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MOOCs are closed platforms and probably doomed (lemire.me)
56 points by davmre on Dec 26, 2014 | hide | past | favorite | 27 comments

> If your course requires that prospective students “register” to access the content, then it is not an open course. It might be an online course, it might even be massive, but it is not open.

That's the last sentence in the 4th paragraph of the article.

"Open" can indeed mean a lot of things. In this case of MOOCs, it just means anybody with an Internet connection can register and take any course - for free. Coursera and edX are prime examples.

Making registration a prerequisite for taking an online course does not invalidate it's openness. It's mostly an administrative thing. So the author's argument does not hold.

edX meets certain definitions for Open that Coursera does not, in terms of licensing of content and software.

What's the percentage of edX courses that are actually CC licensed?

As a quick and unscientific experiment, I checked out the 12 courses listed on the edX.org homepage and none of them were CC licensed.

With Google I found a few CC licensed edX courses [0:2], but looks like they're the rare minority.

[0] https://www.edx.org/course/introduction-aeronautical-enginee...

[1] https://www.edx.org/course/business-its-environment-overview...

[2] https://www.edx.org/course/introduction-functional-programmi...

The author of this post starts with an incorrect definition and build his argument from it: "Open" in MOOC does not refer to the software used but the fact that anyone can take those courses (open enrolment).

I would argue that the problem is signaling. Where and what you studied in school are signals employers use to rank you against your peers. IE going to Harvard signals that you are the elk that got into Harvard. No one really cares what you studied there. This is the primary function of college in the employment landscape: signaling. Very few people go to college for the actual learning (they go to get the signaling that will allow them to get a job).

MOOCS would need to get into signaling and have employers take their signal seriously. I hate to sound classist, but unfortunately MOOCS lack of selectivity means they don't signal as much as a college with a low acceptance rate.

I myself did not go to an elite school, and realize that the above is a very broad generalization...

The argument seems to be that MOOCs are the online equivalent of lectures. Therefore, since lectures do not seem to hold much financial value to customers, MOOCs will not either, since they consist mostly of online lectures.

Though this may be true in practice for some MOOCs, I suspect that MOOCs are attempting to become the online equivalent of a university, rather than just lectures.

With an online university, you are paying for the course curriculum, online tools, office hours, graded results, certification, social network and the brand of the institution. The combination of those things holds more value than the lecture itself.

The argument seems to be that MOOCs are the online equivalent of lectures. Therefore, since lectures do not seem to hold much financial value to customers, MOOCs will not either, since they consist mostly of online lectures.

I think you misunderstand the author's argument. Daniel is actually a professor at something very close to the well-rounded online university you describe: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Télé-université

I think he's arguing that by keeping the content closed to all but registered users, the MOOC's would seem to be saying that they believe the lectures are the crown jewels that need to be protected from onlookers. He believes this is silly, and instead (apart from moments of cynicism when he worries that universities merely sell credentials) believes that the value distance learning can offer --- and charge for --- is the same "full package" that you describe.

He's claiming that if the people running the MOOC's properly understood this, rather than restricting access to the content of their courses, they'd be making better use of their online content (the part that is very difficult to charge for) to recruit new students. I suspect that he's also motivated by the side benefit that this would provide free educational tools to those unable to 'attend' without doing any harm to the MOOC.

> With an online university, you are paying for the course curriculum, online tools, office hours, graded results, certification, social network and the brand of the institution.

An essential thing missing from MOOCs is the feeling of being personally supervised and accountable to someone (our teachers or their assistants). It might seem just emotional fluff, but it is essential in getting people through long courses.

I think MOOCs should be paired with in-person supervision, the kind offered by a coach or an educational advisor. Other people should still be involved in the loop, it must not degenerate into a solely man-computer thing. MOOCs need more emotional grounding to help decrease the atrocious drop rate.

MOOCs need more emotional grounding to help decrease the atrocious drop rate.

