Tag Archives: EdX


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. Continue reading

Meet the New Hype, Same as the Old Hype

Quick note on Coursera founder Daphne Koller’s quote from Friday’s Wall Street Journal:

If you put an instructor to sleep 300 years ago and woke him up in a classroom today, he’ll say, ‘Oh, I know exactly where I am’

This sort of ahistoric bluster is nothing new.  My favorite example is from edX CEO Anant Agarwal from 2014, which came from a keynote at Campus Technology’s 2014 conference.  Agarwal had a photo of a 1950s MIT classroom as a slide, and accompanied it with this quote:


What is interesting about this photo is that nothing has changed…[Other industries have been transformed, and learners have changed, but education hasn’t changed]…It is pathetic that the education system has not changed in hundreds of years.

In the interest of full disclosure, this was not the picture from Dr. Agarwal’s presentation.  I know this because a 1950s picture of a MIT lecture hall would not have nearly that many female students.  In 1955, the Ad Hoc Committee on the Place of Women at MIT believed women were not successful undergraduates, a position contrary to the attitude of Chancellor Julius Stratton but evidenced by the low enrollment of female students.  It would taken 10 more years for attitudes to change at MIT, and nearly a generation after that before levels of gender equity would fall more in line with similar universities.

This is not Dr. Agarwal’s first ahstoric bemoaning of  the lack of change in education; just two years ago he was painted by Inside Higher Ed to be gobsmacked by education-related research from 1972.

Education changed 300 years ago, and 200 years ago, and 100 years ago, and 70 years ago and 60 years ago and 50 years ago and so forth.  Even in the past 3.5 years, since the MOOC monolith, education has changed…what has not changed is the ahistoric narrative sold by MOOC developers.

For more examples of how education has changed, and just from a lens of equity, there is a great Hack Education piece from 2012 on the very subject.



Putty. Putty. Putty.
Green Putty – Grutty Peen.
Grarmpitutty – Morning!
Pridsummer – Grorning Utty!
Discovery….. Oh.
Putty?….. Armpit?
Armpit….. Putty.
Not even a particularly
Nice shade of green.
As I lick my armpit and shall agree,
That this putty is very well green.

Ode to a Small Lump of Green Putty I Found in My Armpit One Midsummer Morning – Grunthos the Flatulent (as recited in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)

I have long tracked the absurdity of MOOC developers and pundits assigning version numbers when discussing the MOOC.  The oscillation between MOOC 2.0 and MOOC 3.0 over the last two years was evidence I presented to argue the MOOC is not a tool or instrument or disruptive innovation but rather the acronym from which we discuss a larger sociocultural phenomenon regarding educational technology and solutionism.

Historically, software versioning had meaning for the proprietary sect (starting at 1.0 and changing with various updates) and the open field (building from a 0.x beta to the 1.0 indicating a complete and reliable product).  This has vacillated somewhat, but the meaning behind versioning progress has continued to involve significant changes to a specific product.  The use of versioning when describing the evolution of the MOOC lacks this principled or pragmatic grounding; MOOC 2.0 meant one thing to Sebastian Thrun and Udacity (for-credit courses) and an entirely different thing to NPR’s Marketplace (leadership strategy), while MOOC 3.0 meant one thing to Cathy Sandeen of the American Council on Education (the MOOC in a blended or distributed flip) and another to Anant Agarwal & Michael Crow of the Global Freshman Academy  (adaptive learning in a for-credit environment).  Forget that many of these sound the same (the Udacity MOOC 2.0 is pitched a lot like the Global Freshman Academy MOOC 3.0), and forget that in some cases MOOC 3.0 came before MOOC 2.0…

Actually, don’t forget any of that.  Remember it, because the inanity is the point.  The only reason we can have MOOC 3.0 before MOOC 2.0 (not to mention huge announcements from Coursera and edX at the same time as educational media tell us MOOC hype is over) is because MOOC has little practically defined meaning.  It is immaterial, hype, folderol.  I spent the first part of my educational scholarship life trying to rectify a definition based on both the scholarship of the educational technology field and the textual offerings of EdTech developers, and the result was a very diluted and fairly meaningless definition so inclusive its use offers no pragmatic purpose.

