Edit: Wrote this post last year for the GO-GN and decided to share it on my new blog. I’ve kept the original text, though we do know now that many of the “open” aspects of MOOCs that existed in mid-2015 no longer do, with both Coursera and edX doing away with free certificates. With Coursera recently announcing gated assessment for premium users – I can reflect on this post and say that MOOCs, while still open to access, are undoubtedly at odds with the broader Open Ed movement.
One of the more striking observations at the last GO-GN seminar was just how many members were researching MOOCs, far more in number than those researching OER, or other aspects of openness. The question of whether MOOCs are OER came up during the session we had with the UNESCO Chairs in OER as well, and one could sense the hostility in the room once the question was raised, and just how contentious this topic is among the leaders in the OER movement. We had to eventually change the subject, as this topic itself could be the theme of a conference. Yet, the debate of MOOCs and OER, as I see it, is closely linked to the tug-of-war between computer scientists and educationalists, as to who gets to drive the narrative of ed-tech. In this blog, I’d like to reflect on some of my own observations, and try to think about how this relates to the GO-GN.
A recent piece by Donald Clark taking apart some of the flaws in the OER community generated a lot of discussion. I like reading Clark’s blog, as he’s known to have contrarian views, and has, in previous posts, gone head-on against (T)ed-tech gurus such as Ken Robinson and Sugata Mitra. Contrarian views are useful, as they make you reflect on some of the assumptions we take for granted. His piece on OER certainly resonated with me, and it’s hard to argue with a lot of what he states. However, if one were to only read Clark’s account, they would be left with an overwhelmingly negative perception of OER. The reality however, is OER has had profound impact around the world. Just have a read of the OER Research Hub’s Evidence Report and you can see the impact OER are making around the world – from significantly reducing costs related to textbooks in the US, to empowering teachers in the developing world through programs like TESSA and TESS-India, yet, if one were to follow the media narrative, you would think MOOCs have done all this and more in just a fraction of the time.
Those active on Twitter might also have followed the debate between Stephen Downes and George Siemens that occurred a month or so ago. Their disagreements stemmed fromDownes’ critique of Siemens’ report on the history of distance and online learning. Within the occasionally heated exchange, once again a similar theme that came up was of the MOOC narrative and research being shaped largely by “edtech vendors”, and that the voice of some of the pioneers of online and open education, including many in the room with us during the GO-GN seminar, were being sidelined. The entire exchange between the two is worth a read.
George Veletsianos shared results from his own research on MOOC studies, finding computer scientists had a greater representation in MOOC studies than academics in education. I would posit that some of the hostility and cynicism around MOOCs within education circles probably stems from this, and the fact that that the large MOOC consortia of edX and Coursera were developed in Computer Science departments, largely ignoring more than a decade of educational research on online and open education. The pre-PhD MOOC enthusiast in me would have taken this same cynical view, rolling my eyes every time a computer scientist exclaimed at how he has solved some major pedagogical problem with a MOOC platform, only to go back and find, as Anant Agarwal of edX did, that a paper from the 1970s had already worked that one out.
Thanks to the opportunities afforded to me through my PhD, in the first year of my studies I’ve had the privilege to attend a couple of incredible seminars and conferences. The GO-GN seminar and the OE-Global conference in Canada, and more recently, the EMOOCs Conference in Belgium. In both these events, I’ve had the opportunity to meet and network with other fellow PhD students from around the world, quite a few of them researching MOOCs. A majority of them did not come directly from an Education background, they came from Computer Science, from Economics, Sociology, Business Studies. However, irrespective of their disciplinary background, I found that they all shared the same passion and drive for MOOCs and Open Education that I did. They might not be aware of the history of OER, or be able to recite the ten clauses of the Paris Declaration on OER, but instead brought their own subject matter expertise to try and work out the challenges of open education, which I would argue, is not limited to just a single discipline. With MOOCs capturing the imagination of such a diverse range of academics, it is imperative that we not be bound by disciplinary or methodological constraints, but rather encourage dialogue and sharing of ideas between researchers, particularly early-career researchers, who will be the foundation of tomorrow’s academy.
Now, onto the trickier question of OER, MOOCs, and what this means for the GO-GN. There are fundamental issues of difference in the OER movement, and that of most MOOC providers. Most MOOC content is under copyright, within closed proprietary platforms. This is completely at odds with the 4/5Rs of OER framework. Yet, I would contend, that MOOCs are still a part of the broader Open Education movement. I would argue that MOOCs are the next logical step up from static MIT-OCW-like OER repositories, and are in essence highly curated and structured OER with assessment and social interaction, that are, at its very core, free to access. The learning experience isn’t gated between free learners and those who pay for certification, and to me, this is sufficiently “open” to be considered OER. I know this is a contentious issue, and most academics in OER will disagree with this view, however, I feel it is important for us to embrace MOOCs and make the most of it – because the reality is, much like the other quasi-OER that Donald Clark mentions, these courses have captured the imagination of the broader public, and has hundreds of thousands of learners actively taking these courses every day. As educational researchers, we are almost duty-bound to ensure these learners get fruitful experiences out of these courses, which is where our research, and the GO-GN steps in.
Bringing it all back to the GO-GN researchers, from the presentations we heard at Banff, it’s clear, while we may approach MOOCs from differing lens’, methodologies and disciplines, I don’t see a difference in our intentions. Being from different disciplines does bring challenges with it as well, and differing perceptions of openness. Yet, these are issues that can be resolved through dialogue and interaction, rather than resistance and hostility. I would also go on to state that OER research is equally, if not more valuable, at present, than MOOC research. But there’s no reason for the two to be mutually exclusive. When I rationalize my own reasons for pursuing a PhD into the role of MOOCs in Indian higher education, I am driven by the same passion as that of the OER and open education pioneers, trying to envision a more equitable and higher quality education for those who currently lack access to it. These may be the ramblings of a naïve first year PhD student, but I feel that there is a need for the OER movement to embrace MOOCs, and consequently for the GO-GN to invite MOOC researchers around the world to join the network. The GO-GN is a perfect platform to begin to develop inter-disciplinary networks of early-career researchers, before they might be tainted by disciplinary biases. Further, with an OER definition that encompasses MOOCs, we broaden our academic reach, raising awareness of more traditional OER in the process.
I’m interested in knowing what other peoples’ views on this are. It’s a topic where everybody has an opinion, yet it’s very rarely spoken about. Are MOOCs OER? Can Computer Science and Education researchers co-exist? Is the Silicon Valley narrative of MOOCs really a bad thing – or did it raise the profile of open and online education? As PhD/Early Career academics, what can we do to promote more inter-disciplinary research?
For Further Reading:
Martin Weller: The Battle For Open – Pages 108-111