Education Opinion

The State of MOOCs: An EdTech Researcher Retrospective

By Justin Reich — October 19, 2013 2 min read
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MIT’s Media Lab is holding a course this fall called Media Lab X: A Design Course for New Learning Platforms, devoted to tackling design problems in online learning, from MOOCs to Skillsharing and beyond. They asked me to speak last week, so I gave a short talk, which basically was stringing together ideas from several posts I’ve written here. It seemed like a good moment to offer an EdTech Researcher retrospective on MOOCs.

First, be sure you understand what connectivism is and the history of the development of MOOCs from 2008. The history and present of so called cMOOCs sheds light on some of the limitations of the much more well known xMOOCs published by Udacity, Coursera, edX and so forth. From EdTech Researcher, start with On our cMOOC inspired site for the Future of Learning Institute, but then be sure to read this recent piece from Times Higher Education about the history of MOOCs.

If you understand the difference between cMOOCs and xMOOCs, then you can probably follow my argument that this split basically recapitulates one of the fundamental debates in education, which is as old as recorded history, framed by Plutarch as “the mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting” and reinterpreted in the American context as the debate between Edward Thorndike and John Dewey. For a summary of the intersection between Thorndike/Dewey and xMOOCs/cMOOCs, you might read All MOOCs on One Slide.

With that broader framing, it’s worth looking at exactly what MOOCs are and what they offer from a technical perspective. One one hand, I think it’s helpful to think of them as navigating the space between Three Kinds of Learning Management Systems; if we want to be charitable we might celebrate the flexibility of xMOOC providers in exploring different approaches to learning, and if we wish to be less charitable, we might describe them as flailing about in the space to find a business model. To understand the technical differences between cMOOC and xMOOC platforms, I suggest looking at the differences in their Killer Apps: The Autograder versus the Syndication Engine.

After looking at how MOOC’s operate technically, I think it’s worth examining how they operate metaphorically in the discourse of education broadly and higher education specifically. In particular, I think its worth looking at when people describe MOOCs as a Textbook versus MOOCs as a Course.

It’s also worth thinking about who joins MOOCs and why. As to the who, one critical question, if we are interested in so-called “disruptive innovation” is who are taking MOOCs who aren’t already consuming higher education: I offer three hypotheses here. I also think we need to be more careful about how we characterize those who don’t complete MOOCs, the so-called dropouts might be learning much more than we think.

Finally, I think there are plenty of interesting research questions to be asked of MOOCs. For my own part, I have two basic questions that I reflexively bring to the study of education technology: Are they any good? and Do only certain learners get the good ones?

If you have thoughts, provocative comments, or other arenas that you think should be explored let me know on Twitter at @bjfr or leave a comment below!

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my publications, C.V., and online portfolio, visit EdTechResearcher.

* Updated 12-16 with a few more links so that I can use this post in some teaching I’m doing.

The opinions expressed in EdTech Researcher are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.