So, then, why does MOOC matter?  We say MOOC because it signifies an era in education and educational technology, a movement, a discussion, what some see as a battle and others see as progress and others yet see as Same Stuff Different Day.  MOOC in and of itself is a simulacrum; invoking it in conversation allows us to engage a very divergent phenomenon with some semblance of a foothold, to share our beliefs/values/ideas in what we hope to be a constructive fashion.

There is nothing constructive about version numbers, however.  They harken to the practical when there is no practical to the MOOC, they assume progress when there is no defined history or pathway, and they tap into an ethos of contradictory solutionism by using parlance of companies dedicated to perpetual upgrades and profit.  When edX and ASU harkened to MOOC 3.0 with the Global Freshman Academy (just six short months after Anant Agarwal said we had finally reached MOOC 2.0, mind you), I feigned disappointment that hype version numbers were still somewhat behind the times.

Ask and ye shall receive!  A Monday night Huffington Post blog by Otto Scharmer, MIT instructor and co-founter of the Presencing Institute, presents a self-described revolution in learning and leadership that he refers to as MOOC 4.0.

I have been running and/or supporting profound change initiatives for the past two decades. But almost never do changes, even when successful, happen on the scale that is necessary today. MOOCs 4.0 put us on a new playing field, not only in education, but also in the business of leading profound innovation and large systems change.

What does this mean?  I do not wish to be flippant, but having read the article three times, I still do not know.  The sheer volume of buzzwords and hype mixed with a striking lack of knowledge regarding educational theory and history results in an article chock full of unnecessary invention and basics as Eureka.  You could question their methodology for measuring success

You could question the newspeak level of language that would make ProfJeffJarvis blush

You could question the infantility behind their unique methodologies that have discovered a new branch of learning theory learning theory nearly 40 years old…

I stop at what the Institute represents.  It would be easy to attack the idea of the Presencing Institute; the website drowns in what I consider shallow self-help jargon, and the pictures in the Huffington Post blog involve people standing on chairs or a large group sitting with their eyes closed, which when mixed with hype and buzz can convey a very negative view of New Age as mysticism.  But presencing itself is not one of these negotiated terms; the word has a philosophical basis with Martin Heidegger, and while the institute’s co-founders do not advertise this in the About section of the institute, a cursory search of other materials show a grounding in daesin philosophy.  There is a great effort from the Presencing Institute to link its validity to the giants of thought in various cultures and eras.  Calling it a cult based on a blog in the Huffington Post feeds the same inauthenticity that frustrates so many EdTech academics about the corporate influence in the field today.

Schramer presents MOOC 4.0 as the synthesis of the MOOC movement, that how he sees social constructivist learning is the MOOC apotheosis; it is not just that we are on the path of progress, but the final stop is MOOC 4.0 and presencing.  I have argued the path of progress is one of the greatest obstacles facing educational technology today; there is no path to progress, and assuming one exists only feeds the dominant paradigm.

MOOC 4.0 is in contrast to Jesse Stommel’s discussion of his experience teaching a Coursera MOOC  (also published this week) which posits the MOOC journey as one not on a singular path of progress but rather multivariate paths where the journey is the destination:

I have designed half a dozen cMOOCs.  I love them all…but I find myself wanting to kill all of my darlings. And not just in the name of experimentation. But because killing our darlings is at the root of pedagogy. Never do the same thing twice, because the same thing twice is already rotten. We learn from every one of our successes and mistakes, and we encounter each learner and each learning environment anew.

