MOOCs are closed platforms… and probably doomed

Colleges and universities, left and right, are launching Massive open online courses (MOOC). Colleges failing to follow are “behind the times”.

Do not be fooled by how savvy MOOC advocates sound. They do not understand what they are doing.

Let us start with how they do not even understand what a MOOC is, or should be. MOOCs are supposed to be open platforms. It is right there in the name. Downes’ original MOOCs were indeed open. Yet the actual MOOCs that colleges publish are closed platforms, as per Wikipedia’s definition:

A closed platform is a software system where the carrier or service provider has control over applications, content, and media, and restricts convenient access to non-approved applications or content. This is in contrast to an open platform, where consumers have unrestricted access to applications, content, and much more.

The word “open” has been perverted beyond belief, but let us be clear: Facebook is not an open platform. It is public, certainly, in the sense that everyone can join… but it is a closed platform. The content is locked up. If search engines cannot index the content, then it is closed. It is that simple. If your course requires that prospective students “register” to access the content, then it is not an open course. It might be an online course, it might even be massive, but it is not open.

There is nothing wrong with closed platforms per se. The ancient Greek philosophers made a living by selling their lectures to paying customers. But most modern college campuses are remarkably open in contrast. In all likelihood, I can just show up for class on campus in most colleges in North America and attend lectures, for free. I do not need to provide an email address or a password. If there is room in the class, I can generally sneak in. Nobody will care. Why is that? Because we have learned that selling lectures is a tough business. It was different for the Greeks because so little was written down… but we live in an era where Amazon can deliver a textbook on any topic directly to your door within 48 hours. In this era, it is much better to sell diplomas and degrees. Unlike lectures, they have tangible financial value for the students. Some colleges also serve as meeting places, others provide an experience.

What colleges do not do, at least on campus, is to make money off course content. As it is, you can easily order all the textbooks you could possibly read on Amazon. You can join discussion groups about them. You sneak into lectures, or find tons of them online. There is simply little value in the course content.

Do not believe me? Run the following experiment. Make all courses tuition free. Students can enrol for free and if they pass the exam, they get the credit. However, they must pay $20 for each hour of lecture they choose to attend. You know what is going to happen? Nobody but the instructor will show up. How do I know? Because, as it is, with free lectures once you have enrolled in a class, most students never show up for class unless they are compelled to do so. Why would anyone think that it is going to be somehow different with pre-recorded lectures online? You know, the lectures colleges like so much? The truth is that there is only value at the margin for course content.

It is probably harder to make a living selling lectures than it is as a journalist, and it has become nearly impossible to live off journalism. The volume of great free stuff is just too high.

Colleges that try to lock down course content, let alone the content of their MOOCs, are signalling that they have no clue about the business that they are in.

14 thoughts on “MOOCs are closed platforms… and probably doomed”

  1. Great article. I think this phenomena has been ushered in by the PowerPoint generation. PowerPoint is no longer used to supplement a lecture, but rather, it *is* the lecture. The value of a lecture, as a lecture, i.e. discussion and debate, has gone down markedly. I think that colleges are forgetting that they are trying to stoke thought, rather than disseminate knowledge.

  2. I agree with almost everything you said, but

    > Unlike lectures, [diplomas and degrees] have tangible financial value for the students

    I think this depends a lot on the student [1] and (to some extent) the degree [2].

    [1] http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2014/09/what_every_high.html
    [2] http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2013/04/major_premium.html

    Bryan Caplan (author of the above blog posts) explains the signaling model of education here:

    The Case Against Education – Bryan Caplan
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bpk_u_VmPD4

  3. Here is the text that I posted, word for word, to a reddit link of this article. I would enjoy hearing your thoughts.
    ————————-
    Acknowledging all the problems with MOOCs re: retention, assessment of legitimate learning, and implementation, this article is still pretty iffy.

    > The word “open” has been perverted beyond belief

    He cites nothing to back up his claim that the “Open” in MOOC originally meant open-platform. Indeed, as I’ve always understood it, the open simply referred to open enrollment. Certain groups like OpenStax use “Open” in that manner, but Web 2.0 doesn’t have a monopoly on that word.

    > In all likelihood, I can just show up for class on campus in most colleges in North America and attend lectures, for free.

    Not sure why he thought illegally auditing a class would be a good argument here.

