Educational Innovation, Media Coverage & The Example of MOOCs

I’ve run into a number of educators recently who were critiquing the trendy-ness of modern education. “There is always something new,” they explain, “but they never last.” In fact, I’ve heard that dozens of times over the years when it came to online learning. It was even a question asked at my thesis defense for my master’s on online learning in the 1990s. Isn’t this just yet another passing educational fad? Almost twenty years later I can say with confidence that it is not a passing trend.

Nonetheless, many seem to be even quicker to judge something new in education as a passing or fading trend. Now it often seems to depend upon how long the concept makes frequent headlines in the news and blogosphere. The assumption is that it must be a passing trend if people are not writing articles about it.

MOOCs are a good example of this. In 2013 and early 2014, MOOC headlines where all over the place. There were bold claims that they would disruptive higher education and just as bold rebuttals that they would never replace what we do in traditional education. There were debates about their uses and other musing about how they might supplement middle and high school curricula, provide new employable skills, serve as a low-cost and high-impact form of professional development for teachers, and just serve as a way for more people to gain access to useful learning experiences apart from enrollment in a University or expensive tuition expenses.

Of course, there were also no shortage of critiques as first hints of data analysis came out about retention rates. People wrote about low “retention rates” as if it was proof that MOOCs are a failure. At the same time, others challenges this critique, noting that the intent of the learner is more important than some traditional measure of success used in formal schooling.

Then things slowed down over the last few months of 2014. There were fewer (but still plenty) of headlines. As such, I’ve had multiple conversations and listened to speakers use this decrease in media coverage as evidence that MOOCs are on the decline, that this was more hype than substance.

The problem is that this is not accurate. I reached out the people at EdX in November, inquiring about their enrollment. Following is their response.

Hi Bernard,

Thank you for your edX question. Please find our enrollment stats below.

October 2013: 2.31 million enrollments

October 2014: 6.26 million enrollments

Thank you.



From 2.31 million to 6.26 million in one year! That sure doesn’t seem like a decline to me. If a sector of formal education saw that much of an increase in a twelve month period, it would certainly be in the headlines. The same is true for growth in almost any sector. My point is that there is a difference between the facts and the frequency or nature of media coverage. An innovation exists apart from its media coverage, and we are wise to not judge things too quickly based upon what we are seeing in our favorite education news sources.

In the case of MOOCs, I don’t think we’ve seen the last of the articles and blog posts. I suspect that there will be an ebb and flow to the coverage, but beneath all that we continue to see steady growth, new experiments, new successes, new challenges, new opportunities, and yet another educational technology initiative (like online learning) is likely to become a persistent and impactful part of 21st century education.

One Reply to “Educational Innovation, Media Coverage & The Example of MOOCs”

  1. David Black

    I am wondering how many of the comments you quote come from people who are nervous or scared about all the changes and subconscious way to dismiss these changes so they don’t have to think about them or deal with them. Experimentation is essential in this age, as is documenting successes and failures for others.

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