Wednesday, June 20, 2018

No more "MOOCs"

Last update: Monday 8/20/18
"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet ..."  

With all due respect to the Bard, what something is called sometimes matters a great deal. I suggest that the word "MOOC" had a clear meaning back in 2011 when it was an acronym for a "massive, open, online course" ... but not anymore. 

Nowadays the word "MOOC" is often used to designate courses that do not have massive enrollments and are not "open" either in the sense of being free of charge or of being open to anyone regardless of their prior knowledge of the subject matter of the course. Some media refer to all courses offered via the edX or Coursera platforms as MOOCs just because Coursera and edX were prominent pioneers in the MOOC movement. I am concerned that continued use of the term impedes our chances for making the greatest possible progress in online education now that the MOOC movement is over. ICYMI: Yes, it's over ... :-)

Before the movement began in 2011, we had various kinds of online courses and programs; after the MOOC movement in 2018, we have a broader mix of online courses and programs. Full disclosure requires that I admit to my conviction that the mix in 2018 is better in many important ways than in 2011. To be sure, the revolution promised by the most enthusiastic MOOC pioneers in academia never occurred. Nevertheless the evolution of higher education that actually resulted from their pioneering efforts has produced far reaching gains.
  • Prior to 2011, most online courses were provided by second and third tier public institutions and by for-profit operations. The nation's top tier disdained online education; only a few of these institutions offered online degree programs or online courses of any kind.
  • Despite the persistent efforts of imaginative pioneers in the public sector, online education was tainted in the public eye. Its legitimacy was greatly undermined by the outrageous exploits of some of the nation's rapidly expanding for-profit operations, operations that charged premium tuition for online degrees and certificates that commanded little respect in the job market and left many students who failed to complete their programs with nothing to show for their efforts but mountains of student loans.

The fall of the for-profits and the rise of the elite providers of MOOCs
In 2009 the new Obama administration together with its allies in Congress launched a relentless campaign against some of the most prominent for-profit predators, a campaign that culminated in the collapse of the for-profit sector. By the end of Obama's second term in 2016, enrollments at for-profit colleges and universities, most of which had been online, were fractions of their enrollments during peak years; many for-profits had declared bankruptcy; while others were seeking refuge from government prosecutors (and creditors) by converting themselves into non-profit operations.

By a wonderfully fortuitous coincidence, the MOOC movement began in 2011 around the same time that the for-profit sector was in free fall. Better still, the movement was led by distinguished academics from some of the nation's most distinguished universities -- the same elite institutions that had heaped the most scorn on online education in decades past. But best of all, MOOCs were free ... which indelibly distinguished them from the expensive but ultimately worthless online courses offered by the for-profit scam artists. The bad guys were being routed and the good guys were arriving just in time to save the day for online education.

Whereas IBM's production of a PC in 1982 provided legitimacy for personal computers, the production of MOOCs by many of the nation's preeminent institutions of higher education via the Coursera and edX platforms over the years since 2011 has made online education a legitimate academic development ... finally. 

Despite their exotic name, MOOCs were never more than different flavors of online courses. Now that Coursera and edX are charging for some of their courses and imposing prerequisites for taking some of their courses, there is no significant distinction between the kinds of online courses offered by the elite via Coursera and edX and the kinds of online courses offered by other colleges and universities via Blackboard and Moodle and the online courses offered by DataCamp, Udacity, LinkedIn and other non-university providers. Now everyone is offering the same flavors. Calling some of these courses "MOOCs" maintains distinctions where there are no fundamental differences.

Opportunities for Collaboration
Hopefully the faculty at the nation's elite institutions will join hands with their more experienced and better trained colleagues at the nation's public colleges and universities who produced more than 70 percent of the online courses offered in the last twenty years. This collaboration would ensure that online education becomes more effective and more affordable for all students. 

Unfortunately, to date I have seen few signs that elite online providers have given much attention to resolving the pedagogical challenges whose solutions have enabled the best online courses from other public institutions to rival the effectiveness of their best face-to-face courses. This lack of concern for online pedagogy suggests that elite providers are adhering to the same fallacious assumptions they make regarding their face-to-face courses: 
  • The best experts in a field make the best teachers; 
  • Special training is required to become a subject matter expert; 
  • No training is required to become a great teacher of that subject. 
I sincerely hope that I'm wrong, but if I'm right higher ed will miss great opportunities for collaboration with benefits flowing both ways. For example, elite institutions would benefit from the participation of their faculty in the training programs offered by the Online Learning Consortium. Another example, non-elite institutions would benefit from ongoing discussions with the faculty at Georgia Tech's Computer Science program who have developed a truly low cost, high quality masters degree program (one third the price of their on-campus program) that enrolls impressively diverse cohorts of students from this country and from around the world.

Roy L Beasley, PhD
DLL Editor

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