Thursday, May 16, 2013

It's a MOOC, Jim, but not as we know it ...

CC BY-NC-SA by jeveaux
Every week I think maybe I can avoid writing about MOOCs but it seems impossible since the phenomenon totally dominates all discussion of online learning. Sometimes you get the impression that online education has only just been invented and that the only way to do it is by aiming at a mass market. There's plenty of good online learning that isn't MOOC-shaped and some of it is far more pedagogically innovative and collaborative. The definition of a MOOC that is embedded in the name is getting increasingly blurred and it's getting very hard to see where the border goes between a MOOC and a regular university course.

This week's announcement of a whole degree program, an accredited Online Master of Science in Computer Science (OMS CS), to be offered by The Georgia Institute of Technology, Udacity and AT&T certainly blurs the definitions considerably.

"All OMS CS course content will be delivered via the massive open online course (MOOC) format, with enhanced support services for students enrolled in the degree program. Those students also will pay a fraction of the cost of traditional on-campus master’s programs; total tuition for the program is initially expected to be below $7,000. A pilot program, partly supported by a generous gift from AT&T, will begin in the next academic year. Initial enrollment will be limited to a few hundred students recruited from AT&T and Georgia Tech corporate affiliates. Enrollment is expected to expand gradually over the next three years."

They aim to offer different participation levels with different price tags so that some students will be studying online for credits and paying for it whereas others will be participating in only the courses they choose and paying a small fee for a certificate but no credits. This is a far cry from the original idea of a MOOC as an experimental educational arena where learning takes place in networks and students define their own learning objectives, creating content that is then processed and adapted within the network. OMS CS looks very much like a regular online degree but at a much lower fee. The difference is that much of the university teachers' workload is transferred to mentors at Udacity and students will probably have to be much more self-reliant than their more expensive campus colleagues. Some fear that this is the academic equivalent of low-price air travel and are concerned at how academic standards can be maintained.

The big news for some is that suddenly a MOOC has a price tag but I'm surprised it took this long. The freemium model is coming to a MOOC near you very soon. Access to the material may be free but if you want tuition, guidance, validation, examination and quality assurance you will have to pay, one way of another. However the sense of revolution and innovation that the original MOOCs created is rapidly disappearing as the new interpretations of the concept develop business models. It's all beginning to look very similar to the system it was supposed to be challenging and considering that the main drivers are the leading universities in the world that should not be any surprise either. Read more about this in an article on Inside Higher EdMassive (But Not Open).

Many fear that MOOC consortia will soon reveal their true colours once they've captured the mass student base and are fearful of the way we are being won over by the lure of "free". Bob Meister (University of California) has just written an open letter to Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera entitled Can Venture Capital Deliver on the Promise of the Public University? voicing concerns that the free education offered today is a way of gaining a customer base and a volume of data that can then be turned into for-profit services. The vast amount of investment being made into the MOOC market will be looking for some solid returns in the not too distant future and even if some of it remains free for the student it is worth remembering the adage that if you are not paying for it then you are the product.

I think we will see a development where the division between the different MOOC models will become even more pronounced. The academic innovators and researchers will continue to offer free, challenging connectivist MOOCs based on collaboration, creation and sharing whilst the institutions and consortia will find hard business models for more traditional online courses with a variety of fee options aimed at mass audiences. And the term MOOC will disappear into the buzzword junkyard.


  1. Agree. Finding a business model for instructive xMOOCs never was that difficult, as they are so similar to the normal university offering.

    The big question is if and when someone will find a business model for the connectivist cMOOCs. In that regard, I think NovoEd ( has a hybrid approach worth looking into.

  2. Thanks for the link Olavur. Hadn't seen NovoEd before. Something new every day in this business.