Coming of the Non-MOOC
With EdX's announcement that they have finally decided to search for sustainability by limiting the access to their online courses, the much awaited moment of normalisation of MOOCs has arrived. The euphoria that accompanied the launch of Coursera and EdX - that these 'free' lectures from professors of world's best institutions would completely transform learning in mediocre institutions and particularly in developing countries - is finally and truly over.
Its contemporaries have long abandoned the road: Udacity turned itself into a paid platform of profitable ambition long time ago, and Coursera, the most popular, have limited graded assessment to paying students (along with verified certificates) almost three years ago. Futurelearn, the late-coming British counterpart, in keeping with 'shop-keeping' culture of British universities, never indulged much in world-changing rhetoric, but rather kept itself to the promotion of 'brand Britain' with unapologetic commercialism. EdX, more deeply embedded into some of the world's most prestigious universities, has been the last pillar standing.
This is not to say no good has come from MOOCs. It has rescued the reputation of online education from being the sole preserve of the charlatan. Notwithstanding the fact that the inflated valuations and easy money of the MOOCs crowded out the space, it helped spawn out legitimate offerings, including a number of technically-minded options, such as GetSmarter or Lynda. The online learning marketplaces, such as Alison or Udemy, of variable quality and uncertain reputation, would have been forgotten without a trace if the MOOC surge did not lift their boat. Yet others, like The Great Courses, with high quality videos and real game-changing ambition for lifelong learning, would have remained in the niche of refinement, until MOOCs (and Bill Gates) made their appeal global. Interesting new formats, such as practitioner-led MasterClass, got a hearing in its aftermath. After EdX, the statement that 'students don't like to learn online' has become a marker of ignorance rather than understanding.
But none had such overarching ambition such as the MOOC pioneers. The Massive and the Open were not to be mere rhetoric but real statements of purpose. In fact, they were the whole point. It indeed could have been about promoting top universities, but the top universities needed little promotion. It could have been about recorded lectures along with reading materials, but some of the other offerings, notably The Great Courses, did this much better. It could have been about inexpensive college credits, but that would have squarely put these new formats back into the old bottle, of those shady, or near-shady, online colleges which were more known for disappearing with the learners' money than educating. There was a tinge of nobility about unleashing education from the bastions of privilege, though, at the same time, the imperial visions of dominating the world with one kind education were also equally noticeable.
EdX's current pivot in search of profitability is more brutal than Coursera's, and therefore, more telling. Not only EdX would limit the graded assessments and verified certificates to paying students, it would also limit the access to content for auditing students to the duration of the class only. Obviously, EdX wants to do it to encourage students to sign up for verified certificates, but one consequence of this would be that there would be less content available on EdX site for auditing students, as the classes usually run for a limited period. EdX would no longer be massive or open, just another online learning provider, selling prestige of the universities rather than expanding access to knowledge.
Indeed, that is how it should be. For all the ever-expanding rhetoric of changing the world, the reality of For-profit education is just like any other luxury good - something that enhances prestige and makes you feel good about yourself. EdX's purpose in the world, like the other online shops, would be to compete for a share of the newly created market for Higher Education, among the poorer people in the developed countries or among the new middle classes in the developing, an 'outreach' tool for global brands to keep one foot in the door. They would play no part, as they otherwise claimed, in the transformation of higher education, to expand access to it and create new and more relevant models.
So, the passing of the MOOC dream is not a moment of mourning, but one to reflect and realise. The key lesson is that it is difficult to change Higher Ed, and this has been discussed numerous times ever since the MOOC pretenders invaded the scene. But, more acutely, it is the poor people who must invent their own models of educating - silicon valley billions are not going to do that for them. There must be a new kind of education - technologies for which are ready and available, models for which have been tried and perfected - and those who are at the fault lines must now seize the day and bring it about. At this time of non-MOOCs, the advent of the open and the local may offer the possibilities that were promised by the MOOCs.