San Jose State University has pressed the pause button on its MOOC partnership with provider Udacity, and Internet response to the hold has largely viewed the development as a setback for MOOCs, one that might signal the end of the hype cycle and the beginning of the end of the model. This comes a month after Coursera announced plans to provide universities with pre-deisgned MOOC content for instructor & student use, a move which resulted in an Internet burial of the MOOC phenomenon, although Coursera was unaware of its death and since said “demise” the start-up has secured $43 million in venture capital.
Negative outcomes for MOOCs have received a great deal of press in recent months, often coupled with a dose of irony. The Coursera course “Fundamentals of Online Education” was shelved by Georgia Tech and instructor Fatima Wirth because the infrastructure could not support the manner in which the course viewed fundamental online learning. And now the SJSU remedial coursework, designed by Udacity in two weeks, will be tabled in an effort to increase the quality of education, an unsurprising result considering the decades of research into remedial studies and difficulties in developing models with the level of success Udacity expected.
While such hubris was responsible for a number of ends in Greek mythology, the same cannot yet be said for MOOCs. Despite these hiccups, MOOCs continue to grow. If the MOOC is dying, it is not at San Jose State University; even though the Udacity partnership is on hiatus, their work with edX continues, and will expand to 11 other California State University campuses this Fall. Udacity’s work in remedial studies at San Jose State University may not run in the Fall of 2013, but their MS in Computer Science at Georgia Tech University (sponsored by AT&T) continues forward. Coursera continues to build new courses and redevelop prior ones, both from their developing institutions as well as for use outside their inner circle. And such movement does not address offerings through Canvas, Blackboard, or the numerous in-house MOOC projects either proposed or currently in development at universities around the world, projects to potentially be assisted in development through the MOOC Research Initiative.
If the MOOC is in crisis, it is a crisis of rhetoric.
The rhetoric that has surrounded MOOCs since Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun became an oft-profiled EdTech pioneer is immersed in the “education is broken/salvation can be achieved via (insert fix here)” narrative (this is not a new storyline; see A Nation At Risk, Sputnik, etc). In this narrative, the existing model of education is not optimal due to one or more defined variables (the structure of the education system, a curricular focus on the wrong/obsolete subjects, the erosion of core competencies/skills, the collective action/inaction of organized faculty). Moreover, the troubles of this education have caused a decline in the abilities of students matriculating through the educational system, and if this problem continues unabated, the consequences will be dire. Immediate action is required to stem the tide and return students and student achievement to the aptitudes of yesteryear.
Narratives are powerful. The decline of education as a system in America is taken as inherent fact in societal discussion. Data-based evidence is provided to bolster the argument: the Sputnik Reforms were in response to the USSR beating America into space; A Nation at Risk based its findings on a generation of sliding SAT scores; No Child Left Behind was in response to continued sliding scores on markers such as the PISA. A chart that points downward always looks worse than one pointing up, and these policy-based reforms draped their inherency in the numbers. Schools are broken, and if left to fester the results will be catastrophic.
A more dimensional reading of the numbers questions such assumptions. Sputnik’s launch was not a surprise to Eisenhower’s administration (whose energies were invested in other scientific places), but the labeling of the event as a crisis and subsequent political maneuverings seemed based in hysteria, as American growth in arts, sciences and culture had remained substantial since World War II. The decline in SAT scores from 1963 to 1980 is largely explained by the growing population of SAT takers at the time, the growth comprised of students whose parents were not college graduates or, in a number of cases, high school graduates (and by 1983, SAT scores had stabilized and begun to trend upward). The focus on testing and assessment evident in the charter school movement and No Child Left Behind has produced minimal gains in test scores, and various policy and government groups are noting a connection between ubiquitous high-stakes testing and stagnant growth in aptitude scores. The crisis continues, though catastrophe never strikes even though the interventions have yet to work.
MOOC developers and proponents have not shied away from such rhetoric, rather embracing it and its globe-changing potential. Internet culture researcher Clay Shirky compared existing higher education to a rotting tree, seeing the MOOC as the disruptive wave of the future. In reference to Mr. Thrun’s vision of MOOCs, California Governor Jerry Brown called the learning model “a key part of the [education] solution.” Thrun told Wired Magazine that, thanks to the MOOC, in 50 years the world may only need 10 universities. Profiles of the MOOC and its rock-star developers popped up in the New York Times, Time Magazine, Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, Smithsonian Magazine, while education periodicals such as The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed discuss the MOOC most days of the week. Thomas Friedman called the MOOC a revolution, David Brooks said it was a tsunami hitting established higher education, and Gregory Ferenstein saw the model as the catalyst to change the structure of higher education as we know it. When the story buries the establishment and purports the change agent as the solution, reaction to any hiccups along the way will hold the same dramatic weight as the prior salvation narrative. Thus, every time a large-scale MOOC provider does not hit a home run with a proposal, members of the EdTech community give the event extensive weight, either as the end of the MOOC or the first signs of the downturn in Gartner’s hype cycle.
I’ve argued before against MOOCs and Gartner’s hype cycle for two reasons: education is not a consumable product (despite the rhetoric), and the public-private partnership aspect of MOOCs (without the traditional government bidding process) has ingrained the model into the educational debate, at least for the time being. That said, those in the field of EdTech who cheer moments for the MOOC blooper reel walk a dangerous line. While the MOOC is not the first attempt of American universities to embrace or capitalize on distance education (over 130 years of history here), it is the first time the movement has been met with social awareness and political support. To lose that support will cost all of distance education and online learning, as the focus on research that has led to greater financial support of distance initiatives and research will dry up, and a movement that started in 1989 with a hope to create authentic interactive experiences for students regardless of geography will be considered a “been there, done that” field before the cutting-edge research can infiltrate the existing dialogue.
The MOOC is part of a societal movement that has cost higher education, both financially and socially. Government subsidy, philanthropy and private investment have gone toward a learning model with questionable pedagogy and no sense of its own history, and society’s view of higher education is more and more that of a private good. At the same time, the proliferation of the MOOC has resulted in a greater understanding of the potential of educational technology, distance learning and online education, with theories and models heretofore only seen by those in the highly educated sector slowly entering into the debate (collaboration between MOOC developers, professors and critics). If the xMOOC fails, prior experience shows that political and social attention will wane. The traveling show is going to go to its next stop, and few will remain to view all of the great things about EdTech/Distance Education town (cMOOC or otherwise). Despite the numerous obstacles and issues within the existing discussion, cheering the pitfalls of the MOOC cheers the insolvency of the entire field.