Beyond Pigeonholing MOOCs

I recently read this article and infographic called, Are MOOCs Still Going Strong? It is worth a few minutes of your time. I put together the following comments in response to it. My comments sound critical, and they are to a degree. However, I am thankful for the author’s contribution to the conversation about the role of MOOCs. I just want to offer some additional or different perspectives.

I appreciate a thought-provoking infographic, but I am concerned because these data risk perpetuating the same conversation about MOOCs that most media outlets (including bloggers) have focused upon for the last year. I don’t disagree with most statements in the infographic and yet I can challenge almost every item in it. It just comes down to a definition of terms and coming to a shared understanding of the many purposes of MOOCs. Note that I said purposes, because there are many MOOC makers and MOOC providers with different goals in mind. My comments are related to one or more direct quotes are claims from the article, so it might help to review the article before reading on. At the same time, if you are already familiar with the MOOC conversation, you can probably follow my thinking without the original article, just using the brief quotes below.

1. “MOOC create a 2-tiered system”

This seems to assume that the purpose of MOOCs is to replace traditional online or face-to-face higher education. While some claim that, many (even most) of us in the open online learning world are not invested in MOOCs to replace traditional online and face-to-face higher education. It is simply to increase access and opportunity to learning (not schooling, just learning).
2. There are 3 MOOC Delivery Systems

There are hundreds, if not thousands of MOOCs running outside of Coursera, EdX and Uadacity. I know these are the three most popular and often have some of the largest courses, but I’m not sure if it is helpful to talk about MOOCs as if these three are the only important players. That is like saying that Harvard, MIT and Yale or the only real players in higher education or that Google, Bing and Yahoo are the only important search engages on the web. Clearly there are many others out there as well, and in the MOOC world I contend that the others are doing much of the most promising, innovative and interesting work in the world of open learning.

3. “Motivation is corporate profit”

I’m not comfortable telling all the MOOC providers that profit is their motivation. I know from direct experience that it is not. This is not the case with traditional online courses either. Yes, there are certainly some online Universities that likely have profit as their primary goal (not just with MOOCs, but for all of their offerings), but many of us do not. The same would go from brick-and-mortar higher education programs.

4. “MOOCs have a 93% failure rate.”

This is comparing MOOCs to traditional tuition-based, credit-offering programs. We are using a vocabulary to talk about engagement and persistence in MOOCs as if they are just another version of a college course, and yet that is not the intent or vision behind many MOOCs. I, for example, have made the case that we could just as easily argue that MOOCs have close to a 100% success rate. My problem with a statement like the 93% one is that I don’t think we are carefully defining our terms. It seem a bit like critiquing the value of a conference based upon how many people register but do not attend every session and planned event. I think we would be better off if we evaluated MOOCs with a new set of criteria that is more specific to the purpose and nature of a given open course.

5. “Traditional grading systems are impossible.”

This is accurate, but it also seems to be comparing MOOCs to traditional courses. Why would we want or need traditional grading systems in most MOOCs? Given the goal and purpose of most MOOCs, what is the need for a traditional grading system? Feedback is important (as it is with all learning), but there and hundreds of ways to give feedback that do not even require a traditional instructor. Again, MOOCs do not have the same purpose of credit-based college courses. There are many learning experiences that do not lend themselves to traditional grading, but they can be wonderfully useful and rewarding learning experiences. The same is true for open courses. In fact, I’m not sure that traditional grading practices are the wave of the future in traditional courses.

6. The History of Distance Learning

If you look at the infographic linked to at the beginning of this article, you will see a simple timeline called, “History of Distance Learning.” It includes 1890s and 1920s correspondence courses, 1993 with Jones International as the first online University, then it jumps to MOOCs in 2006. I know this is not intended to be an exhaustive history, but not including at least a few of the thousands of things that happened in online learning between 1993 and 2006 risks leaving the reader thinking that MOOCs are the dominant part of online learning today. In reality, there is a massive higher education world of online courses that are not MOOCs. A rapidly growing number of college students are taking non-MOOC credit-based online courses. Also, since MOOCs are part of the open learning movement as much or more than they are a part of the credit-based online world, it might be helpful to include reference to open learning as a point in the timeline, changing the title of from “History of Distance Learning” to something more related to open learning. I realize that this might sound critical, but without a bit more detail in our conversation about these matters, we are going to collectively miss the mark.

7. MOOCs are a “Bargain education for those who can’t”, and traditional credit-based college is “‘Real’ education for those who can afford it.”

While some have this sort of a vision for MOOCs, this is not how most MOOCs are being used. Especially if we venture beyond Coursera, EdX and Udacilty; we find a wonderfully diverse collection of MOOCs that exist to serve different audiences. I led two MOOCs in the last year, both of which targeted those who work in K-12 or higher education. They were professional development and professional learning community MOOCs. There are hundreds of such MOOCs out there. It seems wise to include them in the broader conversation as well, especially if we are asking if MOOCs are still going strong.

8. MOOCs “Force professors to improve lectures.”

This is one of the proposed benefits of MOOCs now. Perhaps that is a current affordance, but I must again suggest that we look beyond Coursera, EdX and Udacity to the other types of MOOCs out there. Consider, for example, the many connectivist MOOCs that have little reliance upon lectures. Instead, they are leveraging crowd-sourced knowledge generation and other promising peer-to-peer learning.

9. MOOCs “are usually free.”

This is just a small clarification. If it is not free, it is not a MOOC. By definition, MOOCs are open courses. Perhaps the author was thinking of the fact that some MOOCs offer certification tracks that require a fee. The only reason that I’m compelled to clarify the point is because I worry that we are putting too much emphasis upon the “massive” and “online”, but not talking enough about the “open”, which is fundamental to the conversation about MOOCs. They are, after all, part of the open learning movement.

10. There are “over 2 billion potential learners in the world” and “over 70% cannot afford college.”

Out of all the data in the infographic, this strikes me as the most compelling and valuable contribution to the MOOC conversation. Is it possible that the open learning movement can contribute to self-education…not just for those who can’t afford college but for the rest of the world as well? How are MOOCs changing the way people think about learning? I ave studied at over 20 Universities in my life, with four degrees. 2013 was the first year that I was not enrolled in at least one credit-based course since I started kindergarten. What changed in 2013? Over the past five years, I discovered both the power of self-directed learning and open online courses. Together, they allowed me to build amazing connections with co-learners around the world, to develop new skills and build new knowledge, and to more fully embrace learning beyond formal schooling. MOOCs are doing this for people, often people who have one or more degrees already. They are shifting some people’s understanding of learning, helping them to build robust online personal learning networks.

I appreciate the time put into the infographic. It is a good discussion starter. I am just looking for a broader and more nuanced conversation about MOOCs, one that includes the many important voices and experiments beyond Coursera, EdX and Udacity. I yearn for a rich and robust conversation about MOOCs, one that includes the elements that I reference in this article. This is increasingly difficult to find in articles and blogs over the past year. I invite you to join me in the effort to expand this conversation.  Let’s move our conversation beyond the growing pigeonholing of MOOCs and into the much more diverse and rich contemporary world of open online learning.

Posted in blog, e-learning, education, MOOC, Open Learning

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.