the post-MOOC-hype landscape: what’s REALLY next?

My #mri13 keynote panel talk last week was on “the post-MOOC-hype landscape.” It was supposed to be about what I think we can do in the current “we have a lousy product” hype gulch before it all gears up again to bend the ear of NYT readers all over academia. And Silicon Valley.

The short version (see slide 4) is this: there are currently two solitudes in the MOOC conversation, and it’s not a cMOOC/xMOOC divide. One solitude – the mainstream media discourse – is essentially a unicorn, in the sense that its promises are fantasies of salvation and solutionism that have very little to do with the actual practice of higher education. The other – the practitioners’ discourse(s), broadly represented by the various interests around the table at #mri13 – is a Tower of Babel. Still, this solitude, loosely and cacophonously affiliated as it is, nonetheless leans towards discussing MOOCs in terms of learning. And in the wake of twenty-odd months of hype in which the dominant public narratives about higher ed have been all glorious revolution or ghastly spectre, I think it’s time to seize this (likely momentary) lull in unicorn sales and try to talk about MOOCs as learning. We need to make ourselves familiar with what the post-hype landscape of higher ed looks like, and address the issues and opportunities it’s left us with. In learning terms. On as many public platforms as we can. In stereo.

In other words, challenge the empty narratives that your administrators or your faculty have been sold. Find ways to talk about why what you’re doing matters. Change the narrative from unicorns back to what education is about: learning. End story.

Maybe I got it wrong, though.

In the revisionist history of my own mind, the “post-MOOC-hype landscape” is now forever linked to the unplowed freeways of the post-apocalyptic ice-storm-in-Texas landscape that stormstayed plenty of conference attendees in Arlington for the weekend. I got out, though dramatically. I pretty much hopped off the panel stage and into a taxi van with Dave, Mike Caulfield, Emily Schneider, two gregarious business dudes from Montreal, and a most intrepid driver, who happened to have grown up in India and had never seen snow in his life. The seven of us, strapped into our seatbelts over a set of summer tires that God never intended for ice, bumped steadily over a barren landscape of exit bridges and frozen plains speaking – at one point in the drive – in English, French, and Urdu all at once.

One of the Montreal business dudes managed to educate us all about bee death while also inquiring which language Dave & I make love in. (Apparently, folks, French comes highly recommended.) The other Montrealer, born on the subcontinent, sat in front and instructed the driver in their mother tongue on how to keep us the hell out of the ditch. A giant flashing billboard along the way proclaimed TRAVEL NOT RECOMMENDED. It reminded me of nothing so much as a scene from Mad Max.

But there we were, squished together.

It seems to me as good a metaphor as any for where we are with MOOCs and higher ed.

That second solitude – those of us whose research and practice focus on MOOCs right now – are like the seven of us in that little van. We’re a random collection. We don’t all know each other. We speak different languages and have different ideas about which ones are good for what. And we’re all of us inching forward in a space rendered unfamiliar by a freak storm – in one case ice, in the other, hype – that nobody’d expected in that particular context.

I got it wrong in the sense that the real ‘what’s next?’ may not be grappling with the unicorn narratives.

I think ‘what’s next?’ is working out the conversation IN the metaphorical van. Some who see MOOCs as learning focus on the pursuit of its ever-more-finely-honed measurement. Others are more inclined to dismiss measurement as irrelevant to the networked synthesis of ideas that forms the backbone of their approach to education. A hundred more do something in between. We don’t necessarily know how to talk to each other. It became evident around the Arlington bar tables last week that the chasms between practitioners’ varying versions of learning and knowledge are so deep some aren’t even really aware that the rest of us are IN the van.

That blindness – which we all, me included, probably suffer from to some extent – is dangerous. It’s dangerous because people keep trying to shove the future of education as a public enterprise into the van, without asking questions of what counts as education and of who benefits – and loses – if it becomes seen as a consumer commodity.

I don’t believe data has the sole answers to these questions. Conversations about theory and Big Data being post-theory kept emerging in Arlington, and have flowered further in the blog-to-blog flurry of discussion that’s circulated since we all escaped the Texas ice (Martin Weller & Mike Caulfield have written posts that make great bookends on the issues the End of Theory raises; Tanya Joosten & Jim Groom, among others, held court on the issue at the bar). But the elite university data scientists are notably absent from this networked conversation.

There are more solitudes here than my slide deck lets on. And like the unicorn narratives, Big Data tends towards being a totalizing vision.

Ontologically, the networked approach to MOOC learning and the AI-rooted machine learning approach are very different animals. They always have been, and the fact that we’re even all in this little van together bumbling through the post-hype landscape is as much a linguistic accident as anything: one NYT article and two very different conceptions of the Internet happening to education got hitched together on one wild ride.

