Education Opinion

Summarizing All MOOCs in One Slide: Market, Open and Dewey

By Justin Reich — May 07, 2012 4 min read
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Last week, I proposed a 2x2 framework summarizing the field of education technology, which asked two questions 1) Are you trying to make a billion dollars? And 2) Do you believe education can be delivered? From these two questions, we get three categories for all EdTech ventures: Market, Open, and Dewey.

Given all the hub-bub about Massive Open Online Courses last week, I thought I would take a moment to put the MOOCs into this Market/Open/Dewey framework. Here’s the revised 2x2:

Let me say a few things about the usefulness of models like this. Theories are like eyeglasses: they bring certain dimensions of the world into sharper focus, and blur other dimensions. But if you choose the right glasses, the world is--on the whole--a little clearer. So the test of the Market/Open/Dewey model is if it helps make any sense of an emerging field, like MOOCs.


The most well-known efforts at MOOCs at this point are the two major for-profit platforms, Udacity and Coursera, and the soon to be launched EdX. On the whole, all three platforms appear poised to offer courses focusing on content delivery. For instance, Sebastian Thrun’s Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, the course that served as precursor to Udacity, consisted of a series of lectures with concepts to be mastered, a discussion forum for the clarification of those concepts, and assessments that evaluate mastery of those concepts. The assessments were designed in such a way so that they could be graded computationally. Coursera’s offerings are along the same line. As they say in their pitch: “watch high quality lectures, achieve mastery via interactive exercises, and collaborate with a global community of students.”


The crucial difference between EdX and Udacity/Coursera has to do with “Openness.” The original MOOCs, which I will discuss more in a moment, were “open” in two respects. First, they were open enrollment to students outside the hosting university. That is open as in “open registration.” Second, the materials of the course were licensed using Creative Commons licenses so their materials could be remixed and reused by others. That is open as in “open license.” Udacity and Coursera are Open in the “open registration” sense, but their materials, lectures, assessments and so forth have a standard copyright. EdX has at least committed to making its underlying learning system available through open source licensing, and given the history of MIT’s OpenCourseWare, it also appears that the course materials will be CC licensed. (I can’t confirm this by reading their Website online. I have an email into EdX.)

It is very important to note that if we persist in using the term MOOC to describe the for-profit, proprietary ventures, then we will be diluting the meaning of “open” in the original acronym, probably to the detriment of the Open Educational Resources movement. Perhaps proprietary courses should be called MOCs (and perhaps they should be mocked...)


So that covers the “learning as delivery” folks, but what about the “learning as experience” folks? These are actually the original creators of the MOOC, going back to 2007, several years before Thrun’s class. A full history of these MOOCs is kept at MOOC.ca. Folks like George Siemens, Stephen Downes, David Wiley, and Jim Groom have been offering MOOCs for several years, with a very different flavor and aim. These courses are designed to bring people together for learning experiences, rather than to deliver a discrete set of learning objectives to be mastered. Stephen Downes goes so far to say that the “content is a MacGuffin”, the thing that brings people together so that the real learning can happen through dialogue, interaction, and exploration.

For my money (which isn’t much, because these things are free), Jim Groom’s course on Digital Storytelling, DS106.us, is the most exciting and fascinating of these entries. Students develop and complete a wide variety of assignments requiring creative express, technical skills, and artistic insights. The point is to inspire a cadre of Internauts to explore and develop emerging modes of creative expression, not to master a discrete set of material. Jim Groom posted a blog entry recently about a student who, a full year after the course, was still working through all of the assignment options. The #ds106 hashtag on twitter is alive year round with sharing, connecting, and supporting. The passion that Jim and his students have for their endeavors compels serious reflection about how MOOCs can do more than scale up the delivery of survey courses.


So what do we learn from this application of theory to experience? I have three take-aways:

  1. By comparing the Market and Open courses, we can see that a corruption is taking place in the meaning of the word “Open” in the MOOC acronym. The original Open meant open registration and open license. The open license meaning is blurred by referring to proprietary courses as open.
  2. Consider the attention gap between the Market/Open and the Dewey MOOCs. The Dewey MOOCs were first, are more theoretically developed, and there have been more of them. That said, vast sums of money are pouring into the creation of courses about content delivery, and these are getting a great deal of media attention. At the same time, creative educators are using very similar technologies to create massive courses about experience rather than simply content delivery. This pattern shows itself frequently in education technology. Sal Khan is the media apotheosis of education technology, and the media has much less interest for the many educators creating powerful experiences with technology than the one guy who has a lot of hits on his lecture videos.
  3. The Market/Open/Dewey model works pretty well to make sense of the MOOC landscape. Kinda useful theoretical framing, eh?

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