The MOOCs carnival

Every so often a fad grabs hold of higher education. Usually there is at its heart some genuine and interesting concept or development, but as the academic community or parts of it start to analyse the concept they become over-awed, and suddenly the hype takes over. A perfect example of this kind of mass hysteria is the noise generated by MOOCs.

A MOOC – ‘massive open online course’ – is a straightforward enough phenomenon, though you might ask what benefit its early supporters thought it might bring. It is a course put on the internet by a university or other institution, and which can be accessed for free by any number of  participants (or students). The level of staff-student interaction may vary, from none at all to intensive. The first serious experiment in this field was a UK publicly funded (or subsidised) venture called UKeU (UK eUniversities Worldwide Limited), which also involved Sun Microsystems as a strategic partner. Its mission was to offer online courses designed by existing universities. It launched the first courses in 2003, but three years later it closed down, having been deemed a failure.

But this failure was a temporary blip, and by the end of the decade the term ‘MOOCs’ had been coined and providers were everywhere. Three major global providers emerged – Udacity, Coursera, and edX – and these (and others since) have offered an increasing variety of courses from partner universities and institutions. And before you knew it, the chatter about MOOCs was to be heard everywhere. The New York Times declared that 2012 was the ‘year of the MOOC'; various senior figures in the academy declared loudly that MOOCs were the future and that any institution that didn’t offer them would perish.

By 2013 some commentators have started to wonder whether the hype is all a bit too much, or whether MOOCs could undermine genuine academic activities and standards. Others have noted that it is not at all clear how MOOCs will ever make any money, or at least enough to cover their costs; even the co-founder of Coursera, Daphne Koller, couldn’t answer that question in a recent interview. However, the ‘MOOC or die’ theme still continues: the most recent prophet is the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Southampton, Professor Don Nutbeam, who has suggested that those who don’t embrace MOOCs will decline.

I must confess I am going to stand back from this crowd a little, and won’t be chasing the MOOC beliebers too actively. It’s not that I don’t believe in technology-enabled learning; I do. It’s not that I don’t want easier access to higher education; I do. It’s not that I think that spreading knowledge around freely is bad; it’s good. It’s not even that I would advise anyone not to try a MOOC; by all means do it, it’s free. But as for those people currently hyper-ventilating in the MOOC rock festivals, I would ask some questions, and chiefly this one: what are MOOCs actually for? What pedagogical, social or business objectives do they satisfy? Those who think that MOOCs are the answer to every question, including those not yet even formulated, are not terribly convincing on how the model can be made pedagogically and financially sustainable. Higher education at its most desirable is both expensive and highly interactive. It depends on a high quality personal experience. A mass market product that nobody is paying for or funding is not the most obvious answer to whatever problem you think we may currently have.

I am not suggesting that MOOCs are uninteresting. There’s something there all right, though my thanks will go to the person who finds a less irritating label for them than ‘MOOCs’. I am not suggesting that higher education in future will not involve much more online provision; I’m absolutely sure it will. But if we are to develop a model of provision that actually has clear objectives and a sustainable resourcing basis we have to approach this differently. Free online courses won’t make everyone educated any more than standing at street corners handing people envelopes with $50,000 will make everyone rich.

Right now, there is evidence that the MOOCs excitement is waning a little amongst potential users. This is a good time to reflect a little more about how we can innovate and develop in higher education, but without the hysteria.

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11 Comments on “The MOOCs carnival”


  1. I’m not persuaded that MOOCs are a passing fad. Or, to be more precise, MOOCs have features that are likely to lead on to significant changes in how some higher education activities are delivered. They may not transform young undergrad teaching any time soon, but I think it highly likely that considerable numbers of people will turn to MOOCs for continuing education and postgrad education.

    By the way, we don’t need to look as far afield as the e-University for a depressing precedent. Anyone out there remember Scottish Knowledge – or, as later known, the Interactive University? As I recall, the main difference from the e-Uni was that there was never an inquiry into what became of the public spending that went into the Interactive Uni.

    • Anna Notaro Says:

      As for another MOOCs precedent one could mention the Irish-based ALISON (Advance Learning Interactive Systems Online) which launched courses supported by advertising in 2007.
      Personally, what I find most irritating about the debate surrounding MOOCs is the mythology of the ‘new’, (not dissimilar from the one regarding the *new* in ‘new media’), which is oblivious to the fact that ‘online learning has been happening under all of our noses for a very long time’ http://tinyurl.com/prevrpr The hype of the new in a celebrity infused culture like our own – MOOC *beliebers* is a nice touch :) – should not come as a surprise, of course…Another element of the MOOCs debate which is worth mentioning is the ideological dichotomy: MOOCS as expression of neoliberalism applied to education or champions of the libertarian/egalitarian spirit of the early Internet. This piece “Neoliberalism and MOOCs: Amplifying nonsense” http://tinyurl.com/l9eoyml is particularly relevant on this point. The argument is simple: “Much of today’s economy is knowledge-based. In a knowledge economy, we need to be learning constantly. Universities have failed to recognize the pent-up demand for learning as the economy has diversified and society has become more complex and interconnected. As a consequence, the internet has contributed by creating a shadow education system where learners learn on their own and through social networks. MOOCs reflect society’s transition to a knowledge economy and reveal the inadequacy of existing university models to meet learner’s needs”.
      This is not a case of “either MOOCs or decline”, rather a case of let’s think about how best to integrate the university more deeply with the knowledge needs of our society!

