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Oops. I forgot to post my notes from a webinar I gave last year. I was asked to speak about "The State of OER" to AMICAL, a consortium of American liberal arts universities outside the US. No big surprise, I spoke about how MOOCs were dominating a lot of the discussion about "open education" - without actually being "open education" at all. Here are my slides and my notes from November 2013.

And that’s what I spend the last six weeks or so of the year doing: working, that is, not not working; reviewing all the things that happened in education technology over the course of the last 12 months, trying to identify what the major trends are — where we’ve been and where we’re headed.

I’ve only written and published 2 of my 10 posts so far in my year-in-review series for 2013. But I’ll give you all a sneak peek at the other 8.

No doubt, MOOCs have sucked almost all of the oxygen out of the world of ed-tech this year, particularly in higher education.

MOOCs’ influence and importance appear in several of the trends I’ve identified — Not just in the MOOC trend but in the politics of ed-tech (attempts in California, for example, to legislate MOOCs for credit for high-demand courses), the business of ed-tech (the amount of investment raised, for example, as well as the use of MOOC in almost every press release I received), and invocations of openness — it’s amazing what counts as an “open online course” these days. MOOCs have made it very difficult to talk about much else this year, it seems.

Indeed, David Wiley, a professor at Brigham Young University and arguably one of the leaders in open education, founded his own startup this year — Lumen Learning — to help universities with open education initiatives, widespread adoption of OER textbooks, for example. But you probably wouldn’t know about it if you weren’t in open education circles. Despite Wiley’s leadership in OER — despite him being one of the first professors in the US to make an online version of his classes available to anyone on the Internet who wanted to participate — Wiley isn’t the person hailed in the media as the “godfather of MOOCs.” As Rolin Moe, a graduate student at Pepperdine recently noted, when California governor Jerry Brown wanted someone to turn to to help the state usher in low-cost solutions to the growing demand and increased tuition prices of its university system, it was Sebastian Thrun, founder of the for-profit online learning startup Udacity, not David Wiley, who got the call.

And so it goes.

And with over 1.2 million views on the recording of her TED Talk, it is Daphne Koller, founder of the for-profit online learning startup Coursera, who might be best known now for making the case about MOOCs as a solution to the growing demand for higher education globally.

Koller tells a story in that talk about a woman — nameless in her tale — in South Africa — pardon me for quoting her at length…

In some parts of the world, for example, South Africa, education is just not readily accessible. In South Africa, the educational system was constructed in the days of apartheid for the white minority. And as a consequence, today there is just not enough spots for the many more people who want and deserve a high quality education. That scarcity led to a crisis in January of this year at the University of Johannesburg. There were a handful of positions left open from the standard admissions process, and the night before they were supposed to open that for registration, thousands of people lined up outside the gate in a line a mile long, hoping to be first in line to get one of those positions. When the gates opened, there was a stampede,and 20 people were injured and one woman died. She was a mother who gave her life trying to get her son a chance at a better life.

A woman died in order to get access to a university education. A mother. Pretty powerful stuff. Pretty powerful propaganda.

I don’t want to downplay a death, don’t get me wrong, but the story from South Africa is actually quite a bit more complicated than this. The problem is not simply a lack of university places, as Koller suggests, but low graduation rates combined with limited education and training options.

But a death of a mother makes a great story. And these are the stories we hear again and again. “The Boy Genius of Ulan Bator” was The New York Times version, about Battushig Myanganbayar, a 16-year-old who was on his way to MIT thanks to MIT’s MOOC courses.

Again and again and again, Koller, Thrun and Anant Agarwal, the head of edX, tout MOOCs as the answer to the global demand for higher education. They do so with anecdotes of students from the global South suddenly able to live to their potential thanks to online classes from the global North — “the best professors in the world” as the marketing line often goes. These are stories, as Koller says, of “people whose lives have been transformed by education that they would never otherwise have had.” These are often stories, notes Justin Reich when it comes to “the villages of the boy genius of Ulan Bator,” of students who don’t just tap into MOOCs’ content but tap into a strong, pre-existing alumni network. As elitist higher education has always done.

