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The MOOC Revolution May Be Over, But The Evolution Is Still Going Strong

Having just submitted the final version of a chapter for a book on MOOCs, I was pleased to see an article headlined "MOOC U: The Revolution Isn't Over" (excerpted from a book by Jeff Selingo). The article recalls a 2011 piece in The New York Times titled "Virtual and Artificial, but 58,000 Want Course" about the artificial-intelligence class at Stanford University that got all the attention when 160,000 students in 190 countries took the Massive Open Online Course. That wasn't the first MOOC, but it was the one that got the mainstream media's attention. And the year of the MOOC and the MOOC-madness began.

In 2011-2013, I wrote a lot about MOOCs, taught in a MOOC environment, and did a good number of presentations to educators about the revolution. And I watched the rise and fall of the hype cycle for the phenomenon. That was what led my wife and I to collaborate on a chapter we titled "MOOCs: Evolution and Revolution." We don't believe the revolution is still on, but the evolution is certainly still with us.

Reading another article with the teaser headline, "The MOOC Where Everybody Learned", I continue to see that the skeptics still believe that students who succeed in MOOCs tend to have similar profiles. For one thing, they are students who are already well educated (holding degrees). Another common belief is that other students need coaching and academic support, possibly more of a hybrid course with face-to-face support.

But researchers MIT looked at a physics course (offered on the edX) in 2013 found that students who had spent significant time on the course showed evidence of learning no matter what their educational background.

What really surprised the researchers was that the MOOC students learned at a similar rate as did MIT students who had taken the on-campus version of a similar course. Yes, students who were not well-prepared students scored lower than those with more schooling, but all of them came away knowing more than they did before the MOOC.

Keep in mind that many MOOC participants don't enroll in a MOOC to get grades or credits. They are interested in learning.


MOOCs: Evolution and Revolution Gets Personal Part 2

In Part 1 of this post, I looked in general about the the idea that Massive Open Online Courses are both a revolution and an evolution.

The initial disruption of the MOOC was billed by many as a revolution and feared as such by many in academia. That peaked in 2012 (the “Year of the MOOC”) and was followed in 2013 with the sarcastic nickname of the “Year of the MOOC Hype”.

That is behind us and the evolutionary stage of MOOCs in the development of online learning is upon us. It may still have a revolutionary impact on learning and institutions.

coverI'm focusing on the research for the chapter, "MOOCs: Evolution and Revolution," that my wife, Lynnette, and I did for the book, Macro-Level Learning through Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs): Strategies and Predictions for the Future. We use narratives documented by research generated from the educational community and the history and progression of distance learning and its movement toward online education.

Our own online history has been an evolution from traditional classroom teaching, infusing distance and online learning, to designing and teaching in a MOOC setting and that is the focus of this particular post.

In 1994, when France was using the Minitel (Médium interactif par numérisation d'information téléphonique) primarily as an online phone book, shopping catalog and train schedule, the Minitel terminals were available free in France as well as in its territories and countries where French was a primary language. Lynnette received a small grant to take advantage of the opportunity that the French Embassy in New York made of software available free to Americans with a minute-by-minute charge for phone via a modem. Her American AP French high school students in New Jersey connected with Moroccan students preparing for the baccalaureate exam (BAC).

My first foray into using online for education was when I was also teaching in a secondary school (English) and encountered ThinkQuest. Lynnette had made an attempt to enter this worldwide Internet competition with her students. She passed on the information to me and it happened to coincide with a colleague at another high school in New Jersey whose student wanted to collaborate with students from other parts of the USA on the creation of a website about motion pictures for the ThinkQuest competition. They needed a teacher/coach who could work online with a student they had found in Texas who wanted to join their team. Having seen the results of the sense of community promoted by the Minitel grant and with a longtime interest in film, I accepted the coach role. We worked for almost a year collaboratively, ‘online only’ and our team's website, The Motion Picture Industry: Behind-the-Scenes, became the 1997 first place winner in this international competition and we finally met each other in person at the awards ceremony held that year in Washington D.C.

In 2000, I started working at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) as the manager of Instructional Design, responsible for all academic and corporate online courses. We launched fully online degree programs and graduate certificates. We transitioned from the commercial WebCT (later Blackboard) to the open source Moodle.

Before I had ever heard the term MOOC and before it was ever used, I had enrolled in and eventually "taught" courses through P2PU. That lead to enrolling in the first MOOCs offered by providers such as Coursera.

But that jumps over the pre-history of the MOOC, which I will address in Part 3 of this series.


MOOCs: Evolution and Revolution Part 1

To some in academia, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) are a paradigm shift in online education, while others perceive them as a threat to traditional styles of pedagogy.

For that latter take on them, the time-honored model of the university lecture is seen as being a potential casualty of the rise of MOOCs.

My wife, Lynnette, and I contributed a chapter to the newly-published book, Macro-Level Learning through Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs): Strategies and Predictions for the Future.  The text covers the phenomenon of MOOCs as a design manual for the course designer with a collection of chapters that deal with all facets of the MOOC debate. Industry training developers, corporate trainers, educators, post graduate students, and others will benefit from the information provided in this book.