    > Because, as it is, with free lectures once you have enrolled in a class, most students never show up for class unless they are compelled to do so. Why would anyone think that it is going to be somehow different with pre-recorded lectures online?

    Certainly MOOC creators need to work on engagement and retention. But this seems like a thinly veiled shot at said retention, which is silly. When you have truly open enrollment and almost zero barrier to entry, like many do, you’re bound to have a large number of people who simply realize it’s not for them and drop out.

    So, back to one of this first sentences:

    > Do not be fooled by how savvy MOOC advocates sound. They do not understand what they are doing.

    Do not be fooled by this guy. He’s nitpicking arguments. There are a *ton* of arguments against MOOC, especially for-profit ones, (and I say this as a strong online education advocate), but they are not to be found in this article. The author in no way backs up his assertion that MOOCs are doomed and comes across as technophobic while snidely trying to say the opposite.

  4. @groggydog

    He cites nothing to back up his claim that the “Open” in MOOC originally meant open-platform.

    I refer to Downes in my post. Please look-up Stephen Downes who co-invented the MOOCs. (Hint: check out Wikipedia’s entry on MOOCs.) I have worked for years as a colleague of Stephen Downes. I followed MOOCs since their inception.

    It should be quite clear that the term “open” in MOOC, at least in its original sense, has the same sense as in “open source”.

    Not sure why he thought illegally auditing a class would be a good argument here.

    There is nothing illegal about auditing a class without being enrolled.

    Certainly MOOC creators need to work on engagement and retention. But this seems like a thinly veiled shot at said retention, which is silly. When you have truly open enrollment and almost zero barrier to entry, like many do, you’re bound to have a large number of people who simply realize it’s not for them and drop out.

    No. It is a reference to the fact that, even at the very best schools, with the very best instructors, it has gotten difficult to get students to show up for class.

    When students can get by without attending classes, they overwhelmingly choose to do so. This tells us that the lectures themselves have little value to the students. Thus it makes little sense to lock them up in general.

    Overwhelmingly, students attend colleges and universities for the certification, not for the course content. There are also some other motivation, and I allude to them (e.g., colleges are good meeting places).

    The point is that if you create MOOCs but restrict access to the content, you are signalling to me how clueless you are.

    Do not be fooled by this guy. He’s nitpicking arguments. There are a *ton* of arguments against MOOC, especially for-profit ones, (and I say this as a strong online education advocate), but they are not to be found in this article. The author in no way backs up his assertion that MOOCs are doomed and comes across as technophobic while snidely trying to say the opposite.

    I am a university professor who has been teaching primarily online for the last ten years. My courses are online and open, they have always been… E.g., see http://bit.ly/13zAze2 All the content of my courses is freely available online.

    I think that I am never been described as technophobic before. In fact, I am such a techno-enthusiast that I chose to teach primarily online years before it became fashionable. I have been publishing university-level courses (including graduate courses) with freely available content under a Creative Commons license years before MOOCs were invented.

    I believe that online is the future of learning. I am very skeptical about the future of campus courses… they are too expensive, inconvenient… they are on their last legs…

    I am also very skeptical of MOOCs as I think that their advocates do not understand the business they are in.

  5. I don’t know about the business models for MOOCs – their profitability or lack of it. What I can comment on is their usefulness (to me). They are *extremely* useful to me. I took online courses for a while from Columbia’s CVN and Georgia Tech’s CDL. Those were expensive, but, my employer (Microsoft) paid for them. Now I work with another company that doesn’t (yet). MOOCs are a great way for me to learn about subjects that I couldn’t justify paying for. Sure – the same information could be had from a textbook, but, enrolling in a MOOC and taking the tests forces me to learn the material and I guess I need that. The other advantage is that if things become too hectic on the work/personal front – I can drop the course without any real financial implications (other than time – of course). I’ve done that several times and also completed about 8 courses so far.

    Most arguments about MOOCs seem to revolve around whether they’ll replace colleges for regular students in the developed world. I think they perform a larger function of educating professionals. When I compare the quality of instruction in Coursera with that in most institutions in my home country – Coursera (edX and Udacity as well) is so much better that the comparison becomes ludicrous.
    Courses like Algorithms (Roughgarden) , Automata theory (Ullman) or the recent Mining Massive data sets (ullman/leskovec/rajaraman) – are simply not taught that way (or at all) in most places in my home country. The beauty of these subjects as conveyed by these professors simply doesn’t come through…

    I for one hope that MOOCs continue to thrive and make more and more courses available. I’d gladly pay a reasonable price (of the amount Coursera charges for its signature track).