And yet implication here, of course, nowhere else in the world offers a university education, an adequate;u elitist university education. Thank you, Stanford, Harvard, and MIT, for rectifying that.

Of course, for those of us who’ve worked in education for a while now, we recognize the hype and the elitism. If nothing else, we know that open access and open education and distance education are not new. MIT Opencourseware is over a decade old now. And the UK’s Open University turned 40 this year. Not that anyone in Silicon Valley noticed.

But the story about these Silicon Valley MOOCs and their promise to deliver education to the world is a powerful one. It’s a troubling one too.

As we can see by this map, published last week in Inside Higher Ed, there is a pattern here that would point to where “the best professors in the world” reside. That is, they reside in the elite institutions of the global North. Exceptions: a partner institution in Australia, in Israel, in Mexico. The absence of partners in South America and in Africa is pretty striking.

Interestingly, if you map institutions that participate in OER, you get a different map. This map is from 2012 and is drawn from those institutions that participate in the Open Courseware Consortium.

Now, there’s still a great imbalance here between North and South. But we can see in this map that OER resources are being developed in the South. It isn’t simply a matter of the South being consumers of the North’s educational courseware; they are creators.

Education and imperialism have a long, entangled history. But this isn’t just something of the past, as I think the MOOC map suggests. And the role of technology in this is important to consider as well. We can think about technology as being liberating. We can talk about it as raising the standards of living for everyone. We can talk about access and opportunity. This doves nicely into our narratives about education as well.

And we can recognize too that there are many places in the world — in the global North and in the global South — that do not have access to technology, do not have access to the Internet.

And yet, more than a few of us raised our eyes about the motivation of Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook, when he announced Internet.org earlier this year: Facebook’s effort, along with several cellphone manufactures, to bring low-cost Internet to everyone on the planet. “Is connectivity a human right?” Zuckerberg asked (on Facebook, of course). He argues that it is. He writes that, “Since the internet is so fundamental, we believe everyone should have access and we’re investing a significant amount of our energy and resources into making this happen. Facebook has already invested more than $1 billion to connect people in the developing world over the past few years, and we plan to do more.”

With Facebook, arguably, at peak concentration in much of the developing world — and more damning you might suggest, with teens perhaps losing interest in Facebook altogether, the company does have to turn elsewhere for new customers. Helping bring Internet to the world — well, Facebook as the Internet — would do just that.

And echoing this divide between the creators and the consumers of MOOC content, we can see that in our entire Internet productivity as well. We have a digital divide and a digital productivity gap, if you will.

Do we think Facebook will rectify that? Do we think MOOCs will? Do we think MOOCs plus Facebook will?

I’m going to go out on a limb and say “no.”

But that’s not what Matt Perault, Facebook’s head of global policy development, suggested at the recent Transform Africa 2013 Summit in Rwanda. Perault said that “I do think there’s a tremendous opportunity in education which has not yet been realised and that is connecting massively open online courses… with distribution networks like Facebook, so as to get educational content out to a larger number of people.” MOOCs don’t have, he continued ”a mechanism to distribute that content into places like rural communities in Africa. …As time moves on we’ll be looking at ways to think about social distribution, for instance through services like Facebook, or other services, to get content into more of those communities.”

Is the future of open education really up to Facebook? If it is, we must ask, what do we mean by “open”? The term is in danger of losing its meaning. I tweeted over a year ago my definition of “openwashing,” akin to “greenwashing”:

having an appearance of open-source and open-licensing for marketing purposes, while continuing proprietary practices.

The “open” in the acronym “MOOC” is certainly in danger of becoming just that. Massive Open Online Course. Again, what do we mean by “open”?

Case in point: Earlier this year, Udacity announced the Open Education Alliance: "an industry-wide alliance of employers and educators in the service of students throughout the world. It provides access to cutting-edge and relevant post-secondary education that empowers individuals to pursue successful careers in technology.” David Wiley responded quite angrily in a blog post. Pardon my quoting him at length here:

With a name like that, it’s got to be good, right? Ponder the name for a moment – the Open Education Alliance – and then try to guess what the Alliance does. Go ahead, I’ll wait…

Perhaps you guessed:

Promote and utilize open educational resources

or, perhaps you guessed:

Promote and utilize open access to scholarly research

or, perhaps you guessed:

Promote and utilize open data to empower learners to improve their learning through analytics

or, perhaps you guessed:

Promote and utilize open source software systems

Think you got it? In the famous words of Willy Wonka, “Wrong, Sir! WRONG! … You get nothing!” I suppose it was a bit unfair to ask, however, because it was a trick question – there is nothing whatsoever “open” about the “Open” Education Alliance.

