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MOOCs, Big Data, and the Open Web

Posted by John Maxwell, April 23rd, 2013

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or, Why the MOOC hype is giving me hives.

Please note, the following is not a ‘balanced’ assessment of the MOOC phenomenon; I’ve read several of those (here’s a good one), and to my eye, they always miss some of the most important elements of this new movement. I’ve been paying attention to the rise of the MOOC phenomenon for some time, and I wanted to get at what bothers me so much about it.

First up, let me establish some personal background: I worked for several years in the 1990s in online distance education. At BC’s Open Learning Agency, I worked on several iterations of early online course models, developing instructional design methods, writing and developing course material, teaching and moderating online courses, and doing a lot of experimental R&D work. Having spent that time, the first thing I thought about the MOOC phenom was, “What, this again?”

Second, I did my PhD work in a faculty of education (UBC), in a department of curriculum and instruction, with a research focus on the history and theory of digital educational technology. My PhD research came after my distance ed experiences, and I was specifically interested in ways of going deeper – much deeper – pedagogically than the “access” paradigm of most open/distance ed.

So what’s new? Well, for reasons that have yet to be made entirely clear, the business of online courses has had an absolutely stunning resurgence in popularity in the past year and a half. Why? There certainly isn’t anything new here from a pedagogical or even curriculum development perspective. What is new about MOOCs is hidden in the M (which nominally stands for “massive”). What the M actually stands for is a related contemporary trend in online business known as “big data.”

Big data refers to the emerging business model of superstar online businesses like Google, Amazon, Facebook, and the companies that wish they were. The simple idea in big data is that if you can manage to insinuate yourself into the middle of zillions of day-to-day transactions (as Google, Amazon, Facebook, and others do), then you are in a position to not only aggregate tiny tiny transactions into billions of dollars of revenue. You are also–much more importantly–in a position to collect and capitalize on information about your millions of customers. Big data aggregation is actually what accounts of the immense wealth and power of companies like Google and Amazon; it’s not what they sell, it’s what they collect.

So, in the MOOC phenomenon, we take an old idea–putting course materials online and letting students work through them at their own pace, on their own motivation–scale that up to a very large number, and it becomes an attractive business proposition in the world of big data. Now, this point seems to be lost on lots of people, not least the University committees that are getting all hot and bothered about joining the MOOC trend. Somehow, the hype around MOOCs has led us to the point where all critical sensibilities about learning, pedagogy, curriculum, student experience, privacy, research, and the role of Universities in democratic society has been thrown out the window, in favour of this fabulous bandwagon.

Could we stop for a moment and ask the old question, who stands to gain? Do universities stand to gain? Apparently they think that joining the MOOC movement helps them look like they’re part of the future instead of just a collection of stuffy old ivy-covered buildings. Do students stand to gain? Potentially, I guess, since in the new mythology, you don’t have to be able to afford university tuition or manage entrance qualifications in order to access these learning opportunities… but then, how is that different than what the public library has always offered, exactly? Do ministries of education and funding bodies stand to gain? Definitely, at least in short-term political rhetoric, because they can appear to be opening up educational opportunities on a vast scale and for almost no investment.

The real advantage, however, goes to the providers and platforms who, as in the big data model, act as the platform for every (trans)action, becoming the obligatory passage point that everyone must encounter in order to do anything. So as with Google, Amazon, Facebook, and their kin, we should look not to the overt revenue-generating model (e.g., so many dollars per student per course) but to the longer-range data aggregation opportunities that becoming a popular platform provides.

It is a perfect neoliberal storm, really. Here we have an apparent ‘free market’ for education unencumbered by interference like entrance exams, tuition costs, and exclusivity. Instead, here is a market where every course is potentially available to every willing student. The environment provides an absolute minimum of coddling or instructional support, leaving the success of the venture entirely up to the individual student’s Ayn-Randian personal initiative. All that knowledge, just there for the taking, right? It must look pretty appealling, especially to administrators, bureaucrats, and anyone who sees the world through the input/output logic of budget spreadsheets.

