Why deMOOCification won’t work

A few MOOCish ideas came together for me today. I was actually trying to avoid the subject, so info about MOOCs has to come to me (RSS as blessing and curse). For awhile all I got was how great today’s MOOCs were, how democratizing, how problem-solving, how very trendy. I just shook my head, watching as the forces of educational reform (which I used to favor) merged with commercial interests (of which I have never been a fan).

Now, in the past few months, there is a realization that Massive Open Online Classes, especially those in the xMOOC, proto-commercial model (think Coursera/Udacity) aren’t really such a good idea. There has been opposition. It has taken awhile for folks to realize that faculty will not only be sidelined into being “content experts”, but that they could lose their jobs as big classes are taught by fewer, less-educated people (simple arithmetic, really). There has been concern that C/U MOOCs perpectuate non-participatory, lecture-based pedagogies. There has been a dawning recognition that somehow MOOCs aren’t even really free (either as free beer or free speech).

So now we have some very cogent, intelligent reactions to the big MOOC trend. Many, however, want to turn the clock back. DeMOOCification, though I can’t find the word in Google much less Webster’s, is becoming a thing.

Aaron Bady’s paper on the MOOC Moment and the End of Reform  points out that MOOCs mark the end of efforts to actually reform what’s wrong with universities, implying one would have to turn back for real reform. Jonathan Rees (a MOOC objector from the beginning) predicts the ultimate failure of MOOCs, and calls faculty to arms. He writes:

I still think MOOCs will collapse from their failure to earn back their start-up costs by giving their product away. Nevertheless, MOOCs can still do an awful lot of damage during their long death throes.

Pulp-O-Mizer_Cover_ImageAs much as I don’t want to say this, I don’t think there’s a chance in hell that MOOCs will die on their own. I can’t think of any trend which saved large institutitions money and trouble, then died a natural death. And faculty can’t defend against them – we have been made powerless very slowly, over a long period of administrative takeover and public apathy (or even antipathy in our new era of anti-intellectualism). What happened at SJSU and Amherst is the exception  – an exception I applaud, but an exception. The public perceives faculty objections to MOOCs as an issue of job security rather than quality.

And yet Martin Weller also forsees the beginning of the end, as Coursera tries to define itself differently, which looks like a commercial product flailing around looking for how to make money.

But I see no sign of weakness. This week Audrey Watters reported that more and more state universities are adopting commercial MOOCs, contracted with Coursera  — this doesn’t surprise me in the least. MOOC “providers” have found their niche in contracting with universities. University money may not seem like much if you want to run a Fortune 500 company, but on sheer economies of scale it’s the biggest untapped market in the world.

We’ve got a lethal combination of ironies:

* a public perception that college is both overpriced and overfunded (ironically leading to state funding contractions),

* higher college fees due to expanding administrations while corporate/business interests buy influence at both public and private universities (more business was supposed to provide more money), and

* a sudden entrepreneurial interest in public education as the only expanding field (other than health care, but education doesn’t have the research or equipment costs)

So, as argued beautfully by Eric Hayot, too many forces are behind MOOCs to reverse them.  His conclusion is that we need to create good MOOCs, kind of like a counterforce to bad MOOCs.

That may be doable, but one thing that won’t work is wishing for MOOCs to go away. It just isn’t going to happen.

Nor will it happen that the good cMOOCs (which is where it all started) will become the default model for MOOCs. Connectivist MOOCs require self-direction and exploration on the part of students, which is difficult to assess on a massive, credit-earning scale. Commercial xMOOCs are catering to an entirely different audience: the masses of lower division students who couldn’t get into their GE classes. The motivation is completion and credits at the lowest price, not learning. Coursera/Udacity-run MOOCs are focused on numbers and super-prof lectures and automated grading of essays and quizzes, in order to process these masses of dissatisfied students who want to buy those pesky credits now. Administrators want to help them do it, saving money and gaining alumni. The demand and the desire to satisfy that demand are in perfect harmony, regardless of the problems.

To say that MOOCs will fade away because they’re of poor quality or bad pedagogy is like saying that McDonalds will go away because the food is unhealthy and the chairs are too hard, or that Walmart will disappear because the service is awful and it’s a lousy shopping environment. Convenience and price will win, regardless of quality. Creating good MOOCs might thus be Pollyannish, or naive, or consume far more time and energy than they would be worth. This is especially true if we start building solid, pedagogically sound MOOCs to feed into a machine more suited for fast food – good classes will be few and far between, and the “customers” will not appreciate them because they will make students think and take more responsibility for their own learning.

And no one really wants that.

8 comments to Why deMOOCification won’t work

  • […] taking flack for believing that Coursera is the next Pets.com here and elsewhere, so I thought I’d sum up why I believe this with three simple […]

  • Great points, and good analogy with McDonald’s/Walmart.

    “customers will not appreciate them because they will make students think and take more responsibility for their own learning.”