That “O” in MOOCs, that “Open” in the “Open Education Alliance.” What does it mean? Open access? Openly licensed? Transparency? Open-ended — a negotiation among the students and the instructors? Or is it simply “open for business”?

And does it even matter? Does it matter how “open” is defined?

I say, “yes, of course it does.” And I think it matters — gravely — that OER has lost the marketing battle in recent years to MOOCs (particularly to the version of MOOCs that are simply “open for business.”)

It matters for a number of reasons — for all the reasons that David Wiley hinted at with what an “Open Education Alliance” might mean. It matters to be able to translate and localize materials because those materials are openly licensed. It matters to be able to use the materials in a classroom without having to pay a licensing fee back to the MOOC provider or the institutional copyright holder. It matters to be able to export the materials out of the Coursera or Udacity website — sites that are becoming increasingly reminiscent of learning management systems — and put them into formats that are more readily accessible by those without Internet access.

So why have OER lost the PR battle to MOOCs?

The answer is obvious in many ways. MOOCs have the backing of Silicon Valley investors. They’ve captured the hearts and minds of journalists who know nothing about the history of education technology, they’ve captured the hearts and minds of op-ed writers like Thomas Friedman and David Brooks who write from this sanctimonious place of white, male, American privilege.

But there are problems with OER — perceived and real and no doubt exacerbated by MOOCs.

MOOCs are seen as “interactive” whereas OER is seen — rightly or wrongly, of course — as text-based. MOOCs have videos! And forums! And email reminders about your homework!

OER — and this is something that really irks me about OER — remain trapped in PDFs, which despite being shorthand for “portable document format” is not. PDFs were designed for desktop publishing — to allow computers to create print publications. PDFs are not the right format for digital reading. PDFs are not machine-readable. And PDFs are not an open format.

OER aren’t as easily remix able as we’d like — I blame PDFs, in part for that. But then again, we haven’t convinced many educators why they’d want to do so in the first place. When there’s a whole profession that can say “who cares if it’s openly licensed?” that’s a huge opportunity for propriety content to intervene. And again, this is failure of marketing for OER, not a failure of the concept itself. It’s a failure, too, of institutional constraints upon educators who simply don’t have time to give a shit — pardon my French — about remixing although, yes they care deeply about reusing.

Open educational resources are not easily discoverable, I’ve heard people say. MOOCs’ domination of headlines (and thus SEO) doesn’t help.

Open educational resources are only content, not assessment — another accretion. MOOCs, of course, purport to be both.

Open educational resources have long been bad-mouthed by proprietary publishers who’ve insisted that OER is poor quality.

And now suddenly, just when we find ourselves in the midst of budgetary constraints that are making many schools look to OER as a solution — not based on the politics of open licenses but on the practicality of “free” — we’re seeing “open” being appropriated by corporations to mean something else entirely. Pearson says it’s open. Blackboard says it’s open. Desire2Learn says it’s open. Google says it’s open. Udacity says it’s open. Coursera says it’s open.

Again, it’s no surprise really that we’re seeing this happen. The marketing teams in technology and in publishing want to use a word that’s associated with contribution and community. Open educational resources and open source software have forged that path.

But OER and OSS are about adding value; what we’re seeing with the appropriation of “open” is about extracting value.

As London Knowledge Lab professor Diana Laurillard has said, education technologies should not be used “to access masses of data from desperate would-be students.” She was referring in this quotation to the question of scale and access and technology and MOOCs and specifically responding to a round of funding that Coursera had just raised back in January. “Venture capitalists,” she said, "are not spending $22 million to nurture students.”

Just last week, Coursera’s total investment among surpassed $85 million.

So what now?

