In defense of the great MOOC experiment

Are MOOCs sustainable? mksmith23/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Let’s face it; we should expect a level of impatience with all things digital. We live in an era where an iPhone release is met with excitement quickly followed by a collective sigh: when is the next release? Shiny things lose their luster quickly in a design-thinking, highly networked world.

A year ago I boarded a plane for the 2014 Coursera Partners’ conference with a Pocket app full of stories declaring massive open online courses (MOOCs) a failed experiment after just two years. As I fly out for this week’s 2015 conference my reading list is flooded again with opinions declaring that this alternate form of offering modularized learning experiences to the masses has failed to measure up.

The only difference in a year is that attention turned from a criticism of course completion rates to the question: are MOOCs sustainable? Seems like a fair question. But is it sufficient? Don’t we want to understand the overall impact of MOOCs? Have we given ourselves enough time to experiment, prototype and scale?

As assistant vice provost for digital education and innovation at the University of Michigan, I have the privilege of partnering with the many faculty who were pioneers in establishing MOOCs, as this university was one of the trailblazing institutions. I also get to encourage and help faculty members that want to advance teaching and learning through the creative use of technology and learning analytics.

Why are we motivated to write the history of MOOCs so soon? This level of impatience seems at odds with the typical longevity of experimentation with teaching and learning.

Universities are places of discovery and change

There is a marvelous contradiction in the world of universities. We are, at one and the same time, supremely impatient engines of creativity and powerfully patient conservators of cultural tradition. We are in search of solutions that will enable engaged, personalized and life-long learning.

So, how we can declare MOOCs a failure in year two, and again in year three, while we simultaneously scan the centuries-old “experiment” that is large lecture halls and ask passively for incremental change?

MOOCs will not address all the challenges that universities face. Mathieu Plourde/Flickr, CC BY

Many of us believe passionately that high quality education can be delivered nimbly, affordably and at scale. We also know we’re not there yet. There are wonderful explorations of learning underway, whether your academic sport is modularity, learning analytics, gameful learning, digital badging or personalization.

There is no single solution. Yet, MOOCs have been strangely cast as the heroic Most Valuable Player (MVP) to this sport. They will save the day. Wait, the preliminary reviews are in - guess they won’t.

Without good numbers overnight we conclude they are a failure. Expectations are everything. Problematically, the massive public discussion around the destiny of MOOCs focuses on the wrong kind of “MVP”. MOOCs are not the Most Valuable Player that will independently address all challenges faced by universities, students and others impacted by higher education institutions. MOOCS are another kind of MVP: a Minimal Viable Product.

MOOCs renewed the conversation around teaching and learning. They have given life to educational experiments in learning analytics, blended learning, and alternative credentialing. They have pushed forward important policy conversations around student privacy, academic review, data sharing and cross-institutional collaboration.

But they are, nonetheless, a minimal viable product. This kind of MVP has the core features that allow the offering to be deployed, and no more. Perhaps the greatest outcome for a MOOC is for it to go away and to give life to new long-lasting changes to the way we enable engaged, personalized and lifelong learning.

I’m not suggesting that universities should be uniformly slow and methodical or fast and risk-loving. Both approaches make sense. Some challenges demand near instantaneous dissemination of knowledge while others are dependent upon careful experimental structures and protocols unique to research universities.

Michigan’s experiment with MOOCs

At Michigan, there are two fundamental questions that drive our experimentation with MOOCs: One, how can experimentation with MOOCs help us redefine public residential education at a 21st century research university and enable engaged, personalized and lifelong learning? And two, what is it that is only possible at a great public residential research university?

As we’ve moved beyond the initial wave of experimentation with MOOCs, our evolution has taken many forms. Let me provide some early examples of how we are thinking about MOOC 2.0 at the University of Michigan:

• Taking a MOOC on US healthcare policy and adapting it for use on our own campus.

• Remixing and reusing content from a MOOC on Model Thinking to bring complex systems thinking to a blended nursing course on optimal models and systems for healthcare delivery.

• Leveraging modules and digital assets from a MOOC on the introduction to finance to flip the finance core and create advanced, personalized learning experience for MBA students.

• Utilizing assessments developed for global learners in a MOOC on the introduction to thermodynamics on campus to enrich the residential learning experience.

• Building a repository of expert perspectives through MOOCs like Introduction to Cataract Surgery, AIDS: Fear & Hope and History of American Roots Music, to enhance residential offerings.

• Developing an open MOOC data initiative to advance scholarship around teaching and learning.

Are MOOCs sustainable?

Each of these examples, and many others, is helping us to think differently about the delivery of high quality learning experiences in a digital age.

So should we think about MOOCs as minimal viable products? Should we think about MOOCs as rapid dissemination of knowledge? My answer is, yes, to both, and more.

MOOCs are intended to be iterative. We should expect them to evolve. But are they sustainable? Sustainability is the wrong framing. If we’re focused on a MOOC as an idea that is first delivered through a minimal viable product and evolves in different ways, we may agree on a different set of organizing questions.

When MOOC experimentalists from many of our great institutions meet in southern California this week I hope we’ll learn from each other about the many ways in which we’ve evolved our thinking since the dawn of MOOCs a mere three years ago.

My hope is that our embedded quiz includes more than two drop-down options (sustainable or unsustainable) and focuses instead on the myriad branches of experimentation that have ensued in a remarkably short amount of time.

Higher education leaders refuse the traditional tradeoff argument: it can’t be fast, cheap and good. In communities bound together by a commitment to the discovery of what’s next, these rules are merely cautionary.

We know that to truly transform learning we must think impractically before layering in constraints. Universities can and should live with contradiction as patience and impatience are both positive virtues. We need to embrace a culture of experimentation that encourages us to investigate new things, find pathways to scale and share what we learn.

Let us not constrain our thinking about sustainable innovation to the immediate impact of MOOC 1.0. Like information, the ideas born from MOOCs want to be free.

If we agree that we should not accept a reality where we must choose between fast, good and cheap, shouldn’t we embrace more experimentation and ensure we institutionalize and disseminate the learning that results?