Beyond the MOOC Hype/Disruptor, Distracter or What?

As I started to dedicate the summer’s Monday “Cost of College” postings to book (and occasional film) reviews, it dawned on me that some works specifically on MOOCs have so far gone undiscussed on this site.

To rectify that glaring deficiency, I’d like to talk about a book and monograph that provide important information to anyone coming at the subject of Massive Open Online Courses for the first (or even second) time.

Beyond the MOOC Hype: A Guide to Higher Education’s High-Tech Disruption was the first (and so far, only) book dedicated specifically to the subject of MOOCs which was published by the Chronicle of Higher Education last year

The book was written by Jeffrey Young, the Chronicle’s Senior Technology Editor and represents one of the first ebooks published directly by the Chronicle. Degree of Freedom podcast listeners may remember an interview with the author last summer in which he discussed a number of topics that are fleshed out in more detail in Beyond the MOOC Hype. (In interest of full disclosure, I should also note that the author and I got to pal around a bit after the book came out when he was working out of Cambridge as a Neiman Fellow at Harvard University.)

Young brings two important strengths to his analysis of the MOOC phenomenon. First, as someone who has been on the technology beat at the Chronicle for close to twenty years, he has been in a position to cover not just the entire sweep of MOOC history (which, at most, can be traced back to the Seimens and Downs 2008 cMOOC experiments) but all the ups and downs online education has been through since the 1990s.

Second, the author has an old-fashioned shoe-leather attitude to reporting, which means he is does not just talk about topics like cMOOCs or Coursera’s Signature Track courses in the abstract, but instead enrolled in them and provides first-hand experience of what it’s like swimming in the Connectivist soup or being subjected to keyboard forensics when submitting an assignment under the Signature Track security system.

The book covers ground that will be familiar to regular readers of the Chronicle (or this site), which remain critical background information for those coming to the subject for the first time. This includes an analysis of what a MOOC is, the history of their development, and an analysis of business model experiments underway at companies like Udacity, Coursera and edX.

With this foundation in place, Young sets off to answer some critical questions regarding the effectiveness of massive open learning, both for students considering them as a potential alternative to classroom learning and teachers looking at MOOC content as a potential enhancement to what takes place in those classrooms.

Since the book was published as zeal was turning to cynicism over this new learning modality, the author also takes a look at important controversies surrounding massive open learning in a chapter appropriately entitled “Why Do Some Educators Object to Free Courses?”

His analysis ends with a set of hypotheticals that map out what certain types of students (traditional college-age students as well as the non-traditional students who make up the bulk of MOOC enrollees) could gain if the MOOC experiment ends in success (whatever that might mean). And even though the book was published a year ago, the questions Young asks remain central to any discussion on the subject of massive open learning, whether those conversations are taking place among students and parents staring down six-figure tuition bills, professors and institutions creating (or thinking about creating) MOOC courses, or educational policy makers.

Speaking of policy makers, a second work that belongs in the category of vital reading on the subject is Disruptor, Distracter, or What? A Policymaker’s Guide to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) written by Andrew Kelly, resident scholar and director of the Center on Higher Education Reform at the American Enterprise Institute, and published by Bellwether Education Partners.

Kelly’s monograph covers some of the same ground as Beyond the MOOC Hype, providing background information on the emergence of Udacity, Coursera and edX (as well as more recent competitors) and a run-down of some of the business-model experimentation going on among all of the MOOC providers.

Because Disruptor, Distractor or What? was published in May of this year, the author was researching and writing during a period when enthusiasm for MOOCs as a near-term substitute for traditional residential education had largely dissipated due to lack of enthusiasm from educators and lack of interest from students. This provides him the perspective to look at what MOOCs might still provide for different aspects of the education system, even if massive open courses are no longer seen as a wrecking ball aimed at the ivory tower.

And that potential is still significant, especially in areas such as pre-college remediation or post-college workforce training, all of which represent important directions/markets for organizations like Udacity, Coursera and edX. In fact, Udacity’s “pivot” from traditional academia to corporate training can be seen as a recognition that the people most interested in experimenting with these new learning tools are self-motivated learners eager to study subjects that are lower on the priority list of conventional higher education institutions (such as computer programming, web design and other vocational subjects).

The peculiar relationship between conventional academia and the workforce was the subject of this interesting (and provocative) Chronicle piece that looked at some of the innovative (and controversial) programs that have emerged to fill the gap between traditional undergraduate and graduate education and preparation for job readiness. And many of the policy recommendations provided by Kelly in Disruptor, Distractor or What? boil down to careful experimentation within those niches (including blended learning alongside the aforementioned remediation and workforce development programs) where MOOCs might still provide an effective (and cost-effective) alternative to expensive (and thus limited) options involving 100% face-to-face interaction between students and teachers.

Given that the MOOC story is a continually unfolding one, it’s no accident that the most detailed works on the subject (including my own MOOC book, to be published by MIT Press this Fall) are brief ones (Young’s book clocks in about a hundred pages, while Kelly’s monograph runs forty-six). Which means that even when these works are supplemented by MIT’s Essential Guide to the subject, a more detailed, definitive history of the MOOC project must await the final results of a MOOC experiment that is still underway.

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