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Margin Notes

The MOOC is dead, long live the MOOC

Massive open online courses are shifting in new directions.


Last November, the New York Times declared 2012 the Year of the MOOC. Now, halfway through 2013, the MOOC momentum appears to be slowing – or, at least, shifting in a new direction. Some higher education observers go further, claiming the MOOC “revolution” is over.

For the uninitiated, MOOCs are massive open online courses generally offered free of charge by professors at elite universities to tens of thousands of people at a time. They are also a source of much breathless hyperbole about being a “game changer” or “creative disruptor” or “tsunami” that will sweep away traditional university campuses.

The chief purveyors of MOOCs are Coursera, edX and Udacity. The University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia are offering several MOOCs through Coursera, while the University of Alberta is launching a MOOC this fall with Udacity.

MOOCs are a grand idea – the democratization of higher education! – but they have attracted as many skeptics as promoters. Among the criticisms levelled at MOOCs: completion rates are abysmally low, the online format is often not very innovative pedagogically, and they aren’t offered for credit. The biggest knock against them is that there is, as yet, no appreciable business plan for how they’re supposed to make money.

This has not stopped the starry-eyed MOOC promoters such as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman or author (and recently installed University of Trent chancellor) Don Tapscott. However, the ground appears to be shifting below their feet. Several higher education analysts point to a recent announcement by Coursera as the beginning of the end for MOOCs as we know them.

Until now, most MOOCs have been specialized one-off courses offered by professors at top universities and have attracted people who were taking the course simply out of personal interest. But, at the end of May, Coursera announced that it is “exploring MOOC-based learning … on campus.” More specifically, according to the New York Times, Coursera is forming partnerships with 10 large state university systems and flagship public universities to create courses – including introductory and required classes – that students can take for credit, either fully online or with classroom sessions. Presumably, they will pay for these courses.

(Udacity also seems to be changing gears. A University of Alberta blog claims Udacity has “decided to shift its business model” to focus on developing “a full online undergraduate and graduate degree in computer science” instead of offering “a wide variety of courses in many disciplines.”)

The Coursera announcement prompted one U.K. blogger to claim, “You Can Stop Worrying About MOOCs Now,” adding, “we all knew the MOOC bubble would burst sometime, but I’m saying it’s happened this week – it just doesn’t know it yet.” Similarly, Canadian higher education analyst Alex Usher proclaimed in his blog that Coursera has “jumped the shark” (a popular trope meaning it’s headed downhill) and that this signals the end of the revolution.

What these two bloggers, and many others, point out is that the move by Coursera makes it more of a competitor to courseware providers than a revolutionary disruptor of higher education. Others say this puts Coursera on course to become more like an academic publisher.

An Inside Higher Ed article spells it out: “some universities will try Coursera to see how well they can use its software to offer traditional for-credit online classes to dozens of registered students at once. If universities like the platform, long-time industry players like Desire2Learn and Blackboard could find themselves with new competition. Others will turn Coursera into a new kind of textbook by pairing online material from elsewhere with their own university’s instructors.”

What’s more, the “on campus MOOCs” proposed by Coursera sound suspiciously like the blended learning models that many educators have been advocating for some time. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just far from the revolutionary – or apocalyptic, depending on your point of view – MOOC rhetoric of last year.

I highly doubt these recent developments mean the end of MOOCs, but they certainly seem to indicate that the MOOC concept is undergoing a transition. Keith Devlin, a mathematician at Stanford University who has given two MOOCs, calls this the “first generation of MOOC platforms” and says they represent “a significant phase shift, not only in terms of the aggregate functionality but also the social and cultural context in which today’s MOOCs are being offered.”

Dr. Devlin also says MOOCs should be more properly considered a learning resource rather than a course. Through MOOCs, universities could share course material among themselves or license other universities’ content.

Roseann O’Reilly Runte, president of Carleton University, seems to suggest something along these lines in a recent opinion piece: “Classes can combine Internet connections, Skyped conversation, video-teleconference and satellite hookups with videos and segments of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) produced around the world” (my emphasis).

However things eventually turn out, these sorts of conversations are certainly a welcome relief from the commentary of venture capitalists and others about how MOOCs will upend universities and obviate the need for most university professors, or how MOOC “efficiencies” could allow governments to slash postsecondary education funding.

A final point is that the MOOC mania has had the benefit of highlighting the potential of online and distance learning which, after all, have been important but fairly minor components of postsecondary education for decades. Many of the universities that have signed on to provide MOOCs have promised to include a research component to see what works and what doesn’t, which is a fine development.

The Bill and Malinda Gates Foundation recently announced it is funding a MOOC Research Hub. “The peer-reviewed research on MOOCs has been minimal,” notes the foundation. “The MOOC Research Initiative (MRI) will begin to address this research gap by evaluating MOOCs and how they impact teaching, learning, and education in general.” Let the fun begin.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Lorna Marsden / June 19, 2013 at 11:21

    The article on MOOCs in the New Yorker recently said that paying for these courses will start this fall. While the article covered all sides of the issue, skepticism won over enthusiasm for the idea. Like TED talks, MOOCs seem rather more entertainment than learning experiences for most people.

  2. Gena Hahn / June 19, 2013 at 12:18

    Without reading the whole article I must make this comment. The author says ” The biggest knock against them is that there is, as yet, no appreciable business plan for how they’re supposed to make money.”
    Therein lies the whole problem of higher education today. What happened to learning? To teaching? To thinking?

    Before I get jumped on with ” somehow people need to be paid” let me say that this I realize. It is the idea that “money must be made”, as opposed to “the system must be funded”. There are things that simply should not be for profit since they benefit society as a whole (health care, public transport, education).

    More perhaps after I finish reading.

  3. Kellogg Booth / June 21, 2013 at 11:17

    Even in Canada, Bill and Melinda Gates are still Bill and Melinda Gates.