MOOCs instead of open education

I’ve been talking about open education with academics for the past year and a half.  I try to put everything out there: open education resources (OER), open access scholarship, open source software, open courses.  My NITLE colleague Lisa Spiro formulated nine (9) different ways to envision open education.  And the general response to this multileveled discussion is?

“Yes yes.  But talk to us about MOOCs.”

MOOC_TheBlog_gforsytheAll of the issues around creating or using OER, of getting faculty towards supporting open access, of implementing inter-institutional open source software communities – all collapse before the MOOC.

To be clear, the academics I’ve been listening to are primarily campus leaders: deans, provosts, presidents.  In addition, private institutions’ trustees and boards follow the same line.  “Open” is a code or trigger for “MOOC”.

So why is this happening?  Why are campus decision-makers so keen on MOOCs, seeing them as dominant within the broader open field?

Here are some thoughts and hypotheses.  These aren’t endorsements or defenses, but my attempts to understand:

  1. By 2012 campus leaders have already made decisions about open education.  They have policies in place for OER production, open source software, open access scholarship, etc.  Some of those policies are negative, i.e. “we won’t do that here.”  (Last month one provost told me her faculty were considering whether to allow their peers to publish in open access journals.)  The Berlin Declaration was ten years ago. So open education is not a live issue for them.  Its historical development is either not on administrators’ radar, or is seen as beyond their scope.  MOOCs, on the other hand, are newly arrived on that radar, especially xMOOCs.
  2. The most visible forms of open education (creating and maintaining OER, building OA repositories, hiring programmers to maintain open source) look like they require spending money.  Which is a very tricky thing as higher education has been slammed hard by the Great Recession.  xMOOCs aren’t free to make, either, but consuming them is cheap and easy.
  3. While many colleges and universities see themselves on the global stage, they don’t connect that stance to open education.  They are building satellite campuses or cultivating sister schools abroad, redesigned core curricula to include preparing students for a globalized life, etc.  But American higher ed is very nationalist, and the world of educational technology especially so.  The global benefits of, say, producing OER aren’t in the discussion.
  4. Much open education looks unfamiliar, even today.  Most faculty were not trained to be media creators, for example, beyond scholarly work.  Open access scholarship is a strange thing for many.  xMOOCs, on the other hand, look like classes.
  5. xMOOCs have excellent cachet in the academic pecking order.  They emanate from Stanford, Harvard, MIT.  Coursera draws from this elite stratum.  This makes all kinds of reputational and political sense to campus leaders.

If you’re in campus administration, how do these five elements correspond with your own thinking, or that of your peers?  If you work elsewhere in academe, do these map on to your sense of institutional leadership?  What’s missing?

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27 Responses to MOOCs instead of open education

  1. dnorman says:

    because it’s easy thinking. same thing as hype cycles – MOOCs are the safe prepackaged way to think about this stuff. the vocabulary is provided by “edgy” articles in the NYT and the like. All the cool university presidents and provosts are talking about it. hey. I should be talking about it too! Yeah! We’re totally MOOCing too! we’ve been doing it for awhile, on the down-low. the kids still say that, right? the down-low? Good. because we’re totally doing that. Look! Innovating!

  2. longpd says:

    Sadly the combination of the reputational value of the xMOOC institutions & the familiarity of the course structure, tarted up by the novel use of high production value video clips has capture the incremental innovation sweet spot of senior administrators. Add to that large numbers – 100,000 students in one course?! OMG! Those could have been our students! We have to do something or Harvmitanford will drive us further down the rankings.

    I don’t think open ever penetrated deeply into the cultures of many US institutions. I’m probably biased but I do think it found a deep & resonat home at MIT, but that ‘s hardly a representative cultural example for higher education in the US or anywhere else . Universities still haven’t grappled with the idea that lthere has been a fundamental shift toward abundance from scarcity.

    It’s easy to see why but that doesn’t make the excuse any more defensible or helpful. When budgets are cut, enrollments steady or increasing, physical plants aging along with the average age of the academics in them it’s no wonder that extolling the virtues of freely sharing things that have hitherto been considered ‘property’ has not penetrated the mind sets of academic leaders. While some headway has been made in the library community to open access journals even there the vignette that you offered from the university leader mentioning that her institution was deciding if they would allow academics to give away their content to these open journals reminds us of how far away the changes in scholarship some of us seek remains.

