The MOOC movement is not an indicator of educational evolution

MOOCs get the attention, but DIY and peer-to-peer exchange are more fertile grounds for development

Somehow, recently, a lot of people have taken an interest in the broadcast of canned educational materials, and this practice — under a term that proponents and detractors have settled on, massive open online course (MOOC) — is getting a publicity surge. I know that the series of online classes offered by Stanford proved to be extraordinarily popular, leading to the foundation of Udacity and a number of other companies. But I wish people would stop getting so excited over this transitional technology. The attention drowns out two truly significant trends in progressive education: do-it-yourself labs and peer-to-peer exchanges.

In the current opinion torrent, Clay Shirky treats MOOCs in a recent article, and Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern University, writes (in a Boston Globe subscription-only article) that traditional colleges will have to deal with the MOOC challenge. Jon Bruner points out on Radar that non-elite American institutions could use a good scare (although I know a lot of people whose lives were dramatically improved by attending such colleges). The December issue of Communications of the ACM offers Professor Richard A. DeMillo from the Georgia Institute of Technology assessing the possible role of MOOCs in changing education, along with an editorial by editor-in-chief Moshe Y. Vardi culminating with, “If I had my wish, I would wave a wand and make MOOCs disappear.”

There’s a popular metaphor for this early stage of innovation: we look back to the time when film-makers made the first moving pictures with professional performers by setting up cameras before stages in theaters. This era didn’t last long before visionaries such as Georges Méliès, D. W. Griffith, Sergei Eisenstein, and Luis Buñuel uncovered what the new medium could do for itself. How soon will colleges get tired of putting lectures online and offer courses that take advantage of new media?

Two more appealing trends are already big. One is DIY courses, as popularized in the book Fab by Neil Gershenfeld at the MIT Media Lab. O’Reilly’s own Make projects are part of this movement. Fab courses represent the polar opposite of MOOCs in many ways. They are delivered in small settings to students whose dedication, inspiration, and talent have to match those of the teacher — the course asks a lot of everybody. But from anecdotal reports, DIY courses have been shown to be very powerful growth mechanisms in environments ranging from the top institutions (like MIT) to slums around the world. Teenagers are even learning to play with biological matter in labs such as BioCurious.

Fundamentally, DIY is a way to capture the theory of learning by doing, which goes back at least to John Dewey at the turn of the 20th century. The availability of 3D makers, cheap materials, fab software, and instructions over the Internet lend the theory a new practice.

“I believe in everything never yet said.”–Rainer Maria Rilke, Das Stunden-Buch

The other major trend cracking the foundations of education is peer-to-peer information exchange. This, like learning by doing, has plenty of history. The symposia of Ancient Greece (illustrated in fictional form by Plato) and the Talmudic discussions that underlay the creation of modern Judaism over 2,000 years ago show that human beings have long been used to learning from each other. Peer information exchange raged on centuries later in cafés and salons, beer halls and sewing circles. Experts were important, and everybody could recognize the arrival of a true expert, but he or she was just first among equals. A lot of students who sign up for MOOCs probably benefit from the online discussion forums as much as from the canned lectures and readings.

Wikipedia is a prominent example of peer-to-peer information exchange, and one that promulgates the contributions of experts, but one that also has trouble with sustainability. (They’re holding one of their fund-raisers now, and it’s a good time to donate.) This leads me to ask what business model colleges can apply in the face of both MOOCs and peer-to-peer knowledge. How do you mobilize a whole community to educate each other, while maintaining the value of expertise?

This challenge — not just a business challenge, but really the challenge of tapping expertise effectively — happens to be one that O’Reilly is dealing with in the field of publishing. We introduced the equivalent of filmed stage shows in the mid-1990s when we created the Safari Bookshelf to provide our books on a subscription-based website. The innovation was in the delivery model, which also delivered a shock to a publishing industry dependent on print sales.

But we knew that Safari Bookshelf barely dipped into the power of the web, which has grown more and more with advances in HTML, JavaScript, and mobile devices. Safari Bookshelf is much more than a collection of web pages with book content now. As a training tool, the web has exploded with other experiments. We offer an interactive school of technology also.