As I work on my year-end post about MOOCs, I have to say that I’ve seen us in 2013 move to the pinnacle of that Gartner Hype Cycle, then slide all the way down into the trough of despair. Sure, Coursera just announced more funding. But we’re all asking: how will it make money? How long can it last, even with all this venture capital funding? Will this MOOC craze continue? And what will it look like, if it does?

How will universities be affected? How will students — matriculated or not — be affected? And how will open education be affected?

Coursera’s MOOC competitor Udacity just announced a couple of weeks ago that it was moving away from trying to “disrupt” traditional university education with its computer science curriculum to instead try to offer corporate training. That’s what its “Open Education Alliance” certainly points at: an alliance between industry and online course providers.

In the wake of Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun’s pronouncement in Fast Company last week that his startup offered a “lousy product,” what next? Thrun has indicated that he’s done with MOOCs. This from the man who predicted late last year that in 50 years time, there would only be 10 universities left on the planet and Udacity would be one of them.

So what do we make of this? What do we make of his admission that MOOCs are not simply overhyped, but they’re “lousy”?

I’ve seen many professors — particularly those who’ve raised all sorts of warning flags about MOOCs — gleefully pronounce that this Udacity news means that MOOCs are dead. That online education has always been a failure. But is that true? Or are we, once again, conflating MOOCs and online education? Are we conflating MOOCs — the Silicon Valley version of MOOCs — and open online education?

What will happen if there’s a backlash against MOOCs? Will this be a backlash against Silicon Valley’s overhyped pronouncements — its TED Talks and its New York Times articles and its Thomas Friedman-supported op-eds and its Techcrunch articles that gleefully proclaim "the end of universities as we know it” — all of which wax uncritically about about MOOCs’ revolutionary potential? Will a backlash against MOOCs mean a refutation of the narrative of “disruptive innovation”?

Or will there be backlash more broadly against online education? Against education technology?

For once here (for those who know my rather dour, dystopian viewpoint), I’m actually pretty hopeful here about the potential for open education. Over the last four years, I’ve chronicled the rise and fall and rise and fall of various trends. I’ve followed closely the recent crop of education startups and their claims to disrupt those incumbent powers, whether they’re textbook publishers or universities and schools themselves. I’ve chronicled the rise and fall of many ed-tech startups. Indeed, that’s one of the things I’ll talk about when I finally get to Trend #10 in my list — the business of ed-tech. Sure, last week we saw Coursera add another $20 million to its coffers. But we’ve seen a lot of startups hit the deadpool this year too. We’ve seen a lot of startups be acquired — not because they were the “hot new thing” but because that’s what happens in the venture capital funding cycle. If you don’t reach profitability eventually, your investors come knocking. And you sell the company — the content, the tech, the users’ data.

I think open education is more sustainable than that.

And that’s a great irony, I think. The lack of sustainability has long been a charge thrown at OER. “How will you last,” people ask, “if you give this away for free?!”

And in some ways now we can answer, “We needn’t last. Not like businesses do. Our work is openly licensed. If we go away, our work does not. It lives on. And you can still use it.”

The same cannot be said for this latest crop of investor-supported education endeavors. Will they reach profitability? Will they IPO? Will they be acquired? Or will they wither and die? And what then becomes of the content? It’s not clear who owns it. Do the startups? Do the institutions? Do the professors who create it? And what about the students? Do they own their data? Or are they simply, as Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook and Internet.org posit, someone else’s data? Someone else’s fodder for advertising? A data point used to make the next user make a better decision…

So I think that the future of OER is pretty bright here. And I particularly thing that’s true globally. Silicon Valley thinks it has all the answers. But it doesn’t. Not even close. Meanwhile OER answers a gap that MOOCs have tried to lay claim to: the necessity to provide resources for the entire world, the ability to translate and localize, the ability to empower not just dictate, the ability to foster not just indoctrinate, the idea that “the best professors” aren’t at Stanford or Harvard but are those educators who invite you into their office and look you in the eye and guide you forward, taking interest in your future but not taking an equity stake in your startup. Those working in OER aren’t just interested in content or skills; they care about people.

And I’m betting on humans, not software, not algorithms as the next big thing...

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Audrey Watters


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