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An interview with Canadian MOOC pioneer George Siemens

George Siemens, Canada’s MOOC pioneer, opens up about where the movement is headed.


In 2011, renowned Stanford University professor and Google executive Sebastian Thrun launched his now famous, free online course on artificial intelligence, attracting a whopping 160,000 students worldwide and vaulting higher education onto the front pages of major international newspapers. It was dubbed a massive open online course, or MOOC. And just like that a movement was born. “Welcome to the college education revolution,” declared the influential New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman. That same newspaper pronounced 2012 as “the year of the MOOC.”

But as the year progressed, so too did the backlash against MOOCs, for a variety of reasons. As 2013 drew to a close, Dr. Thrun confessed to Fast Company that the scales had fallen from his eyes. “We don’t educate people as others wished, or as I wished,” he said, in reference to the low proportion of students who complete a MOOC that they had started with Udacity, the company he’d co-founded in 2012. “We have a lousy product.”

Was the revolution over as soon as it had begun? To put the events of the past three years into perspective, University Affairs checked in with George Siemens, professor at the Centre for Distance Education and associate director of the Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute at Athabasca University, and an early MOOC innovator. Dr. Siemens, along with Stephen Downes, senior researcher at the National Research Council, years earlier had launched what is widely recognized as the first MOOC, in 2008. It was a course on learning theory offered through the University of Manitoba where Dr. Siemens then taught. Dr. Siemens is also principal investigator of the MOOC Research Initiative, a project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to fund research that assesses the impact of MOOCs on teaching and learning. The group held its first conference in December in Arlington, Texas with dozens of researchers presenting their findings.

Dr. Siemens recently spoke to University Affairs about how MOOCs have evolved, where they are headed, and why it may be time to eliminate the MOOC acronym from the higher-ed lexicon.

University Affairs: When we spoke a year or so ago the MOOCs phenomenon was just starting to snowball. There were a lot of claims being made at the time about how MOOCs were going to revolutionize higher education. Have they lived up to the hype?

Dr. Siemens: No, I don’t think they have and I don’t think anything could live up to the hype that MOOCs were being proclaimed to be able to achieve. And I should mention it wasn’t really educators [making the claims]. It was really coming from a few individuals who had a bit of a vested interest in either their companies or venture capital firms. I think it had more to do with marketing and positioning and PR. One of the classic [examples] was Sebastian Thrun’s statement that in the future there would be 10 universities and Udacity would be one of them. And then you look at his very shocking admission, basically saying our product is crap. So I think the people that were driving the MOOC hype never really had an interest in the MOOC landscape. They were trying to position for a new technology product.

University Affairs: Dr. Thrun says part of the reason he thought Udacity had “a lousy product” was that the completion rates for Udacity classes were so low, less than 10 percent. But that didn’t come as a surprise to you, did it?

Dr. Siemens: No, not at all. Online learning has in the past struggled with higher attrition rates than traditional university courses. We found that with the early MOOCs we ran, starting in 2008, that people weren’t necessarily focused on getting a degree or getting a certificate of completion. They were there for a variety of personal or professional reasons. The other aspect is if I go to the University of Toronto, just as an example, and I am accepted into a bachelor’s program and I live in northern Ontario and I relocate to Toronto and I incur significant expenses, if I drop out there’s a huge economic, psychological and emotional cost. When a student drops out of an online course or a MOOC, they haven’t paid anything, so there’s no psychological affiliation necessarily with it. So even just using the word dropouts to refer to MOOCs in the same way we use dropouts to refer to the classroom reflects a lack of understanding of what MOOCs actually are and what they are intended to be.

University Affairs: Professor Thrun also disclosed that Udacity has started to focus more on professional development courses. Do you think that’s where all MOOC providers are headed?

Dr. Siemens: I don’t think so. The MOOC providers that have a tight affiliation with the academy, such as edX and FutureLearn of the U.K. and Coursera, have a more disruptive vision. They have a vision of getting learning out to the masses. I think what Udacity did early on is they relied heavily on venture capital funding. I think the reason they made that transition [to professional development training] was economic. The big thinking and the big ideas the company initially supported, they turned their back on it and decided that for us it’s more important that we make money and pay back our venture capital supporters than that we transform the higher education sector. Projects like edX don’t have those same financial constraints because it is not a for-profit venture. Those systems, I think, will continue to have a huge impact on the university sector and I think they have a capacity for disruption. Coursera is venture-capital funded but it seems they have been a bit more forward thinking. They are still growing rapidly. I think they are approaching around six million learners and just closed another $20 million (U.S.) in funding, so obviously there is something there that the venture capitalists are willing to bet big on long-term.

University Affairs: Since Dr. Thrun made those comments, there’s been a lot of gloating by critics of MOOCs and a lot of “I told you so.” Do you think that’s been entirely justified?

