If MOOCs fail

Last few weeks have been quite difficult for the MOOCs: After the initial flurry of change of the world rhetoric, suddenly some setbacks dampened the momentum. This started the usual I-told-you-so chatter, that MOOCs are just a passing fad. On the other end of the spectrum, the very usual optimism continues to persist: The balance has invariably tipped and will continue to tip, regardless of the fate of one or two companies. And, as in many other things in life, the sensible stance to take is somewhere in the middle, to consider the issues but not write off the phenomenon altogether.

To be clear, what we are dealing with isn't any reversal of fortune, but slowness of progress. And, despite the slowness, new things did indeed happen. Coursera raised another, bigger, sum, and new services, like NovoEd, did indeed launch. Some of the older services, like Alison, got eyeballs and traction, somewhat because of the general media enthusiasm about the MOOCs. The balance did indeed seem to start to tip, when individual training consultants and classroom training companies, who were sworn enemies of online learning (justifiably so, as they imagined that online learning will eat their lunch), suddenly discovered the promise of it and embraced it, replacing their costly training videos with free TED talks and even lectures or concepts from Udacity et al. So, the buzz is still powerful, ubiquitous and persistent, just as expected.

The bad news is, however, rather bad, because it undermines the MOOC's quest for a business model. The idea that these free courses will become the currency of college education, solving at once the costs and the access problem on a massive scale, helped the term to enter policymakers' lexicon. However, the first few experiments of the kind, Udacity's experiments with San Jose State University, has just gone down spectacularly. What is worse is that this reinforces the traditionalist's objections to online learning, that it is not easy to transition from classroom to online learning, and access to ICT, particularly for poorer students, create a disadvantage that undermine the claims of levelling the field otherwise. Everyone indeed be searching for answers, as is inevitable in experiments of this kind, but some answers may be worse than others. Sebastian Thurn, the Founder of Udacity, points to the existence of 'deadline free' courses, and 'poor communication of expectations'. Anya Kamenetz (see the article here) writes about lessons learnt thus:

While this trial certainly proved that MOOCs aren’t magic, nor will it be the end of experiments with online delivery or for-profit partnerships in public higher ed in California or elsewhere. Upcoming offerings like the Udacity-Georgia Tech $7,000 master’s degree in computer science, and Coursera’s partnerships with 10 state university systems to increase flexible paths to degrees, hopefully will learn from this pilot that, when they offer an online course, they’d better make sure there is a student at the other end with a laptop, an Internet connection and reasonable preparation and support to learn.

This is coming at the back of several other delays and setbacks on the 'For-Credit' MOOC front, notably the postponement of Altius Education and Tiffin University projects in June, and the postponement of SB 520, the bill in California legislature which would have allowed college credits based on MOOCs (see here). Arguably, the SB 520 postponement comes on the basis of expansion of online offerings by State Universities themselves: So in this case, the technological argument still holds its ground. In such cases, it seems the politics of MOOCs, that everyone would be expected to use the same content and structure of courses, leading to 'mechanical reproduction of the work of teaching', seems to be the bone of contention. Nathan Heller, of New Yorker, describes the furore:

"Two weeks ago, the philosophy department at San José State wrote an open letter of protest to Michael J. Sandel, a Harvard professor whose flagship college course, Justice, became JusticeX, a MOOC, this spring. “There is no pedagogical problem in our department that JusticeX solves,” the letter said. The philosophers worried that the course would make the San José State professor at the head of the classroom nothing more than “a glorified teaching assistant.” They wrote, “The thought of the exact same social justice course being taught in various philosophy departments across the country is downright scary.”" (See Heller's Laptop U article here)

One could argue that these are rather minor problems and take away nothing from the inexorable popularity of the MOOCs. However, such setbacks in its heartland, California, which seems to be the fountainhead of a new spirited ideology of reforming public services, questions the speed and ease of changing the world. The MOOCs set out to gain users first and figure out the business model later (as this Economist article points out), but this approach always carries the risk of being labelled a fad and going down in smoke if the investors suddenly found a new love object. MOOCs have been the dominant form of educational innovation in the last couple of years, but it still carries the risk of overreach.

Here lies the central problem with the glitches with MOOCs: Not just that they may look the whole phenomena vulnerable, but put in doubt all the different efforts of educational innovation. It is possible to argue that the buzz around MOOCs, funded by endless pots of investor money, undermined the innovation culture in Higher Education by promoting this one brand of innovation: If this fails to deliver its hyped up promise soon enough, this may mean a roll-back of many other initiatives, some completely unconnected with MOOCs. Education innovation has a blighted history: For example, two -year degrees (for what they are worth) has been debated for over a hundred years. Even if the pace of change has hastened in every other sphere of life, in Higher Education, such changes have been difficult and slow: One does not want another battle to be lost because someone promised someone the earth.


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