Category Archives: Op-Ed

MOOCs Are Dead. Long Live Online Higher Education.

By Phil Hill

Last week marked five years since Stanford University introduced to the world the classes that would soon spark a frenzy over massive open online courses.

On August 16, 2011, Stanford unveiled three courses, taught by Sebastian Thrun, Andrew Ng, and Jennifer Widom, all computer scientists at the university. Their MOOCs borrowed key designs from Daphne Koller, another Stanford professor who led much of that institution’s early efforts in blended learning. By the following spring, Mr. Thrun had founded Udacity, Mr. Ng and Ms. Koller had founded Coursera, and MIT and Harvard University had founded edX, seeking to use MOOCs to transform higher education.

The age of the commercially oriented MOOCs, as driven by their most prominent supporters, had begun.

Fast forward to the present, and we have now witnessed the end of an era. While Mr. Ng, Ms. Koller, and Mr. Thrun remain on the boards of their respective companies, the biggest advocates of commercial MOOCs have moved on.

Mr. Ng left Coursera in 2014 for Baidu, focusing on deep learning research. Mr. Thrun stepped down as chief executive of Udacity in April of this year to reduce his day-to-day responsibilities. He is now president of Kitty Hawk, a company focused on the development of flying cars. And Ms. Koller recently left Coursera to become chief computing officer at Calico, a company that researches human aging.

These days, no one considers MOOCs to be the future of education or a threat to the modern university, as had been so frequently claimed when the courses were first attracting international media attention. Udacity has shifted its focus to job-skills training, and Coursera and edX are still searching for ways to bring in long-lasting revenue.

So will these changes in corporate vision and leadership change the long-term trajectory of MOOCs?

[ Full article (subscription needed) available at The Chronicle of Higher Education: ]

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Posted by on August 26, 2016 in Op-Ed



MOOCs and Beyond

By Dan Butin

By now we know that MOOCs are not the final answer. Higher education will not be saved (or destroyed) by these massive open online courses that splashed into everyone’s consciousness about three years ago. Yes, they provide some fascinating opportunities for expanding access to higher education, for helping us to rethink how teaching and learning works, and for revitalizing the debate about the role of faculty and the power (or futility) of going to college. But most pundits and educators have moved on to the next shiny new fad.

This is a mistake.

For underneath and behind the scenes, much progress continues to be made.* In fact, I would suggest that it is only now – after three frustrating years where expectations were raised way too high and subsequently plummeted way too low – are we starting to see the real opportunities.

This can be seen in the recent announcement by MIT that one of its popular MOOCs (on philosophy) will introduce “instructor grading.” As the press release proclaims, “having a trained philosopher [will] provide individual feedback [which] is crucial to knowing how much of the material was truly understood. That engagement is an essential part of the pedagogical experience — just not one learners from Boston to Bangladesh can typically experience together.”

This is a fascinating development. By now it is crystal clear that MOOCs cannot be compared to traditional courses. Yes, they may replace and/or supplement existing courses, but they are fundamentally different. And that difference is exactly the kind of interactivity – of engagement, feedback, grading – that is at the heart of the give and take of deep learning in higher education. Without such engagement, MOOCs might as well be (and have been compared to) the correspondence courses of the 1800s or your local public radio or TV station. It’s just information transfer; not true knowledge development.

Until now the MOOC world has created multiple workarounds attempting to get around this more or less impassable obstacle of one of the foundational aspects of a course. The simplest solution, of course, was just to pretend that such feedback and engagement were not truly relevant to something being a course. But such a perspective, and pundit-fueled euphoria, was short-lived. More plausible solutions have included everything from automated assessment to competency-based education to differing permutations of peer feedback. But each of these solutions has always been dogged (not fairly in some cases) by the seeming lack of quality of such engagement.

This is where MIT’s announcement enters the picture. Their solution – of using “professional philosophers” – solves the really important problem of the seeming lack of quality. This solution appears simple and obvious, but until recently it did not seem plausible to do so on the massive scale of MOOCs, not least because of the costs involved. So what MIT has nicely done is connect this solution to their certificate program – which will cost $300 – such that students can, according to their website, “verify your achievement and increase your job prospects.”

So let’s do the math.

[ Full article available at Inside Higher Ed: ]

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Posted by on August 22, 2016 in MOOCs in the News, Op-Ed



Why Today’s MOOCs Are Not Innovative


At the Campus Technology conference in Boston, Stephen Downes explained the difference between innovation and transformation.

By David Weldon

For years, the higher education sector has been talking about the need to innovate. Or has it?

Are the various calls for new methods of delivering educational content truly advocating reform; or are they just new ways of approaching old topics?

