Harvard’s announcement this month that it was joining forces with MITx to launch EdX, a series of (free and paid) openly-available online courses, fueled an already buzzing trend in higher education: MOOCs, or massively open online courses. The move is being portrayed in a variety of ways – the promise of democratizing higher education and potentially disrupting, or at least fundamentally altering the structure and quality of, online learning and even face-to-face classroom education. Here’s a look into the MOOC evolution and how EdX fits into the picture.
According to Wikipedia, MOOCs are courses “where the participants are distributed and course materials also are dispersed across the web.” These are traditionally self-paced, instructor-free courses that students guide themselves through. While the MOOC movement has existed for years, recent developments have created a flurry of activity, new players, increased hype, and renewed potential surrounding the movement.
Open Content Roots
The Open Content movement is a pillar of the foundation that supports and spawned MOOCs. Espousing the distribution of free content and licensing designed specifically to allow educators to re-use and even edit content, this movement set the stage for widely distributed educational content and OER, or open educational resources (see earlier blog post on Open Education). In many ways this movement could be seen as providing a framework by which educational resources, or components of a course, could be distributed and used freely. MIT’s Open CourseWare is an example of this – it is the assets from an MIT course but not necessarily enough ‘connective tissue’ to form an entire course offering.
George Siemens of the eLearnspace blog defines MOOCs as stemming from several principles of Connectivist pedagogy, including aggregation (vs. from-scratch preparation) and remixing culture (the open education tenet that allows users to modify content to suit their own purposes). In fact, Open Education pioneer David Wiley offered a MOOC on the subject of open education back in 2007 (see syllabus). But there are several recent examples of free and for-profit offerings of MOOCs in the higher education space.
One major impetus for MOOCs, and a direct descendant of OER culture, was the launch of Kahn Academy. This is a site devoted to providing short video clips on a variety of subjects for free and enticing learners to “Watch. Practice. Learn almost anything for free.” The prospect of free, highly-engaging videos that could be used for just-in-time learning proved wildly successful. While each Kahn Academy video could be seen as a short ‘lesson’, the truth is they are not designed to be full courses. But in many ways they set the framework for how more robust courses could be delivered effectively for use by educators and learners.
Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford professor inspired by a the TED talk by Khan Academy founder Salman Khan, decided to put his Introduction to Artificial Intelligence class online. He offered it for free, and students who completed it received a Statement of Accomplishment (but no certificate or degree or credits) from Stanford. Over 160,000 students in over 190 countries signed up (see early NYT piece written during the initial explosion in enrollees). Based on the success of the course, Thrun decided he could no longer teach traditionally at Stanford and launched a company called KnowLabs and through it the Udacity site (a mashup of “audacity” and “university”).
Udacity offers free, online, eight-week courses (tag line: “Free Classes. Awesome Instructors. Inspiring Community.”) Though KnowLabs and Udacity he seeks to address what he sees as the nine essential components of a university education: admissions, lectures, peer interaction, professor interaction, problem-solving, assignments, exams, deadlines, and certification. According to the site, “We believe university-level education can be both high quality and low cost. Using the economics of the Internet, we've connected some of the greatest teachers to hundreds of thousands of students all over the world.”
The business model seems akin to that of Flatworld Knowledge – offer content for free, but offer students the option to purchase fee-based ancillaries like study aids, supplemental materials, teaching assistant services, etc. They also have a business-to-business model whereby they cull the top resumes of participating students and offer services to provide those resumes to companies looking to recruit students in a particular subject expertise.
Interestingly, another Stanford spinoff is also now pushing the leading edge of MOOCs: Coursera. “We offer courses from the top universities, for free.” And indeed, the website shows courses already being offered from Princeton University, Stanford University, the University of Michigan, and the University of Pennsylvania (see some video preview examples from the Stanford ‘Game Theory’ class). Initial ideas were that participation and enrollment would be free, but certification of completion would cost a modest fee. And this is indicative of one of the main business models inherent in this new for-profit association with provision of MOOCs – the fact that the content providers (universities) do so for the altruistic knowledge dissemination factor, but the infrastructure could be paid for by students willing to go to great lengths to associate themselves with the educational brands from which the courses are derived. So the point of people arguing whether a Coursera course is equivalent to a Stanford face-to-face (F2F) course is ridiculous – the answer is “of course not” (the same answer given for years by MIT’s Open Courseware). But will an Indian student who has no chance to ever attend Stanford pay for the affiliation and experience of learning via its content? Many, including Coursera, are banking on ‘yes’ as the answer.