  2. V.H Says:

    You are viewing this as a potential cost and are taking a prudential stance. I, don’t have those worries.
    My starting point is the need to keep educating myself and quite frankly, while the four courses with Coursera and two with Udacity were useful but when I need to actually know something I go to YouTube.
    My problem though, is with the orientation of the MOOCs. If I put it like this. Apple has created a need that we didn’t know we needed. Their genius was to offer something ‘ahead’ of the realisation. The eggcup. You hand a person an eggcup and if they’ve ever seen an egg they know what it’s for. It’s the same with most of Apple’s products. You never pick up the impression from Apple that it’s core raison d’être is profits for Apple. That’s a serendipitous result.
    No one would say that about the MOOCs, but Udacity is far closer.

  3. cormac Says:

    MOOCs and the OU
    Interesting post as always, and I agree very much with Ann’s point about ‘new’. I’m surprised the Open University is rarely mentioned in these discussions – of course OU courses are not online in the sense of MOOCs, but it’s a good starting point to ponder may of Ferdinand’s questions, such as the objective, prospective success and relevance to society of such initiatives

  4. Gordon Dent Says:

    It seems to me that MOOCs have very little potential in experimental (lab-based) sciences or creation/performance-based arts disciplines. They appear to have arisen from the US liberal arts (i.e. humanities and social sciences) field and may be a realistic model there. The step that hasn’t yet been taken, however, is to allow people learning through MOOCs to pay a technical fee and take the assessments leading to a degree from one of the influential universities that are claiming to be at the forefront of making learning freely available.

  5. Kenji Lamb Says:

    @Gordon Dent

    I’m not sure that it’s correct to say that MOOCs, or perhaps more accurately online courses, have no potential when it comes to creation/performance-based disciplines. For example, courses on photography (a subject close to Ferdinand’s heart I suspect) are well suited to the platform. Techniques can be explained through video and examples – and peers can provide useful feedback, and share their own examples with the group. Often the communication that takes place within these communities can be far more frequent that face-to-face models, where many are competing for the time of one.

    There are real-life examples in stock photography sites which provide tutorials, references and criteria for judging photography – supported by a community willing to offer tips, advice and critical comments on user images.

    As for the comment about the ‘influential universities’ that aren’t offering an option to pay for accreditation – you can find numerous examples of this, as various groups try to monetise the MOOC framework. San Jose State University (with credits transferable within the California State University system), offer online proctored exams and transcipt for around $150 per course. Udacity and edX also offer proctored exams at Pearson VUE test centres, and I think there’s an option with Udacity to set up a test centre in a local institution (for a fee I imagine).

  6. James Fryar Says:

    There seems to be a propensity for us in Europe to look at the cool and trendy things emanating from US-based institutions and jump on the collective ‘pedogogical’ band waggon. A good example is the so-called ‘inquiry-based learning’ that we’ve adopted across the planet … right at the moment there are several FP7 projects to specifically examine how one assesses the effectiveness of such programmes. Which sort of begs the question as to how we know whether ‘inquiry-based learning’ really works when developing courses using it if we’re still examining how to assess that it works!

    MOOCs aren’t the future of education. They will be nothing more than a minor supplement to a major, more traditional, component. Studied computer science at college and want to learn a new language? MOOCs can do that. Want to examine how Fourier transforms are applied in medical imaging scanners? MOOCs will do that.

    Where I see MOOCs fitting into the picture are as stand-alone modules on specific topics that are accessible by people who have a background of knowledge. I can’t see MOOCs as an alternative to existing methodologies. I, for example, would question whether MOOCs (despite being web-based) could be altered or adapted as quickly as traditional courses to take new discoveries or findings into account, or whether they could change quickly depending on the requirements of say, employers or the economy at large. The infrastructure is more, not less, complex.

    There’s an old saying – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I have yet to see convincing evidence that the more traditional methods of education are broken. There may be evidence that the content needs to evolve or change. There may be a question about how we do things better. But change requires proof it provides a benefit. And without that, making decisions and declaring that ‘MOOCs are the future’ is little more than guesswork and wishful thinking.

  7. Anna Notaro Says:

    On MOOCs, readers of this blog might find this article very interesting http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/globalhighered/making-sense-euro-moocs
    I’m referring in particular to the remarks regarding the different modalities in which MOOCs are unfolding in Europe, in comparison to the US.

    • V.H Says:

      Looking and reading those links made me realize that none of them are asking the correct questions.
      Who are they putting on these courses for, and how are those people going to access the needed ancillary materiel.
      Is someone living in Achnasheens going to be able to get their hands on the needful, assuming they’ve a satellite connection. Is someone living in a Camorra riddled neighbourhood or any other crime focused area going to have access.
      There is no point in replacing the existing system for those that have the wherewithal to use that system now with MOOCs. Nor is there any point in generating another series of problems under what in theory is the solution.
      FvP writes that there is little true business case for MOOCs. He is of course correct if you use the existing thoughts on MOOCs. But if each university within a country put up a course where the cost are spread over ten years, I’m sure the accountancy people could turn it into a good long term.

      • Anna Notaro Says:

        Yes, I agree with you FvP might be right in noting that the business case has not been made for MOOCs and yet I think that the best way to look at this should go beyond the *business* only lens, as intertwined as they are the social and pedagogical aspects are undeniably very interesting. Indeed, as mentioned in the above linked piece, “MOOCs are no silver bullet for revolutionizing higher education, and resolving all sorts of crises and tensions” the phenomenon needs to be grappled with in an informed and critically engaged manner!


  8. Just as a footnote, I don’t think UKeU was really a forerunner of the MOOC. The courses weren’t necessarily going to be “open” or “free”. (I worked there for a while, in quite a minor role.) The courses weren’t going to be offered by UKeU, but by Universities, using the platform UKeU tried to build. Universities which were already offering their own online courses chose not to join in.


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