In response to my last post, my friend Matthew Rascoff tweeted,
Matthew makes some valid points, both here and further down in that thread. So I thought it would be worthwhile to take a moment to clarify a couple of the finer points of my post.
First, I absolutely agree that there is a long-running narrative of “MOOCs are dead” that is not productive. My intention wasn’t to reiterate that narrative but rather to say that, given the very evolution of what is “coming next” that Matthew is interested in, the term “MOOC” itself has become meaningless. Design and usage of “MOOCs” have fragmented in really substantial ways as people have learned and tried new things. To call Georgia Tech’s Affordable Degrees at Scale, ASU’s Global Freshman Academy, and the new Coursera on Campus initiative all “MOOCs” or “MOOC-based” is to paper over the critical differences among them that are exactly the experimental factors that we should be attending to. Of these three programs, only Global Freshman Academy was something close to what I would call a MOOC in the original sense.
The point isn’t to get into an academic debate (in the pejorative sense) over a term definition but rather to understand that there are very different kinds of experiments being run. The success or failure of one of these tells us very little about the prospects of the other two. When we call everything a MOOC, we obscure the differences among the experimental conditions and the possible reasons for the different results that are coming in from them. There are lots of interesting experiments happening on MOOC platforms right now. I’m not sure how to tell what works and what doesn’t because we’re not using precise language to disambiguate among the experiments. Die-offs are part of evolution, and we’re trying to understand the process of natural selection.
Second and somewhat separately, I have a bugaboo about the term “disruption” being casually thrown about by ed tech companies. Disruptive innovation is a theory of change. We have lots of data about how the LMS market in particular changes—or doesn’t. At one point, Moodle was supposed to be a disruptive innovator. At another point, OpenClass was supposed to be the disruptive innovator. Both competed against non-consumption with a cheaper, simpler solution. Both got soundly beaten in developed markets by Instructure Canvas and, later, by other commercially hosted cloud-based solutions. There is no particular reason to believe that disruptive innovation works as a theory of change in the LMS market.
Further, if you’re going to claim to be ready to “disrupt” a product category, then you damned well better have good understanding of the needs of the customers in that product category. It’s a matter of respect. There is a long history of vendors failing to show proper care in this regard, which in turn has created trauma and fostered dysfunction on the part of universities going through a procurement process. Those universities tend to develop a cynicism which, at its worst, manifests as a corrosive political nihilism in their approach to picking a product.
Vendors have a responsibility to the sector to be humble. I don’t have any problem at all with Coursera’s ambitions for their Coursera at School offering, at least as far as I understand them. I do have a problem with the way that their executive characterized those ambitions in the EdSurge article. I think the language of disruption is both counter-productive for Coursera and harmful to the kind of conversations we want to foster in general about evaluating innovative offerings. As I said in my original post, it is long past time for companies serving the education market to strike that word from their public vocabularies.
In general, I am spending less time picking at vendor language in this new incarnation of e-Literate, as I try to focus on incentivizing good behavior rather than punishing bad behavior. That especially applies to vendors using unfortunate but relatively inconsequential language. What Coursera is doing is generally much more important that what they are saying about what they are doing. That said, there are times when patterns of language use are genuinely harmful and need to be called out, not to punish a bad actor but to put a halt to counter-productive behavior that retards progress in the sector. This is one of those times.