    MOOCs teeter on the knife edge of threatening the annihilation of the universitys’s business models and offering the nirvana of release from crushing fiscal austerity with the promise of future monetization by offering something that looks almost like what they are already doing on campus today.

    MOOCs do offer an opportunity to experiment with learning design patterns, with strategies to scale feedback, and with ways of instrumenting the interactions among students, learning materials, and instructors. It allows us to explore when does expert intervention matter, and how far can peer support go before it becomes collective confusion.

    I’m reminded of Seymour Papert’s explanation for the promise of computers as a learning tool evaporating under the pressure to conform to the conceptions of what schooling ‘should be’. He used the analogy of computers acting like learning viruses and the schools curricular defense mechanisms acting like antibodies to preserve the health aka homeostasis of the “school system”. Early uses if computers by creative teachers outside the curricular structures of the day were exciting, innovative disruptions. Destabalized schools were running fevers of uncertainty with spasms of unprecedented learner engagement. But the system adapted once it recognized that this new pedagogy could be treated like just another tool and encircled with a curriculum offered in a course period as ‘computer skill’. Schools knew how to teach instrumental skills and prganise them safely into classrooms. These destabilizing thought machines could corralled into s room and safely slotted into a program that was like it thankfully always had been. And the insurgency was tamed and the battle won, even if the opportunity to augment learning lost.

    It is a familiar story. Papert’s conclusiom was innovation in existing schools is impossible. They first myst be destroyed & rebuilt anew. I hope that’s not the case with MOOCs and open scholarship. But our ability to learn from the past is not encouraging.

    • Phil, many thanks for the many thoughts. Let me pick on some.

      -“Universities still haven’t grappled with the idea that lthere has been a fundamental shift toward abundance from scarcity.” Yes indeed. Except for adjuncts, where campuses are just fine with relative abundance.

      -MIT’s embrace of open education – yes, this was pleasant for many other schools to behold, but not inspirational. “Ah, well, it’s *MIT*,” folks would say.

      -I love, and dread, that Papert analogy.

  3. tljohnso says:

    I think your observations are on the right path. I haven’t seen a conversation really take hold over open education on our campus…but since MOOCs gained standing in public discourse, I do hear folks talking and wanting to further explore this phenom. Unfortunately, I don’t see the conversation expanding beyond the financial implications of jumping on the MOOC bandwagon. I am not saying there is anything wrong with that…just wish we might talk about other benefits MOOCs might bring to campus.

  4. When do you think xMOOCs will fall off the top of that Hype Cycle, D’Arcy?

  5. Joe Murphy says:

    Amplifying a point in Professor Long’s point – how important is openness in the home disciplines of most campus administrators? As a rule, not to the finance folk, not to the development folk, not to the facilities folk, not to the admissions folk, not to the student life folk. Only to some of the IT folk; embarrassingly late to actually reach the publication patterns of the library folk. (Many of these groups are instead bound up with both privacy and the value of a knowledge advantage. All of them are in various ways, interested in “best practices”… and xMOOCs and their news coverage may lend themselves to that concept in a way which I think openness may not, at first blush.)

    So you’re left with Presidents and Provosts and other faculty leadership positions. Now if you had a physicist or other leader at the helm with a disciplinary bias toward openness, perhaps they would have the vocabulary and drive to spread that culture through the institution. If not, well… where, besides the outreach from the “openness” community, are we expecting them to get it?

  6. dearbalak says:

    My chief concern with this is further concentration of monopolistic power in academia both within and between institutiins.

  7. Brian Lamb says:

    In a talk last week entitled “Responding to the Fragmentation of Higher Education”, George Siemens mused why, of the “big 3 MOOC providers”, EDx receives less media attention than Coursera or Udacity, even though it was backed by elite institutions and has the most innovative platform and approach.

    There are a number of possible answers to that question. But could it be simply because Coursera and Udacity better fit the “education is broken, we need Silicon Valley to save us” narrative?

