MOOCs: If this is not the future, what is

If 2012 was the 'Year of the MOOCs' as proclaimed by New York Times, 2014 started on a downbeat note, with Harvard Professor Eric Mazur talking about 'MOOC Bust'. It is difficult to understand what accounts for such fickle sentiments, except that current pessimism is just a correction of the hype.

There were indeed talk of low completion rates - only a handful of students who register for a MOOC ever completes a course (Times Higher Education reported a figure of 7%, but that seems way too high) - but then completion rate itself is such an old economy model out of sync with Long Tail thinking: Kevin Carey wrote a fairly persuasive piece on why the completion rates of the MOOCs is simply the wrong measure ('Pay No Attention to Supposedly Low MOOC Competion Rates').

There was also the Fast Company article on Udacity founder, Sebastian Thurn, the Stanford Professor whose Stanford course on Artificial Intelligence may be claimed to have started it all. That article gave a sense that all is not right in the MOOC world, with Thurn admitting that his courses are not teaching people as well as he would have wished. 'We have a lousy product', was the soundbite from that interview which made the headline. Indeed, this article, for the first time, indicated the change of heart at Udacity about their 'change of course', a shift of focus to corporate education and an effective abandonment of their ambition of turning the world of Higher Education upside down.

News such as this encourage those who always questioned the MOOCs, primarily because it was free. Indeed, everyone knew that one can't keep dispensing good quality education for free for a long time; none of the MOOCs were countering these doubts with a robust answer, other than pointing out to various incidental benefits such as insights on learner behaviour and influencing the university recruitment strategies. These benefits counted, but whether these could generate enough revenue to cover the costs of continuing the high profile enterprise was always questionable. Thurn's remarks just substantiated this apocalyptic vision of a coming implosion, an exemplary failure such as U21 (a high profile international collaboration of leading universities offering online courses, which failed and was eventually sold to India's Manipal, who reoriented the brand and platform away from Higher Ed and into Corporate Education: See 'Another One Bites The Dust' here)

But this counter-hype about the demise of the MOOCs is surely overdone, as the proliferation of various new MOOCs, no doubt with fresh investments, bear witness to. Not only new universities offering courses, platforms in different languages and learners from all over the world have multiplied over the last year,  some of the old platforms, such as Alison, which was around for quite a while, have gained traction (and earned mention in the media, including The Economist) with the MOOC effect. An ecosystem of MOOCs are clearly visible in developing country universities and colleges, where an EdX room (or MOOC room) has become somewhat common. There are even businesses which are producing teaching materials around MOOCs, and teachers in less known institutions have caught onto MOOCs as additional material for the classes. Meetups are springing up all over the world - isn't it exciting to see an Indian entrepreneur and a German Engineer talking about Whitman sitting in the cafe at British Museum - and the public education, long dead with as the money economy progressively sought to enclose the learning commons, has indeed had a shot in the arm with the MOOCs. 

Given this, one can possibly view this cycle of counter-hype not just as a regular pushback against the initial surge of rhetoric, but a reminder that we have been having the wrong discussion all the while. The discussion around the MOOCs were economic, rather than pedagogical. This is somewhat down to timing: MOOCs came to view just as concerns were growing about student debt in the United States. This focused minds on the costs of Higher Education, though the real problem was always that Higher Education was not earning people good enough jobs that could help pay for it. MOOCs appeared as a handy thing to cut the costs of delivery - it is magical to be able to teach a class of thousands with just one professor - and media, investors and policy makers (including Britain's David Willetts) loved it. Whether or not this was in the mind of the creators and tutors of the MOOCs (Michael Sandel, as an example, was teaching large public classes without the MOOCs for years anyway), this is what caught the investors' and analysts' imagination. 

But this was indeed the wrong point, pushed to the fore by those who saw education as an industrial activity. The debate, centred around costs, rarely asked the question whether this could enhance education. The educators, sensing the further loss of privileges, disengaged from the debate and were left to oppose any moves to introduce MOOCs in their institutions (well, mostly). However, these cost advantages failed to materialise: As Professor Diana Laurillard argues in her recent piece in Times Higher Education, unsupervised learning was never the answer to the problems that Higher Education sector faced ('Five Myths about MOOCs'). 

On the other hand, the confluence of Online Video, Machine-based Assessment, machine capacity to handle a large number of learners at the same time, social media based spread of word and all the other technologies that were to enhance and change learning, did come together and enhanced and changed learning through the MOOCs. It did open up a new public sphere of learning and conversation, stoked people's curiousity and created a new architecture of Lifelong learning. However, we chose to have the wrong conversation: We were trying to use the combustion engine to light up gas lamps. Instead of looking at the possibilities of enhancement of learning, the wonderful capabilities of technology to connect people and enable conversations, we were looking at MOOCs as if they are the next textbook, as if they are the panacea of the cost disease in Higher Education, we were expecting it to reach out to those who never had Higher Education (we fail to learn: This was what Open Universities are for, but they tend to reach out to people who already had degrees, mostly). 

The current sobering, therefore, is in order. It is the return to real world of learning from the rosy universe of the moneymen, but there is enough to do in the real world, enough demand and enough problems to solve. As for solving Higher Education's problems, that will surely need another solution. Higher Education's problem is not that it is so costly to deliver, but that it is often not worth it. This needs a different conversation: Part of this problem may be solved within the academia, but certainly there are other parts of the equation for the employers, the policy makers and the public to solve. The institutionalised universities, the blinkered employers, the learners who are adept at the game of social recognition but nothing else, all need to participate in a new debate on how the 21st century learning should look like (apparently, it needs to be different than 20th century's, but nothing so far has changed). And, while we write off MOOCs from its world-changing roles, one thing is worth noting: Any 21st century education system will probably involve a re-ignition of the public sphere of learning, where people, regardless of their previous track record and credentials, can come together to learn subjects that they want to learn, in an affordable way, suiting the structure of modern lives. MOOCs may still be a very good part of that future.


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