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What Will Happen to MOOCs Now that Udacity Is Leaving Higher Ed?

Sebastian Thrun threw a wrench in the MOOC model by declaring that massive open online courses don't work for higher education. What's next for the online learning trend?

It was about a year ago that the idea of using the Web to provide open-access, online learning at scale was thrust into the international spotlight. In November 2012, the New York Times christened "The Year of the MOOC," and a concept that had been percolating relatively quietly in academia quickly became The Next Big Thing.

Now a founder of one of the leading for-profit MOOC providers says massive open online courses aren't working in higher education. In a recently published Fast Company interview, Sebastian Thrun, co-founder of Udacity and one of the most-often quoted champions of the MOOC model, said that his company has "a lousy product" and revealed that he's planning to shift his enterprise's focus from higher education to corporate training.

Thrun, a Google Fellow and pioneer of the self-driving car, has a high profile in the MOOC world, so his comments provoked widespread reaction — everything from gleeful I-told-you-sos and barbed comments about his company's "Silicon Valley blindness" to existing learning research, to pointed criticisms of Udacity's business plan and Thrun's hyperbolic branding and buildup of unrealistic expectations about an online education delivery model that is still evolving.

There's plenty of evidence — and no shortage of acronyms — to suggest that MOOCs are, in fact, evolving. The first generation of cMOOCs, based on the connectivist peer-learning model, led to the xMOOCs that hit the market in 2011 with a more traditional lecture-based format and the backing of companies like Udacity, Coursera and edX. Cathy Sandeen, vice president for education attainment and innovation at the American Council on Education (ACE), has identified a third generation — MOOCs 3.0 — which disaggregates the elements of the xMOOC for customized uses on campus. Some have labeled versions of this model "small private online courses" (SPOCs). In early 2013, University of Texas at Austin psychology professors James Pennebaker and Samuel Gosling taught the first "synchronous massive online course" (SMOC), which added coordinated live lectures to the model. This last fall, some 17 colleges and universities offered a MOOC variation developed by Anne Balsamo, dean of the School of Media Studies at The New School, and Alexandra Juhasz, a professor of media studies at Pitzer College (CA), called "distributed open collaborative courses" (DOCCs), in which classes are organized around a central topic and the expertise is spread among the participants. Last spring, Daniel Hickey, associate professor at the Indiana University School of Education, got a grant from Google to create a "big open online course" (BOOC), a MOOC-like class built on Google's Coursebuilder course management system for up to 500 students. And coming in 2014: homemade MOOCs built on a platform that will be managed and hosted on by edX.

What does it say, then, about the future of the morphing MOOC when the man who has been called "The Godfather of MOOCs" seems to be throwing in the towel?

According to George Siemens, not that much in the long run. Siemens is a professor at the Center for Distance Education and a researcher and strategist with the Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute at Athabasca University in Alberta, Canada. Back in 2008, Siemens and online learning maven Stephen Downes designed and taught what is widely considered the first MOOC (of the connectivist variety).

"A year from now we'll be talking about something different from MOOCs," Siemens told Campus Technology, "but in my view, we'll still be asking essentially the same questions: How do we teach in digital networked environments? How do we teach when the power balance between a faculty member and a learner is different than it was in the past? How do we teach when learning can be tracked and measured and assessed outside the university or formal education?"

Those questions point to the underlying trends that spawned the MOOC in the first place, Siemens said — namely rising tuition and the growing influence of technology and social media on learning.

"MOOCs are a reflection of a series of trends that continue to influence the education sector," he said, "which means that tomorrow MOOCs could go away and those challenging aspects of our higher education systems would still be there."

Full Steam Ahead?
MOOCs certainly don't seem to be going away any time soon. Thrun's broody admissions notwithstanding, other MOOC-in-higher-ed ventures are moving forward apace. FutureLearn, for example, is busily rolling out courses for a big pilot program in the UK. Coursera just landed another $20 million in new funding. The business-oriented social network LinkedIn announced partnerships with Coursera, edX, Udacity and others that will make it possible for members to cite their completed MOOCs in their resumes. Stanford University's (CA) Venture Lab project has blossomed into NovoED, which is partnering with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching on MOOC-like approaches to support college-level quantitative literacy and math skill development. And Udacity's own partnership with Georgia Tech to offer the first fully accredited MOOC leading to a low-cost Master of Science in Computer Science degree is about to bear fruit. The program was developed in partnership with AT&T and is set to launch in January 2014.

Siemens has mixed feelings about all the entrepreneurial activity erupting around MOOCs. He said he was happy initially to see pioneers like Thrun and Coursera's Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller "experimenting and trying to stir up the inertia in the education sector," but the hype generated by Thrun's branding activities in particular "derailed the quality conversations" among researchers and educators about the challenges MOOCs were addressing.

Thrun went on the record early with rhapsodic predictions about the impact of MOOCs on higher education. "You can take the blue pill and go back to your lecture of 20 students," he told journalist Blake Graham shortly after his first MOOC experiment at Stanford. "But I've taken the red pill and seen wonderland." A few months later, he told Wired magazine that in 50 years, the proliferation of MOOCs would reduce the number of institutions delivering higher education worldwide to 10.

