There is no Open in MOOC

Coursera’s announcement to add Specializations to its roster of educational packages comes with a new price in many cases, as noted in Carl Straumsheim’s 1/29 piece at Inside Higher Ed.

To sign up for Michigan State University’s How to Start Your Own Business, for example, budding entrepreneurs have to pay $79 up front for the first of five courses in the Specialization or prepay $474 for the entire program.

When enrolling in a MOOC on Coursera, learners are normally met with a box asking them if they would like to take it free — giving them access to all the course materials but not awarding a certificate upon completion — or pay $49 for an identity-verified course certificate provided upon completion. Learners can first pick the free option but change their minds later, however.

The question the article asks — how does charging for access fit the mission of access to world’s best education — is a variation on a question that’s been asked for 4+ years now, ever since Coursera, Udacity, edX and others became the go-to mainstream voices on EdTech expertise — what makes these providers the world’s best education besides a mission statement and a platform for PR?  David Wiley’s quote from 2013 is the touchstone I remember from that period — MOOC as a concept, to him, was out of the barn and the acronym rather stood for Massively Obfuscated Opportunities for Cash.  David’s blog (and my subsequent agreement at his OpenEd 2013 conference that we had lost the term MOOC and reclamation was a pyrrhic effort) was geared toward a group of people for whom MOOC meant Massively Open Online Course, borne separately but presciently by Dave Cormier and Bryan Alexander of those four words bound by catchy acronym.  Our different yet similar audiences had dedicated their careers to the pursuit of openness in education, for whom its history is well-rooted in society and culture and for whom MOOC was a placeholder for a diffuse and dynamic concept unbound by tools and systems.  In this world education inhabits its historic space as a societal superstructure and thus its interactions go beyond a commercial use-value exchange.

In the world of disruption (n.), education is entirely based on use-value, and wholly economic values require wholly economic exchanges.  Frustration ensues.

I agree with the spirit of Martin’s argument (and, if you have not read The Battle for Open, it’s on a short list of must-read EdTech books).  Both Udacity and Coursera used a platform of openness and access to generate tremendous PR during The Year of the MOOC and beyond.  Udacity’s time in the open space ended rather quickly, while Coursera has slowly shifted their business model.  Yet I have long wondered if MOOC providers were slowly draining the meaning of the acronym from itself or if the meaning many in the EdTech world put on the term was never there to begin with (short version, long version).  And articles like this increasingly lead me to believe the latter — MOOC does not stand for Massively Open Online Course.  And to be honest, it never really did.

To cut off the cries of xMOOCs and cMOOCs and CCK08 and other salad day moments, it’s important to note xMOOC is almost entirely a pejorative, used by people who celebrate cMOOCs.

This sounds somewhat absurd, as MOOC as an acronym did not exist until fashioned to memorably encapsulate massive, open, online and course.  Both C. Osvaldo Rodriguez and John Daniel wrestled with the massive open online course circa 2008 versus the AI-driven 2011- models, and in their writing there are numerous efforts to rationalize both uses of MOOC.

Yet, when defining what a MOOC is, the research field has not relied on Daniel or Rodriguez nearly as much as they have Laura Pappano, whose 2012 New York Times article The Year of the MOOC is the landslide winner for most oft-cited article in a MOOC research study.  The news article is written as an introduction to MOOCs and the phenomenon sweeping across higher education, but its relationship to the structure of the acronym is noted only one time, in passing

In late September, as workers applied joint compound to new office walls, hoodie-clad colleagues who had just met were working together on deadline. Film editors, code-writing interns and “edX fellows” — grad students and postdocs versed in online education — were translating videotaped lectures into MOOCs, or massive open online courses. As if anyone needed reminding, a row of aqua Post-its gave the dates the courses would “go live.”

Rather, MOOC is used as an acronym to represent the ethos of disruption (n.), playing into the trope of entrepreneurial innovation via eureka moment of discovering secret sauce magic bullet magic beans whatever people say these days to mean solutionism.

…“This has caught all of us by surprise,” says David Stavens, who formed a company called Udacity with Sebastian Thrun and Michael Sokolsky after more than 150,000 signed up for Dr. Thrun’s “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” last fall, starting the revolution that has higher education gasping. A year ago, he marvels, “we were three guys in Sebastian’s living room and now we have 40 employees full time.”…

…The medium is still the lecture. Thanks to Khan Academy’s free archive of snappy instructional videos, MOOC makers have gotten the memo on the benefit of brevity: 8 to 12 minutes is typical. Then — this is key — videos pause perhaps twice for a quiz to make sure you understand the material or, in computer programming, to let you write code…

…Dr. Agarwal predicts that “a year from now, campuses will give credit for people with edX certificates.” He expects students will one day arrive on campus with MOOC credits the way they do now with Advanced Placement…

The MOOC is a sociocultural phenomenon indicative of a number of internal and external agents shaping policy, practice and culture around education.  But it is also a thing, and the trouble with that thing is that it’s not the same thing depending on who you talk to.  And that thing is dominated by Coursera, Udacity, edX and the other education start-ups that conflate video lecture with an open course of learning.  In that vein, cMOOC is an effort to reclaim MOOC, admirable yet foolhardy, as the people who they wish to take the term back from are not talking about the same thing, and never have been.

With that in mind, it is good news Coursera is slowly moving away from open, and even courses.  MOOC will follow that trajectory, in large part because its dominant meaning is as a logo for this sort of disruption start-up approach to solving education.  MOOC has meant Coursera/edX/Udacity for longer than it meant Siemens et al.  There is no need to reclaim it, and certainly no need to mourn it.  So let’s celebrate it.  As open has never been a part of that MOOC, let their hype of democratizing and globalizing education fade into memory, replaced with talk of business models and shareholders.  This is no loss for the growing open movement.

Photo – Open or Closed by Alan Levine CC BY SA https://www.flickr.com/photos/cogdog/8223240010/


12 thoughts on “There is no Open in MOOC

  1. Jonathan Rees


    I don’t see what the big deal is about this story. the moment for-profit companies started producing MOOCs it became obvious that something like this was going to happen. Certificates would never be enough for Silicon Valley. The free was always the teaser – like the ten pounds of steak you get when you test drive an automobile at the lot of a particularly sleazy used car dealer.

  2. Pat Lockley

    Thing is, this works if you see openness in itself as on a trajectory demonstrably different from moocs.
    MOOCs as an academic concept slowly moving from public to private. Openness as that different?

  3. CogDog

    Ah but might a defense of some sorts (not that I am proffering it) be the argument against equating open with free (I think a guy named Wiley makes that clear). The other facets of openness out to be equally questioned as the fees- open access, open to reuse, open to remix, open to link to (I get the 5 things mixed up but you get the idea).

    Long live the MOOC, may we never be sure exactly what it is, as long as I can still make cow metaphors.

    And (ahem) image attribution? https://www.flickr.com/photos/cogdog/8223240010/

    1. Rolin Moe Post author

      Agree, though what I’m offering is that by MOOC no longer having any concern with Open, they are willingly leaving a discussion that they co-opted into open as free.

      And apologies on the reference; I always forget when I do featured images.

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