The MOOC in sheep’s clothing


Yesterday, Tony Bates, one of the foremost academics working around online and distance education, wrote a blog post  announcing his retirement. He’s had a long, productive, and highly valuable career, and very much deserves to now focus on enjoying his retirement. But the reasons he shares for leaving the field now go beyond this, presenting a scathing indictment MOOCs and what they suggest for the future of education:

And then there’s MOOCs. I can’t express adequately just how pissed off I am about MOOCs – not the concept, but all the hubris and nonsense that’s been talked and written about them. At a personal level, it was as if 45 years of work was for nothing. All the research and study I and many others had done on what makes for successful learning online were totally ignored, with truly disastrous consequences in terms of effective learning for the vast majority of participants who took MOOCs from the Ivy League universities. Having ignored online learning for nearly 20 years, Stanford, MIT and Harvard had to re-invent online learning in their own image to maintain their perceived superiority in all things higher educational. And the media fell for it, hook, line and sinker.


This is why I love his work. He’s succinctly summed up exactly how I feel about MOOCs. I’m becoming increasingly disillusioned by how MOOCs are understood and enacted, and I’m really struggling with motivation for the PhD project I’m currently planning. To me, the promise of MOOCs lies with what MOOCs were first conceived to be – truly open communities of scholars sharing and building knowledge around a topic of mutual interest. This is why I love #rhizo14. Every time I engage with the community, I find myself learning something new or thinking about something in a different way. I was somewhat hesitant when I first signed up, somewhat dismissive of the idea that the community could provide a curriculum. But now (many weeks after the ‘official’ course has ended), I’m beginning to understand what that really means, and seeing how a community can enact a curriculum far more valuable than anything one instructor could come up with.

Having to then fit myself into the narrow view of MOOCs that most at my uni seem to espouse is frustrating. It leaves me wondering if the research I’m thinking of doing may simply perpetuate the notion of MOOCs as nothing more than a way to broadcast canned curriculum to the multitudes, a way of perpetuating the primacy of anachronistic institutions and their decisions on what knowledge is legitimate.

I first became interested in this field when I saw how the connections people make through technology and media are fundamentally changing our practices around communication, learning, and knowledge; how barriers are broken down by this ‘participatory culture’ based on openness, affinity, and sharing. And the more I ponder MOOCs, the more I see that they are the wolf in sheep’s clothing; cloaked in notions of “open”, “access”, “participation” they slip past even the most vigilant watchman, revealing their true colours when it’s already too late.

Tony Bates asks, “am I just an old man resisting the future?” I hope not, but if he is, then I am as well.


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