So the field of education will probably see lots of blended models along the way. It’s worth noting that proponents of open content have called for licensing models that reinforce the open promise of the courses. Some courses ask students to write their own textbooks and share them — but one asks where they get the information with which to write their peer-produced textbooks. In an earlier article I examined the difficulties of creating free, open textbooks that are actually usable for teaching. Such dilemmas just show that the investment of large amounts of time by experts are still a critical part of education — but applying the broadcast model to them may be less and less relevant.

Update, December 12: I changed the link text for Clay Shirky’s article because he told me the original did not characterize it properly.

tags: , , , , , ,
  • Interestingly, Norvig and Koller were pressed on many of these points at the Google Faculty Summit (see the “Online Education Panel Discussion” @ Also see Norvig’s recent comments apropos of this in an interview for the Remote Learning Project:

    Note that the code produced for Norvig and Russell’s AI text has long been available on Google Code (e.g.,, yet coding exercises based on it did not play a role in Sebastian and Thrun’s MOOC kickoff effort.

    So, one could remix-and-repurpose away, yet not many did (at least publicly as far I could discern), because the main text and course did not illuminate the code, nor was it supported with much in the way of docs or tutorials. Strange but true.

    But these are early days and it seems clear where we’re headed (indeed, your post is the clarion call): I would wager that we’re not far from a scenario where key content for a high-profile course (e.g., Norvig’s revamp of CS212 on Udacity) will be made open and available for repurposing and then feed into new iterations of the course by the original producers.

    For example, some admirer of Brett Victor will take a few bits of Norvig’s python-Fu and embed them in a live-coding environment (done along “Learnable Programming”-style principles) for easy exploration and intuitive experimentation. The lightbulb will go off and it’ll be much discussed and often forked, serving as a model for others to emulate, etc., etc.

    Am I wrong?

  • very interesting topic. I have recently starting learning Spanish using an app called Duolingo – It is an extremely well done application and they teach you the language by practicing. The end result is that you develop enough expertise to participate in a crowd source effort to translate the English wikipedia into Spanish. I think this has a bit of DIY and peer-to-peer elements and they seem to have a business model developed.

    • Does duolingo take advantage of the kind of the forgetting curve, like supermemo? The point is that beyond DIY and P2P that Oram points to, there could actually be scalable automation in programmatic learning tech. The kind of big data from watching keystrokes, dwell time, quiz results, and collaborative feedback could actually provide value outside of DIY/P2P, right?

      • Thanks for the super interest link to the Wired article. It is a long one and I will be re-reading it a few times to get the full picture! Duolingo has been terrific as a learning tool but I do not believe they are employing the ‘forgetting curve’ memo part as described in the article. However, when I had to repeat failed lessons – I did notice that the program is good at testing me at those words that I had the most problem with. I have also done a couple of their ‘real world’ translation exercise and they have been challenging but fun.

  • I found your post quiet interesting. Instead of blindly following the trend, we need to evaluate what kind of learning models would benefit us more. At WizIQ, we also support the trend of MOOCs, but I found your analysis thought provoking and meaningful.

  • mgozaydin

    1.- ONLINE Course have been offerred in this country for 20 years
    2.- They charge $ 1,500 per course
    3.- Their quality is not good
    4.- They make $ 1 billion profit per year , at least one
    5.- 6.5 million students are following these
    6.- Most of them for profits

    And now
    1.- Top top school of the world MIT Harvard Berkeley provide online courses
    2.- At a small fee
    3.- They are not for profits
    4.- They accept everyone in the world

    And you , Andy complain about it .
    Where have you been for 20 years Andy while people are being sucked by for profits .
    NEW ONLINE by MIT Harvard Berkeley w’ll save the world and w’ll d’srupt

    • It’s true that making knowledge available cheaply to people all over the world is a fine thing. The objection is that it’s being done in the same way people have taught for 300 years: I talk, you listen. The suggestion is that, while transfer of information is certainly a part of education, that’s not all there is to it. Participation in collaborative projects has great educational potential that MOOCs mainly overlook. Many people worldwide could have read a professor’s book cheaply from a library instead of paying $1500 for a course. Now, they don’t have to pick up a book. This is progress? Maybe, but not revolution.

      • mgozaydin

        Thanks Gerry
        1.- They do not have to pick up a book
        2.- They do not need to pay $ 1,500
        3.- They reach the top top schools of the world
        4.- Even those online courses are followed by the students who are paying $ 50,000 for their oncampus couırses
        5.- It is a great progress to be admired. OK may be it is not revolution, but that is the excitement this all progress brings.
        Thanks anyhow . Meanwhile I get to know you . You have a very high profile .