Our chapter, "MOOCs: Evolution and Revolution," looks at the place of the MOOC in the evolution of online learning. A few years ago, the MOOC hit education like an asteroid and the dust has yet to settle, but as in all debates, the MOOC is being embraced and feared in very much the same way that other technologies simultaneously enhanced and threatened roles in corporations, small businesses and schools.

coverSo, evolution or revolution?

The MOOC is both part of the evolution of online learning as well as a revolution potentially threatening to disrupt the existing educational models for access to learning as well as the ways in which to validate that learning for advancement.

While they offer opportunities for higher education, they also threaten the tuition, credit and degree programs that have been at the center of universities for centuries.

Education is certainly in the forefront of discussions around the world. At the 22-25 January, 2014 World Economic Conference (WEF), education was part of several Open Forum Panel discussions. This invitation-only annual meeting held by the WEF in the eastern Alps region of Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, focuses on global concerns. In the video streams of Open Forum Davos 2014, there was a panel called ‘Higher Education-Investment or Waste?’ moderated by David Callaway, Editor-in-Chief of USA Today. One panel participant was Zach Sims, who was introduced as a 23-year-old entrepreneur who dropped out of Columbia University in the City of New York to be the CEO and co-founder of a company called Codecademy. This company offers online courses for people who want or need to learn computer coding for their career (www.codecademy.com). The panel questioned whether traditional higher education is worth the cost and debated the alternatives. Sims argued that “the universities are facing competition from the free market from companies like ours [Codecademy and Coursera] and they [the universities] will become better and will provide alternatives to people”.

The panel was optimistic that change would come to higher education, both in cost and structure; the entire panel agreed that tertiary education in some new form will remain pertinent in the global market. After a period for audience questions and participation, the majority of the audience, during an informal poll, voted that MOOCs are a revolution.

Most technological change involves massive disruption whereas economic ‘bubbles’, like the trillion-dollar student loan bubble in the U.S., tend to burst, not slowly deflate. Initially, the disruption of the MOOC may have appeared to be a rapid revolution just a few years ago, but it seems more likely to become a gradual evolution over the course of the next decade.

The year 2012 had been designated as the “Year of the MOOC” by The New York Times and much of the popular media. The following year was then sarcastically dubbed the “Year of the MOOC Hype”.

With that behind us, we are in a period that will determine the true value and place for MOOCs. This evolutionary stage in the development of online learning may have a greater revolutionary impact on the way it changes how we educate and validate learning inside and outside educational institutions.

What are the new rules that will accompany these possible new models in education?

Public universities and for-profit institutions have been offering fully online degree programs for several decades. If one of the goals of some organizations offering MOOCs is to provide degrees either through partnerships with established universities or by the universities themselves, then MOOCs are another way of continuing that work. However, if the MOOC becomes an actual ‘alternative’ to the courses, degree programs and the traditional university itself, then we have a revolution. 

                 Part 2: the role of the MOOC and traditional learning


After the MOOC Revolution

MOOC revolutionIn 2008 when I read about a professor making his course "open learning," I wasn't prescient enough to see the rise of MOOCs or any coming revolution in learning, especially online. 

The term MOOC, for Massive Open Online Courses, became the popular terminology for the concept behind that 2008 experiment. Almost everyone was saying it was a revolution that would disrupt universities. Sebastian Thrun, co-founder of Udacity, famously predicted that in 50 years there would be only 10 higher education institutions.  That didn't happen. 

I wrote a book chapter with my wife a few years ago about whether or not the "MOOC Revolution" was in fact a revolution or rather an evolution of learning and learning online.  And recently I saw that Jeffrey Young, author of that 2008 piece, has posted this year asking "What if MOOCs Revolutionize Education After All?"

His new post and podcast on EdSurge focuses on Barbara Oakley, a professor of engineering at Oakland University, who thinks a lot about how people learn particularly because she has been teaching a lot of them in one of the most popular online courses ever. "Learning How to Learn" has had more than 2 million participants and teaching it has her believing, despite the cooling of the MOOC Revolution hype, that free online courses might still lead to a revolution in higher education.


Professor Oakley thinks that MOOCs will enhance classrooms and also serve as competition, which will force schools to jump over a higher bar.

In our chapter on MOOCs, we said that "Most technological change involves massive disruption whereas economic ‘bubbles’, like the trillion-dollar student loan bubble in the U.S., tend to burst, not slowly deflate. Initially, the disruption of the MOOC may have appeared to be a rapid revolution just a few years ago, but it seems more likely to become a gradual evolution over the course of the next decade." I think that prediction is holding true.

Through this blog and a LinkedIn group called "Academia and the MOOC" that I started in 2013, I have met many people from around the world who are using MOOCs. The group is for or anyone interested in how MOOCs have impacted education and how they might in the future, and it began with members of the MOOC of the same name hosted in the Canvas Network in Spring 2013 and taught my myself, my wife, Lynnette Ronkowitz and Mary Zedeck.

