Daphne Koller exits Coursera

and gives rise to a series of issues concerning MOOCs.

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In his article Steven Krause quotes Rolin Moe and Jonathan Rees in an effort to investigate MOOC failure as a given fact, by claiming that even Koller -the face behind Coursera- dropped out to pursue a career in another field.

Some of their concerns are actually fair. Koller’s inspired TEDx speech back in 2011 with her excited trembling voice gave viewers the feeling that MOOCs would have been able to disseminate in the third world countries and finally offer an opportunity to the less fortunate to gain access to elite education. The only condition for this extremely humanitarian act had been a good internet connection. She was talking about the democratization of knowledge and that alone was reason enough to give MOOCs a chance.

Five years later Coursera numbers are still impressive, they do not however, relate to the company’s original claims. Research has long ago shown the qualitative characteristics of the people who attend MOOCs and it doesn’t fit the bill of the poor and the misfortunate. But despite the inconsistency between the original motion and the later developments MOOCs have utterly influenced the educational landscape more that the three gentlemen are willing to admit.

First of all, we have never before witnessed such openness in the educational resources or practices of Universities and people who are somehow specialized in a research field and are willing to share their insights with the rest of the world. Never before have I been able to feel connected to the rest of the academic community in terms of information exchange in a quasi formal academic framework within which the information was valid and opinions were argued for. Nor have people participating in this venture been freer to express opinion and argue about their beliefs in an ongoing dialogue with peers who share the same interest and may have different insights on the matter. And never again have so many courses been discussed, redesigned and rethought all over again, to the students’ gain.

So, have MOOCs been a Trojan horse that allowed educational institutions to capitalize on knowledge? Most probably; but from  the moment they emerged I remember everyone calling them a disruptive innovation (Clayton Christensen comes to mind) and a new means for creating wealth only this time this wealth would actually be shared among a bigger audience. MOOC providers haven’t cheated us. They acknowledged a weakness (university costs leading to high loans) and they offered a possible remedy.

I think that for the most part, MOOCs have been accused for not being able to live up to their promise and substitute on campus education. And maybe that was one of the most important original ambitions of the major providers, to gradually pass to a new educational model where on campus and online would be interrelating differently. Differently is the key word in my opinion in considering MOOCs. It’s just this grade of differentiation that one should look for. Both in the way they are run, and in how much they are willing to take up on. For there have been extremely successful MOOCs and others that have just tried to keep up with the trend without considering the change in medium. And maybe MOOCs -at least the exponential ones-, should never have contested traditional on campus practices with the aim to overthrow them. Perhaps they can exist in parallel, or even try again in another format and claim a presence that is complementary to traditional education. They could just be the incentive for a major change in curricula in the future. (Another insufferable criticism is that they have been changing as if traditional curricula stay the same)

And what about the learning community? Why don’t we take a minute to examine that. When I read about the MOOC hype recession, the assertion is usually followed by the same observation over and over again that students/learners haven’t been able to keep up with the change in their roles and assume responsibility for their learning. So, let’s face it: MOOCs or any other form of online education would never work unless the learners were willing to put themselves out of their ordinary course routines. And that takes time and energy, for there have been very few cases in the past where the academia promoted such practices and was willing to compromise its authority for a model of education where the learner shares responsibility for knowledge creation. None can expect learners to adapt in this new environment without resisting it. And that partly explains why independent initiatives like Leuphana’s or cMOOCs have proven to be more resistant; for they address a more unquiet public, a set of learners who do not expect knowledge packed and parceled but instead are taking responsibility for what they learn and how they learn it.

So, that said, I think it is still too early to make assumptions on the future of MOOCs. People may come and people may go. They fight for something and they have the right to fight for something else too without their contributions being undermined by their change of hearts. The MOOC ship has sailed some years ago and is still afloat navigated by its crew, the learners. They will decide upon its fate. Let’s not decide this time for them. Let’s give them time to prepare for such a decision.

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