That was the question posed by Stephen Downes, program leader for learning and performance support systems for the National Research Council of Canada, at last week’s Campus Technology conference in Boston.

As a keynoter for the three-day conference, Downes was tasked with challenging the audience to rethink what it means to be truly innovative in the field of education. The topic was not accidental: Downes immediately followed the presentation of the 2016 Campus Technology Innovators Awards.

While there were plenty of examples of innovation on hand in the awards portion of the session, much of what is passing for innovation in education today is not really that, Downes said. And in the industry overall, is it innovation we are achieving — or change?

“Change is done to you,” Downes stressed. “Innovation you do.”

Downes is no stranger to dramatic change in education. In 2008 he co-created the first massive open online course in the world, setting off a revolution in online education.

But that sort of thing isn’t what will transform education, Downes said. MOOCs are delivery methods – not changes in curriculum. If we want to change education, we have to change how we think about teaching and content.

Downes didn’t offer a blueprint for how to do that, but challenged the audience to think about transformation in what we teach, how we teach it and how we personalize the experience.

[ Full article available at Campus Technology: ]

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Posted by on August 9, 2016 in MOOCs in the News, Op-Ed



Higher Ed: The Next Generation?

By Akiba Covitz

Times have changed since we began our multi-author blog, Higher Ed Beta, in December 2013. After a spring-summer hiatus, we’ve decided to embark on a reboot and a re-title, graduating from beta to gamma. The first three pieces, one authored by each of us, reflect on where we’ve been, what we’ve been up to, and where we hope to go with the blog, and more generally, with our own journeys in the higher ed landscape. – Steve, Michael, & Akiba 

Now that the breathlessness/euphoria/panic of the early MOOC days is well behind us, let’s use this shared space to figure out what our “beta” will actually look like. And by us, I mean those in higher education and the growing number of not-for-profits, for-profits, and foundations engaged in the space. Yes, it is a far more crowded space than it was a few years ago — and a space that has always been a reluctant stage sharer.

What’s the new normal, now that it’s clear that the mass die-off of colleges that many predicted is not taking place? (at least not yet) Belts are very much tightened (for most), classrooms are certainly changing, and the walls dividing our campuses from the world are lowering, but the song remains pretty much the same: educating students, conducting research, and spreading knowledge.

That said, the modes of delivery are being tweaked and tested. The use of data and analytics is on the rise in a place where the ineffable has often been enough if not the end. Vocational and skills-based training is also no longer the work of other institutions, but of all institutions. MOOCs are still in the mix, but schools of all kinds are finding their niches with certificates, new consortia, expanded “adult ed” offerings in person and online, etc. It could be that the new normal is that there no longer is a normal and that business as usual is morphing into normal business (with the kinds of ebbs and flows that corporate HQs have been more concerned with than ivory towers). The two worlds will not become one, but, as I have written before when this blog first started, higher ed will reach and must reach higher heights as more of that business-oriented but still humanistic ethos is allowed to guide our decisions.

With all of that in mind, we will use this space to get beyond the flame-throwing, Molotov-cocktail infused revolutionary hype of three or four years ago to a more measured, departmental barbecue, nice-micro-brew-lager-sipping evolutionary stance.

[ Full article available at Inside Higher Ed: ]

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Posted by on August 1, 2016 in MOOCs in the News, Op-Ed



An Open Letter to Sherry Turkle On MOOCs and Online Learning

By Joshua Kim

Dear Dr. Turkle,

I am writing this open letter to you after reading your chapter on Education in your important, indispensable, and beautifully written new book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.

In the spirit of your wonderful and generous book, I’d like to offer my critique as an invitation to conversation. 

Critique #1 – MOOCs and Online Education Are Not the Same Thing:

In Reclaiming Conversation, you make the mistake of characterizing MOOCs as interchangeable with online education.

This mistake is distressingly common amongst journalists, but in a book as influential as Reclaiming Conversation I find the conflation of these two educational methods to be particularly troublesome.

The only thing that MOOCs and traditional online education share is a common enabling set of technologies – the internet and the phone.

MOOCs contain two attributes that put them in a separate category to traditional online learning.  First, they are built for scale.  Second, they are built to be open.

Traditional online courses are designed neither for scale or for openness.

Traditional online courses are built around a model of a private community, one consisting of an educator and a limited number of students.

MOOCs are to traditional online learning as a Facebook-only friend is to a real friend.

Critique #2 – Traditional Online Education Privileges Relationships and Conversation:

What is lost in your conflation of MOOCs with traditional online courses is an appreciation of the degree to which online courses (and programs) are built around a pedagogical philosophy that is aligned with your main arguments in Reclaiming Conversation.