I am not going to say this is the lens from which everyone should look at MOOCs – a constant evolution not bound by a facsimile path of progress but rather by the localized and networked needs of the learners as group and individual.  But Stommel’s piece recognizes there is a dominant interpretation of what a MOOC is, he negotiates terms, he provides his own resistance grounded in theory and defined by pillars of what academic educational technology finds important, and he presents in a way that will have access and resonance for that subculture and beyond.  It would be easy for a MOOC that (among other things) resists the Subject Expert for subject experts to call itself MOOC 5.0, pretend to have invented this approach, get ungrounded press and pub in trade periodicals and media mags, and add more meaninglessness to a topic supposedly meaningful.  Rather, by sacrificing pizazz Stommel has provided an alternative lens, one that does not believe in the sanctity of EdTech as academic nor as commercial but rather as diffuse and delicate.

MOOC version numbers are one of the many frustrations of the MOOC model phenomenon.  We should highlight the absurdity of versioning a sociocultural phenomenon and point to what they advertise as new as a lack of history, theory and politic that actually supports a dominant paradigm history, theory and politic.  When we stop there, however, we have only furthered the dominant version of the MOOC, cast alternatives as victims, and created a battleground where there is no battle being fought.  MOOC progress as described by version numbers is but a continuation of a longstanding dominant viewpoint of education, today handled by EdTech corporations but being ingrained in the fabric of educational sociology since Marx, Weber and Durkheim engaged the field.  It is not about winning or fighting.  It is about producing, experimenting, designing, playing, situating and localizing.

Same as it Ever Was – The Global Freshman Academy

When will people stop applying the Gartner Hype Cycle to MOOCs?  Wednesday’s announcement of the new ASU/edX partnership, the Global Freshman Academy (#CollegeMyWay), is the freshest coat of lipstick on the acronym.  I won’t get into the details or various criticisms (George Siemens and Jonathan Rees do a stupendous job as always, as does John Warner over at Inside Higher Ed), but suffice it to say, charging more than a community college to take online courses designed for didactic learners or adult learners fails to engage the stated visions of both ASU and edX.

What are the stated visions of ASU and edX? That’s tough to decipher.  From the New York Times:

“Leave your G.P.A., your SATs, your recommendations at home,” said Anant Agarwal, the chief executive of edX. “If you have the will to learn, just bring your Internet connection and yourself, and you can get a year of college credit.”

This is the traditional MOOC bluster:  the technology will set you free from the oppressive agent that has heretofore stopped the average student from succeeding.  Who needs to leave those things at home — those students who the existing system does not provide for.  This narrative is a popular one, and it would be disingenuous to say only VC backed EdTech start-ups employed it — perhaps they do it better than others, but the education as emancipation argument has an incredibly long history on every side and at points through close to 800 years of institutional history.  It is wrong on all sides, it is only that VC backed EdTech start-ups do a better job of marketing on the premise.

What I found interesting was the postmodern approach with which ASU and edX have marketed this product.  There is a link to the research now:  on the edX splash page, they mention the program is geared toward high school students looking for early credit, people returning to college, and the catch-all *lifelong learner* which fits the distance/online scholarship where success is predicated on intrinsic motivation for youth or andragogy/heutagogy principles for adults.  To quote ASU President Michael Crow, “There are many pathways to success, both academically and in life. This is now one of them.”

Ah, but if we look at Crow’s entire quote from the press release:

The Global Freshman Academy will empower students to prepare for college and achieve what they may not have thought they could. There are many pathways to success, both academically and in life. This is now one of them.

When technology is presented as neutral, ahistorical and apolitical, it can be shaped marketed as the tool to allow for that transformation heretofore obstructed by the existing system.  The problem is, the system is but one obstruction; the narrative of education as empowerment and emancipation is just as much of an obstruction, potentially more so.  A system with cultural and instrumental rules and mores has a dictated structure I can at least read, negotiate and potentially resist.  An immaterial promise that shapes our culture and ethos tacitly rather than overtly has no such entry point for negotiation; moreover, if I am unable to succeed it is because of my situation rather than the promised system because the promised system is neutral and there are shining examples the tech system shows me.

