The Audacity of MOOCS

After last week’s blog posting from David Cillay, Richard Katz (former WCET Executive Council member) and I had a great discussion via email.  I invited Richard to provide his viewpoint.  Richard served 14 years as vice president of EDUCAUSE and was the founding director of the EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research (ECAR). Through Richard N. Katz & Associates, Mr. Katz also consults on strategy, technology, and performance and compliance management with governments, corporations, and colleges and universities worldwide. Thank you to Richard for moving the discussion forward.
Russ Poulin

I read David Cillay’s thoughtful blog encouraging a redirection of the lively conversation that swirls about us related to MOOCs.  David is most certainly right. For better or for worse, MOOCs are the current darlings of the media.  More important, they now dominate a great deal of the discussion about higher education among political leaders, regents, foundations, regulators, and others – including students and their parents!

Like David, we can wonder how to re-center the discussion on the deeper insights about online learning that we have won through two decades (or more) of hard work and lessons learned.  This is surely valuable and even necessary, though we must exercise great care to avoid sounding like the “we-got-here-first” gang.

photo of news trucks with satellite feeds

The “news” will flock to the “big audacious goals” of MOOCs over the “no significant difference” aspirations of traditional online courses.

We rightly consider ourselves pioneers and innovators and – as such – we carry the burden of cheering on the next generation of innovators – even as we cringe.  And there certainly will be cringing.  MOOCs today remain in the stratosphere of Gartner’s hype cycle.  Inevitably, they will either traverse the trough of disillusionment, or their blanched bones will provide teachable moments for their successors.  It is too early to tell.

So Why Have MOOCs Monopolized the Conversation?
I’ll leave the debate about whether or how to redirect the conversation to others.  Where I’d like to contribute is to pull a thread that arose out of my reading of David’s essay.  The question that came to the forefront as I read and re-read this piece was “why?”  Specifically, why have MOOCs captivated so many, so quickly, and so deeply.  It seems to me that until and unless we understand why MOOCs have cornered the conversation, we will not know whether or not to re-direct that conversation, or how to re-direct it.

I can think of many reasons for this imbalance, but launching a quiver of arrows seems distracting.  When I think deeply on it, I think the root ‘stolen thunder’ is the (mutual) mistaken belief that  MOOCs and GOFOCs (good old-fashioned online courses) are solving the same problem.  Easy mistake to make.  It seems to me that while David is correctly notes that “not all online education is massive,” our understatement or outright failure to understand the centrality of both massiveness and openness in the educational policy debates surrounding MOOCs may consign us to important but secondary roles in an epochal change that is underway.  MOOCs, in my opinion, while likely important, are merely catalysts of the changes ahead.

Audacious Goals Make MOOCs Newsworthy
MOOCs are not hot news because they showcase revolutionary technologies.  They don’t.

MOOCs are not news because they are evincing better rates of course completion.  They aren’t.

In my judgment, MOOCs now dominate the broad debate about higher education because they are focused on higher education’s two biggest problems.

First, the “massification” of instruction challenges traditional educators’ most cherished belief (and argument) that quality is unalterably bound up in intimate (face to face or virtual) interactions between students and teachers and with one another.  The student-faculty ratio is a hugely weighted factor in any ranking of colleges and universities.  If one can achieve quality – with mass – (note the Open U of the UK accomplished this using a different delivery paradigm) then one can directly attack the twin challenges of higher education accessibility and affordability.  This, in a nutshell, is what Jim Collins called a “big, hairy, audacious goal.”  Let’s call it a neat trick, if you can pull it off!  What’s important here is that those of us who have worked to promote and develop traditional online learning have spent much of the past 20 years promoting the less audacious goal of having our work show “no significant difference”.  Not a magical sound bite, even if – in 1980 – it was considered audacious by many.  How do you talk about success?  Is it “our courses are no better than …”  or “our courses are no worse than.”?  To accomplish the goal of demonstrating “no significant difference” we generally hewed to (and the performance data supported us) the belief that low (online) student-faculty ratios were an unmistakable marker of online course quality.  In doing this, we also established that traditional online learning had no significant difference in cost to the taxpayer or tuition payer.  In fact, if one fully loaded the costs of infrastructure, design, and so forth, there likely is a difference and we don’t want to talk about it.

