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Margin Notes

2013 in review: the MOOC backlash, skills ‘mismatch’ and more

That’s the year that was in higher education in Canada and beyond.


This is the first time that I’ve tried my hand at an end-of-year look back at the events that affected universities in Canada and elsewhere in the past 12 months. It was an interesting exercise. Here’s my take:

As 2013 dawned, there remained a faint pro-MOOC glow following the “Year of the MOOC” in 2012 (as the New York Times described it). Times columnist Thomas Friedman, writing on Jan. 26, was still declaring, in the face of a rising chorus of naysayers, that universities were in the midst of a “revolution” brought on by massive open online courses. A day later, Don Tapscott, writing for the Globe and Mail from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, gushed that this was “the week university (as we know it) ended.” Yes, because of MOOCs. Good grief. The two pieces are almost comical in their techno-fetishist devotions, to borrow a phrase from higher-ed consultant Alex Usher. I hope they’re blushing.

Taking these two as marking one bookend to the year, the other bookend would most certainly be Sebastian Thrun’s declaration in late November in Fast Company that the MOOC provider he founded, Udacity, doesn’t “educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We offer a lousy product.” Speaking about the quality of Udacity courses, he said, “We’re not doing anything as rich and powerful as what a traditional liberal-arts education would offer you.”

That, readers, was the sound of the MOOC bubble – as envisioned by Thrun and a coterie of venture capitalists – bursting. Others timed the bursting bubble earlier in the year, when one of the other major MOOC providers, Coursera, said it was changing direction (“The MOOC is dead, long live the MOOC,” I wrote at the time.) Either way, as 2012 was the year of the MOOC, 2013 was predictably the year of the MOOC backlash – or, at the very least, the end of the MOOC hype.

Having not just one year, but two years in a row, linked with MOOCs may seem a bit much to those of you in higher-ed whose daily working lives do not revolve around MOOCs – i.e., most of you. However, there is no denying how much oxygen the MOOC conversation has sucked up, not just in North America but globally, far beyond any other higher-ed topic. And while the MOOC hype was overblown, there remain dozens – likely hundreds – of examples of experimentation going on with open, online learning. Some of these projects, such as those funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation through its MOOC Research Initiative, aim to fill the research gap about the impact of MOOCs on teaching and learning and are leading to some very interesting conversations.

Skills “mismatch”

Focusing more specifically on Canada, I think of CBC’s “Generation jobless” documentary, which originally aired in January, as a presage of the “skills mismatch” conversation that dominated our higher-ed reporting this year. Maclean’s magazine offered something similar early in the new year, entitled “The new underclass,” which claimed that “a [new] generation of well-educated Canadians has no future.” (I wrote about the two here).

This was later followed by the report from CIBC World Markets claiming that the “premium” of a degree, in terms of earnings and employment, is dropping as “too few students are graduating from programs that are in high demand” by the labour market. This led to my choice of the most hyperbolic headline of the year for Canadian postsecondary education, “Students, students everywhere – but few with a degree employers need,” from the trade publication Canadian HR Reporter.

In a similar vein, the Conference Board of Canada claimed that Ontario alone was losing out on as much as $24.3 billion in economic activity because employers cannot find people with the skills they need. The Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters estimated that, by 2016, Canada will have 1.3 million jobs sitting vacant because there is no one with the skills to fill them.

Not everyone was buying the “Skills mismatch” argument, most notably Don Drummond, former chief economist at TD Bank. Likewise on the “unfilled jobs” front, a paper published this past May by the University of Calgary’s Kevin McQuillan concluded that Canada is not facing a wide-scale labour shortage and is unlikely to confront one in the foreseeable future. This was echoed in a report in November by Cliff Halliwell from the Institute for Research on Public Policy.

Other events of note this year which I think bear mention include the increasing internationalization of Canadian campuses and efforts to help international students fit in; and the controversy over unpaid internships, which seems to have reached a tipping point. Perhaps less obviously, the accelerating move towards open-access publishing in Canada and the move away from Access Copyright were also two themes which marked the year. Internationally, I can’t help but think that competency-based learning is a thing we’ll be hearing more of.

That, or course, barely scratches the surface of all that happened in the past 12 months. What were some of the major trends in postsecondary education for you this past year?

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Anath Tikkum / December 18, 2013 at 14:11

    What was absent in 2013 was a bold move to deal with the precariously employed university professors who often teach in more than one university. They need to adjust to more than one administrative system loose a lot of time in the process, let alone in transit.
    As a result their research productivity is much reduced, added to that that they can only do research within Canada because one cannot leave the country while on unemployment benefits. In addition, while they have to declare officially that they are willing to work while on unemployment, the universities still expect us to have our course plans ready come the first day of the term.
    Universities who do not employ professors for 12 months should pay a tax surcharge (and all other employers as well) to finance some of the costs they cause.
    Obviously, a flexible labour force is needed by universities but why make their life so miserable?

  2. Charles / December 20, 2013 at 09:13

    While some academics may take comfort in the MOOC backlash and think they don’t have to jump on that bandwagon, it actually should make them worry.

    What we’ve learned is that when universities give away their education for free (by putting their lectures online), people don’t value it that much.

    Students at those universities are really paying for the diplomas, not the education.

    Universities should’ve cheered MOOCs on, not hope for their failure.

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