Monday, 5 November 2012

The Great MOOC Bunfight

Pardon my self indulgence. I promise not to do this very often, but I am feeling a bit agitated. Perhaps I am alone and if so, no harm had been done in any event. Like most folks I have been following along with what is happening in the world of big education. Actually massive education. Lots of learners, lots of participants, lots of courses, lots of data, lots of attention; lots and lots of articles, lots of potential, and perhaps lots of learning and disruption. Who knows, but definitely a lot of attention. In fact, just this past week, the New York Times proclaimed it The Year of the MOOC.

What more could we want? After all, dozens of colleges and universities are publicly investing in and experimenting with really alternative ways of providing educational services. Even better, when we scratch below the surface of Ivy League and other elite brands, enormous enrollments, just as enormous dropout rates, glowing testimonials, zero fees, predictions of extinction, and so on, we actually find at least three very interesting things:
  • A tip-of-the-hat to Connectivist pedagogy, with the promise of eventually more substance,
  • Some very interesting non-profit (traditional college and university) and for profit partnerships, and
  • A willingness for traditional universities to participate in a teaching consortium.
For a sector much maligned for lack of creativity, you have to admit that a lot of institutions are starting to colour out of the lines. And it is not just the MOOC providers that are making some bold moves. How about Antioch Los Angeles partnering with Coarsera for credits and Colorado State University-Global Campus accepting credits from Udacity?

So, what’s there to be agitated about? Everything is great, right? I am honestly excited about the MOOC phenomenon. We are about to learn a lot and it is my hope that the attention and controversy stimulated by MOOCs will help focus attention on the unique value that various types of colleges and universities bring to individual learners. In addition, we also have the opportunity to learn a bit about what types of learners with what types of needs are best met by MOOCs and other non-traditional approaches to learning.

I am afraid though, that we are on the very edge of being distracted by some of the vendors who have unveiled their massive and open intents this past week. The less than dignified exchanges between Instructure and BlackBoard as they display their stables of aligned universities feels like the educational agenda is being appropriated. In the meantime, while the the software vendors are eying each other and poking a bit at the established consortia, the folks at Udacity are poking at the Corseara and edX models because of the baggage they carry from their university partners. In my mind, all of this taken together seems to be moving the MOOC movement from serious reform to the verge of a grand public Bunfight. Now I would never ask the education start-up’s and software vendors to act out of character, but I would ask them to please respect the higher education community, the learners we all serve, and what we are trying to learn.

Along these lines, the following quote from the previously referenced Year of the MOOC article brought a smile to my face.

Udacity courses are designed and produced in-house or with companies like Google and Microsoft. In a poke at its university-based competition, Dr. Stavens says they pick instructors not because of their academic research, as universities do, but because of how they teach. “We reject about 98 percent of faculty who want to teach with us,” he says. “Just because a person is the world’s most famous economist doesn’t mean they are the best person to teach the subject.” Dr. Stavens sees a day when MOOCs will disrupt how faculty are attracted, trained and paid, with the most popular “compensated like a TV actor or a movie actor.” He adds that “students will want to learn from whoever is the best teacher.”

With the exception of teachers being “compensated like a TV actor or a movie actor,” this quote sounds a lot like how the for-profit career colleges frame education, teaching, and learning. This is not a criticism, everything has its place and if the MOOCs take on the character of career colleges, that's just dandy. That said, there is no excuse for poor teaching, no matter what type of institution is doing the teaching.  Just as being an excellent researches does not make you a great teacher, it does not prohibit you from being one either.

I do think though that this reinforces that different learners have different needs, which are best served by different types of institutions. Dr. Stavens candidly points to some of these differences in his quote. Some learning needs are best met through engaging in an integrated curriculum at a university, while other needs are met through other ways including through for-profit MOOC providers. There is a truly enormous watershed of educational need that represents an amazing diversity of learners. The total pool of need is much larger than any particular institution or any particular model can address.

Really, it is not a competition. When considering the enormity of the challenges with which we are faced, Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund would say that, the sea is so wide and my boat is so small. I take it as a reminder that it is our job to keep building boats. No sense in lobbing "buns" at other builders.

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