This kind of rhetoric cast the MOOC as competition for traditional colleges and universities, which would eventually rile faculty and, Siemens argued, obscure the potential of the model to expand services to students and the community. But he also noted that that language has been changing as MOOCs are increasingly seen less as models that might replace faculty and more as potential extensions of the university.

No 'One Course Format To Rule Them All'
Thrun's announced pivot away from higher ed comes after San Jose State University (CA) published the initial results of a much-talked-about experiment with a for-credit MOOC program developed with Udacity. Disappointing student performance prompted the school to put the program on pause this fall, with plans to start it up again in January 2014. Lost in the headlines generated by those results, Siemens pointed out, is an earlier SJSU program developed with edX, the joint effort of Harvard (MA) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to create an open source online learning platform. That program provides edX courses as optional resources for SJSU professors who want to use them for flipped classes.

"It added a MOOC layer to existing university activity, and that produced significantly better results," Siemens said. "That's the biggest change we're seeing now. It's the blended model that gets the improved outcomes, that gives the MOOC a different role — as a resource that can improve the quality of the residential university experience, rather than an entity that competes with it."

Alexander Halavais, associate professor in the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Arizona State University, is a social media researcher, well known higher-ed blogger and president of the Association of Internet Researchers. He agreed that pitting the MOOC makers against the colleges and universities, whether part of the plan or a byproduct of the hype, has been counterproductive.

"MOOCs have, at least in the incarnation that has been especially pushed by Udacity, been hyped to a ridiculous degree," Halavais said. "In particular, placing them in tension with a traditional liberal arts classroom, which is a pretty rare beast, is guaranteed to make them a losing proposition. It's not about MOOCs replacing courses at liberal arts colleges. It's about learning happening across a large number of institutions and networks in lots of new ways, and making sense of that new complexity."

Halavais sees the MOOC as "a collection of disruptive elements sparking something else in the higher ed ecosystem," and doesn't believe the term "evolution" fits in that context. "MOOC" is shorthand for "experimenting with online education at scale," he said. But the term could work, he allowed, if the evolution of the MOOC is seen as more of a Cambrian Explosion, in which a large number of new approaches are appearing quickly and disrupting the ecosystem as a whole.

"There isn't one course format to rule them all," he said. "There never will be and there never should be. MOOCs were and are just one potential collection of approaches to organizing a course."

An Ongoing Evolution
In fact, said ACE's Sandeen, "MOOC" may be a sexy buzzword for the press, but for those in the thick of educational research it's just another stage in the ongoing evolution of online learning. Even among the big three providers, it's an imprecise category, she noted. Coursera is all about global access, so "massive" was always part of its strategy, as was partnering first with elite universities to gain enrollments. Udacity was always about a higher level of instructional design and the use of analytics. The resulting MOOC was a much more vertically integrated and controlled product. In the middle is edX, a nonprofit that integrates a high degree of instructional design into its programs but provides little instructional design support for institutions.

"The MOOC is going in all sorts of directions," Sandeen said, "which is understandable. But we at ACE still believe there's some promise in the idea of using MOOCs to help students gain degrees. Some institutions will accept MOOCs for credit if they have third-party validation associated with them, and usually some authentication. And some employers may consider MOOCs on job applications. So there are many different ways in which this story will continue to unfold."

The most exciting thing about that unfolding story, said Michael Wesch, associate professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University, is the way those who are experimenting with and changing MOOCs are dissolving categories and "making us rethink what it is we're actually up to."

"'MOOC' is not so much a definable thing as a rallying cry to serve people who cannot come to traditional higher ed institutions," Wesch said. "The term has taken on a lot of baggage, but I suspect we won't be using it for much longer. The truth is, it's never been at all clear what people mean when they say 'MOOC.'"

Gerry McCartney, CIO at Purdue University (IN), is no fan of the MOOC in higher education and said corporate training is a much more appropriate application of the model. However, he applauded the MOOC makers for demonstrating that "content has almost no value."

"The money is not in the content," he said. "It's not in the material, and it never was. I can watch 'The History Channel' and learn a whole pile of stuff, but I don't get college credits for that. What a MOOC does is automate a part of the process that was already fairly low value. That's what the investors missed. You're not hitting the high-value part of the equation. It's not just a question of, well, now we can get the best Chaucerian professor in the world and have her teach one class to everyone in the whole world. They can just go read her book if they want that experience. It's the personal interactions with the people who are in the room with you — the instructors, the other students — that have the value. And that's not scalable."

Amin Saberi, the Stanford associate professor of management science and engineering who developed the NovoED platform, argued that Thrun's pivot has within it something essential for the evolution of the MOOC in higher education.

"We need that kind of willingness to acknowledge lessons learned and to make changes accordingly," Saberi said. "We maybe don't think of him as humble, exactly, but this shows a kind of humility that we need to move forward. The technology of the Web and online education are going to continue to have a disruptive effect on higher education, but MOOCs are just one model. We will all be learning our lessons and then applying them in slightly different ways as online learning evolves."

Editor's note: In January, George Siemens joined the research faculty at The University of Texas at Arlington and will head up the school's new Learning Innovation and Networked Knowledge Research Lab.
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