Opinion: Thoughts from Udacity’s Open Education Alliance and edX’s mooc.org announcements

Well, the big news this week is the announcement of the new iPhones 5S and 5C.

But this post isn’t about that news at all. Rather, we’re looking at two announcements that, in our little patch of the universe, tie for second place: Udacity’s launch of the Open Ed Alliance and news of the edX/Google collaboration mooc.org.

The one coming right on the heels of the other, these projects naturally invite comparison. That both deal more or less directly with MOOCs and openness, they naturally invite both praise and criticism. Some quick catching up, in case you missed it…

What is the Open Education Alliance?
The OEA is an “alliance of employers and educators” that “provides access to cutting-edge and relevant post-secondary education” toward kickstarting technology careers pathways. OEA is calling for partner contributions; from educators to help create courses, from employers to recognize student credentials and encourage employees to pursue online education credentialing.1

What is MOOC.org?
Set to go live properly in 2014, mooc.org is a collaboration between edX and Google (specifically the Course Builder team). The pair will “jointly develop the edX open source learning platform, Open edX, and expand the availability of the platform and its learning tools to individuals and institutions around the world.” Mooc.org will be “a new site for non-xConsortium universities, institutions, businesses, governments and teachers to build and host their courses for a global audience.”2

What we think this means: MOOCs 2.0 (or 2.x…or x.0. Actually, no one’s really doing version control on this thing)

A very brief, very incomplete history of the MOOC

Change is in the air, and we don’t just mean edX’s bold decision to go with “mooc” versus “MOOC” (to say nothing of the Guardian‘s occasional insistence on “Mooc”). In contrast with the heady days of 2012, the so-called “Year of the MOOC”, 2013 has been…confusing. For one thing, the word itself got out of control. First it was applied to something rather different and less open than the networked, community-driven courses that originated the name. That led to the not-very-widely-known cMOOC (“connectivist”) and xMOOC distinction, which this blog occasionally embraces. Then the xMOOC providers got credit for having invented the acronym in the first place. Not that many can tell you exactly what the acronym stands for or exactly what it means. It’s the M and the C (massive/massively and course/courseware) that give the most trouble, although it’s the first O, for open, that draws the most ire. The confusion in meaning was bound to arise, given the rapid proliferation, frenzied adoption, and enormous media embrace of the term. Through synecdoche (metonymy? We’ll take corrections), Coursera and company came to be called MOOCs themselves. Soon enough, most everything that happened online and looked sufficiently like learning was styled a MOOC. Distance learning? MOOC. Online courses? MOOCs. Open courseware? MOOCs. Saylor.org? Yep. MOOCs all around.

Very generally, the result seems to be that quite a lot of people have spent quite a lot of months not quite sure just what a MOOC is — but quite sure that it is very bad or very good or at least very disruptive.

Seeking (re)definition, seeking revenue

Solar systems form from giant disks of spinning dust — massive fragmentation, massive momentum. We’re witnessing something similar with online education. We aren’t anywhere near the final stage, but the dust and gas in the MOOC neighborhood is beginning to cool, coalesce, and take on meaningful, more interesting definition.

For Udacity, this move toward the OEA consolidates their historical focus on technology as well as their course-to-career ethos. What changes slightly is their expansion to include additional education institutions while formalizing relationships with new and existing partners — presumably with increased access to partners’ content as well.

The money, we presume, will come in part through partner institution sponsorship and in part through course fees (though many or most courses may remain free). This can fairly be seen as an “everybody wins” scenario.