    I was on a panel a little while ago, and the question why Coursera and Udacity were generating so much attention was raised, what made this different? I responded that it was because open education initiatives had managed to quickly raise millions in venture capital funding, which made them suddenly worthy of “serious” attention. I was chided by other panelists for being glib and cynical. Maybe.

    We in higher education are so used to being a relatively insignificant story in media and business narratives. And times are tough, we all agree that something needs to change. So when suddenly something comes along which garners unprecedented attention in the New York Times (or wherever) it creates a heady sensation. Even though the money invested in Coursera or Udacity amounts is rather small by the standards of venture capital, it smells like the big time. It’s exciting. The rush to respond by gutting higher ed capacity reminds me a bit of when a small city is promised a professional sports team (if only they build a stadium at public expense and hand it over to the team owner for free), or an economically depressed region is promised a factory (if only they are prepared to offer tax breaks and to drop environmental and labour regulation).

    • That’s a great point, Brian. The media buzz is huge. It connects neatly with the drive for maximizing entrepreneurship that is such the rage.

      Disruption is a potent story, too. So long as disruptions target the right areas, eh?

    • Agreeing with Brian, but also think disruption is a smart brand for what is effectively boosting yourself up the ladder. Ng, Koller and Strum (sp?) are now all much more famous as individuals than they would have been making OER / papers / journals. I imagine they’d barely make the NYT or WP without this.

      So, apropos, part of the disruption is that you can get famous and successful via a new route, and “disrupt” the alternative. If they are so keen to disrupt, why do they still call themselves “Princeton”? It can’t really be disruption if you need that as your back up guy? Because basically it isn’t disruption, it’s pure and simple colonialism. Princeton is white men being christian coming for your resources and land to justify to Princeton why Princeton exists. Harvard sets up edX, as well as having a pension fund buying up swathes of African land (causing food shortages).

      So why are people interested? Because they want empire, they want to set up colleges over seas, they want MORE. Not better. MORE. The MOOC American Football team will be called the Twelvers as this is the year of their goldrush.

      They could have built Coursera and Udacity on Wikiversity. They didn’t.

  8. nukem777 says:

    Guess you’ll need to start a MOOC to teach them about OER :) Hmmm, well it’s considerably more work to integrate digital affordances into curricula. I wonder if part of the problem is that teachers see themselves as the starting point and don’t realize that it’s the students who will do the creating in a collaborative effort, using the tools made available, or those they’ll create?

  9. Many good points here. Fully hyped and “approved” by the NYT, taught by the rising stars of education, xMOOCs are entirely safe to adopt. Without adding a single person to the payroll you can flesh out a weak areas, stay abreast of changing trends and offer by the each or in “career packs” approved by all major employers.

    Word from the education ministry in my province is all about avoiding “duplication” and “targeting need” which seems like a logic that contradicts itself. Except in the world of sameness taken to represent equality where opportunity is to have what everyone has. When we stopped talking about society and renamed it “the economy” suddenly values had actual concrete prices attached to them that were easy to understand and compare. Students as actors in an economy naturally need value added enhancements that are known to be easily upgraded and useful for applications both specific and general. Difference in this environment is not rational.

    I’m starting to think we need to start over and let the old ship sink.

  10. You’re right on target, Bryan. The only one I’d add to your list is that, for institutions near the top of the pecking order, xMOOCs have clear PR/marketing benefits. This is a powerful motivator for administrators, even those who don’t factor pedagogical, cultural, or equity implications into the calculus.

    The other thing I would say is that xMOOCs align the perceived interests of administrators with those of a sufficient number of faculty. I say this having led the (ultimately unsuccessful) effort for an OA mandate at my university, and last year teaching one of our first Coursera MOOCs. A university can be a big player in the MOOC game with a relatively small number of bleeding-edge types teaching them. OA and the other forms of openness in higher education don’t have that same leverage factor. This isn’t the same issue you raise in your post — it’s not motivating administrators to support xMOOCs — but it’s a reason for the divergence you note.

  11. Can’t help thinking of xMOOCs as product. But products need to hold to a standard of uniformity and performance that seems to run contrary to the educational goals of diversity and difference. Isn’t part of the “selling” of a particular institution its unique approach or viewpoint? To abandon diversity undoes any advantage in multiple versions and freezes us in place in the here and now.

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  18. Orlando says:

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