2013 in MOOCs – Which Event Best Defined the Quest to Solve Education?

As we say goodbye to 2013, the year after The Year of the MOOC, I remain unable to adequately define the acronym that graces this blog’s header.  This year Oxford Dictionary gave it the old college try, creating a definition more inclusive than exclusive and in doing so adding even more confusion to a rhetorical landscape littered with LOOCs, HOOCs, cMOOCs, xMOOCs, urMOOCs, SPOCs and other -ooc misfit acronyms.  Research and media remained focused on structural descriptions:  MOOC design, its workings, its assessment strategies, its back-end data collection and aggregation.  Developers continued to herald the model as education for everyone and an example of reinventing education, even in the face of research noting the model’s penchant for providing adequate instruction and scaffolding for those who, to channel Derek Zoolander, already read good and do other things good too.  Some look at recent events as the beginning of the end for MOOCs or the inevitable trough of disillusionment a la Gartner Hype Cycle, while others remain bullish on the MOOC and its place as a standard bearer for the future of higher education and educational technology.

I don’t look back on 2013 in search of takeaways. 2013 was a result of 2012, the year of the MOOC, which was a result of 2011, the proliferation of unique experiments in distributed learning.  There is an interconnectedness to it all, and for those who wish to focus on the lack of interconnectedness between the 2008 version of MOOC and the 2011 and beyond MOOC, both models were at heart about offering coursework to large numbers of people online for no charge.  David Wiley in 2007, George Siemens et al in 2008, and Sebastian Thrun et al in 2011 seek (from this perspective) to do the same thing.  Forces and influences helped shape these courses and movements to unfold at largely the same time, and while there are distinct moments and influencers for each person, there are multiple similar moments and influences as well.

I do look back on 2013 to see where the influences of the MOOC phenomenon became more clear, and one date stands out in its poignancy – January 15, the date California Governor Jerry Brown announced a partnership between MOOC provider Udacity and California State University school San Jose State University to offer SJSU students low-cost remedial coursework through the MOOC learning model (a video of news coverage is here; about 2/5 of the way through broadcast).  The story, as told in (and to) the press, is that Governor Brown approached Thrun, saying “We need your help” in solving education, and Thrun’s willingness to help set the groundwork for this partnership.

Today, many look at this date as the beginning of a failed experiment.  It is easy to see it in such a manner.  The first round of courses resulted in MOOC participants scoring lower than students in traditional classrooms, SJSU put the program on hiatus to work out the bugs, Udacity announced a move away from higher education and toward corporate education, and a recent press release notes the removal of Udacity from all aspects of the San Jose State University courses, to the point that Udacity-developed courses will be utilized on-campus but housed via SJSU’s learning management system, Canvas.  I will discuss what this *failure* means for Udacity and the MOOC phenomenon below, but many who follow the MOOC with a skeptic’s gaze viewed these events as evidence of the MOOC’s inability to solve education.

What interests me most is what motivated Governor Brown, long considered one of the more liberal Democratic office-holders in America today, to call Sebastian Thrun.  While the story of Brown choosing Thrun based on a New York Times article because his name resonated the best is quaint and a fertile space for open mocking, the reality of Governor Brown’s rationale is wholly telling of education’s (lack of a) relationship with public policy, media, and perceived innovation.  The Governor of California (an ex officio trustee of the California State University system, of which San Jose State University is a member) started the process of solving education through a story in the New York Times about MOOCs and Sebastian Thrun rather than exploring options to solve education with the many experts at his disposal:

  • He did not ask fellow board of trustees members to set up a commission, hold discussions or even canvas faculty confidants to discuss solving education.
  • He did not utilize the resources within his own government (the Department of Education under Tom Torlakson) and the numerous education experts on this staff (to be fair, state departments of education are predominantly concerned with K-12 education, but they are filled with education experts).
  • He did not seek out the teaching schools at California academic institutions such as UC-Berkeley, UCLA, USC, Stanford, UCSD, or even the many excellent teacher colleges in the CSU system to discuss ideas on solving education.

Despite holding the most powerful political office in California, one rife with experts in subjects of all governmental superstructures (education one of the largest), Governor Jerry Brown did not build from that expertise to solve education. Rather, he called a man who prior to 2011 had put little thought into pedagogical practice, and weeks later the two were announcing a public-private partnership between Udacity and San Jose State University designed to solve education.

Losing a partnership with a key university in the California State University system is not a positive outcome for Udacity.  But has Udacity lost?  The Udacity pivot is not a retreat (I have argued this before, see here and here), nor is it an abandonment of higher education.  In January Udacity will roll out a Master’s in Computer Science program at Georgia Tech University, sponsored by AT&T.  This program has not only received the same media hype and accolades as expected in the MOOCsphere, and by design this will likely not be a failed endeavor.  Moreover, this partnership received special attention from President Barack Obama in his most recent educational policy speech.  President Obama is keen to support initiatives that will be successful, and his stamp of approval could carry more weight than any first-time failure Udacity had with the higher education system.

