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A Glass Half Full and Half Empty: The Pitfalls and Possibilities of MOOCs

MOOCs have created massive change in the higher education space, but there are a number of hurdles left for them to jump before they can be reasonably accepted as mainstream practice for colleges and universities.

Online learning, which has become largely synonymous with distance education, is a field that is constantly changing and developing.  Recently, we have seen in the popular media that online learning technologies are being leveraged by more traditional, largely elite institutions in the work of developing and offering massive open online courses, also known as  MOOCs.  There are many perspectives or “lenses” through which to view the MOOC phenomenon, but my comments here come from the perspective of one who has been in the distance education field for years too many to name here.  From my point of view, there are both promises and pitfalls to MOOCs, and in this initial period of excitement, it is worthwhile for distance educators, and educators of all traditions, for that matter, to mull over the pluses and minuses of this phenomenon.

1. Promise: Disruptive Innovation 

Like distance education, MOOCs seem to challenge prevailing ideas of traditional higher education, such as learning being in credit hour packages and occurring within the confines of time and space.  With MOOCs, one does not have to take these courses in ways that document work in progress toward a degree or certificate (though you could).  Also with MOOCs, the content, in whole or part, is available many times without charge to the consumer, though it should be noted that these MOOCs often are built upon a class where students are taking a face-to-face course at an origination site.  Many MOOCs also give a variety of learners a window into a world that few are able to experience: the teaching and learning environments of the most selective, competitive, and ordinarily quite expensive universities.

2. Promise: Access Values and the Dawning of the Elites

That MOOCs present a variety of learners with an opportunity to access content from selective/elite universities is something that is worthy of great excitement.  Sharing learning opportunities with people across the world and with people who normally could not afford to access this content addresses the dreams of many of us who embrace values related to the expansion of educational access.  Certainly, allowing persons to take MOOCs on a non-credit basis opens up the possibility that lifelong learners can learn what they want and how much they want without regard to tuition or transferability into an academic certificate or degree.  On the other hand, creative educational leaders are experimenting with ways to use MOOCs as the foundation for offering college course credits on a more affordable basis.  Note, for example, the Saylor Foundation’s efforts to work with Excelsior College on the UExcel Exam program, which will permit learners, on a credit-by-exam basis, to gain college credits for as little as $95 per course (see Recruiting and Retaining Adult Learners, page 2, October 2012 issue).

The values of educational access surely, if surprisingly, can be advanced with MOOCs simply because of the elite nature of many of the institutions now involved.   Now that elite institutions have discovered the world of online technologies and distance learning, elite involvement may help underscore problems with regulation, accessibility, pedagogy, and financing of distance learning that distance educators have not been able to fully bring to the attention of policymakers.  Perhaps now, progress on these issues, at both a state and national level, can be made.

3. Pitfall: Academic Interaction and Co-Construction

There is an irony, however, about MOOCs that rankles, and is to some extent captured by Harry Truman’s famous statement, “The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.”  Those of us in the distance education community have known about and practiced for years methods of integrating technology into our instructional and pedagogical initiatives.  Our attentions are of course piqued by the recent awareness of the power of distance education expressed by elite institutions and the leaders of firms such as Coursera, Udacity, and edX.  But for most of us, we have to say that MOOCs generally are not distance education as most of us know it.  In many MOOCs, the interaction opportunities and co-construction of knowledge simply are not on a level that could be called distance education.

This is due largely to the immense class sizes that make instructor-student interaction difficult, if not impossible, and the small degree to which interactive communications tools are utilized in these classes.  And although MOOCs use of a few technologically-mediated pedagogies, which primarily include videostreaming and some email and discussion boards, they do not seem, in the main, to be offering us anything remarkable or cutting edge in a pedagogical sense.  Jim Broomall’s excellent essay, “Turning Back the Clock on Lifelong Learning: The Paradox of MOOCs” recently appearing in this magazine makes some of these pedagogical points more adroitly than I make them here, and I highly recommend a review of it (see the this EvoLLLution article).

4. Pitfall: Money, Money, Who Has the Money?

A workable and sustainable business model has yet to be discovered for MOOC, though there is some work by Coursera and others that is being done to find it (see here, for example). Partnerships can be forged between a packager, like Coursera, and an academic institution (in this case, Antioch University), for which the packager provides the MOOC content, and the academic institution pays a course setup fee.  Then, as the tuition for the institution’s course is collected, the revenue is shared between the institution and the packager. Some institutions, such as Stanford, finance with foundation grants (note the recent interview with Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller on National Public Radio).

But perhaps inside this pitfall is some promise.  For institutions new to MOOCs, academic and administrative leaders might want to consider their potential as a fundraising tool, thus providing an opportunity to an institution’s development staff to engage donors who would, for example, like to memorialize the teaching of a favorite professor in cyberspace.  MOOCs could also be a marketing tool, providing learners with an academic “teaser” for those seeking inspiration from schools that offer outstanding thinkers and visionaries.  In these contexts, expenditures to launch MOOCs are better viewed as investments that might not require an immediate or directly-connected financial return.

5. Big Pitfall: Beware the Regulators!

MOOCs, insofar as they deliver learning opportunities to persons residing in legal jurisdictions, can possibly run afoul of state authorization regulations.  A recent post by Russ Poulin on the WCET blog noted the contention, since resolved, between Coursera and the state of Minnesota, for example.  In distance learning, institutions need to know where their students are, and with large enrollments of many MOOCs, this is going to be very very difficult.  Unless states write in special exemptions for MOOCs, a number of elite institutions who have heretofore been oblivious to this complex regulatory environment will now have to navigate through the thicket of state regulations.  What about federal regulations and accreditation guidelines?  MOOC advocates and providers have not yet contemplated these complexities, but they eventually will, just as those of us who are long-time distance educators have had to.

To conclude: We must be thinking about MOOCs 

For all of us in distance education, regardless of whether we hail from institutions of the nonprofit or for-profit, private or public, elite or open access variety, should and perhaps must embrace a simple reality: MOOCs are indeed a phenomenon that captures media attention and challenges the thought and practice of distance, continuing, and lifelong educators, as it is now challenging those leaders in traditional and elite higher education.  Many of us in distance education have been housed in units residing in traditional place-based institutions, and have long been the organizations that traditional leaders have looked to for answers of how education might be more affordable, flexible, and sustainable.  As MOOCs  address in part many of these considerations, distance educators need to collect and organize our thoughts, and formulate some possible answers to inquiries that will no doubt come our way.