The MOOC revolution did not take place.

The din of the MOOC world continues unabated, vacillating between the MOOC continuing its march toward Valhalla and the MOOC as a dying revolution in need of last rites.  The multiple personality disorder of MOOC coverage is most evident in last week’s tech-business articles about MOOC company Udaicty. Upstart Business Journal last week wondered aloud if the MOOC was dying, asking the question whether Sebastian Thrun could save the MOOC.  Here, we learn that Thrun recently left Google to focus full-time on Udacity (similar to the FastCompany report from 11/13 on him leaving Stanford to focus full-time on Udacity), as potentially a last-ditch effort to save the MOOC.  This is echoed in a TechCrunch blog from earlier in September entitled The MOOC Revolution that Wasn’t.  Yet on the same day Upstart ran their open question, both EdSurge and Venture Beat heralded a recent $35M investment in Udacity from venture capital firms such as tech-based Drive Capital.  The tenor of these articles, it should be said, lacks the same globalize and democratize education ballyhoo from articles in 2012 and 2013.  That said, none of these articles have given up on the MOOC as an instrument of educational change.

What about other MOOC providers?  edX’s Anant Agarwal was profiled in Wired Magazine the same week as the Udacity news:

The way [Agarwal] sees it, effective uses of the MOOC model are only beginning to take shape. Enrollment in edX courses has doubled over last year, and he believes we’re on the verge of an era he calls MOOC 2.0. “We’ve been growing as others are throwing in the towel,” he says of edX.

There is lot to take issue with in this quote, and the article in whole.  What MOOC providers are throwing in the towel?  Certainly not Udacity, Coursera, edX or Canvas.  Also, Agarwal’s use of MOOC 2.0 is symptomatic of the ahistorical nature of most EdTech Mavericks; it marks at least the sixth time someone has used MOOC 2.0 to talk about the future, and fails to note that Cathy Sandeen of the American Council on Education invoked MOOC 3.0…15 months ago.

What Agarwal has is research showing that, in at least one instance, MOOC students learned as much in a course as traditional, face-to-face students.  In the physics course studied, students showed gains in knowledge of the subject regardless of their prior background in the subject or a more general scholastic background.  The study is of one course, and there is still a question of intrinsic motivation.  Most interesting to me was evidence of a spate of recent research on the model, a focus indicative of a model with staying power rather than a flash-in-the-pan.

Jonathan Rees’ writings and media discussions of MOOC matters have been vital recordings and perspective on the phenomenon; I have enjoyed reading his work, getting to know him through social media and feeling out our disagreements (we largely agree on the subject, so dissension is always interesting).  Today Rees noted on his blog that the MOOC revolution is indeed over, citing MOOC provider Udacity’s shift away from solving undergraduate education malaise and towards professional development and corporate training.  Rees sees a need for all MOOCs to move this way in order to monetize and feed the venture capital frenzy.  Here, Rees calls me out in the most gracious manner possible, seeing a point of disagreement in our beliefs — from his perspective, he sees the MOOC as nothing like a revolution but rather a reaction to the socioeconomic climate of the day whereas I am stuck on the word over.  Rees puts me in good company here, bolstering his argument by including recent writings from education journalist Jeff Selingo.

My disagreement with Rees (as well as Selingo) has nothing to do with whether a revolution is over or not, or whether this was in fact a revolution.  The MOOC fails in many ways to be a revolution because the so-called revolt came from the established power players in the field.  The house of cards upon which Clayton Christensen rests his theory of disruptive innovation crumbles in the face of education, as even the most generous of disruption defendants cannot say the University of Phoenix model is the model gaining progress in Coursera, edX or Udacity.  I harkened to Baudrillard’s simulacrum last year in a similar MOOC discussion when David Wiley made an argument such as Jonathan Rees in calling MOOCs  Massively Obfuscated Opportunities for Cash; in this instance I would have to go with a slightly different Baudrillard notion:  The MOOC revolution did not take place*.

*Baudrillard wrote three essays in 1991 which were collected into a book entitled The Gulf War did not take place.  A very brief but accurate summary is at Wikipedia; in short, Baudrillard questions the concept of the transgressions in the Persian Gulf as war rather than a totalitarian focus on actions and events, and the title harkens to a French play called The Trojan War did not take place.

MOOC does not symbolize a revolution but rather signifies a phenomenon, a phenomenon that continues today.  I have been working with George Veletsianos on a paper that shifts the lens of MOOC discussion from instrument to sociocultural happening

The idea that MOOCs would consolidate Higher Education into 10 schools was preposterous, as was the idea that the MOOC was a masterful new learning model (see:  AllLearn, Fathom).  The initial attention Sebastian Thrun’s 2011 catalytic MOOC CS 271 received from distance education scholars was reserved but positive, a tone which quickly changed as the course was shown to be a massive dump of content upon students (but in short videos).  Media interest in the sheer volume of enrollees created a maelstrom of attention, which led to the eventual media free-for-all we still enjoy today.  In the end, though, as a learning model Rees is right:  the MOOC as we know it may have benefit for corporate training and professional development, with some spaces still exploring a wider benefit, their research based on a 1972 theory of learning-as-memory-recall.

Selingo’s piece MOOC U:  The Revolution Isn’t Over, unfortunately makes many of the same claims and platitudes inherent to most MOOC journalism:  it is still early, it is changing how students learn, it is affecting how professors teach, etc., saccharin points that take away from the more powerful parts of his piece (namely, that society should expect more out of MOOCs given the energy and financial commitment of universities in the name of the MOOC).  All of these arguments, however, still look at the MOOC as a learning model upon which we expect change will happen.

