy. I talk to friends and students on campus all the time about online learning. Those outside of Ed Tech circles have rarely heard of MOOCs. Many are still asking me “how on Earth can you take a class online?” Many, many more than most people reading this blog would believe. Just because MOOCs are all over our news outlets doesn’t mean that they are disrupting anything. I just don’t agree with Smithers that “MOOCs are a classic disruptive innovation that fits the model described by Christensen precisely”…. yet. It may get there. But so far, my gut is telling me it is going to die out like others. If I am wrong, no problem. Won’t be the first time this hour.

Of course, I have to stop for the obligatory detailing of the “two different MOOCs”. First there is the original flavor of MOOC that was championed by Downes, Siemens, Groom, Levine, Cormier, and others. I say “was” because many of these leaders have hinted at or secretly admitted that they are ready for the MOOC hype to die. Sorry if I exposed some of you guys… but its time to come out of the closet on your feelings about MOOCs :).  But few people actually read this blog, so probably no harm done. Then there is the current, much more dominant flavor of MOOC (that are most often featured in the news) by MIT, EdX, and Udacity. Most of the discussion about MOOCs is about this newer, more dominant model.

The bigger problem with this whole area is really with our discipline as a whole. We have slowly changed from thought leaders to thought followers. Instead of evaluating trends or tools and asking “does this work at all and if so, where, how, why, etc?” we just say “this is the way that it is happening – get on board or get out of the way!” We think we are helpless bull-riders stuck on the back of a raging bull… not realizing that it is possible to tame the bull and utilize its full potential. Because a wild, raging bull is not good for anything but gawking entertainment and goring people. A trained bull can still do all that and much, much more.

And yes, I know that education has been stuck in a dictatorial-based mindset for a long time – with administrators telling everyone what to do (even though they never stopped to find out what really works) and “sage-on-the-stage” educators boring students to sleep. I agree that model doesn’t work, either. But we don’t need to swing the other way and just say “this is the way the world is going… grab on or get left behind!”

If Steve Jobs had listened to people telling him where the world was going, there would be no iPhone, no iPad, probably not even a mouse on any computer. But Jobs had a vision for the direction he thought the world should go, and he took the world there. He didn’t let the world take him to a place where “no one wants a computer in their cellphone – Palm phone sales are dismal!”

Or think of it this way: one of the biggest complaints I hear from some teenagers once they grow-up and enter into adulthood (the two don’t always happen at the same time) is that their parents didn’t reign them in enough. For these people, their parents were so concerned with being the cool, hip parents that they didn’t stop every once in a while and say “that’s not a good idea.” Really – I hear it all the time when I talk to college students. They don’t want dictators … but they wanted more guidance than they got.

What I am saying is we seem to be missing the middle ground. We don’t need to be dictators or hype-worshipers. We need leaders that question everything but still end up liking some things. We have a few out there, but we need many, many more. We need to reject the idea of the constant negative naysayer as much as we do the overly optimistic hype proselytizers.

I guess I am just coming out of the closet myself as a pragmatist in many ways…. and hoping that others will take that path, too.

5 thoughts on “The End of the (MOOC) World is Nigh

  1. Hi Matt,

    Good post.

    I think you make a fair point with regard to my use of the term “highest quality”. I do, in fact, have no empirical evidence to justify that statement. What I was going on was anecdotal evidence given to me by experienced educators who had undertaken a wide range of MOOCS (both xMOOCS and cMOOCS). I also think that the use of the word ‘much’ was probably wrong. It should have been ‘some’ because I am convinced that some of the learning that takes place in MOOCS is very good.

    I do think that MOOCS fit the Christensen’s description of disruptive innovation. The key difference is that MOOCS have been mostly implemented by the top end of the ‘market’ rather than by new entrants operating at the lower end.

    I think we are in trough of disillusionment regarding MOOCS but they will evolve and survive and, eventually, succeed. This is because of the marginal cost of content and the fact that value is added in other ways.

    Of course I could well be wrong and often am. MOOCS may die a death but at the very least MOOCS have served as a wake up call for university management. Which I quite like.



  2. Great article Matt – completely agree. I’ve been in Ed Tech for so long I remember the same predictions about the end of campuses because of computers, laser disks, CDI (bet no-one else remembers those) … the list goes on and on …. but they have all contributed to much-needed change to what the learners experience.

  3. This article expresses sentiments that routinely are now implicitly classed as “luddite”, though even using that word gives me away as an old fogey who should also be mistrusted by the modern educationalist. The point is that the amnesiac conformism regarding the uptake of consumer technology makes asking the most obvious questions about change and the status quo, or even recognising it, something that gets a glassy eyed look of incomprehension together with an implicit categorisation of “self-indulgent loony”.

    The benefits we have seen from the internet are largely due to the fact that the altruism of its open standards is a product of the scientific academe which invented it. Fantastically beneficial to humanity, but as with all gifts, the question is whether the receiver makes the best use of it, or whether it eventually serves to stupefy. But articles like this that dare to talk about technological fads show independent intelligence.

  4. Thank you for a comprehensive and rational look at MOOCs in higher education. Rather than really become something unique, the providers for MOOC platforms are, I agree, using the least common denominator of activities in these courses. They are interesting, to be sure, but are they education?

  5. I do agree that MOOCs have given a wake-up call to university management. Or, well, some at least – I still hear and talk to many in management that have never heard of them. But the problem is what they are doing with that wake-up call. They should be saying “oh, we should encourage our faculty to change the way they are teaching.” But what we are really getting is them thinking “oh, we can replace instructors and save a ton of money and give ourselves big fat raises in the process!” Research and time has shown that in any area – business, arts, education, etc – if you get rid of the people that have experience and know what should be done, your whole system dies. But if you re-purpose those people to be guides rather than dictators, the whole thing will thrive. Many administrators are just seeing MOOCs as a way to get rid of expensive faculty. Most are missing the big question that should be asked with MOOCs, but I think I need to attend to that is a separate post.

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