[ Full article available at Inside Higher Ed: ]

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Posted by on October 25, 2015 in MOOCs in the News, Op-Ed



Barbara Shelly: Massive open online courses offer a lesson in bold claims gone bust

Image of keyboard and painter's pallette.

Fans of massive open online learning painted a bright picture that hasn’t panned out. File photo.

By Barbara Shelly

Not even five years ago, the hottest trend in higher education was free and had a funny name.

It was the MOOC, short for massive open online course. The idea was that the elites of academia would put their knowledge and lectures on the Internet, where they could be accessed around the world at no cost.

This would lead to a revolution, so the thinking went. No longer would higher education be the province of the wealthy or the sap willing to go $50,000 in debt for a diploma. MOOCs would democratize advanced learning and shake the well-endowed foundations of the modern university.

The New York Times proclaimed 2012 The Year of the MOOC. Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford University computer science professor, left his prestigous job for a MOOC startup, Udacity. “In 50 years,” he boldly told the publication Wired, “there will be only 10 institutions in the world delivering higher education and Udacity has a shot at being one of them.”

There were some questions, of course. How long would academics give away their content for free? What was the incentive for students to stick with the courses when most of them didn’t offer credit? How were the companies that produced the courses going to make money?

Still, if a revolution is coming, it’s best to jump on the wave, or at least not speak ill of it. Colleges and universities cautiously began experimenting with putting academic content on line for free.

[ Full article available at The Kansas City Star: ]

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Posted by on October 22, 2015 in MOOCs in the News, Op-Ed



Online Education: The Year Ahead

By William Fenton

Online education will grow up by scaling down. In spite of the practical and theoretical possibilities of e-learning, the very qualities that have enabled massive open online courses (or MOOCs) to serve prodigious numbers of learners—machine-graded assessment, prescriptive course design, and self-paced enrollment—have also tend to promote antiquated pedagogy, curtail student engagement, and preclude a sense of cohort. It doesn’t have to be that way.

As early as 2009, the U.S. Department of Education found that blended learning initiatives produced better learning outcomes that traditional face-to-face instruction. The past six years have brought numerous advances to the technological apparati of online learning. However, many of those innovations—particularly the trend towards self-paced, siloed instruction—haven’t improved learning outcomes inside or outside classrooms. More than tools, our priorities must change. Fresh from the second Learning With MOOCs, I am optimistic that the goals and methods of online learning are shifting away from unfettered scale and towards blended initiatives with residential universities.

Convening both creators (e.g. university faculty and staff) and platform providers (representatives from edX and Coursera), LWMOOCS provides a cross-section of online education and a canopy under which stakeholders may share case studies, voice questions and concerns, and traverse institutional and disciplinary divides. After listening to and speaking with a diverse coterie of edtech practitioners, I am hopeful that the coming year will invite experimentation with smaller, smarter, more social online courses that better serve learners.

Scaling Down
The days of MOOCs with 100,000 students are largely passed, and good riddance. First, falling enrollments disclose an abundance of online learning options: With more platforms, fewer students enroll in a given class. (I’ve reviewed about a dozen Learning Management Systems, a half-dozen online course platforms, and I’m keenly aware of how many platforms I haven’t evaluated.) Second, and more importantly, bigger classes tend to produce worse learning outcomes. When students feel bored (e.g. lecture fatigue) or isolated from peers (dead-end discussion boards), they’re more likely to give up—hence the eyebrow-raising attrition rates.

[ Full article available at PC Magazine:,2817,2493154,00.asp ]

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Posted by on October 15, 2015 in MOOCs in the News, Op-Ed



Of MOOCs and Men

By Akiba Covitz

It will come as no surprise to anyone reading this that a dividing line continues to exist between faculty members when it comes to MOOCs in particular and to online teaching in general.

That dividing line was there four years ago when I was working at edX, talking about MOOCs to faculty members at Harvard or Wellesley or Rice or TU Delft or Hong Kong Polytechnic. That dividing line is still there now, although perhaps it has moved slightly in what’s viewed as a positive direction, with more faculty having an open mind about the power of this medium.

In any case, let me break down the two camps.

There are professors who believe that online teaching and massively online teaching work. Let’s call them Massive Open Online Supporters (MOOSs).

These are the professors who believe that these online courses truly connect people with ideas and also connect people to each other. This is partly because MOOSs personally want a massive audience for their teaching. They also believe that the scale of those they can teach makes up for some of the possible limitations of the modality.

But these MOOSs also know that the online format allows for a more measured and more controllable form of interaction. For instance, the asynchronous qualities of online learning elements can help those who are not auditory learners engage with the materials when they might otherwise be discouraged.