Of course, it makes just about no sense to anyone who cares about, or who knows anything about education and learning. Most of the MOOC phenomenon, like much of the distance learning that preceded it, is based on a straight instructional modelopen up student’s head, pour in information, then test for absorption. It is a model that, as a graduate student in education, I had figured was completely debunked; we know so much more about how people encounter information, how minds work, how learning is social and situated and practical and distributed and constructionist and connectivist. A whole literature—generations of research and scholarship–from cognitive science, phenomenology, linguistics, psychology pointed to an active, socially situated, ongoing model of minds engaged in the world. And a generation of scholarship on educational technology looked to how we might use software and networks and digital media to work into these spaces. The advent of a ubiquitous Internet and social media looked like it might provide opportunities to re-imagine schooling and education in some powerfully new ways.

But the good old instructional model hangs on, just as it has done for a hundred years since John Dewey wrote a couple of books about why it was already obsolete. The reasons for the tenacity of the instructional model are simple: it is economically efficient to deliver education as simple instruction. It scales. You nail down curriculum, formalize it, and then mass-produce it for students. It’s an industrial-age model, and it has been the basis of the school system and most of undergraduate education for hundreds of years. Even though we know better.

So MOOCs play straight into that. From an administrator’s perspective, the opportunity to scale up the delivery of education, and in doing so achieve economies of scale (the basic industrial era formula for success), is irresistible. And then, along comes a private-sector partner that wants to underwrite the whole procedure and make it easy to scale up and buy in, and you have a perfect recipe for a big deal.

Of course, it makes no sense to anyone who cares… David Noble’s 1998 book Digital Diploma Mills provided a straightforward evisceration of the business model of both old-school correspondence learning and a newer, 1990s generation of online distance courses. In Noble’s analysis, the model works like this: you charge students tuition when they enroll in a distance course. They start work on it, find it un-engaging and, save for a small percentage who tough it out (and will complete the course no matter how terrible it is), a majority of students drop out before completing. The genius of the model is that you get paid up front, and then realize decreasing student support costs as the course goes along. Essentially, the worse the course, the more you profit, at least as long as you can keep enrollments up.

So how is the MOOC any different? They’re a lot bigger, that’s how. So now apparently, if you have thousands and thousands of enrollments, you can get away with absurdly low completion rates (often, single digit), and you still wind up with a nice-looking absolute number of completions.

But that’s just on the face of it. What’s less obvious is the ‘big data’ element. The platform people are in a position to collect personal information and longitudinal activity data about everyone who enrolls, and everything they do in the course afterwards. At a scale of a few hundred students, that information isn’t very valuable, but if you can get tens or hundreds of thousands of enrollments – or if you can become the big-dog platform to many universities – you start to have some valuable property on your hands. Remember, course completions aren’t the goal; enrollments are… and the data profiling of all those people. The audience is the product.

Is there nothing good about the MOOC phenomenon? I didn’t say that. I do believe that the idea of opening up access to curriculum materials online and encouraging whole networks of students to work with them (or even create them themselves) is a very interesting idea. Lots of new good things could come of that. But remember that this particular ideal is not what’s selling the MOOC movement right now; what’s selling it is the administrative sweetness of scaling up the delivery of education to larger numbers of students.

You want to see a real MOOC? Look at the Internet itself. What I consider to be the greatest educational achievement of our time is how society has rallied around the open web to create a whole new set of literacies, making learning opportunities for millions of people who are motivated simply to make the network work. Look at free & open source software, a massive, revolutionary movement populated by a huge proportion of self-taught individuals. Look at the vast communities online who have become educated – and politically active – about Internet governance, copyright, and legislative threats to network freedom. Look at YouTube and a whole emergent culture of mashups and DIY production, all accomplished by individuals learning stuff on their own by engaging with free resources and–more importantly–free discussion online. The Internet is curriculum.

What’s the difference between that and the MOOC bandwagon? None of those people needed a Coursera or Udacity to learn. They just needed the Net itself.

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  1. [...] “Somehow,” writes John Maxwell at Publishing@SFU: [...]

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