« Internet of Things: Slow Coming | Main | Creative Infographics »

Whither MOOCs?

[January 17: however you feel about MOOCs, the hype has had the salubrious effect of heightening general interest in applying technology to boost education. That's a good thing.]

(See also here.) 

Remember the early 2000's Fathom.com? I think there are multiple parallels between it and the current MOOC vogue. From the above

  • . . . [Fathom] use[d] the emerging World Wide Web as a strategic tool for extending higher education's reach to the public. 
  • . . .  [Fathom was an] online learning community for general audiences who desired the experience of "[. . .] being at a great university or a great museum" without having to attend one in person.
  • . . . [Fathom's] plan called for a) a broad range of multimedia educational content designed specifically for the website, not limited to course syllabi and resources (hence the partnership with archival institutions); and b) interactive features as forums, collaborative learning tools and groups, and expert-led discussions.
  • [Fathom's CEO:]  "Today, most initiatives by educational institutions are focused on courses. Courses are important, and courses for distance learning will be one of the offerings provided by some partners through Fathom. But learning is not limited to the classroom, and the many other types of content provided through Fathom will provide a more complete and accessible context for knowledge. We believe that Fathom will define the transformation of the online learning category into a broader interactive knowledge marketplace."
  • The specific types and styles of academic courses, marketed using the institutions' brands, varied widely. Courses were text-based yet included primary source documents, animations, interactive graphics, audio slide shows, and streaming videos.
  • Columbia University closed the for-profit corporation on March 31, 2003, keeping the web site's free content online until mid-2012. Although Columbia invested $25 million in the venture, and 65,000 people created accounts, Fathom failed to turn a profit, partly because few customers paid for any of the courses.

Gartner's "hype cycle" for technology; click to enlargeThere have been several stories about MOOCs in my feeds the past couple of days. See excerpts below with links to full stories. 

Fast Company  




There's a story going around college campuses--whispered about over coffee in faculty lounges, held up with great fanfare in business-school sections, and debated nervously by chain-smoking teaching assistants.

It begins with a celebrated Stanford University academic who decides that he isn't doing enough to educate his students. The Professor is a star, regularly packing 200 students into lecture halls, and yet he begins to feel empty. What are 200 students in an age when billions of people around the world are connected to the Internet?

So one day in 2011, he sits down in his living room with an inexpensive digital camera and starts teaching, using a stack of napkins instead of a chalkboard. "Welcome to the first unit of Online Introduction to Artificial Intelligence," he begins, his face poorly lit and slightly out of focus. "I'll be teaching you the very basics today." Over the next three months, the Professor offers the same lectures, homework assignments, and exams to the masses as he does to the Stanford students who are paying $52,000 a year for the privilege. A computer handles the grading, and students are steered to web discussion forums if they need extra help.

Some 160,000 people sign up: young men dodging mortar attacks in Afghanistan, single mothers struggling to support their children in the United States, students in more than 190 countries. The youngest kid in the class is 10; the oldest is 70. Most struggle with the material, but a good number thrive. When the Professor ranks the scores from the final exam, he sees something shocking: None of the top 400 students goes to Stanford. They all took the class on the Internet. The experiment starts to look like something more.

Higher education is an enormous business in the United States--we spend approximately $400 billion annually on universities, a figure greater than the revenues of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Twitter combined--and the Professor has no trouble rounding up a group of Silicon Valley's most prestigious investors to support his new project. The Professor's peers follow suit: Two fellow Stanford faculty members launch a competing service the following spring, with tens of millions of dollars from an equally impressive group of backers, and Harvard and MIT team up to offer their own platform for online courses. By early 2013, nearly every major institution of higher learning--from the University of Colorado to the University of Copenhagen, Wesleyan to West Virginia University--will be offering a course through one of these platforms.

Suddenly, something that had been unthinkable--that the Internet might put a free, Ivy League–caliber education within reach of the world's poor--seems tantalizingly close. "Imagine," an investor in the Professor's company says, "you can hand a kid in Africa a tablet and give him Harvard on a piece of glass!" The wonky term for the Professor's work, massive open online course, goes into such wide use that a New York Times headline declares 2012 the "Year of the MOOC." "Nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty," its star columnist Thomas Friedman enthuses, terming the new category "a budding revolution in global online higher education."

It is a good story, as well manicured as a college quad during homecoming weekend. But there's a problem: The man who started this revolution no longer believes the hype.

Continues at link above. 

Chronicle of Higher Education 

November 25, 2013

MOOCs: Usefully Middlebrow

By Jonathan Freedman

I was having lunch with a brilliant, hip colleague in the digital humanities when the question of MOOCs came up. "MOOCs are over," she said. "Administrators haven't figured it out yet, but everyone else knows." My tech-savviest administrator friend agreed. Having taken two or three online courses to check them out, he admitted it: "MOOCs are a sideshow."

The problems endemic to MOOCs are well known: the high dropout rate, the variable quality of the offerings, evaluation methods that make educators roll their eyes, stale lectures, and tests that make you remember why high school was such a bad idea. And with their failures, the way in which they've been sold by credulous columnists like Thomas Friedman and the self-serving entrepreneurs whose arguments he parrots—that is, as a replacement for traditional brick-and-mortar universities—is looking increasingly tenuous. Always one step ahead of the curve, the godfather of the massive open online course, Sebastian Thrun (who notoriously proclaimed that in 50 years, there might be only 10 universities left in the world) has thrown in the towel. He's announced that, following a disastrous trial run at San Jose State University and plagued by ridiculously low completion rates, his start-up, Udacity, would henceforth focus on vocational training.