Second, “openness” in the context of MOOCs is really code for nearly free to the consumer not the institution as David correctly reveals.  The freemium business model of the MOOCs promises to shift the cost burden of learning to someone or somewhere else.  While sustainability may be elusive, some very smart people are chasing it.  And we have all become accustomed to free things on the internet that we used to pay dearly for.  Between openness and massification, MOOCs are promising to deliver “Ivy caliber” lectures over a state-of-the-art (and improving) infrastructure, through private capital, and free to the student.  Again, audacious goals.  And newsworthy.  Surely we must all agree that to the casual reader the prospect of a free Ivy League education must have the sex appeal of Cold Fusion-in-a-Box.

Audacity is defined as bold or insolent heedlessness of restraints, as of those imposed by prudence, propriety, or convention.  Audacity, in my experience, is not a common part of the gene set that comprises a lifelong higher education faculty or staff member.  Maybe it needs to be.  I shook my first to the heavens when Google announced that it would scan the collections of our great research libraries.  And monetize them!  For years I had argued that this is exactly what should be done – and that we should do it.  Somehow we do not have the audacity, the discipline, the courage, or some other quality that we need.  And maybe that’s okay.  Stanford’s leadership has demonstrated again and again the benefits of turning our ideas over to others who understand better than we, how to commercialize them.

Will MOOCs usher in a revolution?  I don’t know.  My guess is that they will secure a valuable niche and will ultimately be socialized by our institutions precisely because they do lower the cost of instruction.  And as a graduate of 3 large public universities, I for one am prepared to believe that they will lower the cost of those courses that for me had 300, 400, 500 or more students.  I can imagine what Plato might have to say about some of the on-ground lectures that MOOCs hope to replace.  And recall that Plato warned us of the educational erosion that would happen were we to allow the  insertion of writing into the learning experience!

Will MOOCs substitute for a seminar at Amherst or Williams?  Not likely.  Nor do a great many of our ‘traditional’ offerings — online or on-ground.  Again, higher education is today solving a different problem.  Our state and national leaders know that our competitiveness depends on a highly educated work force.  Today – and perhaps forever – we cannot afford to make a higher education the public good it was – or should be.  We as a community must really begin to put our shoulders to the wheel to drive the cost of education down so that this education can be available and accessible to anyone who can benefit from it.  I think that this needs to become an obsession – one that permits or even encourages us to challenge things we have come to hold sacred.

They are our Children.  We Need to Nurture Them.
In the end, while we love our institutions, we need to love our students more.  The role of online education is secure and there is likely a real and meaningful place for MOOCs.  We need to be the ones to help our institutions find that place.  Of course we need to stand for quality and we need to root out schlock wherever we find it.  But experiments do fail and we need to learn from them, not shut them down.  And our colleagues who are making the MOOCs and making the news?  They are in fact our colleagues and not our competitors.  We need to be the bridge to them and if we succeed, we will accomplish re-framing the dialog as David rightly hopes we should.Photo of Richard Katz

Richard N. Katz & Associates

Photo credit:  Morgue File


  1. Posted September 30, 2013 at 11:42 am | Permalink | Reply

    In the classical era, students sought out scholars. Academic robes had pockets to accept payment. With the rise of the German university,largely Protestant, in nature, the government met several goals: to counter the Catholic influence and to meet the need for an educated populace. The faculty traded freedom and uncertainty for a fiscal sinecure. One might say that academics, in spite of “academic freedom” became “employees. Today, this shift is most evident.

    All this rumbling about e-learning as being equivalent, etc, reminds me of two white mice turning wheels in a cage and being watched by white coated researchers. One mouse turns to the other and says, “boy do we have them trained; all we do is turn the wheel and they feed us. If e-learning were not acceptable to students, virtual, for-profits, would die rather than expand. If students, many non-traditional, also find virtual space unacceptable then these sections would die and alternative paths towards certification would not be on the radar.

    Michael Wesch, Don Tapscott and a host of credible thought leaders are pointing out that the hand-crafted, faculty-lead courses don’t meet needs, particularly when coupled with competency based certification which even the US government now recognizes for financing purposes.

    Think of trying to put a girdle on the Pillsbury Dough Boy. Push one piece in and another pops out. e-learning, badges, competency based programs, and now MOOC’s among other paths to certification keep popping out. MOOC’s are one of the canaries in the mine, so to speak, not only for students in the US.