Coursera actually has an additional business model. The free courses offered via its own site might be ‘self-serve’ and designed to run with no specific instructor as part of the model. But they might offer private label versions of these courses that could be offered by other schools – schools who choose to assign actual instructors and faculty to these offerings, thereby raising the value and charging students accordingly. In this model the original faculty and school who developed the course receive a royalty. So just as “online program in a box” companies like 2tor partner with academic institutions to create/expedite their online presence, a company like Coursera can do so but also offer ready-to-teach courses from its variety of premiere content partner schools.
The learning management system (LMS) behemoth Blackboard has also joined the fray. Blackboard has been a strong contributor to open technology standards over the past few years, largely due to the leadership of CTO Ray Henderson (see more on the subject from Ray here). In addition to the recent announcement of getting into the business of servicing and supporting open source LMS competitors, Blackboard has also jumped into the MOOC arena. They offer a free, hosted version of their LMS called Coursesites that allows faculty to create up to 5 free courses. They are now touting Coursesites as an option for schools that want to create MOOCs and distribute their content. Their flagship kickoff example is a course by Indiana University’s Curtis Bonk called “Instructional Ideas and Technology Tools for Online Success” (also see Inside Higher Ed’s take on what makes this course unique).
Given its long history with provision of open educational resources via OpenCourseware, it’s not surprising that MIT chose to launch its own initiative rather than partner with a company like Coursera or Udacity. MITx was formed to “…offer a portfolio of MIT courses for free to a virtual community of learners around the world.” According to a NYT article, the first course (Circuits and Electronics) enrolled about 120,000 students, “some 10,000 of whom made it through the recent midterm exam.” According to the official overview:
Ten years ago, MIT launched OpenCourseWare, which places online the course materials for substantially the entire MIT curriculum, and was the genesis of today’s worldwide movement in free, open educational resources. MITx is the next step in opening MIT’s educational doors to the world. Through OCW and MITx, MIT invites the world to join it in the passion, hard work and thrill of learning and discovery.
These courses will be asynchronous / self-paced, offer “online laboratories” for experimentation, allow students to connect via discussion groups and collaborative platforms, and provide assessment tools to track learning. There will be some type of certificate of completion (branded MITx, not MIT). The platform is a proprietary one that MIT will make freely available via an open source model.
In May of 2012 Harvard University announced that it would join forces with MITx and form Edx. The new entity would “offer online learning to millions of people around the world” and “extend their collective reach to build a global community of online learners and to improve education for everyone.” Jim Waldo, Harvard’s CTO, spoke to Harvard educational technologists recently and revealed that the collaboration had an unlikely origin. Harvard University actually accepted a meeting with Coursera, mistakenly thinking it was an official Stanford University entity. They were intrigued with the idea of MOOCs after the meeting but had concerns about partnering with a for-profit intermediary. They decided to talk to MIT, knowing about the MITx initiative. And hence the discussions evolved into the EdX partnership.
Waldo explained that Harvard University and the EdX team are taking a research approach to this problem. “We have committed to doing something we don’t know how to do because there was wide acknowledgment that it’s too important to wait…If you think you have the right answer to this problem, then you aren’t thinking about it hard enough.” He then reviewed some of the basic tenets of the plan. While initial courses will be free, fee-based courses are not off the table for consideration. From a course offering and accreditation standpoint they need to figure out how EdX co-exists with Harvard’s only historic distance-learning channel, the Division of Continuing Education.
