You can love or hate Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), but you can't ignore them. This is my cliched response to the equally cliched ritual that has become a feature of conferences about education: The designated speaker about education technology almost always seems to start with the sequence of questions: "How many of you have ever joined a MOOC?" and a few hands go up. And, then, almost invariably, "How many of you have completed any?" - almost no one responds to this one.
Almost no one, because I am getting used to being the only one in the room who has completed a MOOC. In fact, I have completed five now, and enjoyed immensely the ones I completed. But, I raise my hand not proudly, but hesitantly, because I expect no kudos for completing courses that almost no one seems to bother about: I don't get any, expect a dismissive "well done" before the speaker moves on to make his/her point.
Which is, essentially, no one completes a MOOC. That keeps everyone happy, except an oddball like me. I carefully keep my HarvardX certificate open on my iPad before I raise my hand, but no one bothers to challenge me anyway. The point is made - MOOCs don't matter.
Surely, one could skip the second question altogether. Because, usually in these exalted conferences, in the enlightened gatherings of university administrators, policy makers, education investors and businessmen, not more than 5% has ever tried out a MOOC. Before even we get to the point of completion rates, MOOCs are proved to be a damp squib. At least inside the Conference Halls where the future of education gets discussed, debated and presumably decided.
But then one should expect this, isn't it? These discussions are for, by and of the people of the sector; any talk of disruption should surely be left outside. This has been the history of disruptive ideas, including the one which said - those who don't learn from history are condemned to repeat it.
I am not suggesting that MOOCs will make Higher Ed as we know it obsolete. Far from it: MOOCs are essentially a conservative phenomena, a defensive move, I shall contend, of the Higher Education sector. MOOCs are, seen this way, an extremely clever innovation of some of the universities to protect itself from the disruption that education technologies, rising aspirations, disrupted middle class lives and bad colleges were causing to the idea of higher education.
So why do MOOCs still have to be defended? Because not everyone gets it. While some universities and innovators are creating this defensive strategy as if from a Christensen playbook, the others are sleepwalking to oblivion. The fact that not even 5% of the education innovators or investors don't bother to check out a MOOC is telling enough. The further fact that one still talks proudly about completion rates, displaying a mindset which has not yet left the finite bounds of a classroom, demonstrate the disconnection. Rajay Naik, the Director of External Relations of British Open University, takes issues with this talk about completion rates, rightly: We should celebrate participation and stop bothering about completion, he contends.
The disruption to Higher Education as we know it will come from outside Higher Education sector. It won't come from For Profits that play the game by the same rules. It will rather come from players outside the system, who are defining a new idea of education in different - vocational, professional, employer-led training - sectors. It would come from Open Education companies unaffiliated to universities. It would come from global players putting employer networks together. Most of the Higher Education sector does not see it, does not want to see it. This is why the discussion even about MOOCs sound so pointless.
If a parallel has to be drawn, it sounds like the talk about PCs among the big mainframe guys in the late 70s: This was to be a child's play, domain of the nerd, of the lonely looney. May be it is worse than that: But then if counter-culture always had a space in computing circles, in the starchy world of Higher Ed, it is totally unwelcome. However smart a strategy this may be, Higher Ed as a sector is intent on devouring itself and MOOCs may not be able to reverse that.
However, whatever its impact may be, MOOCs should be defended and celebrated, at least as long as it lasts.
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