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Posted by on Jul 6, 2013

MOOCs, university capacity, and disinvestment in third party services

Wapping, London

No relevance here; just a pleasant day in London

MOOCs and marketing

I have written about, participated in, and followed the MOOC phenomena with considerable interest. It represented some healthy experimentation with delivery devices for higher education and potentially new pedagogies to support online learning. I enjoyed the cMOOC mode of self-organization and self-regulation (speaking here of my participation in MobiMOOC), and the ferocious appropriation of whatever tools were available to make meaning. It was fun, energetic, and infectious.

I don’t have overwhelming issues with the x varieties of MOOCS (Coursera, Udacity, et al). I just had more of an issue with marketing speak masquerading as pedagogy or cognitive theory. I don’t believe in their capacity for completely improving or destroying higher education. I simply believe they are an experiment, a worthwhile one in the grand scheme of things.

There are several very qualified individuals tackling the shortcomings of xMOOCs now, including Audrey Waters, Stephen Downes, etc. so I won’t rehash those critiques. They are completely valid critiques that stress that  xMOOCS (some of them) are reasserting traditional lecture style delivery systems, an almost embarrassing anachronistic brand of learning masked with technological bells and whistles. I don’t fret too much over this development as I believe in the learned savviness of the consumer/learner. Free or not, everyone expects a return on their (time) investment and I suspect that many are not getting that from this mode of learning. So, I am patient that it will evolve or be revealed as something other than what it is being claimed to be.

My critiques are really from a more pragmatic sense. As in, why would institutions invest in third party infrastructures that they have little to no control over? What does a MOOC platform offer that a traditional CMS doesn’t?

Technological rather pedagogical disinvestment

I read Audrey Waters’ post from today and learned about a Japanese startup that raised money to create a Japanese-specific MOOC platform. It made me remember my few forays into Coursera courses (Edinburgh’s Elearning and Digital Cultures being the progressive pedagogical exception to this rule) and my general frustration with the mechanisms presented for learning engagement.

I was reminded that, from a learner’s point of view, we have the basic capacity of discussion boards, recorded lectures, occasional assessments, notes, and some group work. That is perfectly well and good, but what does this provide that the internet (I mean all of it) does not? What does it even provide the university or the professor? So I posted this series of tweets earlier today:

And then it began to dawn on me (sorry, I am not that fast) that this is where the real fault lines might emerge in our current fascination with MOOC platforms (not with MOOCs or open learning themselves). It won’t fragment necessarily based on pedagogical lines. I think it will fragment on technological ones. So here is where my train of thought was taking me:

  • Why would universities invest in a platform that has yet to reveal a clear business model, knowing full well that the lifespan of these services are generally low? The business plan matters to me insomuch as it represents an inadvertent bait and switch. Universities will invest in making their materials work with the platform and then the model will then begin taxing activity. This could be a cost to the university or a cost to the learner, but with either option we will see some of the activity drying up. Less massive and more modest. Still a MOOC.
  • Why would universities invest in a MOOC platform that is essentially a CMS with high load capacity? I am quite certain that I can do more with WordPress and its plugins (or Moodle or Drupal or Sakai) than with Coursera. The only advantage with Coursera is that I am not using my own server space. But in return I have lost control over much of my material. I don’t see the angle, aside from immediate high exposure.
  • Why would universities invest in third party MOOC platforms when they are already paying (out the nose) for (campus-based) information technology? Reconfigure what has already been bought.
  • Why not spend these time resources, which are often more precious than financial resources (you try herding higher education types into a room to make decisions), on developing their own services with their own capacity? I suppose FutureLearn is a bit like this. My general suspicion is that a large university with x bandwidth could support a MOOC from their own servers with the understanding that participant numbers are not going to increase the more the general public becomes aware of the pedagogical limitations of MOOCS.
  • Why try to compete directly with big business and their accelerated timeframes? Whether or not a MOOC is called a MOOC in the future (safe bet: it won’t be) won’t matter as much as the quality of the learning being provided. The cream will most certainly rise to the top and future pedigree will (or at least should) revolve around pedagogy or capacity for learning. I fully suspect business will lose interest when they realize this educational calf isn’t so golden. The dust hasn’t settled yet, so universities should consider doubling down on pedagogy. Invest in innovation in learning and place less emphasis on the pricing points of delivery. It will pay off.

So I suppose what I see as a potential fault line in this scenario are the universities themselves realizing that they are perfectly capable of doing this themselves. Some will try and this will put pressure on the third party model. Some will defect and some will combine in other collaborations. All of this is healthy. In the meantime, I will get back to thinking on pedagogy.

Euston Square Station, London

Euston Square Station, London on my way to university: I think about these things on the Tube



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