This Global Freshman Academy will help some people.  It may make money for both entities.  It may harm community colleges and regional universities offering the same education in-person at the same cost or a slightly higher one.  It will not solve problems of access, equity and emancipation in education, not because it does not ascribe to do so but because the idea of education solving such problems is a lie.  It I do not believe Drs. Crow & Agarwal are nefarious people with nefarious intentions.  Worse, I think they have pure intentions, and they have built their structure on a false promise they believe can be solved by technology and commerce, at the expense of the local initiatives that are the antidote to such false promises.

Assembly Line Learning – Excerpts from MOOC Research

Note: I will use this space over the next month to share excerpts from my dissertation The Evolution & Impact of the Massive Open Online Course. The research was a Delphi study bringing together 20 MOOC experts to discuss the MOOC in educational, political, and sociocultural terms (slides from the oral presentation can be seen here). Upon library clearance, the entire document will be available through a Creative Commons license. The following is from Chapter 1, the argument for significance. This excerpt looks at the hype-based MOOC arguments seen in news media, as well as criticisms on the MOOC and its hype.

Distance education as industrialized model of learning.  As mentioned previously, the field of distance education largely roots its history in structural changes to the transmission of information. This idea of education as a technological structure can be traced within the literature to Otto Peters (1983). Contemporary leaders in the field of educational technology and MOOCs have positioned their technologies as a wave of innovation in a system inert for over 100 years (Khan & Noer, 2012; Thrun, 2012), but Peters traces the inertia back to the Renaissance, arguing the advent of distance education was the first change to the system, and positioning a concept of distance education that promotes flexibility, efficiency and scalability (Peters, 1983). To accomplish this, the historical notion of a singular instructor, who throughout history has been a lone person involved in numerous aspects of a student’s education within a course, is replaced, and the instructional labor is divided into multiple positions filled by multiple individuals, each focused on one aspect of the learning process:

In distance study the teaching process is based on the division of labour and detached from the person of the university lecturer. It is therefore independent from a subjectively determined teaching situation…the division of labour and the objectification of the teaching process allow each work process to be planned in such a way that clearly formulated teaching objectives are achieved in the most efficient manner. Specialists may be responsible for a limited area in each phase (pg. 98).

Continue reading

MOOC History…or Lack Thereof – Excerpts from MOOC Research

Note: I will use this space over the next month to share excerpts from my dissertation The Evolution & Impact of the Massive Open Online Course. The research was a Delphi study bringing together 20 MOOC experts to discuss the MOOC in educational, political, and sociocultural terms (slides from the oral presentation can be seen here). Upon library clearance, the entire document will be available through a Creative Commons license. The following is from Chapter 2, the literature review. This excerpt looks at the history of the MOOC as defined by MOOC providers and developers such as Coursera, edX and Udacity.

MOOC history and MOOC influences.  The linking of MOOCs to historical precedents and influences is found wonting in both academic and popular literature.  Part of this is due to the relative newness of the MOOC, a phenomenon that caught fire at the end of 2011, but it must be noted that, when speaking about MOOCs, developers consistently fail to link the learning model to existing research, trends or prior histories (Bady, 2013b).  Rather, developers have discussed their work in the context of random opportunity meeting individual exceptionalism, a identifying it as a bold experiment (Rodriguez, 2012) rather than denoting or clarifying the role of prior experiments. According to the existing literature, if MOOC developers were influenced by prior efforts in online learning, distance education, and/or educational theory, those influences were tacit (Waldrop, 2013).

