It’s easy to get neck strain from trying to follow the back-and-forth ping-pong game between MOOC fans and foes. This week was a particularly fast-paced match. First came the news, via The Chronicle of Higher Education, that a whopping zero students had signed up for the first for-credit MOOC class in the nation, announced with fanfare by Colorado State University last fall. This notwithstanding that the Colorado State-Global Campus’s MOOC course, offered via Udacity—one of the Big Three MOOCs—cost $1,000 less than the standard three-unit CSU class.
The next day, naysayers scored what looked to be still more decisive points in an Inside Higher Ed roundup entitled “Higher ed leaders urge slow down of MOOC train.” Among other pieces of evidence—skeptical comments from leaders of the Gates Foundation, the American Council on Education, and the Association of American Colleges and Universities—the article cited a position paper released last month by a group of provosts from the Big Ten schools and the University of Chicago. Fears of corporate rather than university control over online ventures, warned the campus leaders (whose institutions supply about one of six MOOC classes offered by Coursera), could make continued and expanded reliance on outside partners such as MOOCs undesirable.
Predictably, these tales of caution circulated quickly, as tweeters (among others) drew attention to the dangers of MOOC hype, pointed to earlier warnings of MOOC hype, and generally piled on. “Disruption still not happening,” tweeted Canadian higher education consultant Alex Usher. “Not one student has taken up CSU’s offer of credit for Udacity courses. Zip. Bupkis.”
Barely had these warning cries been issued, however, when another development drew headlines: Coursera, the biggest MOOC, announced that it had brought in $43 million in new funding, on top of the $22 million it raised last year. A sizable chunk of those new dollars is aimed at helping Coursera, which already has 83 university partners in the United States and abroad, expand into the developing world. Two new investors, whose $10 million stake has special relevance to this international mission, are the International Finance Corporation, the World Bank’s investment arm, and Laureate Education, Inc., the global for-profit higher ed giant. Others include GSV Capital, famous for its investments in the likes of Facebook and Twitter, as well as ed-tech investor Learn Capital, and Russian venture capitalist Yuri Milner.
So, I could not resist tweeting: “Commentariat decries ‘MOOC hype’—but market speaks.” That’s far too simple, of course (but hey, it’s Twitter). Clearly, the market has made plenty of bad bets, in education technology as in other fields. Still, could so many savvy investors and educators be impossibly deluded about the promise of MOOCs such as Coursera? I tried to seek a bit of quick wisdom, this time by tweeting a couple of questions: “Does market know more than naysayers?” I asked in response to a tweet from Lloyd Armstrong, former provost of the University of Southern California and proprietor of the Changing Higher Education blog. “Or will market come to rue this day?”
Armstrong’s reply was thoughtful: “It may well be that naysayers and market are asking different questions, have different objectives – could both be right.”
And that may be an important part of how we watch the ping-pong game. An organization like Coursera that sees big potential for expansion, including in countries with highly circumscribed opportunities for higher education, credit-bearing or not, is unlikely to be terribly concerned that an early experiment at one university, using one model for granting credit, has thus far not attracted students. Nor are its investors likely to be perturbed when they hear reports about academics who fear losing their traditional control over course offerings.
But those who see MOOC infatuation as a threat to standards, integrity, and sound pedagogy are understandably reassured when they hear national leaders voicing some of the same concerns—holding up, if not a red flag, at least a yellow one. Others have no philosophical or educational objections to MOOCs, but ask very legitimate questions about what business model will permit them to, well, stay in business. These skeptics, too, could be forgiven for taking some pleasure when the latest CSU news confirms their warnings.
I tweeted Armstrong again, this time asking how investors could put so much faith in a company whose business model remains the subject of great uncertainty and skepticism. Again, a good reply: “It takes start-ups a long time to find a viable business model—if one exists. Venture capital folks get paid lots for the risk.”
So what does this add up to? Perhaps the week’s MOOC news is just a lesson in confirmation bias. But it seems to me, above all, a reminder that triumphalists and naysayers alike should be humble in the face of rapid educational change. As a cautious optimist about their future, I wouldn’t be in the least concerned if MOOCs didn’t pan out, so long as they morphed into, or were overtaken by, some new, improved, pedagogically superior educational technology. We just don’t know. It’s far too soon to declare that MOOCs will conquer the earth—or that they will die a slow, ignoble death.
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