Friday, January 24, 2014

Bursting the MOOC bubble

After a couple of years basking in the spotlight the tide seems to have turned in MOOCland and we seem to be heading for the dreaded trough of disillusionment (now that's what I call a metaphor-rich opening!).

Diana Laurillard, Five myths about Moocsbursts some of the inflated claims made about MOOCs in recent months. The main point is that education is not mass production. MOOCs offer a well-designed content package for self-study but providing thousands of students with qualified guidance and facilitation simply does not scale. Many MOOC providers are experimenting with peer learning, encouraging participants to give feedback to each other and assess each other's work. While it is true that more experienced students are able to provide competent peer review and assessment, this is not true of inexperienced learners unused to both higher education and the online environment. Students are not as self-sufficient as we sometimes imagine. In reply to this it could be argued that many undergraduate campus courses are not so good at providing qualified feedback and face-to-face tuition. All higher education requires the student to be highly self-sufficient and success depends very much on developing good peer networks for discussion and feedback. MOOCs of course take this self-sufficiency to an extreme. However as the focus in education moves towards learning how to learn I believe we will certainly see future generations becoming more self-sufficient and better at peer learning. We aren't there yet but that movement has already started.

"The simple fact is that a course format that copes with large numbers by relying on peer support and assessment is not an undergraduate education. Education is not a mass customer industry: it is a personal client industry. The significant initial investment required in the preparation of educational resources can be distributed over very large student numbers and repeated runs of the course, but education is fundamentally about learning concepts and skills that we do not acquire naturally through our normal interaction with the world. And this takes time. It requires personalised guidance, which is simply not scalable in the same way. This is what the private educational sector continues to ignore, and it is why every new idea for solving the problem of mass education with technology falls flat."

Then there are the claims that MOOCs are going to solve the problems of expensive undergraduate education or educational scarcity in emerging economies. This myth is already exposed as studies show that the vast majority of MOOCers are graduates and only a tiny minority live in developing countries. However, just as I agree that we should expose some of the wilder claims around the MOOC phenomenon we have no idea as yet where this movement is taking us. As I've written many times, it's time to discard the term MOOC and look at what openness (in many different shades) can offer education and learning. MOOCs are simply one of many experiments in the development of using technology to widen access to education. No one model is going to solve these problems but many variations on the theme may well lead to opening up education. It's a glacial change not a tsunami and don't expect miracles overnight.

Martin Weller's article, The Dangerous Appeal Of The Silicon Valley Narrative, discusses how the the media and many educators locked on to the appealing idea that education was broken and that it could only be saved by radical change lead by innovative entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley. This was the narrative behind the explosion of xMOOCs that began with the Stanford Artificial Intelligence course back in 2011 and which hogged the media spotlight at the cost of more low-profile but much more innovative projects within the education community like Peer2Peer University, OER university and all the connectivist MOOCs.

"This analysis also reveals why other open education initiatives haven’t garnered as much attention. They often seek to supplement or complement education, thus ruining the education is broken argument. Similarly, they are often conducted by those who work in higher education, which undermines the narrative of external agents promoting change on a sector that is out of touch. And lastly, they are supported by not-for-profit institutions, which does not fit the model of new, disruptive businesses emerging."

So where are we today? I see this year as the year when the MOOC as a concept melts into something else as the hype-seekers move on. The MOOCs will keep on coming but the rhetoric will change and they will find a place in the educational eco-system. They are after all simply one part of a longer evolutionary process. What is clear is that there will be a wide range of paths to learning; some very traditional, some radical and experimental and others on a scale between the two. The problems occur when we start comparing apples with pears and claim that the new will sweep away the old. The new will complement the old and offer more choice and new opportunities that will benefit more people than the present system does.

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