Living with MOOCs: Surviving the Long Open Learning Winter

March 21, 2013 at 1:51 am 12 comments

One of the positive benefits of MOOCs is that a lot of faculty and administration are exploring educational innovations with technology.  When teachers explore how to facilitate learning, improved teaching and learning is likely to result. One of the problems is that many of these teachers and administrators are deciding that MOOCs and other open learning resources are the best bets for addressing educational problems.  They are buying into the belief that open learning is the best that there is (or, perhaps, the only thing that they found) and into the associated beliefs (e.g., that existing educational systems are ineffective and unsustainable, that “everyone already knows that a college degree means next to nothing“).  Those of us who do educational technology research and don’t do MOOCs are likely in for a stretch where our work will be under-appreciated, or simply ignored.  The AI community talks about their “AI Winter.”  Let’s call this the Open Learning Winter.

Regular readers of this blog (and I’m grateful that you are here!) know that I’ve been doing a good bit of traveling the last few months.  From MIT and Stanford, to Indiana and SIGCSE, I’ve had the opportunity to hear lots of people talk about the educational innovations that they are exploring, why they have decided on MOOCs and other open learning resources, and what they think about those of us who are not building MOOCs.  The below are paraphrased snippets of some of these conversations (i.e., some of the parts of these quotes are literally cut-and-paste from email/notes, while other parts are me condensing the conversation into a single quote representing what I heard):

  • You do ebooks?  Don’t you know about Connexions?  Why not just do Connexions books? Do you think that student interactivity with the ebook really matters?”
  •  “You’re making ebooks instead of MOOCs?  That’s really interesting.  Are you building a delivery platform now? One that can scale to 100K students this Fall?” As if that’s the only thing that counts — when no one even considered that scale desirable even a couple years ago.
  • “Ebooks will never work for learning. You can’t ask them to read.  Students only want video.”
  • Anchored Collaboration sounds interesting. Can I do it with Piazza?  No?  Then it’s not really useful to anyone, is it?”
  • “Why should we want to provide resources to state universities?  Don’t you know that all of their programs are going to die?”
  • NSF Program officer at CCC MROE Workshop, “We better figure out online education.  All the state universities are going to close soon.”

These attitudes are not going to change quickly.  People are investing in MOOCs and other open learning resources.  While I do not believe that the MOOCopalypse will happen, people who do believe in it are making investments based on that belief.  The MOOC-believers (perhaps MOOCopalypse survivalists?) are going to want to see their investments will pan out and will keep pursuing that agenda, in part due to the driving power of “sunk costs” (described in this well done Freakonomics podcast).  That’s normal and reasonable, but it means that it will be a long time before some faculty and administrators start asking, “Is there anything other than MOOCs out there?”

I think MOOCs are a fascinating technology with great potential.  I do not invest my time developing MOOCs because I believe that the opportunity cost is too high.  I have had three opportunities to build a MOOC, and each time, I have decided that the work that I would be giving up is more valuable to me than the MOOC I would be producing.  I do not see MOOCs addressing my interests in high school teachers learning CS, or in end-users who are learning programming to use in their work, or in making CS more diverse. It may be that universities will be replaced by online learning, but I don’t think that they’ll all look like MOOCs.  I’m working on some of those non-MOOC options.

Researchers like me, who do educational technology but don’t do MOOCs, need to get ready to hunker down.  Research funding may become more scarce since there are MOOCopalypse survivalists at NSF and other funding agencies.  University administrators are going to be promoting and focusing attention on their pet MOOC projects, not on the non-believers who are doing something else.  (Because we should realize that there won’t be anything else!)  There will probably be fewer graduate students working in non-MOOC areas of educational technology.  Most of the potential PhD students who contacted me during this last application cycle were clear about how important MOOCs were to them and the research that they wanted to do.