On of the people I have met virtually is Muvaffak Gozaydin. He contacted me last fall about a "crazy idea" he had to provide no-cost graduate degrees using MOOCs. He contacted me again this summer to tell me that his crazy idea was launching. He wants to offer "professional learners" the opportunity to get an MS degree online by selecting courses offered already courses from Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Duke, Yale and other top schools. His site is at mguniversity2017.org and he has organized it to direct students towards a course catalog for five degrees currently. His project is not accredited in any country, but all the universities and courses offered are accredited and he hopes that holders of "degrees" from MGU can use them to find or advance in jobs internationally. 

Is his idea crazy? He asked me that again this year before he launched his site. It reminded me of something Dhawal Shah, the founder of Class Central, has said recently: "...there’s been a decisive shift by MOOC providers to focus on 'professional' learners who are taking these courses for career-related outcomes. At the recently concluded EMOOCs conference, the then CEO of Coursera, Rick Levin, shared his thoughts on this shift. He thinks that MOOCs may not have disrupted the education market, but they are disrupting the labor market. The real audience is not the traditional university student but what he calls the 'lifelong career learner,' someone who might be well beyond their college years and takes these online courses with the goal of achieving professional and career growth."

That last sentence was one of the conclusions of our book chapter. Maybe the revolution is bigger than disrupting universities. Maybe the revolution is about learning and not only in schools at all grade levels but also in business, industry and professional learning. All will be disrupted.

Shah, Gozaydin, Thrun and others have concluded two things about the MOOC revolution:  1) The real audience is the professional learner working in a field and with an undergraduate degree who wants to advance.  2) There are already plenty of online courses available from top universities and other providers to offer in packages (call them degrees, certificates, mini-degrees etc.) either free or with a fee smaller than that of a traditional university that carries some evidence of quality and completion.

The biggest issue with the truly open and free online courses, massive or not, has been since the beginning using them for advancement, either towards degrees or professional advancement. If you are looking to advance your own knowledge and skills without concern for official "credits," the MOOC is ideal. 

You can find more than 1,250 free courses listed at openculture.com, but what does a learner do with those courses? Minimally, which is not to say inconsequentially, is that Gozaydin has done the work of organizing the many scattered MOOC offerings of the world into five intelligently planned paths for learners to coursework from the leading universities all on one web page. 

American MOOC

mooc logoA member of my Academia and the MOOC group on LinkedIn contacted me last month by email to further the discussion of MOOCs and "reforming higher education." He has been reading my posts for a few years and generally agrees with my thoughts, but he's coming from a very different background, which is what I found most interesting.

Muvaffak Gozaydin wrote that he is Turkish, but lived for a time in the U.S. While here, he did research at Caltech in the early 1960s and received an MSME in 1964 from Stanford, an MSIE in 1965 from Stanford and a MSEE in 1968 from Stanford. He did the latter while working for HP in Palo Alto, CA. That education got him a good life as a manager and CEO in Turkey.

He feels indebted to the U.S. and follows higher education here and abroad. What he observes is not any good will from the providers of online education to the larger educational world.

He was excited back in 2011 when Stanford made an online course into a MOOC and 160.000 signed up. 12.000 or so finished, which some see as disappointing, but I see as amazing. Has your school offered an online course and had 12,000 learners finish it?

His concern now is providing courses and degrees that fit the needs of 18 -22 years olds. He said that "The problem is there. Quality is low, price is high in the USA for Higher Ed."

Georgia Tech offered a $7000 masters degree. MIT offered a supply chain management  masters degree that was 50 % online with a 50 % reduction in tuition. But it has been 4 years since MOOCs peaked in media attention and further development has been very slow.

I had posted several articles on LinkedIn about corporate and MOOC use outside use the United States, including an effort by the French government. But how, he asks, can we convince America's top 200 schools to provide online degrees at lower cost?

Here is one idea he suggests. Students take as many courses as they want online and each online course causes a reduction in tuition of about 10 %. If they take 5 courses, online cost would be reduced 50 %.

That is quite a new idea, and not one most schools would easily sign on to try.

I have long believed with MOOCs it is more of evolution rather than revolution.

As I replied to Muvaffak, while universities here in the U.S. are non-profit, they are very concerned with money/profit. The MOOC was seen early on as a threat to the tuition and degree model that provides a good percentage of operating costs. 

People thought Stanford, MIT, Harvard et al were first involved in MOOC experiments because they more innovative or more open. The top universities were quicker to jump into MOOCs because they have large endowment monies and tuition is less of a factor.? 

It's encouraging that some schools like Georgia Tech are offering a few degrees fully online at lower cost. The rise of the mini-masters may help with this too.  

It is ironic that many schools - including my own NJIT - were once charging more for online courses at one time (tech fees, development costs). That has largely ended, but schools don't see that the numbers (massive or less) in a MOOC (or MOC) offer the opportunity to maintain "profits" even with much lower costs.

Many educators think the MOOC revolution failed and they no longer have to worry about it.

Still, I try to promote and educate others about the MOOC approach - though at this point, I wish we had another name for them. Too much baggage.