Thursday, November 21, 2013

Have MOOCs peaked already?

I have been somewhat skeptical that MOOCs are the world changing innovations that supporters have supposed them to be. I have tended to regard the claims that they are "game changers" that would do to universities what online news sources have done to the press (or what online porn has done to the salacious magazine industry) as hype generated by those that want to put their hands on your wallet, or, even worse, the latest new thing that college administrators intend to use to "cut costs" (no doubt in part, my cynical self tells me, to save their own perks and salaries). I have noted that the evidence, such as it is, does not yet indicate that MOOCs are better at delivering a quality education at a good price than old style correspondence courses were and, so far as I can tell, the latter did not serve to upend the university system.

None of this is intended to demean the wonders of online resources. I LOVE them. I like being able to get online courses, I love being able to avail myself of the tons of excellent material more knowledgeable souls have graciously placed online FREE for my benefit. The world is a better place for this. However, I still think that the old-fashioned educational system, where learning is largely a kind of group hug, is the close to optimal because it embodies the human fact that education is a strongly social enterprise. Solo efforts can and do occur, but it really helps to have a community that is up close and personal, and in a real not a virtual way for real education to take place.

Why do I repeat this again here. Well, Josh Falk was kind enough to send me this fascinating interview with Sebastien Thrun, the founder of Udacity. Here's Josh's rather good take on the interview:

Sebastian Thun, the cofounder of a major MOOC company, offers a moderately pessimistic view of his own product.

Some choice quotes:

"We were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don't educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product."

"The sort of simplistic suggestion that MOOCs are going to disrupt the entire education system is very premature."

"We're not doing anything as rich and powerful as what a traditional liberal-arts education would offer you."

There's a lot more to the interview than that, and some of his points are subtler than these cherry-picked quotes would suggest, but it's interesting that even someone who runs this type of business is expressing significant doubts.

The interview has gotten lots of collateral play.  Thrun is clearly a serious person, and not just somewhat out to make a buck. MOOCs may in fact change the world, but right now, the momentum is coming not from its obvious educational superiority but because their are large amounts of money to be made in destroying reforming the current university system. IMO, these different educational platforms will not be fought out in the marketplace where consumers (aka students/parents) vote with their dollars and spend on cheaper MOOC educations rather than costly four year colleges. Rather, right now the strategy of MOOC advocates is to convince Higher Ed to throw in the towel and go MOOC so as to prevent later MOOCification down the road. And the convincing is being done by those that have a lot to gain if they win. In this regard, the dialectics is similar to what we see from the Petersen Foundation wrt Social Security: cut it now because we might need to cut it later. The bottom line? When you read the MOOC hype ask that age old but still relevant question, cui bono? Who benefits?

1 comment:

  1. I just read about some research that most of the people MOOCs reached are mostly already (highly) educated.