This is not to say that developers have not linked their learning model to other thinkers or models.  MOOC developers such as Sebastian Thrun (2012) and Andrew Ng (2013), along with the developers for former open-source MOOC platform Class2Go (Wan, 2012), have noted the influence of Salman Khan, a hedge fund analyst who left business to focus his energies on the development of a platform for sharing academic tutorial videos he created for a relative (Khan, 2012).  His enterprise, Khan Academy, is an educational website that aggregates short video tutorials based around common academic subjects.  Recent efforts to expand the scope and abilities of Khan Academy have focused on adding assessment tools as well as data collection for teachers to utilize in their own classrooms (Walsh, 2012).

Khan himself does not link his influences in the development of Khan Academy to historical precedents or educational theories, rather noting that much of his inspiration was based on practice and intuition rather than academic research:

Every time I put a YouTube video up, I look at the comments — at least the first 20, 30, 40 comments that go up — and I can normally see a theme… I think it’s nice to look at some of the research, but I don’t think we would… and I think in general, people would be doing a disservice if they trump what one research study does and there’s a million variables there (Weber, 2011).

The research Khan does cite comes from cognitive science, a psychological field dedicated to interpreting how the brain interprets information via thought (Khan, 2012). Within education, cognitive theory seeks to utilize the nature of the brain’s ability to store memory and utilize prior knowledge in undertaking complex or multi-step problems (Bruning, Shaw & Norby, 2010).  While important to the development of learning theory over the past 40 years, its current place in the canon of educational theory is as a stepping-stone to more modern theories, an important step in the development of learning theory but not the destination (Fosnot, 1996).  However, focus on memory, recall and learning styles inherent to cognitive learning theories are similar to the personalized aspects of MOOC technologies afforded to students (Siemens, 2013a).

It is similar cognitive research that Anant Agarwal, the director of MOOC organization edX, heralded as a “must-read” (Rivard, 2013a) for anyone involved in higher education instruction.  The paper Agarwal heralded was a 1972 review of existing memory-based research and a proposal for unique methods to consider information processing in context to memory (Craik & Lockhart, 1972).  Similar to Khan, Agarwal noted how his scholarship and methodology toward MOOC pedagogical practices was similar in scope to the study prior to reading this research, saying, “If we followed [this research], it was completely by accident” (Rivard, 2013a).

Non-Web Citations:

Bruning, R., Schraw, G. & Norby, M. (2010).  Cognitive psychology and instruction. New York:  Pearson.
Craik, F. & Lockhart, R. (1972).  Levels of processing:  A framework for memory research.  Journal of Verbal Learning & Verbal Behavior, 11(1), 671-684.
Fosnot, C. (1996). Constructivism: A psychological theory of learning. In C. T. Fosnot (Ed.), Constructivism: Theory, perspectives, and practice (pp. 8-33). New York: Teachers College Press.
Khan, S. (2012).  The one-world schoolhouse:  Education reimagined.  New York:

Education, 1972

Missed this a few weeks back, but at Inside Higher Ed author Ry Rivand covered a summit hosted by Harvard and MIT entitled Online Learning and the Future of Residential Education.  While the proceedings were not quotable to the press, Rivand and other journalists had full access to presenters, professors and other dignitaries invited to discuss this future.

My focus as a researcher is on how massive learning technologies affect instruction and the instructor; contemporary learning theory puts a great deal of importance on creating a learning environment (that could turn into a community), experiencing learning through authentic hands-on projects, and contextualizing information.  xMOOCs, as they have been sold, herald pedagogy but present a learning system of short videos and interactive quizzes, which original MOOC visionary George Siemens labels a return to 1960s educational theory and pedagogy*.

*If you didn’t click that link, do it.  Siemens has a fantastic idea on how MOOCs could utilize gaming theory from World of Warcraft or Call of Duty in establishing grouping for projects, the sort of thing that education professor and community learning researcher Linda Polin sees as an authentic use of gamification in learning.

Anyone thinking Siemens’ quote is overly critical or cynical should view Rivand’s direct quote of Anant Agarwal, the director of MOOC provider EdX:

Continue reading