MOOCS: from Alice in Wonderland to Harry Potter


No time to say hello, goodbye

No time to say hello, goodbye

MOOCs from a historical – and magical – perspective

“No time to say hello, goodbye”. Innovators in education are these days like the white rabbit in Alice’s adventures in Wonderland: they jump from one innovation to the other and have no time to look backwards to validate their ideas and find inspiration from the past.

Let’s take the example of MOOCs, these “massive open online courses” that are presented as “the” solution for opening up education to all. We used to count students by the tens or hundreds in classrooms or amphitheatres. We are now designing a universal classroom with hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions – of students. Universities, students, professors, business angels, and policy makers have embarked on an adventure that should transform the way we learn and the way we teach.

This transformation is global. University professors are changing into start-up founders and “flip” their teaching assignments for a spot at a TED conference in order to attract investors and win them over to the cause of educative progress. Keys to success lie in course design, registration, assessment and big data, quality, completion rate, certification, marketing plans and business models.

And then the big question: will it work?

In the last few months, voices have been raised to question MOOCs: their low completion rate, high costs, lack of a pedagogical model, absence of sound business model… The decision by a university to say no to MOOCs was presented as the first evidence of failure. It was as if MOOCs had suddenly lost their magic, just when they were about to enter the real world. No time to say hello, goodbye.

Too fast! MOOCs may very well fail, but they question our whole vision of education, and more specifically, of higher education. Let’s look back to see how the debate around MOOCs reproduces discussions from the past.

The latest issue of elearningpapers, dedicated to MOOCs, makes it very clear. David Boven studied The Historical Antecedents of the MOOC Movement in Education and takes us back a few centuries to the medieval studium particulare, which saw a master and a student coming together to facilitate learning on an individual autonomous level. There was no regulation or examination to make sure that the student had achieved the desired level of knowledge. No certified degrees were delivered. Students who chose studium particulare were denied the right to teach to others (ius ubique docendi). This two-tier system for accessing knowledge – described well by Allan Cobban in his book, the Medieval English University– has survived until now. And so did the dream of a ‘university for all’.

After May 1968 in France, the creation of the Centre Universitaire Vincennes was seen as a unique opportunity to create a university for all, open to adults and non-degree holders with no more lectures or final exams. But one year later, the French government made clear that students from Vincennes would not be eligible, for instance, to become secondary school teachers. The same old story: learning remained a State prerogative just like in medieval times when the Pope, kings and emperors were the only ones to grant the status of studium generale, i.e. to grant university status. Until now, the universities have held the absolute power to decide who will get access to learning.

MOOCs question this power directly, along with the way learning is facilitated among students. MOOCs postulate something much more revolutionary than teaching to hundreds of thousands of people at the same time. They threaten the universities’ monopoly on learning. Udacity or Coursera are not the usual higher education players and their presence says a lot about the changes taking place, even if some of the most prestigious universities have also decided to lead the movement (like Edx and Futurelearn).

Anyone can create a MOOC, i.e. a massive and truly open online course. Education innovators like Yaacov Hecht (see my previous post) imagine small academies that will enable MOOC students to get together locally on a periodic basis to share their learning. Huge universities, most often economically unsustainable, would simply come to an end and be replaced by small community-based structures that complement the online schemes (MOOCs) and facilitate learning on a peer-to-peer basis. This is just what a team of researchers studied in the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland. The EPFL facilitates physical meetings around MOOC courses in the context of weekly study groups for 4 to 5 of their internal students. Let’s imagine such decentralised physical facilities at a local community level and you will get an idea of the transformation that could take place!

This transformation can’t take place peacefully. Universities will defend their prerogatives in many different ways. And we are already seeing signs of this “subterranean battle”. Some of them, like Amherst College in the USA, say no to MOOCs to defend their commitment to “learning through close colloquy” as opposed to MOOCs’ massification.

Patrick McGhee, vice-chancellor of the University of East London, warns about the danger that “MOOCs will reinforce rather than disrupt a two-tier education system in the US, and eventually in the UK, with campus-based learning as premium elite education and online learning as a basic offering.” He assumes, wrongly in my opinion, that “close colloquy” can only take place in elite places and disregards the huge potential of a blended model of online courses and community-based peer-to-peer learning. The local MOOC academy could very well represent the best of both worlds at a much lower cost.

Another protective strategy is to limit the “openness” of MOOCs. Some universities have decided to make MOOCs available under strict copyright terms, with material to be used by learners taking the course and not allowed to be copied and re-used. But these limitations are not compatible with educational freedom. In fact, any degree of institutional control will hardly be sustainable.

The issue of certification and quality is also on university agendas to retain their power. How can we guarantee learning quality and assess students’ skills? MOOCs should be linked to a certification process and a quality label from an “independent” authority to be “acceptable”. This authority could then be linked to the most prestigious universities to gain the adequate legitimacy. This could give them the opportunity to retain their power, though it is likely that another grassroot certification process will emerge, based on user opinions and social media interaction.

Last but not least is the economic argument. How much does it cost to design and operate a MOOC? On the one hand, an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education says that “edX charges a base rate of $250,000 per course, then $50,000 for each additional time that course is offered”. On the other hand, a survey conducted in the US also by the Chronicle showed that “a professor spent over 100 hours on his MOOC before it even started by recording online lecture videos and doing other preparation. Once the course was in session, professors typically spent eight to 10 hours per week on upkeep”. It is a lot of time indeed, but nothing worth $250,000. Furthermore, the  MOOC Production Fellowship Contest in Germany is currently looking for ten innovative concepts for MOOCs and will give each one a EUR 25 000 production award.

Major universities could still argue that the price differences – $250 000 vs. $25 000 – are representative of a low cost option vs. a high quality one. But looking at the recent history of air travel could be enough to dismount this argument and consider MOOCs to be one of these truly “disruptive innovations” described by Li Yuan and Stephen Powell. This type of innovation “creates an entirely new market, typically by lowering price or designing for a different set of consumers or different needs of existing customers”.

How disruptive could a MOOC be? I looked at the online votes for this MOOC Production Fellowship Contest and the number one candidate for funding is Harry Potter and Issues in International Politics”.

Good old Harry is back.

Magic: just what we need to have free learning and establish the 21st century studium particulare!


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