Michael Horn of the Clayton Christensen Institute goes one further, and anoints the Udacity of today as the disruptive innovation in education (if you read a lot of the MOOC criticism bubble, this is an important article to see the other side of the equation):

Udacity is in essence now its own university that is armed with a coherent business model, does not need traditional accreditation because of its relationships with and commitment from substantial employers that send a far stronger signal to students than does traditional accreditation, and a value proposition seeking to solve a real problem—helping current and would-be employees level up for employers.

Many educators will bristle at the ideology that permeates this line of thinking:

…but this line of thinking piqued the interest of California Governor Jerry Brown, Georgia Tech Dean of Computing Zvi Galil, and United States President Barack Obama.  These individuals shape policy on an institutional, state and federal level.  And despite the shaky research record behind this ideology and no evidence of such measures being able to solve education, each individual above has aligned himself with an organization spearheaded by a man who, from his own account, has had no educational training outside figuring out his own lecture style.  This is in stark contrast to someone like David Wiley, like Thrun an entrepreneur as well as an academic but one with a history of successful educational designs and outcomes, not to mention extensive training in instructional psychology.  But Time, the Smithsonian, the New York Times, Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, and the various other trades and dailies addressing the world of EdTech are not writing features on David Wiley, an education pioneer with a history of success.  And if policy is in large part dictated not by the professionals on the staff but rather the names in the trades…

I have long implored researchers, practitioners and the media to look at the history of distance learning and educational technology when considering their hype of the MOOC.  The road of educational technology progress is littered with failed endeavors, from the correspondence school of Cornell University in the 1880s to the numerous radio and TV studios of the 20th Century, and even the specters of Fathom and AllLearn just a few years ago.  But history is not a duplication as much as it is a canvas, and no prior initiatives captured corporate, political, academic and mainstream interest in the manner of the MOOC.  Rising tuitions, falling value of a degree, and societal attitudes buffered by governmental policy that remove the value of education from the public sphere…all of these have left higher education at a crossroads of change.  Many academics I have spoken to echo the thoughts of professor Jonathan Rees (an excellent voice to read re: faculty perspective in the MOOC debate), believing/hoping the MOOC will blow over just as the myriad of EdTech solutions that have preceded this model.  Such thinking takes into account history (lacking in much MOOC discourse), but fails to exceptional MOOC uniqueness: the remarkable energy, money and resource (human and otherwise) movement in just 2 1/2 years.  In politics, perception holds value in manners similar to policy.  While the SJSU/Udacity pilot did not equate to the education solution, and legislation designed to ease adoption of the solution has stalled at the capitol, the partnerships and speeches and developments are important to be recognized as foundation material.  This is not the end of changes in public policy toward higher education, but rather the first shot across the bow.

Educators understand that to focus on jobs and skills hollows out a profession designed to engage and hone a learner’s abilities in a myriad of environments, turning the enterprise into a training shop.  But while Sir Ken Robinson talks about creativity on TED and pundits bemoan mid-pack PISA scores in critical thinking, policy continues to pull away from education as enrichment of man for the public good and push toward training of man for his marketable skills and the good of the corporation. We as a society say we want all those things an education can provide, yet do not support them when they emerge in the workplace.  At the same time, the influencers of society are pushing debate away from what an education can provide and rather focusing on a limited amount of what it can (easily) measure:  independent variable the workplace, dependent variable the competency needed to complete the assigned task.  

As the gyre turns to 2014 and more MOOC discussion is unleashed upon the world, there will be  much to discuss — more MOOC initiatives, more EdTech start-ups, more VC funding , more trials and tribulations of existing players, more blather in financial trades, more research comparing MOOCs to face-to-face learning in search of outcomes.  Those of us following the situation will tweet, blog, moan, read, and feel compelled to share this information, our perspectives and the usually only the perspectives of those who agree.  But the gyre will keep turning and our arguments will keep going, and if 2014 is anything like 2013 and 2012 the streams will rarely, if ever, cross.

How can we change that?  I would personally like to see more critical attention paid to what makes the MOOC unique from every other time distance ed, online ed, and/or EdTech occupied space and cache in the academy.  Perhaps this space can provide insight and common ground for those interested in educational technology along the parameters of more modern learning theories.  Considering we as a field cannot agree on how to define the four letters in the MOOC acronym (believing rather that each is up for debate), looking at more theoretical and social issues will provide us space to rally around.  If not, we will engage in another year of producing scholarship designed to find chinks in the armor of the mainstream media/policy discussion rather than joining the discussion.