I see many people express concern about the drop rate of MOOCs, but I haven't seen any good arguments as to why it is a problem.

I've signed up for several courses, and not finished one of them! So what? I didn't cost me anything, and I didn't hurt anyone by taking up a spot in the class that would instead have gone to a more deserving student.

In a couple cases, it is simply that I've got a more than full-time job, and I just don't always have the time and energy to work on a class too. If I'd been paying money for it, I probably would have taken it more seriously, but oh well. I still learned something from most of them, and it was in general worth my time to at least listen to the lectures and look at the homework assignments.

I'm still working through one of them... slowly, interleaving it with all the other things occupying my free time.

Many courses on Coursera, edX and similar sites are supervised while they are live. If you enroll to a "live" MOOC you actually get most of it, as well as interaction with other students. If you go trough an archived course you don't really get it and that's when the "MOOC" turns from a course to an information source. Considering that "MOOC's" are supposed to be an online resource i don't see how an in-person supervision can be achieved regardless of the fees. This is again an issue of miss managing expectations, what you describe amounts to an open university and not an online course. Open Uni's do offer everything from educational advisers to pre-arranged study groups and access to teachers and TA's but they also come at a cost ranging from anywhere from 50% to 200% of the normal cost of a degree. People drop out of anything and while MOOC's have a much higher drop out rate than normal education it has much less to do with what they offer and more to do with how people treat and what they expect from them in the first place. In the course of my job i actually have taken quite a few of them when i needed to tackle projects with an unfamiliar scope for example I've taken several "economics" classes when i had to do a project regarding stock and high frequency trading. I'm an information security consultant, and although i am quite familiar with traditional finance systems used for banking, i didn't have enough knowledge of how stock trading and HFT works to be able to truly identify critical issue with such systems (mainly in regards to discovering logic flaws, race conditions and similar issues). So I've found 3 courses i thought would give me enough information and invested the time needed in them. I did "drop" 2 of them but just because they went too deep into economical theories which wasn't what i needed. But i did complete one of them until the end and learned quite a bit from it about how modern day commodity trading works. But I've also treated the "MOOC" as i would any other course I've started at 9 am, finished at 5-6pm and actually structured it like if i were at school or at working (which technically I was). People who just consume online courses when they get bored over the weekends or when they have their 2am "life changing resolutions" will never be able to get anything out of them even with all the guidance in the world. A coach or an adviser will not make any one capable of learning on a bus or at 11pm after a full work day, a gym and a bar visit. There is a reason why night school has higher drop rates than normal school and it's because it's harder. People need energy and the ability to focus on education otherwise it's just a waste of time. And if you sitting in a class from 6-9 is borderline possible for education than what good will it be when you consume it on a tablet while trying not to make eye contact on the train?

>we live in an era where Amazon can deliver a textbook on any topic directly to your door within 48 hours. In this era, it is much better to sell diplomas and degrees. Unlike lectures, they have tangible financial value for the students

This is too true. Anyone sufficiently motivated may teach generally any subject to themselves to whatever degree of proficiency they desire. This is especially true of CS. The degree, not the education, is what you're buying.

I don't entirely agree with the assertion that you cannot charge for content. E.g. "It is probably harder to make a living selling lectures than it is as a journalist, and it has become nearly impossible to live off journalism."

I made a substantial chunk of change this year delivering training. The difference is people can directly connect training to revenue. In my case I'm teaching Scala, where my course attendees either need it for their job, and know that getting Scala on their resume will open up some very well paying gigs. In this situation people will pay for a directed introduction to a topic, and also to clear the time on their schedule.

The problem faced by good Universities face is that they are teaching foundations not ephemera, and most people have difficulty connecting the dots from learning, say, mathematics, to revenue. Which is a real shame, because foundations are far more valuable in the long term.

FWIW, our Scala courses try to sneak in foundational material while no-one is looking. :)

Playing devli's advocate so are Colleges are those also doomed?

