Hijacking MOOCs

Hijacking MOOCs


Image courtesy Scottlo Radio Blog.

The recent announcement from the California State University (CSU) system regarding its embrace of edX Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) is both interesting and depressing at the same time. As with many aspects of the MOOC phenomenon, it comes packaged with good and bad aspects bundled up together. Instructors will offer a “special ‘flipped’ version of an electrical engineering course…where students watch online lectures from Harvard and MIT at home.” So the good is the flipped part because it’s more interactive and dynamic and there’s less lecture-based didacticism in the classroom due to watching videos at home? Really? The 1970s just called: They want their Open University courses back.

This model perhaps moves the CSU system forward as it offers more accessibility to content for working adults in a hybrid format. I wish they would just step away from the MOOC terminology, which is, let’s be honest, copying and lending out a videotape in another name. MOOCs have been so beaten up and stolen for self-serving means that the original premise has been lost. As Stephen Downes, one of the forefathers of original MOOCs, stated in a recent blog, “These arguments miss the point of the MOOC, and that point is, precisely, to make education available to people who cannot afford to pay the cost to travel to and attend these small in-person events. Having one instructor for 20-50 people is expensive, and most of the world cannot afford that cost.”

The MOOC spirit has been eroded by institutions and individuals who see an easy way to sound (or just seem) tech-online savvy. MOOCs are being used by many institutions to avoid actually having to discuss issues like ownership of curriculum, scalability and strategic online growth. In a (MOOC) swoosh, difficult governance issues regarding intellectual property, scalability and ownership are GONE. Corrupted MOOCs circumvent the need for anything other than talking (lecture-style) to a camera with the hope that the “nice young guys and gals at CoursEdXra” drop me into a backdrop of the Parthenon and/or animate the background with pen cast versions of napkin sketches. There’s no building of an online community, facilitation of discussion threads, not even grading of papers, just, “I’m done—here’s my MOOC!”

MOOCs were originally intended to educate the Masses (M): hundreds of thousands who “cannot afford to enroll or travel to classes.” They were all Open (O): Open Content provided or supported by Saylor.org, Creative Commons, OCW, OLI, Open Education Resource University. Now Open no longer means open resources—it has been unofficially changed to mean “open to anyone”. Don’t get me wrong, being more available to more people isn’t in itself a bad thing, but it does move the focus away from the original intent, which was to provide free, quality educational materials. The second O stands for Online—unless it’s a hybrid offered in a flipped classroom in which students have watched a video before coming to class (sigh). C = Class. Well, I guess one out of four is not bad if 10 percent retention is acceptable.

Original MOOCs (oMOOCs) were free, or at least extremely affordable, fully online, well crafted and contained a lot of interesting pedagogy and instructional design. The target demographic was the underserved, both nationally and internationally. Per Downes, they were “not designed to serve the missions of the elite colleges and universities…” but rather “designed to undermine them, and make those missions obsolete.”

Hijacked MOOCs are flagship (institution)-led, starting to cost (increasingly), often hybrid, faculty headshot to camera, tech sophistication layered on, little-to-zero impact on faculty member revisiting / learning? pedagogy (in any format) and not very massive. They’re mostly taken by education technologists, already-qualified individuals and Tom Friedman.

It’s the strategic analysis and “nuanced discussion” that I want us all back to. Proper MOOCs may work for some, others may just choose to use open online materials and some may even have a mission to support affordable education for underserved communities (my favorite). But let’s not kid ourselves. Co-opting a MOOC label does not make an offering edgy. Get strategy and rationale nailed first, worry about the acronym later.

About Kevin Bell

Kevin Bell is the executive director for Online Curriculum Development and Deployment at Northeastern University's College of Professional Studies. He leads Northeastern's efforts toward the goal of high-quality, professional online programs based on industry and academic standards. He works closely with senior leadership to ensure that the Northeastern University Online strategy aligns with the College's five-year vision and with the University's academic and regional campus goals.


  1. I suppose you meant “I guess” only as a figure of speech, but I wonder if that’s what you’re actually doing. The people I meet in discussion forums in the “co-opted” MOOCs are from all over the world with a variety of credentials and experience. I don’t see how anyone who actually enrolls in a MOOC concludes that they’re only taken by “education technologists, already-qualified individuals and Tom Friedman.”

    Robert McGuire
    Editor, MOOC News and Reviews

    • Thanks for the comment Robert.

      The “I guess” actually referred to my feeling that the type of MOOC I am analyzing is neither Massive, Open (in the original sense) or Online (it was hybrid) and that “I guessed 1 out of 4 wasn’t bad”… (Meatloaf anyone?)

      Regarding the demographics taking MOOCs, the largest study I have seen so far was BY COURSERA in the Machine Learning course last fall.
      RESULTS (n=14,000)
      41 percent – professionals currently working in the software industry
      9 percent – professionals working in non-software areas of the computing and information technology industries.
      20 percent – Grad students
      Unemployed – a NOT MASSIVE 3.5 percent…

      Of the (12,000) subset answering the question about why they chose to take the course. The most common response, given by 39 percent was that they were “just curious about the topic.” Another 30.5 percent said they wanted to “sharpen the skills” they use in their current job. Totaling – more or less 70% curious / just looking to hone what they have…

      Per my blog – if the (original) goal was providing access for under-served populations and helping people get a leg up in life “hijacked-MOOCs” (a term I am using in the hope that the original intent and the original creators get some respect), are missing the target, despite what you might be hearing on discussion boards.

      Don’t get me wrong – I am excited at the potential of data/learning analytics and what; psychometrically speaking, we may learn from these experiments, I just wish that they would either shift to reach the original intent of MOOCs = access for those for whom the alternative is NOTHING. Or get another acronym.
      I guess 😉 you can choose (as Editor) as to which MOOCs / which type of MOOCs you review.

      Read more: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/06/05/early-demographic-data-hints-what-type-student-takes-mooc#ixzz2S4fKtDhw
      Inside Higher Ed

      Inside Higher Ed

  2. I knew about MOOCs since a very long time. They (the cMOOCs) seemed to me a dull and uninteresting way of learning. Then I learned about edX, Coursera and Udacity. I’m taking several courses on all of them and I love them. xMOOCs are what I love precisely for those reasons for which you criticize them: they are like a better version of a standard university class (I’ve got a double BA and I’m now finishing my MA, planning to undertake doctoral studies in february so I know quite a bit about “standard university” – albeit only in Poland). They are information and skill-driven – not “people-driven” – and I love it. I don’t care about the materials not being open-licenced as long as their quality is good and they are available for free.

    Also the “retention rate problem” that’s one of the most discussed points about xMOOCs is IMHO not a problem at all. I take part in several MOOCs but I’m enrolled in a great deal more – those are the ones that have only a topic or two that interest me so I don’t feel the need to invest all the effort to get a certificate. I can listen to some of the lectures, do some assignements or plain do nothing. And I cherish this freedom to do as I like.

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