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Considering the Legacy of MOOCs: Building Blocks for a Greater Whole

The EvoLLLution | Considering the Legacy of MOOCs: Building Blocks for a Greater Whole
The lasting legacy of MOOCs will probably be most evident in the systems and approaches to higher ed they help to forge.

It is far too early to provide a retrospective on MOOCs because they are still with us and still evolving. We are, however, moving beyond the breathless excitement that only comes when new technology intersects with large sums of venture capital. Much like William Gibson’s oft-quoted phrase about the uneven distribution of the future, the location of any given institution on the Gartner Hype Cycle is also highly variable. Some institutions still have pending press releases touting their first MOOCs, while others are trying to find their way out of an unsustainable trough of disillusionment. Still others are beginning to trudge up the slope of enlightenment and that path will ultimately define the short history of MOOCs.

The Scalability Glass Ceiling

While the Internet made it possible to reach millions with an almost infinite breadth of content, formal educational institutions actively resisted unbarring the gates. For universities, learning management systems provided a way to take the disruptive possibilities of the Internet and, at least momentarily, turn those possibilities into a sustaining innovation. Even with relatively safe pedagogical and economic models that maintained the existing paradigm, early online education was relegated to the fringes of most institutions (often living in the hands of the rebellious spirits found in Outreach or Continuing Education units).

More than 20 years after online programs first emerged, there is growing acceptance and even mainstreaming of these programs. In some cases, this mainstreaming is much to the chagrin of continuing education units, which are increasingly seeing their online units pulled out and moved more directly into the core of institutional administration. Some public and private institutions have fully transformed into largely online entities but retain the same business approach. For-profit colleges reaped large gains for shareholders while public and non-profit universities have been able to use excess revenues from online programs to subsidize more traditional offerings.

MOOCs reignited the possibilities of disruptive scalability by offering a new financial model: FREE. The aggregate cost of technology plummeted to near zero since the early days of online education. The possibility of the emergence of superstar faculty, a reality talked about for more than a decade, is more of a reality now that some courses are available for all to see. MOOCs captured the imaginations of faculty and have shattered the notion that online courses can only reach a few students at a time. Many questions are yet to be answered about the quality and outcomes of these massive courses but the glass ceiling holding back high-quality education at scale is cracking.

Scalable Educational Experiences

While MOOCs have provided a revolutionary sense of scale, they have largely retained the old style of schedules and lectures. That is changing as more on-demand models emerge but the overall concept is the same. MOOC platform providers are also “discovering” that students want to pay for credentials and not learning experiences. This means that many of those companies are tying their fortunes to the issuing of certificates and badge-like credentials. This business model will succeed as long as MOOCs are a tiny fraction of their partner university’s offerings but will run into significant headwinds once adoption grows and they compete more directly with the core institutional financial models.

Taking the next step will require rethinking all parts of the model. The technology is leaping ahead but the rest of the system will not automatically follow. Looking beyond the course structure, the value might be better defined if we think in terms of “scalable educational experiences.” Unfortunately, this term does not roll off the tongue like the fun-to-say “MOOC” but getting out from under the notion of these as large courses frees us to consider distinctly different possibilities.

The Future Will Define MOOCs

Globally connected and mixed-modality learning communities can be enhanced and accelerated by MOOC platforms and, more importantly, new thinking. Such possibilities more accurately reflect the thinking of the earliest MOOC pioneers, George Siemens and Steven Downes. These new possibilities will take advantage of the best of what we can do in physical and virtual spaces. Expect to see new learning genres and expanded access to the deep knowledge generated by our great universities.

Ultimately, MOOCs may help move us toward more action-oriented programs that pull the best and brightest globally connected minds together not just to learn, but also to take advantage of local opportunities or solve wicked societal problems. These new forms of engagement will look quite different from what we currently call MOOCs or even degree programs.

The energy and buzz surrounding any new technology provides an impetus for thinking differently and attracting resources. The early days often reflect the capability of the technology through the lens of what we already know, rather than what is possible. MOOCs show us one part of a possible future but their legacy will likely be that they provided one more essential component to a new system, rather than the totality of a new paradigm.

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