    Knowledge, basic or common knowledge, is fungible and transferable across international borders. Teenagers in Central Europe pass a medallion university’s upper division MOOC as an example.

    The rise of MOOC’s and their endorsement by the administrations, venture capitalists and even students points clearly to the fact that the faculty have lost control and even today they are even in danger of loosing their sinecure. Just count the number of non-tenure track faculty at major institutions as another example.

    Worrying about the future of MOOC’s is like putting lotion on the chicken pox eruptions which are manifestations of what has been operational long before they had become visible.

    The arguments about economics, etc are similar to arguments raised by Luddites, 3rd pilots in modern airline cockpits or railroad brakemen. I don’t even think they give comfort to white mice when they become concerned that turning the wheel no longer gets a food pellet.

    • harrykeller
      Posted September 30, 2013 at 2:16 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Yes, MOOCs can be viewed as a canary in a coal mine.

      No, economics are not irrelevant and never are.

      I’m not seeing people worrying about the future of MOOCs unless they’re running one.

      MOOCs are a passing fad. They may morph into something more worthwhile while keeping the name the same. For now, they’re mostly a symptom and an illumination of some parts of the future of education.

      • Posted October 1, 2013 at 1:29 am | Permalink

        Hi Harry

        Yes, financing is an issue (economics, per se, is another discussion):

        Post secondary institutions have been supporting upper division courses and even some faculty research on the large enrollments of freshman/sophomore courses that are structured to re-transmit basic “text book” knowledge. Often those discussions are also lead by TA’s

        Today students have the possibility, not fully developed, of obtaining much of the credit for showing mastery of this knowledge while still in high school, often received from secondary school teachers certified to deliver college credit courses (CIS and AP are but two). There is a high price/cost redundancy between secondary and post secondary courses.

        This implies a number of critical points: universities have discounted the academic experience so loudly promoted, and It is clear that even universities realize that what they have sold as a premium idea is seen by many as an optional luxury item (externalities understood)

        In other words, the students and parents realize and have realized that what they are purchasing is a basic education with accessories which can include the perceived benefits of being at a medallion institution or on-campus w/amenities. And, faculty are beginning to realize that the ability to teach only a few upper division, low enrollment courses and have time to “think” may have a questionable future, particularly at non-selective admissions institutions.

        It is not the cost of the canaries but rather the fact that there are major structural problems which need addressment whether or not MOOC’s in any embodiment exist in the future. As they say, “don’t shoot the messenger”.

      • harrykeller
        Posted October 1, 2013 at 8:43 am | Permalink

        Excellent analysis, Tom.

        This is how things are. What are they to be?

        So far, I don’t see anyone with the answer. I don’t have it, but I can spot (with imperfect reliability) the non-answers.

      • Posted October 1, 2013 at 9:13 am | Permalink

        Hi Harry

        First, not all answers are short-term, just add water and drink, solutions. It is the same with human health. The ages 0-3 are crucial for a child. Lack of nutrients such as vitamins, at that age can not be corrected later via mega doses. And the human/social may also not be totally correctable. With this in mind, particularly for the United States:

        a) As Art Rolnik, former head of a branch of the fed has shown, the need at the college level starts at pregnancy. a long hard slog and an admission that kids and schools are important

        b) learning is continuous, so education must be continuous. As we have with medical records, we need educational records that are built with parents, kids and the school and adjusted to meet current/future needs. That might mean a student is at one level in English and another in Math. Lock-step, social promotion has to end and students need to work at capacity so much of what they get before college allows colleges to match pace.

        That means changing schools of education and breaking the symbiotic relationship between these schools and the certification boards.

        This is the hard part. But the Internet and the ability to track and meet needs when and where is here. Just ask the NSA.

        An ounce of prevention vs a pound of inadequate and overpriced cure.

        Phase II is the shift to competencies for life-long learning. The artificial boundaries between Primary, Secondary and post secondary and beyond as well as boundaries between education and the outside world are dissolving or being artificially maintained. The cost for maintaining is high and the benefits are not worth the cost.

        I think you can see the details here.

