Not Your Father’s MOOCs

“I wish they would just step away from the MOOC terminology, which is, let’s be honest, copying and lending out a videotape in another name.”

Not Smelling the RosesThat’s a quote from Kevin Bell’s recent essay, “The Hijacking of MOOCs.” Bell is the executive director for online curriculum development and deployment at Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies. His essay makes an important point, that much of the current attention to MOOCs (massive open online courses) fails to build upon or even acknowledge the groundbreaking work of Stephen Downes, George Siemens, and others in developing MOOCs back in 2008. Journalist Audrey Watters made the same point in her recent keynote at the Ed-Tech Innovation conference in Alberta, Canada. I had in mind this failure to acknowledge the original “connectivist MOOCs” (cMOOCs) when Vanderbilt launched its MOOC initiative last fall, which is why I wrote about cMOOCs in my very first blog post about the Vanderbilt-Coursera announcement.

Another reason I cited Siemens and colleagues in that blog post last September was that I was worried that the MOOCs being launched at that time, from institutions such as Stanford and MIT, were, as Kevin Bell puts it, “copying and lending out a videotape in another name.” Perhaps @EDTECHHULK said it best, in a tweet from almost exactly a year ago today:

THANKS HARVARD + MIT FOR TAKING INDUSTRIAL MODEL OF EDUCATION PREVIOUSLY AVAILABLE ONLY AT ELITE SCHOOLS! AND MAKING IT AVAILABLE TO MASSES!
@EDTECHHULK
EDTECH HULK

The “xMOOCs,” as the MOOCs from Harvard, MIT, Stanford, and others came to be called, seemed to be characterized by a one-way transmission of information through lecture videos, with some robo-graded quizzes along the way for rudimentary assessment. I had read enough critiques of MOOCs by my colleagues in the educational technology field to be wary of poorly designed online courses that focused on low-level learning objectives and failed to engage or assess students in meaningful ways. I wanted to leverage some of the lessons learned by the connectivist MOOCs to make Vanderbilt’s MOOCs more learner-centered than what I was seeing from the xMOOCs.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that there were many other people like me at institutions building MOOCs who were also interested in making better MOOCs. We’ve come a long way in a year.

Here’s Kevin Bell again, contrasting the current (“corrupted”) generation of MOOCs with earlier cMOOCs:

“Corrupted MOOCs circumvent the need for anything other than talking (lecture-style) to a camera with the hope that the ‘nice young guys and gals at CoursEdXra’ drop me into a backdrop of the Parthenon and/or animate the background with pen cast versions of napkin sketches. There’s no building of an online community, facilitation of discussion threads, not even grading of papers, just, ‘I’m done — here’s my MOOC!’”

First, I’ll point out that the “nice young guys and gals” at Coursera don’t actually help with video production. That’s all done locally at the institution building the MOOC. As for building online communities and facilitating discussion, I’ll point to Modern & Contemporary American Poetry taught by Al Filreis at the University of Pennsylvania, which held regular virtual office hours to foster community among students both local and distant. Or Ohio State’s TechniCity course, taught by Jennifer Evans-Cowley and Thomas W. Sanchez, which is using the online idea collaboration tool MindMixer to help students share and discuss project ideas.

Or Vanderbilt’s own David Owens, whose Leading Strategic Innovation in Organizations course is wrapping up this week and is (I think) the first Coursera course to feature course-long team projects. Check out this team’s final presentation, in which they describe their efforts to solve a local bicycle parking problem:

Or this team’s project, which involved motivating co-workers to keep their office kitchen cleaner:

Or this team, consisting of members in South Africa, Bolivia, Florida, and Mexico, whose project, “Labels for Little Old Ladies,” tackled a particular challenge faced by a non-profit using senior citizen volunteers:

Want more examples of student work in a MOOC? Check out these final projects from Karl Ulrich’s course Design: Creation of Artifacts in Society at the University of Pennsylvania, offered last fall.

I’m not arguing that all MOOCs are quite as learner-centered as these, but I do think that the characterization of MOOCs as “copying and lending out a videotape” is misguided, at least in 2013. It might have been true in early 2012, but, as I noted above, we’ve come a long way in a year.

And we’ll likely see more innovation in MOOCs over the next year. I have my eye on Stanford’s Mobile Health without Borders, which will feature small group assignments; Vanderbilt’s Student Thinking at the Core, in which pairs of teachers will observe each other teach; and the University of Wisconsin’s Human Evolution: Past and Future, which will likely include a crowdsourced research project of the kind I described in my recent post on MOOCs and the digital humanities.

I’ll finish this post by pointing to some important questions about MOOCs that Kevin Bell raises in his essay. For instance, Bell writes:

“Now Open no longer means open resources — it has been unofficially changed to mean ‘open to anyone.’”

MOOCs on the Coursera platform are open… to a point. Their terms of service prohibit students from taking a course through Coursera as part of a credit-bearing course at any academic institution without prior permission from Coursera. And the course materials on a Coursera MOOC are owned by the instructor and/or institution running the course, who aren’t required to make those course materials open source (available for reuse and remixing).  The cMOOCs were more fully open, making use of open source materials and accepting as a student anyone with an Internet connection. What will “open” mean for MOOCs going forward? That’s a good question.

Kevin Bell also writes:

“MOOCs are being used by many institutions to avoid actually having to discuss issues like ownership of curriculum, scalability and strategic online growth.”

I don’t know if this is true for “many” institutions–it’s certainly not true for Vanderbilt, where I’ve participated in many discussions about intellectual property and strategic online growth. We’re using our MOOC initiative, at least in part, as an experiment to figure out how online learning should be incorporated into our educational mission. We’re learning a lot about online learning this year, thanks to our MOOC experiences, and I’d like to think that we’re leveraging what we’re learning in strategic ways. But Bell’s point still stands: Questions about intellectual property, faculty governance, and how academic institutions work together are questions with which higher education needs to grapple.

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