On the other side, there are those professors who think that the human element of face-to-face teaching is not replicable in any way outside the four walls of the brick and mortar classroom. For them, the magic of the synchronous classroom is lost when any elements of it are not done face to face and – as David Brooks might have it – soul to soul. Let’s (unfairly) call these professors Massive Open Online Detractors (MOODs).

Most of the MOODs I know are not even remotely Luddites. Many, in fact, are among the most successful and innovative professors I have met, but just not online, and certainly not with MOOCs.

Further, given that students come with devices in hand, there may be a sense of fatigue with technology. Some faculty set up classroom tech use ground rules or even activate Wi-Fi suppression switches. I often find myself in class competing with ESPN, YouTube, texting, e-mail, etc. The frustrations are real, but online teaching tools are not, I argue, distractions, but true tools, even for MOODs.

The MOOC in the Middle
I don’t believe that there is any longer a question that MOOCs can teach people how to do stuff. I think that much is now quite clear, and the data is voluminous, especially given Coursera’s success with their Specializations. The question that very much remains is whether MOOCs can enable transformative teaching. This is beyond seeing them as consumers who possess newly transferred information. Put another way, can MOOCs transform students as people?

[ Full article available at Inside Higher Ed: ]

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Posted by on October 12, 2015 in MOOCs in the News, Op-Ed



Some Reactions to Learning With MOOCs II

By Joshua Kim

Thank you to our colleagues at Columbia University for hosting the 2nd Learning With MOOCs gathering. The hospitality, warmth, and personal attention of our Columbia hosts set a new standard for gatherings such as these.

This conference is distinct from other educational technology gatherings as it is: a) focused on bringing together MOOC practitioners, and b) both MOOC producers and MOOC platform providers are represented.

The main theme that ran through all sessions, panels, and discussions at the conference was that the most important goal of MOOC programs is to improve learning at the schools that are developing and teaching these open online courses.

We are all working on open online courses, but we are thinking about how MOOCs can be a lever and a catalyst to evolve residential (and traditional online) teaching and learning.

If MOOCs are conceived as a means rather than an ends, a catalyst rather than a goal, then restricting discussions to MOOCs feels constricting and artificial.

We need to understand how we can effectively and productively leverage open online learning to bring new resources, new ideas, and new organizational structures to traditional postsecondary teaching and learning.

We need to go deeply into the politics, culture, and structure of our institutions.

We need to combine MOOC practitioners with experts on the structure, history, and future of higher education.

[ Full article available at Inside Higher Ed: ]

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Posted by on October 4, 2015 in MOOCs in the News, Op-Ed



Insider / Outsider MOOC Divide

By Joshua Kim

There are two MOOC narratives. An insider MOOC narrative. And an outsider MOOC narrative.

MOOC insiders are people who have taught a MOOC, worked on a MOOC, done research about MOOCs, championed a MOOC, or worked for the platform providers that have enabled MOOCs.

MOOC outsiders may have invested time exploring an open online course, but they have not been directly involved in the creation, teaching, or enabling of a MOOC.

What I’m coming to understand, and what is causing me increasing levels of concern, is that there is a growing chasm between MOOC insiders and MOOC outsiders.

I’m starting to think that the biggest challenge that the open online learning community needs to face is how to authentically engage with MOOC outsiders.

It is with these thoughts in mind that I head off to the Learning With MOOCS II – 2015 workshop (10/2-10/3).  If there ever was a gathering of MOOC insiders, this is it.

Here is what the MOOC insider / outsider narrative looks like:

MOOC Insider: Open online learning provides an opportunity to create a space to experiment with new teaching methods and techniques that have the potential to inform how traditional teaching and learning is structured on campus.

MOOC Outsider: MOOCs are a fad, and the schools creating these open online courses are doing so out of fear of being left behind. Like all fads, MOOCs will fade away as sustainable business models fail to emerge and the promises of transformative educational practices fail to materialize.

MOOC Insider: Open online learning was never meant to replace traditional higher education, as there is strong evidence that authentic student learning occurs best when educators have the opportunity to intensively mentor and coach individual learners. Where MOOCs may be helpful is discovering where certain aspects of teaching, such as content delivery, can be moved to other (data validated) platforms, freeing up time and space for a relational model of teaching and learning.

MOOC Outsider: It is clear that the goal of people pushing MOOCs is to increase postsecondary productivity at the expense of both faculty autonomy and student learning. MOOCs are a thinly disguised corporatist attempt to de-skill faculty by moving the traditional teaching role from a creative enterprise to a commoditized (and low-cost) set of  operations.

[ Full article available at Inside Higher Ed: ]

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Posted by on October 1, 2015 in MOOCs in the News, Op-Ed