The Great Missed Opportunity


A lot has been said about Massive Open Online Courses over the past two years or so.  Thousands of academics, administrators, and policy makers have struggled to determine their value and efficacy, millions of students enrolled, and many, many education commentators and journalists held them up as the salvation or destruction of higher education.  I missed out on participating in the early fights, grumpily sitting at my desk at the Saylor Foundation, attempting to build better courses, courses that were actually free and open (read: openly licensed), and wondering why Coursera and Udacity were getting all the press, while our efforts had netted barely a half of million views over four years.  They were flashier, sure.  They had a better interface, and they only partnered with the highest caliber schools.  But we were actually trying to do what they were just playing at.

That was an earlier time.  Now MOOCs have fallen out of favor, and 2013 has by some been called the year of the MOOC Backlash.  Some of the criticisms against them (poor completion rates, unreliable assessments, etc.) I can wave away as merely folks not truly understanding the purpose and possibilities of an open course.  Part of that is actually the fault of the founders of these companies who propped up their products as the equivalent of traditional brick and mortar classrooms.  However, other criticism (lack of an open license, lack of privacy standards, lack of the ability to have your learning assessed elsewhere for college credit – looking at you Coursera) are much more justified.  As George Siemens noted in his blog today about Udacity’s pivot –which I’ll get to later – xMOOCs “delivered to us something along the lines of a 1990′s corporate elearning program.”

In this new world, where people are finally starting to acknowledge that MOOCs are not the disruptive innovation we deserve, nor the one we need right now, MOOC providers are changing tactics.  Coursera is opening classrooms in cities around the world.  Udacity, meanwhile is partnering with corporations to provide job readiness training.  They are shifting away from really disrupting anything, and instead using their status and hype to entrenching themselves in sectors that already exist, in order to pay back anxious venture capitalist.

What’s more disappointing however is the missed opportunity to work with those in the Open Ed sector that are actually trying to revolutionize education, and make it better.  Just last week, Andrew Ng, co-founder of Coursera gave one of the keynote presentations at the Open Education Conference in Park City, Utah.  In attendance were many of the early innovators in open education, people who have been wrestling with the issues of student engagement, personalized learning goals, and assessment in an open environment.  Having realized the flaws and the issues with the traditional xMOOC model, this was an opportunity to engage with that community; to combine the student numbers, the hype, and the venture capital money with the experience and expertise of the founders of this movement.  Unfortunately, what we got was the standard Coursera shtick, which many of us had heard before.

But there is hope!  More so, I think for the open education community to learn from the mistakes of these early MOOCers, than for the Coursera and Udacity’s of the world.  Selling your principles to venture capitalists may make headlines, but it doesn’t necessarily make good learnin’.  However, creating a flashy yet simple interface, and making it easy for students to understand what they are supposed to do are two really important components that I think we should take away from this.  One of the great problems that the new competency-based programs springing up all around the country are facing is getting students, molded into thinking about education in terms of semesters, courses and lectures, to understand something new.  And that’s really what we are trying to do with open education – get students to understand something new.


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