George Siemens taught the first “massive open online course” back in 2008. He shares his take on why the class form is still valid — and what might happen next in higher ed.
In the past few years, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have become a lens used by educators, entrepreneurs, education reformers and venture capitalists to view the higher education system. They are now a proxy for our hopes and fears for education; how we speak of MOOCs increasingly says more about our personal philosophy than it does about open online courses.
In 2008, Stephen Downes and I offered the first MOOC — a course on Connectivism and Connective Knowledge. Our intent was to create a learning experience that embodied the attributes of the Internet: open, accessible, networked, distributed and participative. The 2,300 learners who joined our course are now a rounding error in comparison to the large offerings of providers such as edX and Coursera. Yet our original vision continues to shape our research and teaching practices: networking individual learners to foster knowledge creation. It remains my firm belief that the complex challenges that society faces can only be met through a learning architecture that emphasizes knowledge generation over knowledge duplication.
After a frenetic 2012 and 2013, the last several months have been disappointing for many advocates of MOOCs. Until recently, major newspapers, magazines, and TV programs fawned over and feted the emergence of learning models that offered the tantalizing prospect of an education system where thousands of people could learn together. The entire higher education system would soon be obsolete, supporters crowed, while Silicon Valley solutionism drove unprecedented hype for online-based higher education. Presidents and provosts shared panels with entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, each seeking to out-proclaim and out-hype the other. Davos called. So did TED, as well as numerous state, provincial and national conferences and think tanks. Consultants and management firms generated reports and operationalized solutions, eager to capitalize on the profit potential of a system in transition. Higher education leaders, accustomed to a small audience of academic peers, were attracting large audiences outside of the university. If education is grunge, MOOCs became our Nirvana.
As 2013 drew to a conclusion, the 18-month intoxicating hype machine produced the inevitable headache. The open vistas of a bright future where MOOC providers moved from success to success were replaced with a fatigued resignation that MOOCs were appearing to take their place in a lineage of many, many failed predictions of educational transformation. Move aside radio instruction and VCR teaching. Make room for MOOCs.