  • Yuanliangliu

    Here is my comments on venture-lab platform when taking a class there (education class actually):

    • Yuanliangliu

      In general, I feel that it is very difficult for the teacher to give each student effective instruction, and that is is very difficult for students to learn together with other students (since it is so hard to know what other people are doing). I think the teacher and TAs all have a quite difficult time in knowing all the learning conditions of the students or their interests. It lacks knowledge structure, so it is very insufficient in dealing with so many students’ participation and unable to build knowledge from their works.

  • Yuanliangliu

    We need to make it easier for those who really have domain knoweldge and learning experiences to teach. Those people are the excellent professionals in various walks. School teachers, however, usually don’t have the domain knowledge and have little learning experience. DIY and P2P are the right directions. 40 years of Sudbury Valley School practice already told us clearly what kind of education we need.

    • Someone

      Technical college instructors do have the experience and knowledge, and two year AAS technical degrees get our students great jobs. For the liberal arts and much of the university system, non proffessional or technical programs you are correct.

  • Yuanliangliu

    The content should be free. All the learning material should be free. But the teacher can charge for service s/he provides. For students who pay tuition, the teacher can guarantee to give daily guidance to the students. On the mooc sites, however, the teacher cannot effectively guide the students, nor can students’ learning conditions or interests be well reflected.

    • Someone

      Should be free? Who will pay to create all of the free stuff? Sure they are doing it here and there, but you notice most of the “elite” schools have NO actual online/distance degrees. It is almost more a form of marketing. When it cuts them out if the business, the “free” will be very unatractive

  • Yuanliangliu

    DIY and P2P should be the future. And they are just what Sudbury Valley Schools have been practicing for 40 years. The current social economic development makes it more ready to spread Sudbury model to the whole society. What we need is Knowledge Engine that can help individuals form self-reflective habit and skills, and transform their daily experiences into knowledge that can be shared and taught. So individuals can learn in real life (in stead of wasting their time in school) and real teachers, e.g. those professionals, can teach easily and effectively (and make a living out of it, totally changing the profession of teaching). With Knowledge Engine, the efforts in DIY and P2P can be coordinated and built up into our future education.

  • mgozaydin

    To me not MOOCs but

    edx is indicator of a revolution .

    1.- Top schools of the world
    2.- Full of knowledge for 150 -450 years
    3.- Can attract many globally therefore feasible and self financing
    Cost is less than $ 1 , therefore may be the fee is a small $ 10
    Financially they are very SECURE .
    4.- Not yet degrees since it takes time ( 4-5 ) to develop at least 50 online courses
    After 5 years degrees will be awared. So collect certificates now .
    5.- MIT knows the online technology and learning technology best in the world
    6.- Not everybody can go to MIT and Harvard but now edx included Uni of TEXAS and Wellesley . That is really good . They can learn from MIT as well .
    7.- ONLINE is in USA for 20 years . 1,300 colleges providing online courses and degrees at $ 1,500 per course, still no complain . 6.5 million take online courses out of 18 million .
    So one cannot complain that edx is not even better than those .

    ONLINE is for thousands students globally. Only edx can do that .

    I am afraid that Coursera will die next year .
    No business plan yet
    Selection of universities is not good
    Courses get many complains
    It is for profit, I do not trust for profits .
    No solid certification program

  • Ann-Karen

    I think online courses are a great opportunity for students. In January Leuphana Digital School will start a new online course. People from all over the world will work in teams, connected via social media platforms, and design their ideal city of the 21st century. The architect Daniel Libeskind and other scholars will support the groups. Sounds great! Find more information on Facebook:

  • MOOC, Massively Open Online Courses, including interactive laboratories, virtual reality environments and access to online tutors and tutorials let alone, have been changing the world massively!

    It was welcome by the fullness of gratitude, new spirit, new energy, and new hope of Global Open New Humanity with giant leap of civilization.

    None of The Whole History of Humanity is like This Historical Phase signed by MOOC.

    Thank you for Harvard, MIT, California-Berkeley, and others having taken leadership and this historical giant open leap to develop and transform Humanity and The World up to far higher level.

