The MOOCs fad and bubble: please tell us another story!



How can we escape this new buzz about MOOCs, since the launch of Coursera? Is there anything else than the bubble effect created by the media that is part of the strategy itself? This is how our financial economy works, nowadays, this ‘opinion economy’ as André Orléan labels it, where opinion and reputation are the main resources to be processed and produced in order to create attractiveness for investors without any thorough analysis of the properties of the goods or of the company which is assessed. The focus on figures that must be huge as usual was well documented by Kris Olds in ‘On the territorial dimensions of MOOCs.’ It should have attracted more comments since at the age of Web 2.0 and especially for matters of education, one does not really expect this focus on figures, on massive online courses that are exactly the same courses as the ones our parents used to attend. (yes, indeed, more slides but what else?).

This massive commercial war on education is now launched and everyone is supposed to adopt a strategy to counter it, especially in Europe, and this is what the Times Higher Education reports for England’s Futurelearn consortium, which seems to follow exactly the same path, because the opinion economy is mostly a matter of provoking imitation, contagion and standard for the benefit of the first to enter the market. What are the features of this attack on education business? Let’s check them and the ones that are missing and the comparison with any other marketing strategy will become clear.

1/ Brands. Who is in the field? The world famous universities, American ones first, and any other university that would try to replicate their model will have to think it twice because their reputation status will not challenge the big ones. Which means a business model and an attractiveness that will remain limited to the leaders, the ones who will monetize their reputation worldwide. Universities are supposed to act as brands, and this recent move is a major strategic one to consolidate this mood. Did you hear of any quality assessment for a specific course? No: the only fact of being delivered by the big ones is enough to suspend all critical capacity from media or competitors as well.

2/ Scale and standards. No standard for quality, for sure (just remember the content of courses of OpenCourseWare at the MIT available or the ones on iTunes that are often of a very poor quality, apart from the quality of the teacher as a scholar, but many of the Edx, Coursera or Udacity products are of the same didactic level, except for the video quality that has really improved!). But standard for the massive online process that MOOCs are supposed to disseminate. The effect of scale is absolutely critical for these platforms, and by entering the market with such a powerful offer, they will prevent any other challenger to invent new formats, methods or platforms. This is how Microsoft, iTunes (and in a different way, Facebook) managed to frame our everyday life architecture, and it has become very difficult to adopt software and platform better suited to specific activities.

3/ Free. This is one of the main features of what economists call two-sided markets and we are just at the first phase of this strategy. Delivering this supposedly high standard courses for free seems weird if one does not point out that all free offers tend to prepare a second phase (or sometimes in the same moment) where the public will be monetized (through advertising) or will have to pay (through premium services that will devaluate the quality of the basic offer). This is almost what we see now, because coaching and other added value services require a fee. This is the typical drug dealer method for addicts and this is obviously not a charity business offer but a very well designed strategy to capture the audience before others do it.

4/ Platforms. The model of the platform is invading the web and it is much more than software: it means an integrated management of every feature of the consumer relationship through a private model of platform. Doing so, the control is guaranteed and the dissemination of the innovation within the community gets restricted to the developments done and labeled by the big ones.

5/ Cheap resources. The great trick of the so-called ‘contributive’ economy is to capture the value produced by the ordinary activity of users and consumers themselves when they click, like or recommend some paper, product or service. Same for the academic whose work is available for free for the scientific editors who make huge profits in selling them to the proper universities that pay the academic for the free work in the journals. Of course, as it works for the SDK of various platforms, the big ones will create incentives so that academics do not feel abused for the only profit of their boards. But the idea here is that the production costs are kept at a low level because teachers are asked to work as they used to do, without any innovation in their mode of education. Extending these outdated and boring models of massive classrooms does not cost a lot but does not offer any new chance for the learning process to be enhanced or triggered.

When described in these terms, any other sector of our financialized capitalism would almost fit the model. Education brands are investing in digital platforms for maintaining the traditional way of learning for the benefit of the same big ones, this. “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change” as Lampedusa told us in his famous novel The Leopard. This is how digital technology is perversely used and how we miss their powerful enticement for innovation in education processes.

Two aspects of this change that does not change anything will be emphasized here: the geopolitical side of education and the cognitive and political one.

1/ These announcements are not unusual in various sector of digital innovation. I was an analyst of what happened in the first years of digital imaging systems in health sector. At the beginning of the ‘90’s one Norwegian innovator decided to sell a digital imaging system to Saudi Arabia (which could afford it!) based on the expertise of highly skilled radiologists based…in Norway. This was a radical move for preventing local radiologists to get trained and to become a resource for the country. At the same time, other health organizations tried to reduce their costs regarding the process of routine analysis of huge amounts of digital X-ray: they outsourced it to Moroccan low-level technicians in radiology working in Morocco. All these innovations attracted attention in the media as “the wonderful world of international cooperation allowed by digital networks”. This was clearly a two-sided process of deprivation of development opportunities for countries from the south, the exact contrary of what we are supposed to expect from an empowerment process and a clearly designed unequal development model. This is exactly what we can expect from the propagation of this marketing strategy in favor of developed countries resources in education. Since the quality is associated with the big education brands and become available online, how can local teachers still obtain some recognition for their work? How does this process help them to improve their own skills and more important to create the right balance between the core part of knowledge and the one which requires contextualization, which means, diversity and proximity? (and when carefully studied, this is what occurs for any training process). Governments as well as the public cannot encourage such a predator behavior against the skills of countries from the South. To sum up this point, let’s say that all MOOCs model is more about predation than cooperation, more about reproduction than innovation, more about standardization than diversification.