    Yeah in a way that’s how it is with traditional courses, too. There have been studies showing that the instructors who make students work harder and learn the material more deeply have lower, not higher, student ratings. So in a sense, they get punished, too: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/everybody-is-stupid-except-you/201305/do-the-best-professors-get-the-worst-ratings

    It’s like other jobs that service the community (police, firemen, healthcare) – when you are doing your job well, people don’t notice, or even complain about why they are paying so much money for the service. So doctors have to oversubscribe pills to keep people satisfied, police have to make ‘public’ shows of their presence even in areas that don’t need it to keep the community aware of their role, and teachers have to inflate grades or not be so honest in their feedback, perhaps.

    • I think it would be really valuable to move this discussion back into the context of the pedagogy of college classes in general. I also saw that article on professors and students evaluations. The drive here does not seem to be toward reward for a job well done.

  • Lisa, you’re articulating exactly the rationale for our site — for better or worse, MOOCs aren’t going away, so let’s have a serious discussion of which ones are effective and which aren’t. (And we try to let the actual students and their experiences drive that discussion.)

    I do have one point of disagreement: “The motivation is completion and credits at the lowest price, not learning.” To the extent that any of us can read minds or predict the future, that seems like a good guess. If you think the logic of capitalism is to extract maximum profit above every other value, then you can assume the worst about Coursera and Udacity. But if that devolution were inevitable, we wouldn’t have any other place to eat or shop besides McDonald’s or Walmart. Yet we all know of and patronize and are fond of restaurants and retailers — even some that have investors to answer to — that make other choices. The people running Coursera and Udacity are on record about wanting to improve learning. I don’t think universities and teachers should be naively take that for granted, but I think we should assume it is said in good faith while staying alert. To extend your call to action, not only should we build good MOOCs, we should hold MOOCs from Coursera and edX to the high standards they’ve set for themselves. It’s not inevitable that they will devolve into junk-food.

    Robert McGuire
    Editor, MOOC News and Reviews

    • Hi Robert! I saw your website today.

      People who can afford to eat elsewhere may do so – I anticipate “good” MOOCs as basically good online classes. But then they wouldn’t really be MOOCs, because Massive won’t work if you want individual feedback and guidance. But few (universities or students) will be able to afford such exclusive experiences. Obesity is a problem in this country not because there aren’t alternatives to junk food, but because people can’t resist the hyped-up taste and low prices, regardless of the consequences in the long run. Low-cost MOOCs provide the same temptation, but not only to the individual, but to entire institutions.

      I work for and am dedicated to the principles of public education, supported by public monies. Coursera and Udacity, like Blackboard and textbook publishers, are about increasing profits by utilizing data-driven models of “good” learning/education, some of which are entirely faulty. Perhaps it is best to be neutral on the issue of whether they are operating in good faith – I’m sure that for their sponser/shareholders, they are. For the development of an educated citizenry, I don’t think so.

      • Thomas Hagemann

        Re: “The motivation is completion and credits at the lowest price, not learning.” in your original post
        and “Massive won’t work if you want individual feedback and guidance” in your reply:

        Have you empirical proof of your “not learning” claim in MOOCs like coursera, udacity and edX? Most courses over there do not give credits, and anecdotal evidence (reading in the fora) tells me that many students there are eager to learn.

        And “massive” can work if you want individual feedback and guidance. It might depend on the definition of “individual”, but if you have questions, in the above mentioned MOOCs you very often get specific and helpful answers from co-learners – and actually because of the massiveness.

        • My opinion is based on my own experience with massiveness in the courses I have taken (admittedly in cMOOCs – I was in one xMOOC for only a few days), accompanying several online acquaintances through their journeys in xMOOC courses, my own development of and research resulting from the MOOC I designed, plus my reading of retention and student experience in current research on cMOOCs.

          My opinion on learning is based on that same observation and my own experience as an instructor in classes of 40 plus extensive experience and some research in learning management systems and how they are used.

          From this, I conclude that cMOOCs provide a shell around content in which the individual student will benefit if they are self-motivated and have frequent checks on their absorption of content. The more possible it is for the process to be automated without reliance on critical analysis of the content, the better the design of the xMOOC will work.

          However, the huge drop rate indicates a number of factors, not all related to the “free” aspect. You might consider talking to highly motivated people who have dropped xMOOCs, including Laura Gibbs. Her experience, and those of others like her, clearly indicate that “peer grading” and feedback from graduate students is not a good substitute for professorial guidance if you are trying to deeply learn a subject that cannot be reduced to multiple choice exams.

          Most student “questions” in a MOOC (as in a regular course) are not deep questions related to course content, but questions about process, navigation and course structure, often already answered somewhere in support documents, but also easily provided by colleagues who have done their reading/navigating or have some experience.

  • Vanessa Vaile

    Such a clear piece and, sigh…exactly what I’ve been trying to explain to a fearful (and hyped up in the other direction) cohort. MOOCs are not going to go away, and wishing won’t make it so.

    It is not just college. Machine grading, adaptive and on computer assisted learning is now in most middle and high schools. I hear teacher chat about MOOCs in high schools and middle schools ~ but probably not the private schools or public ones in high property tax neighborhoods. So what happens when these students (the ones that haven’t fallen between the cracks) reach college? GED is now at Pearson’s tender mercies, going 100% online with a revamp common core curriculum…double the cost.

    I too want to think about building better MOOCs and students learning how to learn, and do, not withstanding the competing image an edu-version of Farenheit 451°