The benefits of this model are likely to be overshadowed, at least in the short term, by fear and challenges from established F2F classroom stakeholders. The new production model associated with this pedagogical model is not lost on Udacity’s Thrun. His instructional design and course creation process includes creation of videos and other assets. He has said that “behind every Udacity class will be a production team, not unlike a film crew. The professor will become an actor-producer.” That’s not the language that will endear current classroom educators to the model, however true a statement it is. Both MITx and EdX go out of their way to stress the benefits to classroom teaching, and Coursera and others form careful partnerships with school administrators to help shepherd educators gently into the new model. As with most transformative initiatives, the change management challenges are the most formidable. As with for-profit education models, a centralized approach to instructional design in and of itself isn’t necessarily bad and, when designed and implemented appropriately, can leverage best practices more consistently than traditional ad hoc course design methods. But the idea of a ‘production line’ incites revulsion to many traditional faculty.
The MITx and Edx sites make it clear that enhancement of the traditional classroom is also a goal. MITx states that in addition to provision of free courses online, it will “…also enhance the educational experience of its on-campus students, offering them online tools that supplement and enrich their classroom and laboratory experiences.”. What possible advances can online learning/teaching bring to the classroom? There are potentially many. Most F2F classrooms now have some type of online resources available, so there are some obvious best practices around the delivery and technology associated with online assets and course components. But there are pedagogical learnings as well. Kahn Academy helped popularize something called “reverse instruction” where lectures/videos are watched at home (instead of in class), with students then working on problem sets in class (rather than at home) where they could avail themselves of peer and instructor assistance and collaboration.
The threat of confusing self-paced, instructor-free MOOCs with smaller online offerings that include a live faculty member or facilitator is central to faculty concerns and is also a challenge to both MOOCs and traditional online learning efforts. Dartmouth’s Joshua Kim has an excellent post on this subject.
Assessment is a huge goal for EdX – figuring out how students learn online and what that can teach us about classroom learning. This goal is close to our heart here in the Higher Education unit at Harvard Business Publishing. We have an ongoing initiative designed to explore and promote best practices in how educators can use case studies and other experiential learning products in online environments (see kickoff blog discussion). So we look forward to eventually joining the conversation at Harvard as it expands to include the business school. And there are larger considerations around how to assess learning online, how to credential that learning in meaningful ways (see Mozilla Badges project), and how to reliably use those assessments as meaningful indicators beyond the classroom (see recent Harvard Business Review blog on grading).
There are technology challenges as well . The Ithaka organization’s strategic consulting arm (Ithaka S&R) focuses on the transformation of scholarship and teaching in online environments. They recently released a report entitled “Barriers to Adoption of Online Learning Systems in U.S. Higher Education” that explores the key obstacles that stand in the way of widespread adoption of highly interactive, adaptive, online learning systems at traditional colleges and universities (the research for which was led by Tufts President Emeritus and Harvard Graduate School of Education President-in-Residence Lawrence Bacow). The report cites two important findings. First, the need for open, shared data on student learning and performance that are created through “Interactive learning online” (ILO), and second, the need for investment in the creation of sustainable and customizable platforms for delivering interactive online learning instruction. As I write this blog entry I’m in Toronto at the IMS Global Learning Consortium’s Learning Impact conference. The organization and conference represent a community dedicated to the creation and enhancement of learning technology standards that enable educators to deliver impactful learning across learning technology products and platforms. More powerful “ILO” requires more powerful platforms, and more sensible integration options to link those platforms in the educational content ‘supply chain’.
In addition to changing the landscape of higher education and online education in general, the evolution of MOOCs is also challenging the identity of its own cultural subset. Many of the original proponents and practitioners of MOOCs are wrestling with what the new explosive growth and attention means. Several early adopters seem to resent the pace and culture introduced along with the growing interest.
It will be an interesting area to watch over the next year especially.
- “What is a MOOC?” YouTube video
- Ray Schroeder’s EduMOOC blog
- eLearnSpace blog – MOOC posts
- Inside Higher Ed – MOOC posts
- March, 2012, Wired article: “The Stanford Education Experiment Could Change Higher Learning Forever”, by Steven Leckart