Koller, Thicke, and Noble: The “Blurred Lines” Between Traditional Online Courses and MOOCs

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!

6 thoughts on “Koller, Thicke, and Noble: The “Blurred Lines” Between Traditional Online Courses and MOOCs”

  1. Great to see a link back to Noble’s article. It made a big impact on me at the time and his historical link to correspondence courses complements your linking of his work to MOOCs.

  2. It has been my experience that more “human” interaction can be found in cMOOCs. This more humanized MOOC or Course focuses on community building, networked learning and a more social learning experience.

    You bring up a good point about the Platform coming before the University or Instructor. The “brand” of the MOOC platform is much like joining an elite country club. There are benefits to that purchase from a marketing perspective. The difference in enrollment between an open course on Coursera or EdX vs. one on Blackboard or Canvas.net is something to consider. Some of the enrollment numbers are available on Katy Jordan’s blog: http://www.katyjordan.com/MOOCproject.html

  3. In addition to Whitney’s great point about cMOOCs, there are (at least with edX) a few more differentiating features that are (primarily) driven the the differences in scale unlocked by the “open” feature of MOOCs, including: auto-graders, peer-grading and most importantly the xBlock architecture that allows the addition of lots of stuff like this within the system. And, yes, all of these are byproducts of the “open” architecture of edX.

  4. There are no practicle difference because there are a lot of moocs offered on the Canvas plattform. See Canvas.net

  5. I suppose that the deep difference between MOOCs and online course provided by HE institutions is the relationship with the mission and vision of the HE institutions themselves. I say, it’s different if an Univeristy decides tu “deliver” a course to a specific target, or to “open” the access to its knowledge.

    We can discuss about how MOOCs are now open or not, but their strenght, in rapport with online courses, is in foreshadowing a new role of HE as hub of open knowledge randomly accessed and, in perspective, randomly produced too .

  6. with respect to “contain limited opportunities for human interaction (e.g., maybe an asynchronous message board)” (your sixth bullet point) I would argue that the difference here is often quite substantial. Your average MOOC will have thousands of people enrolled, while a “traditional” online course offered at your average college will have between 20 and 60 – usually on the lower end and only occasionally much above that. An instructor who has (say) 25 students in the course will be able to offer a MUCH higher degree of “human interaction” than a MOOC provider will be able to offer. Additionally, MOOC participants might not get any personal attention from the actual professor. Not true in the plain old online courses from the community college down the street. I would also ask for clarification on your term “human interaction.”

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