For edX, partnership with Google lands even more technological capacity than what MIT and its partners already could muster. Strong tech, with the power to wrangle data, is a powerful draw for potential partner schools, but really for any user. If the edX consortium is a sort of “League of Extraordinary Institutions,” mooc.org seems poised to widen the circle all the way down to individuals, furthering the mission to provide “inspirational and transformative knowledge to students of all ages, social status, and income who form worldwide communities of learners.”2

Google apparently gets a new platform to extend and evolve its Course Builder technology, which was initially developed in Google projects such as the Power Searching course and a few early collaborations, including one with the Saylor Foundation. Course Builder seems likely to be absorbed by the partnership: the Google research blog notes that the team will “continue to maintain Course Builder” but eventually “will provide an upgrade path to Open edX and MOOC.org from Course Builder.”4

Money, in this instance, remains a question mark. The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Wired Campus blog quotes edX founder Anant Agarwal, who characterizes revenue plans as “TBD”.3 Google, we presume, will somehow manage.


Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

These initiatives will inherit many of the critiques that have been leveled at MOOCs in the past many months, and which we won’t fully rehearse here. For one thing, just as MOOCs are sometimes less innovative in practice than in press, the basic ideas behind these initiatives are not brand new. Community colleges have partnered with industry to provide student inexpensive (and sometimes free) pathways to good jobs. Individuals and organizations harnessing the Internet (or more primitive media) to support everyone-plays distance learning have been around for years, decades, or centuries, depending on how we want to define our terms (especially if we accept the idea that an xMOOC is fundamentally similar to a textbook).

But it’s important to note that these initiatives are not talking about innovation and disruption; they’re talking about meaningful expansion of access to learning for a variety of constituents whose lots stand to be improved.

The “MOOC” thing is more or less secondary. In our collective efforts to wrap our minds around momentous change and innovation in education — itself intertwined with economics, the information age, pedagogy, the university system, federal and state public policy, and so much more — we grabbed onto the MOOC, attributed to it everything new and disruptive, proclaimed the death of higher education, and ended up a bit confused and maybe just a touch embarrassed. That may have been a mistake, but we’ve kind of branded ourselves into a corner, to twist a metaphor, and now “MOOC” is what we’ve got to work with, the lingua franca of education change.

It isn’t MOOCs or MOOC providers that are driving change, but the fact that we’re undergoing one of the more important human revolutions — right up there with the printing press, industrialization, and probably even agriculture — at the same time that our ideas about education evolve, just as they always have. What these new partnerships are doing right is engaging with the possibilities for promulgating learning and improving access to education while demanding relevance for learners.

Some notes on “open”

Both organizations have used the phrase “open education” to describe what they do, but not without controversy. edX is a nonprofit and Agarwal was careful to note both Google’s “commitment to open access to information”2 and that edX will remain in control of student data3. The Open edX platform is open source.  Nevertheless, course offerings on edX are not necessarily built of open educational resources (OER), and it remains to be seen what the licensing scheme for courses on mooc.org will be.

Udacity uses open licenses and includes among its partners others who also do so (Khan Academy and Autodesk, to name two), but is a for-profit entity, which can be seen as in conflict with openness (although it must be said that OER can be good for business, as many have discovered, and hey — the more, the merrier).

Suspicion and frustration regarding openness has dogged the xMOOCs, some of which spills over into these announcements, e.g. in Billy Meinke’s comment on the OEA post and in a couple other blog posts (a balanced look in both Brian Lamb’s “Bold innovations in openwashing” and George Siemens’ “Thoughts on Udacity’s openness project” — worth reading in full, and with a tip of the hat to Stephen Downes’ OLDaily for the links).

We’re excited. We’re optimistic. If students are getting the education they want at the quality they deserve — and with tangible benefits — that’s a very good thing indeed.

Talk to us!
What are your thoughts on the Open Education Alliance and mooc.org? What can the Saylor Foundation learn from these initiatives?

Notes and more information:
Announcing the Launch of the Open Education Alliance (Udacity blog)
EdX Announces Partnership with Google to Expand Open Source Platform (official press release | mooc.org)
Google and edX Create a MOOC Site for the Rest of Us (Wired Campus blog | Chronicle)
We are joining the Open edX platform (Google Research blog)
Google and EdX Are Building a “YouTube for MOOCs” (Slate)

Edited to actually name the iPhones correctly. All apologies!

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