Change has happened, not because of the efficacy of a video-based LMS run by elite institutions, but because of the manner in which MOOC discussion has shaped public policy, public perception, and shone an unflattering light on existing practices in traditional higher education.  When public officials openly see education as having the potential to operate without human intervention, the manner in which society views education has changed.  When education is seen as a industry ripe to be disrupted monetized before any other considerations, the manner in which society views education has changed.  When news articles directly link the Big Data movement in education to a shift in the purpose of education away from happy citizen and closer to a corporation’s ideal employee, the manner in which society views education has changed.  When the President of the United States redefines Middle Class in terms that, were they used two generations ago would have signaled Working Class, the manner in which society views education has changed.

I am not fixated on whether or not a MOOC revolution is over, because there was no MOOC revolution to begin with.  Any semblance of a MOOC revolution went underground in 2011 when the term was co-opted, and it continues to be fought today, though too many scholars and researchers today are reticent to label their work as MOOC.  The MOOC has provided organizations, policy groups and institutions an opportunity to redefine the purpose of education and offer opinions on the most efficient manner for that purpose to be reached.  Whether Coursera, Udacity, edX or any other providers meet this purpose is moot; education continues to slide away from a public good and toward a mechanism for producing inexpensive yet fully-capable employees at the need of existing corporations.  A true online learning revolution could stem that tide, but as long as we argue over the finer points of what constitutes revolution we only allow those outside education to further define our turf.

12 thoughts on “The MOOC revolution did not take place.

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  2. Seb Schmoller

    I don’t disagree with your key point that “MOOC does not symbolize a revolution but rather signifies a phenomenon, a phenomenon that continues today”, and I admire the depth of this piece. But I think your characterisation of the Thrun/Norvig 2011 AI MOOC as “a massive dump of content upon students (but in short videos)” is plain wrong. I did the course. I did not feel dumped on; and I agree strongly with the “sitting in a bar” description used by Rob Rambusch in his reflection here.

    1. Rolin Moe Post author

      Hi Seb; I’ve long admired your work. Perhaps my word choice was a bit provocative, but I would stand by the argument that the Thrun/Norvig approach was bereft of human learning theory and treating it like an AI scientist would treat distributed learning, namely as a machine learning issue and not a human one. Calling it a content dump lacks nuance, but the only difference between CS 271 and MIT’s OCW project, from my perspective and based on my research, is the advent of short videos and other trappings of an LMS (email, discussion fora, etc.). Sitting in a bar is an apt description, but it’s the reason Udacity’s effort to solve undergraduate and remedial education went up in flames.

      1. Seb Schmoller

        The thing that was most striking from the point of view of being a learner was the completely paradoxical feeling that learners had of being in a 1:1 with a teacher. That’s not something that can reasonably be reduced to “the only difference” between the AI course and MIT’s OCW project; nor, in my view, is it reasonable to describe the approach as “bereft of human learning theory”, or as “a machine learning issue and not a human one”. I think there are lots of other reasons why a not particularly well implemented instance of the approach would be unlikely to work for a horribly procedural pre-undergraduate maths curriculum.

        (Aside – what do you mean by “treating it like a machine learning issue”, in this context?)

        I suspect we’ll have to agree to differ on this one, Rolin.

      2. Rolin Moe Post author

        Your views on the feeling of 1:1 is interesting and unique based on my own experiences and interviews; have you written on this?

        My issue w/ Udacity is it’s use of distributed learning, which means something very different in ML than it does in education. Considering Thrun is on record saying he knew nothing of learning theory or pedagogy until after the first round of MOOCs, I do stand by my bereft statement.

        Good food for thought, though. Thanks for the pushback.

      3. ffmm

        Whether Sebastian Thrun knew anything of learning theory (and my sense is that his “I knew nothing” is an example of his occasional (!) tendency to exaggerate), Peter Norvig – who has always made much more reserved and realistic claims for MOOCs – had clearly thought about the learning design of the AI course quite a bit – witness his references to the Herbert Simon “axiom” about learning resulting from what students think and do and only from what they think and do. And believe me, a MOOC of the AI type really is pretty hard to design: you’d be mad to try it without having thought a lot about the “how” of the learning. Have I written about the 1:1 thing? Only in the posts tagged “MOOC” in my (no longer) Fortnightly Mailing, and in one or two other non-scholarly places.

      4. Rolin Moe Post author

        Peter Norvig was gracious enough to take part in my dissertation study of the MOOC as sociocultural phenomenon. He has written a great deal on the theoretical side of how AI perceives learning; it’s incredibly cognitive-heavy stuff. That means you could steer an armada between how he sees learning theory and how education scholars today see the field.

  3. gandha

    This article is very in depth but it is yet another view from the outside that so much online journalism seems to be today.

    I have done lots of MOOCS: for my career and for my personal hobbies and interests and have gained so much learning that not only has given me new interest but also supports the studies I pay for and the work I do in the community.

    1. Rolin Moe Post author

      Hi Gandha, thanks for stopping by. I never said MOOCs are not helpful; my issue is the wide gulf between a learning opportunity that could do what MOOCs say they can and what MOOCs actually deliver, which is an instructional design that helps motivated adults but hardly revolutionizes the space.

      I do question your label of my work as outside journalism. I would encourage you to look over the past 2+ years of All MOOCs, or read my dissertation on MOOCs, or take my upcoming creative writing MOOC or read my upcoming history of the MOOC acronym in Current Issues in Emerging eLeaening (December 2014)

  4. Pingback: The MOOC revolution did not take place. | All MOOCs, All The Time | Public Philosophy Journal

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  6. Pingback: Donald Trump Invented the MOOC | All MOOCs, All The Time

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