Dr. Siemens: Regarding Thrun and Udacity, I think the gloating is absolutely justified because this was an individual that was able to get front page coverage in the New York Times and USA Today for saying really absurd things. I think it’s important that we recognize that Udacity failing in their MOOC quest says nothing about MOOCs. It doesn’t say anything about open learning or learning at scale. These are things that go back long over a decade, open learning in particular. It’s still going strong. It’s making a huge impact in developing regions of the world. There are now [almost] 10 million students internationally who are able to access free, open, online education. That’s the equivalent of opening 40, 50 or more universities.

University Affairs: But there are some concerns. For one thing, the high attrition rates and the type of learner that online learning attracts – highly motivated students and not so much the at-risk or lower-income students, the ones the movement is trying to get at. Correct?

Dr. Siemens: Opening up education and opening up parts of the teaching and learning process don’t necessarily serve a clearly defined end-purpose other than just making education accessible and openly available. If you will recall, San Jose State had a failure with a Udacity project where their at-risk students were not completing the course. At the same time, edX and San Jose State ran a pilot that was a blended pilot, basically on-campus courses with a MOOC layer. And that produced far better outcomes than on-campus [courses] alone. The failure and attrition levels are real concerns, but once we stop thinking hype and bravado and promoting our companies and we start looking at the impact of the residential university systems, all of a sudden we start to see that there’s a role that MOOCs can play. But they’re not replacement models. They don’t replace the existing university systems. They augment it and help those universities become more relevant in the digital space. We’ve known in online and distance learning for 20 years or more that students who are at risk, you can’t just give them access. There have to be support systems in place that help those students to succeed.

University Affairs: What about students in developing countries? One of the early promises of MOOCs was to try and bring education to those who didn’t have it. But so far it doesn’t seem to be attracting as many students from these countries. Most of the participants have been from the U.S. and Britain and Canada.

Dr. Siemens: Those numbers vary. Some of the data that Coursera has shared indicates that only about 40 percent of their students come from Canada, the U.S. or Europe. India is a big area. China is less so but plays a big part. Africa, unfortunately, isn’t very well represented but is there. It will depend on the course and topic. One of the first courses run by MITx (a precursor to edX) was an electrical engineering course. One of the top performers was a 15-year-old girl from India. This is, I think, exactly what we mean when we talk about making knowledge available.

I was in India shortly after this MOOC rage was picking up. I was a little critical of the Coursera and edX MOOC model. But I met with a group of students there who said the quality of education they received through these MOOCs was far and away superior to what they were receiving at their own technology institutes. … Maybe rhetoric is all fine and good, but when there are people on the ground getting educational opportunities that result in actual employment, you have to reflect on some of that ideology.

I think MOOCs have an opportunity to give students in those regions opportunities and access. The problem is that a heavy part of what the existing MOOC providers offer is video-based, and there are parts of the world where Internet access is a legitimate challenge and that needs to be overcome. I’m hoping that [eventually] there will be an African MOOC portal that will serve the needs of African learners, rather than just importing the pedagogy and the knowledge that’s coming out of Harvard or Stanford. And I think, more importantly, these local hubs have to export their knowledge as well so that we have a better understanding of the issues that might exist in Africa, Latin America, China or India.

University Affairs: So it’s something that is still evolving?

Dr. Siemens: Absolutely. I think we are starting to see a maturing of our understanding of what MOOCs are. Coursera, for example, now has a [job] ad for a director of learning and teaching which shows a maturation of their product. They realized that they are weak on pedagogy but strong on technology. … You see systems like edX that are starting to partner regionally and provide the technology but not necessarily the content and the information – which means that local regions can start to do that. The hype is finally starting to die. We’re now starting to realize that MOOCs don’t do everything. But they do serve a particular need, and they are an important research opportunity for universities to help transition their activities and offerings in those spaces.

University Affairs: I read an interview in which you said “If 2012 was the year of the MOOC, 2013 is shaping up to be the year of the anti-MOOC.” Will we still be talking about them in 2014?

Dr. Siemens: I think we still will be. As the year progresses, though, I’m hoping that we will start to talk more about digital and online learning and blended learning, because I think that’s what MOOCs really reflect. MOOC is still a term that allows us to encapsulate a movement. I’m reminded of what happened with Web 2.0. In 2004 and 2005 we were inundated with Web 2.0 nonsense. Web 2.0 was supposed to do everything, make our coffee, raise our kids, change society. We all hated the term by the time it was done. MOOCs, I think, will do exactly the same thing. Going forward, I hope we will be able to do away with the MOOC acronym.

University Affairs: Do you really want to do away with the MOOC acronym that you helped popularize?

Dr. Siemens: If you overhype something, you eventually learn to hate it. The legacy of MOOCs in the higher education system, I think, will be valuable. The acronym, though, not so much.

Rosanna Tamburri is a regular reporter for University Affairs. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Rosanna Tamburri
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