        One thing to remember is that technology is changing, especially the virtual world built around the internet as we are seeing with games/sims/virtual worlds etc. We have seen the rapid change from horn books to black boards to computers. Taking pride or getting hung up on a medium of delivery such as asynchroronus or synchronous delivery via such tools as Blackboard is dangerous for emergent opportunities. For those here it represents a danger of obstructionist over confidence like Little Jack Horner.

      • Posted October 1, 2013 at 1:45 am | Permalink

        Hi Harry

        Let me add one quick point which has been assiduously avoided by the e-learning folks since before Sloan pumped significant funds into the arena. No matter how good the process or delivery becomes, it’s still mapping bricks into clicks. As I pointed out, much of what is being delivered at the post secondary level whether in brick or click space (synchronous/asynchronous) is content that can be effectively delivered and is being delivered at the secondary level at significantly lower cost (in fact most states realize and promote this in the US because a secondary school course is significantly lower in cost than that offered at the post secondary level (discounting externalities).

        The arguments around MOOC’s are old wine (whine) in a slightly used bottle, vintage e-learning.

      • harrykeller
        Posted October 1, 2013 at 8:53 am | Permalink

        Thank you, Tom, for putting a light on what’s been happening in lots of secondary schools, the “high school college” sort of thing.

        When I went to school, algebra was not even discussed until ninth grade (high school in my state). Now, it’s in many (possibly most) eighth grade classes. AP course abound, whether you like them or not. They may or may not mimic the college experience of general education courses depending on particular teachers and schools. (I guarantee that they fall far short of my experiences in my freshman year.) Even in my time, far in the past, some students in my freshman class were able to opt our of first-year calculus or, more frequently, first-semester calculus. (They had to show coursework and take a test.)

        As we push academics downward into lower grades (Sheesh! My grandson has homework in first grade!), room opens up at the end of secondary school for college-level courses. Some high-school students already take online college courses (and pay for them) to get credit for HS graduation and for college as well.

        Our students are generally about a year behind their equal-age European counterparts in academic learning. There is room here, but many students here are a year or more behind in their learning (sometimes far behind) when the approach the end of twelfth grade. It’s a mess. I’d like to see MOOCs address remediation. Here’s a place where a free course can make a difference.

      • Posted October 2, 2013 at 12:21 am | Permalink

        Hi Harry

        You had asked, previously, how do we move from here. First, there is genius in the way WGU was created and finally transformed into a competency-based program. Its underlying philosophy whether in click or brick space is core. Given its origins and the interest of the states that underwrote the idea and supported it, there is real opportunity to establish a national/international model to address your latest concerns.

        I am not sanguine that MOOC’s are “the” or even “an” answer to the concerns you raised in your last post. Default to technology is a potential “band-aid” and often a default. Think of the piles of discarded tech adapted as solutions for education. It’s a simple, default position.

        Education is conservative by nature. And entrenched interests are almost adamantine in their response to the seas of changing pounding on the shore.

      • harrykeller
        Posted October 2, 2013 at 8:30 am | Permalink

        Hi Tom,

        Thank you for your further remarks. WGU is a great initiative (old now).

        Let’s be careful in using the word “technology” because it has many different meanings to many different people. My business specifically uses Internet technology and not, for example, Arduino technology. To survive, we must maintain a focus on the science learning experience as well.

        No technology or technologies will fix education alone. I am sanguine regarding the roles of some technologies in learning improvement. These technologies must be employed well to create a “better, faster, cheaper” result, to take a phrase from NASA and Dan Goldin.

        The adamantine wall put up by many in education will crumble in time due to forces that cannot be stopped. Younger faculty eventually replace older ones. Students demand more online materials and lower costs. Society is recognizing the extreme nature of college tuitions. The wall already is full of cracks. MOOCs are a large crack. Just as with the music industry, change is happening.

        MOOCs are hardly an answer to all of our ills. They do provide a nice means for a motivated person to learn something from the best. More interaction with experts would make success more likely. As a replacement for most for-credit courses, they won’t make the grade, IMO.

        I am very aware of technology failures in education, of discarded equipment and shelfware. A dynamic, evolving source from the Internet can avoid most of those problems. A subscription model lets schools try out ideas inexpensively. If it works, resubscribe. If not, go elsewhere. It’s truly a different world.

