MOOC FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt)

Windmills in La Mancha

Windmills in La Mancha for some reason. This is licensed CC BY-NC 2.0 by lapidim

In what can only be described as a rant, six community colleges members have taken to Inside Higher Education to produce a self serving article that bemoans the implications of the use of educational technology and, in particular, the rise of the MOOC.

Without encumbering themselves with anything so drastic as a bit of research into their topic they proceed to brand MOOCs (presumably all types of MOOC) in fairly inflammatory language as being “designed to impose, not improved learning, but a new business model on higher education, which opens the door for wide-scale profiteering”.

There are a couple of problems with this; firstly it supposes that the current higher education business model is the only one that should exist and, secondly, that the current higher education delivery model does, in fact provide a better learning experience.

Both of these claims are contentious to say the least. MOOCs are a classic disruptive innovation that fits the model described by Christensen precisely. They operate at the lower end of the supposed product capability range at low cost to the student. Typically such innovations arrive in a marketplace in which the functionality of existing ‘products’ has increased beyond the current level of demand from the consumer at a cost beyond what they are prepared to pay. In other words, the disruptive innovation is good enough.

I would argue that, in fact, for higher education the functionality of the product hasn’t increased over the last thirty years. In fact the utility of most traditional courses has decreased as a result of the massification of higher education. At the same time costs have risen as has the availability of alternative sources of appropriate content through the internet.

The  result is that the traditional higher education business model is no longer a good fit for many students. I don’t know why recognising this is a problem for the authors.

The quality of learning materials in some xMOOCs has been criticised by the authors. I have some sympathy for their argument, particularly the argument regarding elite universities suddenly ‘discovering’ learning design (which they will no doubt implement at some point). Having said that, I think it’s a long bow to tar all MOOCs with the same brush (to mix our metaphors yet again) . Much of the learning that takes place in MOOCs is of the highest quality. The bad news for the authors is that it is only going to get better. That’s what happens with disruptive innovations. They get better and better.

But wait, it’s not educational quality or business moels that most draws the ire of the authors. Their main problem with MOOCs is this:

“In our view, the central philosophical flaw in the MOOC paradigm is that proponents believe that there is nothing to be lost in turning professors into glorified tutors, parts of a larger information delivery system”

And there we have it. It’s not the quality of education, it’s the authors’ position as the repositories and gatekeepers  of knowledge that is being challenged. There is nothing I can really say about this other than that the genie is out of the bottle and is riding off madly into the distance on a horse that bolted. It’s not MOOCs that did this, it’s the internet. We live in age of information abundance. There should be no going back.

Instead of tilting at windmills the authors need to decide how they are going to contribute to global, open education. There are many ways that they and their expertise can contribute. It’s just not going to be in the same way as it was in the last century. Get over it and move on.

6 Comments On “MOOC FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt)”

  1. Spot on Mark!!

    Too often I’ve seen first hand university management balk at the concept that their job is to facilitate learning, not be a gatekeeper limiting access to knowledge. Helping students learn and understand is (and should be) the primary job of anyone working in higher education, whether that is through good teaching, quality research, efficient administration or the implementation of technologies that assist teachers and students to work in the way that best suits their respective teaching and learning styles.

    Too often it seems that “upper” management of educational institutions forget that it is their job to support those who are doing the actual teaching and equally, those teaching often seem to forget that it is the job of a teacher to support a student’s learning. Education is, after all, a service industry, not a profit making business and if that turns professors into “glorified tutors”, well then why should anyone care, so long as the students are learning.

    I usually tell people that the reason we should dedicate so much time and effort into helping students learn is that one day, we’ll be relying on them to keep us alive as they design aircraft or bridges, or work as doctors, nurses, lawyers, accountants, etc. We should therefore take every effort, tool and technology available to ensure that they get the right understanding.


  2. Pingback: MOOC FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt)Mark Smithers | Mark Smithers « Things I grab, motley collection

  3. Mark, great post. I agree with you that MOOCs represent a lot of opportunity, even for those 6 CC members (they just don’t realize it yet). Standardizing a course structure has some downfalls, but the benefits are data and incremental improvement. What once was inefficient and costly is not efficient and the cost is driven towards zero. I look the next few years in higher ed.


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  6. Pingback: EduGeek Journal » The End of the (MOOC) World is Nigh

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