  • I second the notion that too much attention is being given to MOOCs when there are far more interesting opportunities to change the education model entirely. After all, staring at a video of a lecture and answering a few questions to confirm that you were listening is nothing but a digitization of the existing model. I recently heard the phrase “making is learning” and it stuck with me because it symbolizes everything that is good with the MAKER movement but also paves the way for the makers, who have been playing on the sidelines, to organize what may one day be a new educational model based on peer-to-peer transfer of skills and applied knowledge. It may sound like a romantic idea, but I for one welcome the notion of small workshops led by a “master” devoted to cover a broad range of techniques and perhaps explore new ways to teach a body of knowledge that has grown beyond the scope of any one curriculum. Imagine a future where the a new generation of students are trained in all possible aspects of human knowledge… Ah! the richness such a future offers.

  • MOOCs and Maker Lab Learning face engagement problems at opposite ends of the spectrum. MOOCs have thousands of students with no hope for engagement with their peers or their professor. Without this engagement very few students will really learn, regardless of how prestigious the university or the professor.

    Maker Labs have intense engagement with peers and the professor. Great for learning. But this makes the class difficult to teach and not every professor has the tools or time to do so. Significant elements of academia (e.g. research expectations, prep time) will need to change for Maker Lab Learning to become mainstream.

  • George Tsoukalas

    I doubt that the author has participated with interest in a MOOC with intent on learning. A person of potential and interest will learn if given the opportunity. If 100,000 people participate watching a charismatic teacher, does it matter if only 5,000 really absorb the topic and 20,000 simply become more familiar with the rest simply increasing an interest ? I mean O’Reily has been selling teach you self books since the beginning. These courses are being followed from the US to Bangladesh. They are an experiment and a comment such as “I wish MOOCs will go away” is simply the words of a threatened person.

  • Well, for a long time there has been this medium known as “books”, available at no cost within “libraries”—you know, those antiquated “Brick & Mortar Structures”—and you can obtain those books, free of charge, at any of those buildings. (Yes, you really can!)

    And, if you chose to, you could read those books at home, or right in the antiquated B&M structure, again, at no charge. And by doing so, you could learn absolutely anything being taught within any educational institution in the world. (Yes, you could even borrow the same textbooks being used by medical and law students!)

    And, there was nothing stopping you from organizing a group of similarly minded people, so that you could learn together, forming your own “class” or “school”. Or, you could just stick to the “independent study” model, preferred by most book learners.

    But, if that wasn’t enough, you could send for a “Correspondence Course”, offered by multiple institutions, all over the world, and learn that way.

    So much of the hype surrounding MOOC, and related technologies/processes/education “delivery”, etc. is actually not at all fundamentally “new”.

    And while a person certainly can—and still does—learn from solitary reading, most people do not consider this the educational equivalent of a college degree. And with good reason. It has great value, as does all education, but let’s not confuse it with the rigor, challenges, insights, integrative approach, and learning community that forms the vital essence of a real college education.

    The social and economic elite of the 19th century did not receive their education exclusively by reading books in front of a fire. Neither did the ruling elite recommend correspondence courses to their progeny when they turned 18. They knew what constituted a genuine education, and they apparently still know today.

    When the children of this era’s ruling elite start pulling their students out of Sidwell Friends, Lakeside Academy, Choate, and the University of Chicago Laboratory School, and transferring them to “Kool Skool Online” and “Video Game Academy”—where they spend their entire school day, staring at a screen—then I’ll take this “Revolutionary Education!” stuff more seriously.

    Somehow, I don’t think the “graduates” of the latter eh…”institutions” are going to be prepared for Stanford and Williams, or even your average, obscure state college.

    And I wouldn’t expect that the children holding surnames such as Gates, Obama, Duncan, Bloomberg, Bush, Ellison, Walton, Romney, Broad and Buffett, are now destined for the “University” of Phoenix or Full Sail “University”. Nor do I think their papas and mamas will be content with their offspring “attending MIT” or “Yale” via webcam and microphone…do you?

    Although the above group thinks it’s “wonderful” that such “alternatives” are “open to everyone who wants an education”, again, when we hear that those are paths that THEY are “choosing” for THEIR children, THEN I’ll regard their praise as more than just pro-privatization blather.

    In the meantime, I’ll take all such exuberance as evidence of shilling or extreme naivete.