Looking at this article makes me think of what if we made a course an open platform. Maybe take moodle or some other system and merge it with a wiki and create courses with it. Might be interesting.

Yes. A rough analogy:

  College   : Proper MOOC  : Closed MOOC ::
  Newspaper : Online Media : Paywalls

I don't think that analogy holds up well. For newspapers -- an AP article on the New York Times website has the same value as an AP article on any other website. More broadly speaking -- the content is what's valuable here, and if you offer the same content, you offer the same value to readers.

As the author himself notes:

"What colleges do not do, at least on campus, is to make money off course content. As it is, you can easily order all the textbooks you could possibly read on Amazon. You can join discussion groups about them. You sneak into lectures, or find tons of them online. There is simply little value in the course content."

And yet, the vast majority of people are paying for this content, rather than applying the author's cost-saving measures. Why? Because there IS little value in the course content. But that's NOT what colleges are selling. They're selling credentials. In this case, getting the content from Harvard IS different from getting it off a Github repository. Why? Because there's a mechanism at Harvard that signals to other people what kind of content you have learned from them. The reason that the analogy to newspapers isn't a perfect one is because accreditation solves real problems for consumers of college -- it lets them demonstrate that their credential has value.

Paywalls are "bad" because they restrict sharing of content. For news articles, that's bad. People want to be able to share articles they find interesting -- on Facebook, on Twitter, on Hacker News and Reddit and via e-mail and so on and so forth. Paywalls reduce the number of people I can discuss content with, and thus reduce the value of an article to me. With credentials, you don't have that effect -- a credential is MORE valuable to me the harder it is to obtain, because the credential then gives off a stronger signal that I have demonstrated my worth.

Now, MOOCs target a wider audience than the people looking for credentials. But their revenue streams almost all come from credentialing. And so I don't think that closing a MOOC has the same effect as putting newspaper content behind a paywall.

I think it's wrong to posit that colleges are selling credentials. When you enroll at any college, what you're actually paying for is the content of the courses that you'll take for the duration of your enrollment. In other words, you're paying for the quality of the education that you'll receive.

So no, real colleges are not selling credentials. Sure, you can buy a degree online, if you know where to look, but that only gets you a useless certificate.

> In other words, you're paying for the quality of the education that you'll receive.

Sort of, ish. There'd be a lot fewer people going to uni for the abstract concept of "education", especially at what it costs in the US - the reason that many people go to uni is that you can prove that you've been educated under such-and-such a standard to future employers. That's credentials, and that's what people are looking for from a college.

You can't do anything without credentials. You can't just apply to a job and say "yeah, I know it all," when everybody else who 'knows it all' has a degree backing them up. It puts you at a severe disadvantage.

What is your definition for a closed MOOC?

If the purpose of college is signaling, then that purpose is not achieved by a MOOC at all.

Also, colleges have a lot of other societal value (like research) so I certainly hope they can still get funded.

A reasonable model is that they sell certifications in hard work, perseverance, and maybe intelligence to students and employers so that they can fund scientific advancement. They also sell "meeting peers who might be cofounders", "social experience of living closely with lots of young attractive people", and a number of other similar things.

Classroom learning is only a fraction of the residential college experience that people pay for. Ask any university alum at their ten-year reunion what they remember most fondly about college, what shaped their lives the most, and what was most influential for turning them into who they are today ... chances are, nobody is going to mention the classes they took :)

Other closed platorms, probably doomed: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Google Maps, YouTube, Uber, iPhone.

A MOOC is analogous to a textbook.It's content, not a meet up. It can be consumed asynchronously.

Good to know, however atm they do offer free access to education for many people who cannot get it or afford it through normal means.

And even the "premium" ones which usually offer full or partial degree accreditation cost significantly less than traditional eduction.