        I have expressed ideas more than concerns. My only true concerns surround science education in grades 6 through college. Both as a scientist and as an entrepreneur, that’s where my heart and mind are. The broader issues of technology in education impact this area and so attract my attention from time to time. This discussion is one of those time.

        I expect to be a part of the solution and not of the problem. By bridging the chasm between traditional wet labs and animated simulations with something that is neither and has eliminated the problems with both while retaining their good points, I expect to make real improvements in the learning of science.

      • Posted October 3, 2013 at 12:58 am | Permalink

        Hi Harry

        The question is “where are the individual member institutions of WCET going?” In the current evolving institutional world, particularly in education, waiting to see where this is evolving, one may find that there will be lemming-like events, even in oversubscribed CC’s. Like a flooded river facing a blockage in the channel, students will cut a path around the obstruction-and they are, already, poco-a-poco, buhoro buhoro.

        MOOC’s are just the canary in the mine.

        from Rwanda


        Dr. Tom P Abeles, editor
        On the Horizon

      • harrykeller
        Posted October 3, 2013 at 8:08 am | Permalink

        Yes, and this is exactly why the University of California (UC), the California State Universities (CSU), and the California Community Colleges (CCC) are all being told to eliminate bottlenecks for course enrollment. They are investigating various uses of the Internet to accomplish this.

      • Posted October 3, 2013 at 8:49 am | Permalink

        And they are looking at the wrong answers particularly if they see “tech” as the answer (e.g. MOOC’s )

      • harrykeller
        Posted October 3, 2013 at 9:02 am | Permalink

        Interesting that you should say that. Initially, the governor had suggested that they partner with Coursera, but that idea was quashed. They are now seeking internal solutions and external innovative ideas as well. MOOCs do not seem to be a part of the solution anymore.

        It’s too early to comment further.

  2. harrykeller
    Posted September 30, 2013 at 8:50 am | Permalink | Reply

    Massive and free are two parts of the “newsworthy” tale here. Quality, as in coming from MIT and Harvard, is the other. These three things also attracted the huge numbers of registrants from around the world, creating another news item.

    I see MOOCs more as another light illuminating the dimly perceived future of education than as a catalyst, although it certainly has shaken up plenty of higher education institutions. I do not see massive, open (as in free) online courses in our future. Someone must pay. Grants have limited lifetime, and universities are not about to fund competition to themselves.

    It’s a valid point that classes with 300 and more students (I taught one with 350 students) may as well be online and could be even more massive without losing much. However, this point misses an essential feature of those huge classes: recitation sections. I had 22 teaching assistants (including lab assistants for my freshman chemistry course).

    Some suggest that MOOCs can use peer communication in lieu of those TAs. They miss an essential feature of the TA. The TA is an “expert” in the field, albeit not one with decades of experience, but nevertheless one who has passed through four years of undergraduate instruction with good enough grades and recommendations to be admitted to graduate school.

    So, I ask MOOCs, where are your teaching assistants? They’re not free either.

    What is the cost of one teaching assistant for a couple of small groups, say 20, of students? Add to that the cost of hosting the course, per student, to get the cost to the institution. Add in overhead, and you have a price that many more students can afford as well as potentially certified credits at a recognized university.

    Tuition at these institutions is now over $40,000 per year. That’s maybe $8,000 for one two-semester course or $4,000 for one semester. Assume that one TA will have 40 students (could be more) and that all of the overhead costs double the TA direct cost, then you have $320,000 to spend on those costs with current tuitions but maybe a $40-50 thousand cost. Clearly, there’s room here for savings. If the big names don’t do it, then someone else will.

    As Mr. Katz suggests, upper-class courses are not very susceptible to becoming MOOCs. I can imagine some universities charging a different tuition (maybe half or what it is now) for the first two years due to these cost savings. Will it happen? “Can it be avoided?” is a better question. Someone will figure it out because it’s so obvious. Someone will do it somewhere sometime soon.

    All of this discussion also ignores the rapid and unstoppable march of technological progress. Currently, MOOCs are lectures and quizzes with some possible peer interaction. The online medium enables much more, more than most realize. As online education evolves, this model will drop by the wayside to be replaced by highly interactive learning that keeps learning minds focused more deeply and longer than lectures, books, and videos can manage.

    The future is upon us. MOOCs are merely a passing fad that helps us to envision a new future for education.

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