or, Of Small Deltas, Honeypots, and Brand Inversion

What’s the difference between a MOOC and a “traditional” online course? It sounds like the setup for a bad joke, but trying to find a reasonable answer to this question is no joke.

Take the following quote from an end of 2014 article about MOOCs as an example.

We have seen strong development of the MOOC ecosystem this year. MOOC providers are finding better footing in developing their business models. They will likely tune them and bring in even more revenues. Universities are jumping on the online bandwagon and investing in online course development. They will be eager to leverage this content (via virtual and blended learning) in their own campuses and continuing education curricula.

Are universities investing in MOOC development or online course development? Can MOOC content be leveraged in blended environments in some way that online course content cannot? Is there even a difference here? If there is, this (very representative) article can’t seem to keep them straight.

First, let’s make a list of what’s the same. While it’s possible to find exceptions, for the overwhelming majority of MOOCs and traditional online courses, both:

  • are offered completely online
  • contain readings, videos, and other learning materials for students to consume online
  • contain readings, videos, and other learning materials that are fully copyrighted and cannot be shared or redistributed
  • contain assessments for students to complete and submit
  • automatically grade most assessments
  • contain limited opportunities for human interaction (e.g., maybe an asynchronous message board)
  • have admission requirements (e.g., both require students to provide personally identifiable information like a verified email address, some also require the completion of prerequisite courses or experiences)
  • have a defined start date and stop date
  • cost money to take if you want to earn a credential
  • can be audited if you don’t want a credential

The more I think about it, there seems to be only one practical difference between MOOCs and traditional online courses – the platform they are offered on. Online courses are offered via Blackboard and Canvas, while MOOCs are offered via Coursera and EdX.

The most famous result of using the MOOC platforms instead of the traditional LMSs is that the online courses offered in MOOC platforms are far easier to audit and can be audited for free. (Most of the hype around MOOCs has focused on this free auditing difference.) But this realization highlights the fact that MOOC platforms are themselves LMSs with a single differentiating feature set (enabling free auditing). And actually these free auditing features are no longer differentiators. The fact that there was really only a delta of one feature between traditional LMSs and MOOC platforms explains why so many traditional LMS providers were able to begin playing in the MOOC space so quickly (c.f. Canvas Network and Blackboard CourseSites).

It also highlights the fact that, because they are LMSs that add a single feature, MOOC platforms are simply next generation data silos. I say next generation data silos, but this really understates their ruthless efficiency. By making auditing online courses easy and free, they exponentially expand their ability to attract and capture student data, which will remain in the silo. (You might almost think of MOOCs as honeypots for education.)

But for my money, the most under-discussed result of using the MOOC platforms is the way that the branding of MOOCs is inverted from the branding of traditional online courses. In a traditional online course, the lead brand is the institution, followed by the faculty member, with little or no consideration for the LMS the course is offered in. (Have you ever seen an ad for a traditional online course that touted (or even mentioned) which LMS the course was offered in?)

By contrast, with MOOCs the lead brand is the LMS – you’re taking a course on Coursera! It happens to be offered by MIT. And there is probably a list of “Course Staff” buried at the bottom of the About the Course page.

This brand inversion, which places the platform ahead of the institution or the “course staff” (we don’t use the word “faculty” any more), points to a disturbing trend. As an insightful critic of MOOCs recently wrote,

What is driving this headlong rush to implement new technology…? A short answer might be the fear of getting left behind, the incessant pressures of “progress”. But there is more to it. For the universities are not simply undergoing a technological transformation. Beneath that change, and camouflaged by it, lies another: the commercialization of higher education. For here as elsewhere technology is but a vehicle and a disarming disguise…

[The] transformation of higher education is not the work of teachers or students, the presumed beneficiaries of improved education, because it is not really about education at all. That’s just the name of the market. The foremost promoters of this transformation are rather the vendors of the network hardware, software, and “content”… who view education as a market for their wares, a market estimated by the Lehman Brothers investment firm potentially to be worth several hundred billion dollars. “Investment opportunity in the education industry has never been better,” one of their reports proclaimed, indicating that this will be “the focus industry” for lucrative investment in the future, replacing the health care industry…

[Other] promoters of this transformation are the university administrators, who see it as a way of giving their institutions a fashionably forward–looking image. More importantly, they view computer–based instruction as a means of reducing their direct labor and plant maintenance costs — fewer teachers and classrooms… At the same time, they are hoping to get a piece of the commercial action for their institutions or themselves, as vendors in their own right of software and content…

Last but not least, behind this effort are the ubiquitous technozealots who simply view computers as the panacea for everything, because they like to play with them. With the avid encouragement of their private sector and university patrons, they forge ahead, without support for their pedagogical claims about the alleged enhancement of education, without any real evidence of productivity improvement…

Of course, the astute reader will have recognized by now that these quotes are actually from David Noble’s classic 1998 article Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education. I purposefully cut the quotes above so as not to date the article and ruin the effect. I encourage you to read the article in full.