2/ The second way of preserving the old model will be on the cognitive side of these offers (and we’ll see that it is a major political stake). The courses that are proposed for online diffusion are considered as basic resources of universal knowledge. And this kind of knowledge is supposed to be learned almost by heart, or at least with a cognitive activity where memory is the most important feature as well as the discipline required for hours of listening attitude without almost any opportunity to react, to contribute, to discuss, to explore and so on. The traditional lament from teachers complaining about the lack of attention of students is tamed just by removing them out of sight of the teacher. This does not account for the general feeling of boredom that students experience during these courses. This massive online tactics does not solve any of the training issue of our times. Students will not be more active, they will not leave the tracks of guaranteed knowledge divided in fields, they will not combine them with the huge amount of information they crawl during their connected and mediated lives, they will not learn any of the contextualization expertise which is required for a relevant use of their knowledge, they will not have the opportunity to use their tremendous immersion in visual information, and so on. They will be addressed as an audience, as we used to do for mass media. The problem is that this time has gone!! First, this is old sixties and modernist view of knowledge, where science has no doubt to display to the public, provided that it fuels the continuous trend of innovation in technologies always for the good of human beings. Second, the skills in exploring the data that invade everyday life and that are produced by students themselves cannot be dismissed. This is a good way to “produce” students with a very low awareness of the world they will enter and to maintain the strong cognitive separation between the various opportunities of learning and the school (which does not mean that all of them should be similar).

In order to stop criticism that may outrage promoters of these MOOCs systems and let them believe that I am only a blatant incompetent, I will just say some words about some of my experiences during my career. The idea of a general online course is not new: at the end of the ‘90’s, platforms like Learning Space were famous in trying to invent business models to sell training sessions online. In 1997, the University of Technology of Compiègne created the first (in France) degree fully delivered on line using Learning Space. But we decided not to comply with the educational and business policies embedded in the software (code is law as Lessig puts it, as long as you let it run your life without discussing any choice). We required one week a month of presence which was the best way to get in touch with the students in order to coach them better on line. We organized a full review of all courses that were redesigned and assessed to fit our educational goals, with a large part of exercises, a strong cooperation process among the students, a frequent collective and individual coaching from the teachers, and documents especially designed in Information Mapping format to favor a structured approach and exploration of resources. We did not sell the degree by chunks as the design of the software would have encouraged us to do with superficial online automated quiz to assess the skills. The educational goals must make the technologies as well as the business model give in.

In Sciences Po, four years ago, we began video recording the main courses (more than 800 students in the same amphitheater) and we put them online. The success was one of reputation for the institution, of opportunity for the students who could not attend the class and of relief for the teachers who did not have to change anything to their traditional methods! In fact, the only opportunity to watch oneself as well as colleagues created an interesting emulation. But when we thought about selling this kind of content online out of the institution, we considered that the added value was too low and would not address the need of a fully digitized distance learning approach.

In September 2012, in Sciences Po, we launched an innovative educational program, funded by the French government, called FORCCAST for training regarding the sciences and technologies that uses ‘controversy mapping.’ Controversy mapping is a method that Bruno Latour invented 15 years ago to train his students in his approach to the sociology of science (that is famous worldwide). This method is now used in more than 20 universities all over the world (including MIT) and emphasizes his powerful vision of the educational requirements of our times, the same way John Dewey did it in the ‘30’s (Bruno Latour often refers to Dewey as a great inspiration for multiple reasons).

Where is the Dewey of the MOOCs systems? A Dewey does not seem to exist because MOOCs are a technical and business affair without any serious vision of the educational stakes. Our Forccast project, quite the opposite, will address technical and business issues as well, but only when subordinated to our educational goals. We consider that students today need to get trained using other skills if they are supposed to tackle the complex and uncertain issues of the financial, ecological, political and social crisis that we experience and that is certain to be our future for many years from now. These challenges require a three-fold educational model where the existing skills of the students are favored and not discarded:

• Their ability to explore by surfing on the web must be channeled towards a more systematic and critical way of exploring issues, using the method of controversy mapping.

• Their immersion in the web and in images and their ordinary experience of writing on the web and of publishing images and videos must become a resource for a digital literacy based on content production (read and write web), new ways of writing and publishing websites as well as short videos.

• Their experience in contributing and commenting on websites, watching TV shows with poor debates on any kind of issues, should be used as a basis to put them in realistic situations where they will have to simulate debates or negotiations. This case-based method is of course something business schools are familiar with but here it will be designed so that it encourages the exchange of various views of the same issue and the skills of debate.

These three methods (explore, publish, debate) represent the core of a new philosophy of training which was developed in many institutions and are known as active learning methods. We shall try to adapt them to the high school environment, and to equip them with a large scope of digital resources and tools. This is how we shall answer to the challenge of MOOCs systems: emphasizing the need for educational innovation, adapted to the new skills of the students and to the requirements of our times. Watching, listening, obeying, memorizing were the key methods of old times education: putting them on line will not change anything to the tremendous weakness of responsibility skills that today leaders are demonstrating and that we, as educators, are supposed to enhance. Of course, it will take us time to develop and test these methods but we need to be sure that they are really improving the learning process before we extend them and deliver them.

Of course, we shall miss the rush for MOOCs fame, but since the same fad occurred at the end of the ‘90’s, we know that there is time and room, especially in Europe, to invent another model, a responsible and relevant one for the challenges of our time.

Author Bio: Dominique Boullier is a Professor in Sociology at Sciences Po Paris