What’s the Difference Between OCWs and MOOCs? Managing Expectations.

What’s the difference between OCWs and MOOCs? At the end of the day, it may be nothing more than managing expectations.

Let’s take Physics for example.

Here’s the MIT OCW Physics course from 1999. It includes videos, lecture notes and other readings, assignments and exams with solutions, and a recommendation that you buy a commercial textbook. There is a study group that learners can join. There does not appear to be any way to interact with the instructor. The course uses a very traditional pedagogy and is openly licensed.

Here’s the Coursera / Georgia Tech Physics course from 2013. It includes videos, assignments and exams, and includes a recommendation that you buy a commercial textbook. There appears to be a study group that learners can join. There does not appear to be any way to interact with the instructor. The course uses an inquiry-based pedagogy and does not appear to be openly licensed.

This OCW collection and this MOOC have a LOT in common. While they differ in pedagogy and licensing, from the public perspective maybe the most important difference between these two big collections of freely accessible online resources – and the two genres of OCW and MOOC more generally – is market positioning and expectation management:

MIT OCW has always positioned itself as primarily teacher-facing. The collections of materials are intended to support faculty at other institutions in teaching similar classes or engaging in professional development. When independent learners manage to benefit from MIT OCW, this is a happy coincidence – a secondary benefit of the primary mission of supporting faculty around the world. Since MIT OCW is teacher-facing, of course there is no faculty member there to support students. Only the very bright and extremely self-motivated can benefit, but that’s ok since serving students isn’t their actual mission.

The commercial MOOC providers have positioned themselves as primarily student-facing. Their collections of materials are intended to support student learning, and their Terms of Service explicitly prohibit faculty around the world from using their materials in the courses they teach (there will be no secondary benefits). Since they are student-facing, the lack of a faculty member there to support students is keenly felt. The idea that only the very bright and extremely self-motivated can benefit from these MOOCs, which is what appears to be happening, is problematic since serving learners is their stated mission.

We’re seeing a huge anti-MOOC backlash now, but never saw an anti-OCW backlash. Why? Perhaps because even though to the public mind they’re doing essentially the same things – publishing large collections of curated, high quality, freely available course content – OCW managed the public’s expectations better.

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  • Bill Fitzgerald

    I’d say that the disgust and disdain toward the corporate-style MOOCs has some basis in the reality that the people packaging them up and selling them co-opted the work of the early inventors of the form.

    As you know (and I believe have written about) one of the places this manifested itself was the Wikipedia entry page on MOOCs, where your name (along with the names of several others) was edited in and out of existence.

    And then, the PR machine of these companies aggressively marketed themselves as the future of higher education – which felt somewhere between intentionally dishonest and highly biased.

    So, if there is an expectations backlash, it feels pretty natural, and comparable to a schoolyard braggart who gets called on the outlandish claims he/she has been making in the recent past.

  • Debbie Morrison

    OCW and xMOOCs are similar in only one dimension – a collection of freely accessible resources – it ends there. The critical difference between OCW and xMOOCs are the motivations of the organizations behind each; OCW by MIT were made available for the public good, with no motive for turning a profit, yet xMOOCs, as offered through Udacity and Coursera are for-profit entities with shareholders to answer to.

    There was little reason for a public backlash towards OCW given the unassuming and altruistic motives of MIT. OCW’s primary motivation was to help educators improve their courses and curricula. Commercial MOOC providers on the other hand have exhibited a degree of hubris – stating their platforms are capable of revolutionizing higher education and educating the world.

  • Mark Vickers

    Thanks. I enjoyed this. A few extra points to makes:

    OCWs didn’t receive as much press as MOOCs, which helps explain the lack of a serious backlash. That reduced press coverage, in turn, was because a lot of famous academics and others didn’t start up their ownbusinesses based on OCWs, capturing the attention of the business press. OCWs flew under the radar, seeming to be a form of DIY education, to the degree they were student-facing.

    Your excellent point about student-facing and teacher-facing is key. There are many more students in the world than teachers, and they are under great pressure to learn, even as they often rack up huge debts. It’s little wonder, then, that MOOCs became much more visible. All of us are looking to answers to the skills gaps, debt burdens, and stagnation of median wages.

    I don’t think, however, that the backlash is strictly due to the mismanagement of the public’s expectations. Much of the backlash has come not from students but from a) professors who fear losing their jobs to this trend over the long run b) xMOOC advocates who feel the cMOOCs betrayed some of their ideals, and c) pundit journalists who have little understanding of MOOCs and so have knee-jerk reactions to data on “drop-out rates,” etc.

    I suppose that it is in the last of these categories that expectations could have been managed better, though I wonder who could have been successful in doing this. It all feels like more of a collective phenomenon rather than one guided by anyone. I think there have been many cautious voices in regard to MOOCs but there’s no way they could compete with national and global columnists.