Distinguishing the Open part of Massive Open Online Courses

With the news of Coursera adding 12 new universities, the blogosphere erupted yesterday with stories of disruption, the end of Higher Ed as we know it, and some tentative hope for general social improvement. Not lost on a few bloggers though was the important point to note that Coursera isn’t really offering MOOCs, in the way that the approach was designed originally by George Siemens and Steven Downes. Massive Open Online Courses meant that the resources were, well, open to anyone and open to use thereafter. Audrey Watters points out the Coursera difference:[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/audreywatters/status/225721160787165185″%5D
Indeed, it appears the openness of the Coursera courses is that anyone can join, and NOT that the resources are openly available. But full open enrollment is a powerful thing, mind you. According to an email I received from Coursera last night, the potential to educate people everywhere is emerging:[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/MikeGwaltney/status/225809720383004672″%5D
So, let’s distinguish open in the context of Coursera, as opposed to the openness of the Siemens/Downes model (or like this MOOC upcoming on Mobile Learning): Coursera = open-enrollment/closed-resources, Siemens/Downes-style MOOCs = completely open.

Is there virtue to making all the course resources open? For one, teachers like me could use the excellent elements of a Coursera course in my own classroom. Or people anywhere who weren’t able to enroll in the Coursera course at the time of its offering could take the course when they’re able. Open Education Resources (OER) remain available on the web, for the good of all of us. If the 17 Coursera partners were to commit to making the courses this open, we’d all need to stand and applaud the impact for good they would make.

I think there is some hope for more openness from Coursera than it may seem though. I was curious about a course that looks remarkably similar to the one I’m paying for at the University of Edinburgh in September. The free “E-learning and Digital Cultures” course will be an innovative study of “how digital cultures intersect with learning cultures online, and how our ideas about online education are shaped through ‘narratives’, or big stories, about the relationship between people and technology.” And, importantly, it’s a wee bit more open than other Coursera offerings:

E-learning and Digital Cultures will make use of online spaces beyond the Coursera environment, and we want some aspects of participation in this course to involve the wider social web. We hope that participants will share in the creation of course content and assessed work that will be publicly available online.

How much of the work of this Edinburgh Coursera course eventually goes onto the open web is yet to be seen. That participants will be producing work for all to see is a hopeful sign however. If the model works well (and of course it will), perhaps it will push other instructors to make their resources more open.

I for one welcome Coursera as an emerging positive force in the education marketplace, despite a host of reservations. When it becomes more open, many of my reservations will melt away.

Questions for K-12 as the Niche of Higher Ed Shrinks

The move of a dozen more top universities to join Coursera’s Massive Open Online Courses is all over the news today. If you missed it, try these two articles at the NY Times, and Insider Higher Ed.

Stanford University’s president said last spring that a tsunami is coming. Today, Georgia Tech Computer Science Professor Richard A. DeMillo said “This is the tsunami.”

What’s happening in Higher Education? Disruption on a massive scale, according to Richard Perez-Pena of the New York Times:

“if it becomes possible in years to come to get a complete college education from an elite institution online, free or at relatively low cost, experts wonder whether some colleges will find it harder to attract students willing to pay $20,000, $40,000 or even $60,000 a year for the traditional on-campus experience.

‘The people who should be worried about this are the large tier of American universities — especially the expensive private schools — that are not elite and don’t have the same reputation’ as the big-name universities now creating MOOCs, said Anya Kamenetz, an author who writes on the future of higher education.

Most experts say there will always be students who want to live on campus, interacting with professors and fellow students, particularly at prestigious universities. But as a share of the college market, that is likely to be a shrinking niche.”

Maybe Perez-Pena and Kamenetz are reading the crystal ball correctly, it’s hard to say. But their predictions seem like safe ones to me – higher education has been ripe for disruption for a long time now, offering a product many people want at a price point that very few can reach.

In considering what Coursera is doing, it’s important to understand that each of the new member schools have committed to offer the most highly reputed parts of their curriculum – medicine and public health courses from UCSF and Johns Hopkins, biology and life sciences courses from Duke, business and software courses from Washington – for free, according to Inside Higher Ed. They’re giving away what they do best.

The most important part of all this is the democratizing effect open online education should have. When people who might be able to complete such courses are able to access them at very low costs, we reduce the knowledge gap between them and people of privilege. Stephen Downes quotes Sebastian Thrun‘s response to whether this is the end of higher education as an exclusive enclave for a limited number of students at high tuitions: “It’s the beginning of higher education for everybody.” At this early stage at least, MOOCs represent a moral good.

As a practical matter for those of us who work in the K-12 world, we need to start thinking about several things.

  • How do we prepare our students to be effective in Massive Open Online Courses? or in smaller closed online courses? How do we foster initiative, self-advocacy, and the skills of time-management and communication?
  • What will be our response to parents who insist on school credit for completion of courses from Coursera, Udacity, edX, etc.? Do we really tell a parent their child must take our Calculus course when she may have already completed a MIT course? Maybe, but we need to think of this eventuality.
  • What does this tell us about learning in the 21st century? Do we need to come to a new understanding of college preparation? Should all high school students take some online courses?
  • As more K-12 schools move toward blended learning, will MOOCs become possible courses for high school students to take at their brick-and-mortar schools? Should we offer discussion seminars alongside a Coursera offering? What kind of training will K-12 teachers need?
  • Should elite schools be thinking about spinning off some of their own courses, and joining coalitions to offer online courses at the high school, or middle school level?

Many questions, the subjects of future blog posts.

What questions did I miss?