We need to learn to live with MOOCs, even if we don’t do MOOCs.  Here are a couple of the hunkering down strategies I’ve been developing:

  • While I don’t want to spend the time to build a MOOC, I am interested in being involved in analysis of MOOC data.  It’s not clear how much data Coursera or Udacity will ever release (and why isn’t edX releasing data — they’re a non-profit!), but I see a great value in understanding MOOCs.  We might also learn lessons that can be applied in other areas of educational innovation with technology.
  • My colleagues involved in MOOCs at Georgia Tech have told me that we have the rights to re-use GT MOOC materials (e.g., all the video that has been collected).  That might be a source of interesting materials for my research.  For example, my colleague Jim Foley suggested that I might re-purpose video from a MOOC to create an ebook on the same content that might be usefully contrasted in a study.

I can’t predict just how long the Open Learning Winter might be.  Given the height of the hype curve associated with MOOCs and the depth of the pockets of the early adopters, I suspect that it’s going to be quite a long, cold winter.  Make sure that you have lots of jerky on-hand — and hope that it’s just winter and not an Ice Age.

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12 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Danny King  |  March 21, 2013 at 12:13 pm

    Another great post – it’s important to have a balanced conversation about MOOCs and your posts give me a lot of insight. This statement hit home for me:

    “Ebooks will never work for learning. You can’t ask them to read. Students only want video.”

    I really hope this kind of argument is opposed wherever it pops up. Video is a very valuable way to learn material (as are lectures) but true learning comes from deeply exploring subject areas, which requires reading – usually textbooks. This is something many students don’t seem to want to do – many students want to do the minimum work necessary to grasp ideas and content (I’m a student). That’s a natural impulse, but I think students must always be encouraged to delve deeper if they want to become experts (or even proficient beyond an exam) in a subject. This isn’t something MOOCs usually encourage. Although it’s not something universities are particularly good at encouraging either sometimes. My point is: it’s not really about what the student finds comfortable, it’s more about what the student needs in order to learn and making that as easy and engaging as possible.

    • 2. chaikens  |  March 22, 2013 at 10:53 am

      Reading is required…but is not enough for deep learning. That comes from solving problems which entails rethinking, connecting with contexts and producing written* results on one’s own. That is the function of traditional college course homework and projects. Of course, the easier and more engaging the problem solving path is the better, as long as it ends with success at the depth expected in the subject. In some subjects like math and physics, re-reading of notes taken during lectures in order to apply them to new problems sometimes suffices.

      MOOCs like Coursera’s upcoming course on Scala will combine questions during the lectures with quizzes and homework.

      * The arts require results often in other equally challenging forms.

  • 3. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  March 21, 2013 at 10:36 pm

    EdX isn’t releasing data because it is a pure PR play, there is no intent to monetize it, to extract useful information from it, or to educate anyone with it. MIT and Harvard will get their $60m worth of publicity from it, then move on. Meanwhile, universities that don’t have huge endowments to burn will have wasted similar amounts of money and not even get the PR benefits.

  • 4. Doug Holton  |  March 21, 2013 at 10:57 pm

    I agree with many pedagogical criticisms of MOOCs, but it does seem to increase public interest in college-level topics (like artificial intelligence), increase faculty/college interest in pedagogical issues and educational technology, and increase awareness/expectations of open/free educational resources and online learning. I gave a presentation of the pros and cons of MOOCs a few weeks ago to my university:

    I wouldn’t really call it an open learning winter. There is a ‘winter’ of educational/social research already happening due to the recession and budget sequester. Several of my colleagues are still waiting to hear about their NSF grant proposals because of budget issues, for example. Another concern is that most of these MOOCs are free (as in money) but not really open (openly licensed for re-use, edX is an exception). Coursera can (and will) not make it so easy to re-use their course materials in other contexts.

    But we can turn the ‘MOOC madness’ on its head by creating MOOCs that raise even more awareness of pedagogical/technological issues, such as the recent learning design MOOC (OLDSMOOC – ) and the upcoming open course on technology enhanced learning (OCTEL – ).

    • 5. Mark Guzdial  |  March 22, 2013 at 8:53 am

      Doug, these are interesting claims. Do you know of studies showing that MOOCs increase interests as you describe?

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