I use these quotes to further reinforce the point that there really is very little difference between traditional online courses and MOOCs. What difference there is – the free auditing difference, with its accompanying brand inversion – is a very small delta, but one that moves the field significantly closer to the state that Noble foresaw over 15 years ago. If anything, Noble’s old warnings about online courses are even more important now than they were in 1998.

When institutional brands like Stanford, MIT, and Harvard are willing to be subordinated to platform brands like Coursera and EdX, at least in course marketing, what does it portend? Where is the current trajectory of online courses, currently passing through MOOCs, ultimately leading us? Noble predicted a quality-eroding, profit-grabbing commercialization of higher education masquerading under the banner of “widening access and improving quality.”

I’m trying to imagine a future for higher education in which we achieve the goals of widening access and improving quality without stepping in the traps identified by Noble. I firmly believe we can do it, but I also firmly believe it requires embracing the principle of openness and the practices of open licensing. Switching from All Rights Reserved copyright to Some Rights Reserved open licensing may also be a very small delta from where we currently are, but I believe it leads the field in an entirely more productive direction.

Here’s to an open 2015!


An Open Education Reader

tl;dr – We’ve published An Open Education Reader, a collection of readings on open education with commentary created by students in my graduate course Introduction to Open Education taught at Brigham Young University, Fall 2014.

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Fall 2014 was the fifth time I’ve taught my graduate course Introduction to Open Education. I’ve taught it in many different ways in the past. In 2007 I taught it at USU as an open course with dozens of people from outside the university (and outside the US) reading along and completing assignments in order to earn a course certificate. Later at BYU I taught it as a Massively Multiplayer Online Game complete with character types, skills trees, guilds, quests, and experience points. Each experiment in teaching the course has been an opportunity for me to be more open in my practice and provide students with a different perspective on open education.

This year, I wanted to help those who joined the course develop a deeper appreciation for why open licensing is necessary in the first place. I wanted to build “open education” up from first principles, beginning with questions like “what is intellectual property?”, “should we use the language of ‘property’ to describe it?”, and “why and how should intellectual property be protected?” From this foundation I wanted to build outward with an overview of the history and features of popular open licenses. An appreciation of where IP law comes from, how we got to where we are, and why we’re moving so aggressively in the wrong direction is fundamental to understanding some of the core problems open education is trying to solve. Likewise, a well informed understanding of how we’ve tried to solve these problems to date, through open licensing, is the starting point for future progress.

So this year I combined a traditional “readings course” approach with my ongoing efforts to reject disposable assignments and engage in open pedagogy. I spent a great deal of time selecting the readings that would communicate what I felt was most important for this semester’s students to learn. (Though there would certainly be some overlap, I do not doubt that your preferred list of readings would differ significantly from my own. That’s terrific! I hope you’ll email it to me. I’m already fretting that we weren’t able to cover The Battle for Open this term, for example.) Rather than have students write response essays they would hate writing and immediately throw away after grading, I challenged them to create a textbook that could be used by students in future Introduction to Open Education courses.

As the semester drew to a close, the students worked collaboratively to organize and synthesize all the notes they had taken on each of the readings and our in-class discussions. These combined, synthesized notes became An Open Education Reader. For each reading, we have tried to provide you:

  • a Link to an open access version of the article,
  • a brief Background,
  • a summary of Key Points,
  • Discussion Questions for you to consider as you read the article, and
  • Additional Information that may be of interest.

This is by no means a complete or final version of this book! We’re sharing it now in the spirit of “release early, release often,” trusting that you will join in helping to correct errors and omissions.

We’ve published An Open Education Reader using WordPress plus the open source Pressbooks. Pressbooks is very easy to use and produces great looking HTML, PDF, EPUB, Mobi, WXR, and other formats. (I’m a big fan.) The students and I will be autographing each other’s printed copies of AOER as part of our final exam this week. (We sent the print-ready PDF to our campus print-on-demand service.)

I hope you enjoy the book, and I invite you to contribute additional discussion questions, observations, etc. in the comments on the specific pages in the book. I will be extremely happy to work your contributions into the core text along with an attribution for your efforts. If there are additional readings you think should be included in an introductory reader like this, please leave them in the comments here.


Elevating the 5th R

Part of an article on the P2P Foundation website today struck a chord with me with regard to the importance of being able to OWN things and not simply stream or lease access to them. It’s this kind of thinking that caused me to introduce a 5th R, Retain, this last year. In Owning is the New Sharing, Nathan Schneider writes:

The notion that sharing would do away with the need for owning has been one of the mantras of sharing economy promoters. We could share cars, houses, and labor, trusting in the platforms to provide. But it’s becoming clear that ownership matters as much as ever. Whoever owns the platforms that help us share decides who accumulates wealth from them, and how. Rather than giving up on ownership, people are looking for a different way of practicing it.

+1 for ownership.