    Bala.

  6. It seems to me that criticizing MOOCs *in there present form* is not very interesting — they are still obviously very much a work in progress. I also don’t see the interest in debating the exact meaning of “open” in “MOOC”. It is surely not as in “open door” nor as in “open source” nor as in “open bar” — so what? The main point is probably that of general availability as opposed to being part of a “closed” (4-year or so) university program to which you need to register.

    What is most interesting about MOOCs is that they present the first credible challenge to colleges and universities in over a century. In particular, MOOCs existence highlights the questions of whether the value that universities provide is that of teaching or of certification or of providing a social circle or what.

    Thus for me the interesting question about MOOCs (in their current and future forms) is what will they do to current *university and college* education.

  7. Information is indeed available in books and online. But:

    1. When I was an undergrad in Romania, I could not afford to buy books from Amazon. One problem is the price/salary ratio; another problem is the disappearance of books in transit.

    2. The online information is plenty, yet somewhat difficult to find.

    MOOCs don’t solve problems 1&2, but they help. To see why, it may help to think about how people use Wikipedia:

    A. Why do people go to Wikipedia when they have Google search? For two reasons. One is that the density of useful information on Wikipedia is rather high. Another is that the information on Wikipedia is somewhat vetted. Both these reasons apply to MOOC (catalogues) as well.

    B. Why do people buy textbooks when all the information is available in Wikipedia? One main reason is that Wikipedia is not written with pedagogy in mind. But MOOCs are.

    I don’t think MOOCs are particularly open, and I don’t think they are much of a competitor to universities. But, they do serve a useful role online, just like Wikipedia does.

  8. My school (University of Oklahoma) is investing heavily in a closed MOOC platform being developed by NextThought (as if the world needs another closed MOOC platform… but we paid NextThought one million dollars last year, and it will be two million dollars this year), and we have branded the NextThought as OUJanux. The first courses were open-enrollment (which they called “open courses”… but content is closed, and not even linkable within the courses, nightmare), but now faculty are being encouraged to create Janux courses that will not even have open enrollment. That is being called “JanuxNext” …
    http://oudigitools.blogspot.com/2014/11/janux-next-strange-story-of-closed-and.html
    Meanwhile, once the courses cease to be open enrollment, of course the marketing hype has to be INTENSE to get people to pay to enroll… so we have “partnered” with the History Channel to sell the courses. Is this a business model? Are people really going to buy this? I agree with your analysis: why pay for content with so much abundant, high-quality educational content available in libraries (both real and virtual) for free. Well, what we are really selling is the COLLEGE CREDIT… and people will indeed pay for college credit. They are not really paying for the content, though, so I suspect the $250 for the badge (no credit) will have few takers. Why on earth would someone pay $250 if they are not even getting the college credit? Gory details here; the marketing hype is totally over the top to the point that it would be funny… if we were not spending so much money along the way:
    http://oudigitools.blogspot.com/2014/10/online-courses-and-marketing-fluff-what.html
    Just imagine if we were investing all that money in really improving our courses and in developing open resources!
    Thanks for your blog post. I shared it both with the folks at OUJanux and at NextThought via Twitter. They COULD open things up, after all.
    Maybe they will.
    Maybe…

  9. @Laura Gibbs

    I agree that people will pay hundreds of dollars (and more) for college credits. A mere badge (coupled with access to the content) is worth much less. Possibly, if the badge was formally recognized by some professional organization, it could have more value… but you almost need to have kickback system in place…

    You have nailed one of the concerns I did not express well: there is a lot of waste in marketing something without a business model. Eventually, the bubble bursts, and the marketing investment is wasted.

  10. Hi,

    Whatever be the definition you give for MOOC and whether or not it is open is not a concern for those who get benefited. I have benefited a lot from MOOC. For example the Circuits and Electronics course of EDX is an excellent one and gave me a good footing in electronics. As some one pointed out here MOOC’s are currently an emerging concept waiting to get consolidated. Many of them have interesting business models. For example Udacity have got something called Nanodegrees. We will have to wait and see how and where these MOOC’s tread.

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