It is true that MOOCs are useful for learning certain delimited subjects—my administrator friend enjoyed his MOOC on statistics in everyday life, for example—or for brushing up on the latest information in a specific area. MOOCs also satisfy a vast and deserving market: the millions, if not billions, of people in the global South whose access to educational institutions is severely limited. But the dream of a MOOC U. fades with each empirical study showing their ineffectiveness, despite—or perhaps because of—a constant inflow of dollars from governments and universities.

Perhaps the greatest testimony to the aspirations and flaws of the MOOC U. movement is a comment by Bill Gates. In an interview, Gates was asked if, as a Harvard dropout, he'd consider returning to college:

"I don't know. I take a lot of college courses. The online free stuff has gotten very good in these new MOOCs, where Harvard is doing edX and there's Coursera, Udacity, the Learning Company DVDs. ... Meteorology, biology, geology—I highly recommend. I just took oceanography last month. ... It's kind of ironic that I'm a dropout. I love college courses probably as much as anyone around."

Gates's shallowness is impressive: Hey! I took oceanography last month. Next week I'll master phenomenology! But his words also suggest why MOOCs, for all their many and obvious failings, are with us to stay. They speak to the deeply ingrained American concept of learning as practical, manageable, bite-size (hence byte-size). Knowledge becomes a commodity you can buy rather than a product of a process that takes time, effort, and patience to master. Gates's words speak to a view of cultural attainments that we call middlebrow.

Continues at link above. 

Education DIVE precis of the above.

(About Education Dive: "Education Dive is an industry dashboard designed to keep educators connected with information that is critical to their jobs. We monitor news, trending commentary and social insights, stock market updates, jobs, industry research, and more. Our editorial team selects the most important, interesting, and relevant content for our dashboard.  Give us 60 seconds, and we can give you everything you need to know to stay ahead. And since we're optimized for your phone, tablet and desktop computer, you can access Education Dive from anywhere.")

Are MOOCs just watered-down learning for the masses?

By Daniel Shumski Nov. 25, 2013 

Dive Brief:

  • Writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jonathan Freedman argues that MOOCs are here to stay because they appeal to the American view of learning as practical and commoditized.
  • Freedman says MOOCs are just the latest way to bring "watered-down versions" of knowledge and culture to wide audiences, but he's not against them in all cases.
  • He sees MOOCs as having a role in spreading knowledge, but not as a substitute for a genuine university, where human interaction and scholarship are paramount.

Dive Insight:

Freedman's essay is well worth reading for passages like this: "Yes, the vulgarians who run Coursera and Udacity deserve to be swept into the dustbin of history, and the fact that they seem not to have figured out how to profit from their enterprises suggests that they'll soon be hoist by their own capitalist petard. When they are, the real action can begin. As the history professor Jonathan Rees puts it, the fast-­approaching post-corporate-MOOC world 'will almost certainly be a period of real pedagogical innovation conducted by people who are more interested in actual education than they are in becoming famous or just making a quick buck.' "

Education DIVE synopsis of Coursera news 

Coursera gets $20 million in funding

By Daniel Shumski Nov. 25, 2013 

Dive Brief:

  • Coursera has raised $20 million in new funding, bringing their total to $85 million since April 2012.
  • The money comes in large part from three university backers that the company did not reveal.
  • The company also announced two new hires from Netflix.

Dive Insight:

The news of the funding comes as Udacity pivots to focus more on vocational training, a move that Coursera co-CEO Daphne Koller says could have value: "If Udacity [and edX] want to go in another direction, I think it’s useful that people are exploring different areas.” 

Recommended Reading:

The Edtech Curmudgeon -- Michael Berman

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The MOOC is Dead, Long Live the MOOC

The recent "Thrun Pivot" [see above] as well as a study from U. Penn have thrown cold water on some of the stronger claims for MOOCs. Sebastian Thrun explains that MOOCs just don't work for "certain people" -- you know, the kind of people who find it hard to get a college education. There's nothing wrong with MOOCs, you see, they're great -- there's just a lot of people that aren't smart enough to use them. The solution? Give up on "democratizing education" and instead focus on vocational training for high-tech workers. Not only can smart, well-educated tech types (like Thurn perhaps?) build their skills with MOOCs, well-heeled tech companies will pay Udacity to expand the skills of these workers, and to get access to them for recruiting. It's actually a pretty good business model and, if you're someone who wants to have a successful start-up, it's probably a good strategy. It just doesn't have much to do with "Disrupting Education" or the "Education Revolution" and certainly little to do with "Democracy". (For a fine and witty analysis of Thrun and the Fast Company article about him, take a look at Mike Caulfield's blog.)

At the same time, it's become apparent that Coursera, another bold experiment in Democratizing and Disrupting, also disproportionately works to train those who already have a good education, those who happen to be male and in the upper economic brackets. Coursera can show you some heart-warming stories of “poor kids” from distant places who have changed their lives through education, but when you look at the "big data" it's pretty clear that Coursera's elite instructors from elite institutions are mostly teaching more of the world's elite to be more successful.

For those of us in the more traditional and less-elite higher-education trenches it's hard to suppress our glee. Many of us expressed doubts about the impact and the effectiveness of the MOOC as an pedagogical format. We felt resentment and, if we're honest, some envy as new-comers to the field were feted by everyone from Bill Gates to Barak Obama, and hailed by the New York Times as the great innovators come to show us that everything we thought we knew was wrong. From journalists like Thomas "the revolution is here" Friedman to the chortles of Clayton Christiansen ("50% of higher ed institutions will be in bankruptcy in 15 years") we were told that we had failed, we were obsolete buggy whip makers and we should get out of the way and let the savants of Silicon Valley wash over our ancient, overpriced, privileged institutions and replace them with gleaming virtual castles of technological goodness.

So it's reassuring to see doubts emerge about MOOCs. 

Continues at link above. 

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>