And while many of them might be too "closed" for the usual suspects and champions of freedom it's more to do with the fact that they do offer some certification and credit and so have to be monitored.

I understand why Coursera does for example require sign up and participation in a specified time frame this is so people can go trough the course as a group, study together and learn from each-other just as much as they do from the course.

The courses are also overseen by lecturers which offer help and guidance.

And since you do get a certificate(which value is yet to be determined) they do need to have a strict and repeatable curriculum.

I have a feeling that the writer of this article as many others confuses a MOOC with a library. A MOOC is not an arbitrary source of information or a "lecture on demand" service, it's an education platform.

This is why the lecture library which Standford uploaded to youtube since like what 2009 is not a MOOC, in fact i would go as far as saying that most "examples" the author provided in his article (although nameless) are not MOOC's..

A "MOOC" is still a course whether it's online or not and to be so it has to provide a structured environment for it's curriculum. It's should be seen as an evolution of the long distance courses many people have taken for over a century not some podcast you throw on your smart phone or tablet while you take the train to work.

People who treat MOOC's as educational materials and take them seriously benefit from them, people who take them as some instant "smart pill" content that they absorb on the tube can just as well read the free daily papers...

So yeah while bloated smarty pants like the author might bicker and moan about just how bad and doomed MOOC's are I'm sure the tens of thousands of people from Asia, Africa and the Middle East who are lucky enough to have internet access do find them quite useful.

Heck I've seen class A universities steal i mean "borrow" material from Coursera, edX and from Standford (and others) video lectures plenty of times. Especially in new subjects ranging from video game design to information security.

So i guess the material is good enough, and when the educational framework is actually structured people actually benefit from the materials and no only parrot them to feel smarter.

Like Coursera, Hacker News requires registration before one can participate.

Help, help, I'm being oppressed?

Funny, I don't feel oppressed.

one more point they're publicly funded. that should be at least motivator to open up

This is a problem that I'm working on, so it's nice to see others discussing it too. Most of the MOOC providers are "open" to learners but relatively "closed" for contribution -- edX for instance is exclusive about which institutions can join. (And takes a hefty fee from every institution that does join.)

All of which may be perfectly nice if you're an interested-but-casual learner wanting to watch some courses that have had $100,000s spent on the video production. Or if you're a high profile university wanting to advertise your wares. But not so much use if you're a humble engineer-turned-CS-lecturer wanting to collaborate with your colleagues to make things better for your students (or, therefore, if you're one of their students!)

At UQ, my institution was a member, but with a curious process about how to get a course approved (and unlikely to approve a junior contract academic like I was). Moving onto faculty at the University of New England (Australia), UNE isn't a member so I wouldn't be eligible.

So, I'm busily working sharable course models, and making things open-to-contribution.

At UQ I co-designed a rather unusual studio course (with 200 students programming together on the same codebase). Initially I was looking into offering this as a guerrilla MOOC (without official backing) and opening the content up for reuse. I gave a talk at ICSE in July 2014, where I also tried to "get a gang together" to make it a community effort bigger than just me, and the response was interesting -- some other junior academics wondering about putting some of their students on our project.

And as I'm moving to UNE to help redesign their CS degree, I'm already going to be an early example of a "fork". Especially as where we had 200+ in-class students at UQ, many of the students at UNE will be remote, so I'd need to change a few things.

Most of the material I've put up online is about the studio course, but the sharable course model is also in progress

Recent talk I gave to OSDC: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SULsMJCNAYM

Website about the studio course concept: http://www.supercollaborative.org (due for an update -- 2014 course numbers jumped from 140 to 200 and had a different project)

Of course, Armidale NSW isn't exactly Silicon Valley, so I don't have VC rocket fuel or marketing/publicity/etc. So expect a little duct-tape-and-string early on. And I did way too much theatre as a PhD student in Cambridge, so apologies for the vanity hey-I-get-to-do-video-teaching-now aspect of it.

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