Part 4 in my Top 10 Trends of 2014 series


First there were MOOCs. Then there were MOOCs!!!111 Then we witnessed the MOOC backlash. Then the MOOC backlash backlash. And maybe even the MOOC backlash backlash backlash. At this point, it’s hard to keep track.

As I look back on 2014 (and on 2013 and 2012 as well), I’m not sure that MOOCs are really the trend we should be paying attention to here. MOOCs are a symptom, but not the disease. A better focus is probably, more broadly, on online education – on what the Internet affords teaching and learning or on the outsourcing of education technology services to third party providers. And as I noted in the previous post in this series, the trend to watch may really be a re-definition of education as skills training – MOOCs have been a major part of that.

But “MOOCs ain’t over” various investors and analysts and pundits insisted this year. (I mean, no shit that’s what they’d say. Investors have pumped around $140 million into Coursera and Udacity alone.) “MOOCs’ disruption is only beginning,” prophesied Clayton Christensen.

Certainly complicit in not letting MOOCs disappear: the media, framing and reframing MOOCs as the battleground for the future of higher education. “Will MOOCs Be Flukes?” asked The New Yorker. “Can Libraries Save the MOOC?” Will MOOCs disrupt business school? Or won’t they? “Can MOOCs and Universities Co-Exist?” The Wall Street Journal asked in May. “Are Online Courses Democratizing Education or Killing Colleges?” The Wall Street Journal asked in October. “Will Free Online Courses Ever Replace a College Education?Will conventional online higher ed absorb MOOCs? Are MOOCs really revolutionary? Nope, said the Harvard Business Review, the most trusted publication on issues of “real revolution.” Are MOOCs the future of education?

“Reports of MOOCs’ demise have been greatly exaggerated,” wrote Craig Weidemann, vice provost for online education at Penn State.

Something’s been exaggerated, for sure. Gee, I wonder how or why?

My favorite question about the popularity and viability of MOOCs was posed by The New York Times – you know the folks who excitedly declared 2012 “The Year of the MOOCs”: Are MOOCs overhyped?


Not Open, Not Massive: Just Online Courses

The earliest massive open online courses were “open” in a couple of ways. They offered open enrollment. They relied on open access and openly licensed materials and the open Web. And they were often open-ended – or at least, the learner had a great deal of agency in the connections and the knowledge they built. As such, it’s not surprising that some of the criticisms of MOOCs that cropped up circa 2011–2012 were that these new, VC-backed versions were far from “open.”

These xMOOCs’ already nominal “openness” became more and more closed this year. HarvardX MOOCs for Harvard alumni only, for example. And despite all the glee about big numbers, there were even questions about whether “massive” was such a good thing.

"Two words are wrong in ‘MOOC’: Massive and open,” said Stanford President John Hennessy in June, to which George Siemens had the perfect response. Selectively open online classes, argued Pearson SVP Amar Kumar, might be preferable as they would address the question of “unwanted diversity.”

“Unwanted diversity.” That sorta runs counter to all the promises about MOOCs “democratizing education,” no? But at least it confirms Tressie McMillan Cottom’s contention that the ideal student, as envisioned by these and other education technology efforts, is some sort of “roaming autodidact”: white, middle-class, self-motivated, male. Indeed, as Sebastian Thrun told the tech blog Pando in May, “If you’re affluent, we can do a much better job with you, we can make magic happen.”


Who Wants MOOCs?

So who’s interested in MOOCs? Who’s signing up? Who’s completing them?

Read the rest of my 7700 word post on online education in 2014 here.

Audrey Watters


Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

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