Friday, June 21, 2013

MOOCs: Megatrend or Shiny Object?

The history of technology-mediated learning is filled with shiny objects. Higher education has chased its fair share, only to find that the glitter was not all gold. Some were not the whole answer, but only a part of an answer, sometimes (Second Life! mobile learning!). Some created major paradigm shifts, but still didn't have all the answers (webcams! video streaming!). And some were just destined to go away entirely (video discs! CD-ROMs!). So the question on the table is, just what lies beneath the glitter of today's shiniest technology-mediated learning object of the moment, the MOOC. Is it a megatrend? Or is it not?
Ooh! Shiny!
As previously posted, Babson and the College Board have surveyed university Chief Academic Officers and found clear trends in what they believe about the MOOC: it's a marketing tool to get students interested in your program and your school, and it's a way for students and universities to fool around with online learning on the cheap, figuring things out as they go. Makes sense, right? How can a cast of thousands online learn as effectively as a cast of tens in a classroom? And yet, the buzz is, This Is Big. The buzz is, The Future Is Upon Us.

How do we assess it? My answer is simple... drop it into the context of known societal and technical pressures not likely to abate anytime soon, and see how it measures up. Trends are one thing (and the MOOC is certainly one) but pressures are another. A trend may be part push and part pull. Or it may be all pull. Trends, even megatrends, come from opportunities and ideas and technologies, and are borne along by novelty, then excitement, and then finally by the fear of being left behind. But some trends also have a push behind them, a deep and prolonged social shift that is not likely to abate in the next five to ten years, and may never go away. That's what I mean by a pressure. There are only a handful of them at any one time. Some of them are primarily technological (mobile computing). Some are mostly societal (the demand for proof of outcomes). Some are a little bit of both.

I think the MOOC is being driven by a pressure that's a little bit of both. The pressure is, social computing. MOOCs are a part of the same push that put all our faces on Facebook, and the same push that drives our interest in Pinterest. The MOOC is driven by our technically-produced ability to connect with many, many people on some meaningful if temporary basis.

Facebooking in the real world?
It is a human need to make human contact, to share and be shared with, and this expanding ability to widen our sphere, to be known in new ways, to make impressions, to have a say, and to be thought of as someone having something to say... That's big. Social computing has turned the world into one enormous cocktail party, in which we can mingle and glad-hand with an ever-expanding circle of friends.

MOOCs are an attempt to answer the question, why can't this work for learning? It's a very good question. And the answer is, there's no reason it can't. Whether the current technologies, Coursera and such, can manage it well enough is yet to be seen. But I think we've proven the notion that meaningful relationships can be established or continued online, and in large numbers. If that's not the case, certainly hasn't gotten the memo ("1 in 5 relationships start online!"). And educational relationships, real as they are, are not nearly so complex as romance. Or even friendship. There's only one relationship status in online learning: It's Not Complicated.   

There is much to be done, and MOOCs have much left to prove, because ten thousand friends expect nothing much more of you than that you show up now and again and do something genuine that reminds them of you. Ten thousand fellow learners are going to expect a little more. And whoever or whatever is leading the learning--the guide, the mentor, the instructor--will also generate some expectations. But we all have learned enough about living online that the idea of aiming all our arrows in the same general direction does not seem a difficult proposition. Certainly we can do it with news events, as the Twitterverse has proven. Why not with learning events?

So my conclusion about MOOCs: They are certainly very shiny, but they are also on the megatrend side of the equation.

Recommendation: Buy in.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Online higher education at a glance

Babson and the College Board have released their annual survey results about how university leaders are viewing online learning. Among the eye-popping trends is this one, showing how online has grown as core to long-term strategy:
Copyright ©2013 by Babson Survey Research Group, Pearson and Quahog Research Group, LLC
The full infographic can be accessed here. Other notable trends as reported by academic leaders:
  • 37% have a MOOC and 50% plan to add one.
  • MOOCs are for learning about online and for attracting students
  • MOOCs are going to cause confusion
  • Online learning keeps growing as a percent of total enrollments
  • 77% of leaders now believe learning outcomes are the same or better online
And perhaps one minor fly in the online ointment:
  • Faculty acceptance of online learning hasn't budged from around 25% in the last decade.
The full report can be downloaded here.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Educational technology market map

New Schools Venture Fund has released this market map of the educational technology space. Many thanks to them... enjoy!