I think there’s potential in that: there’s a lot about what analytics can tell us that interests me. But algorithms are not neutral, in my worldview. The Big Data researchers bring institutional clout and status to the conversation along with what struck me, in many cases, as an almost entirely un-self-conscious absolutism in their approach to knowledge and learning and the capacities of correlative data. And that raises issues about the future and direction of higher education and learning, far more than unicorn narratives ever did. When I say the MOOC narrative needs changing, I don’t mean it needs to become a monolith – it won’t. Part of its power is that many new stories of learning and education can nest themselves within it. Nor do I particularly expect to change the data scientists’ narrative on MOOCs and learning – except when they try to argue knowledge as truth over my prime rib dinner. But in the post-apocalyptic, supposedly post-hype landscape that was Texas, the biggest ‘what’s next?’ I actually came away with was the question of whether those of us most deeply invested in MOOCs at the moment can learn to live and work together in any real way.

As George Siemens said in the opening to the very first #mri13 session, these are issues of power. Educationally, ideologically…hopefully not apocalyptically.

Hang on tight, kids. The next van ride’s aimed for Charlottetown, for #mri14. It almost NEVER snows here in July, I promise. ;)

19 Comments the post-MOOC-hype landscape: what’s REALLY next?

  1. Lisa M Lane

    I can only say that as a practitioner who thinks a lot about the big issues, sharing perspectives with each other is all we can do. But since we all work within our comfort zones most of the time, a lot will not be shared by the people doing some of the most interesting thinking. Those who get “open” as a concept will tend to share there, and connect with each other.

    So perhaps the ways in which we work together will have to change in ways we don’t expect. I’m fond of the scholarly model in general, since it relies on taking the ideas of others and reworking them. I’m not so fond of the business model, because people hide knowledge to gain advantage, which I don’t think is good for learning.

    And anyone who’s sure that they know where all this is going, or where it should go, is probably wrong.

    1. bon

      I think you’re spot on, Lisa…sharing perspectives is all we can do. What I was trying to say with the original keynote was “share beyond your usual comfort zones and networks, share publicly and in media if you can.” Because I think the stories we tell (and especially those that get told on big platforms) are shaping the future of higher ed.

      But. Here I’m wondering if the stories we tell each other within our scholarly models may actually be HARDER…in the sense that disciplines and ontologies have little shared language and few shared assumptions. Like you say, though, trying to share is all we can do. But still, I think we should try to push past our comfort networks. I wish I were better at it: I understand the language of media better than I do positivism.

      I will say George Siemens did a great job of at least bringing a lot of us together to start that conversation. I hope we don’t drop it.

  2. Nick Kearney

    I wonder if the problem, inside the van, (and I am not sure everyone is in that van, some stayed back at the hotel!) is not so much the understandings of learning and knowledge, as what people feel it is important to focus on. There seems to be a difference between wanting to focus on the learning on the one hand, and those who tend more towards a focus on how to provide a framework in which the learning can emerge and be facilitated.
    Outside the van of course it is dark and getting colder, and there is a big data strom brewing on the horizon :)

    Thanks for finding my unicorn by the way, I didn’t know he had joined a corporate!

    1. bon

      I like the way you frame the distinction, Nick…focus on the learning vs focus on the framework. Though it makes me wonder if somethings’s missing or if we define learning differently…in the sense that I tend to think I focus on both because frameworks are how I conceptualize learning. Whereas I’m wondering if maybe you mean something more quantifiable or commodifiable than ephemeral?

      I am beginning to get a sense of how much I don’t know here. EEP.

      1. bon

        (the unicorn seems to be doing quite well at the corporate trough. but i’m not sure there’s enough whimsy in its diet. bring it home.)

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  4. Mark McGuire

    Hi Bonnie

    I suppose it shouldn’t surprise that, as MOOCs attract more people from a broader range of academic disciplines (and from the ranks of administration and the private sector), the diversity of views begins to reflect the complexities and contradictions we are familiar with in higher education. The van soon becomes a bus, a train, and we find ourselves on a 7-lane highway with every kind of vehicle imaginable trying to pass one another in the middle of a spaghetti junction. Make no small plans, as the man said.

    A crucial, and often glossed over, question is “who’s van/bus/train/highway is it?”. Are we talking public transit? A rental? A free ride in a rich friend’s new Jag? Who cares — it’s an eventful ride through interesting, unfamiliar territory. Once we get off, though, we might ask ourselves where we are now, and how we are going to get back home.

    1. bon

      Your question, to me, is the important one…I’m wary of mega-MOOCs being touted as a replacement for higher ed for many reasons (efficacy for one) but the free ride in a friends’ car framing around them is perhaps tops. In spite of all the university money going into them, they’re presented as capital disrupting and saving the system (admittedly flawed) from itself. Whereas to me, the questions of who benefits and who controls matter deeply.

      1. Mark McGuire

        You’ve probably seen Audrey Watters post on “Hacking at Education: TED, Technology Entrepreneurship, Uncollege, and the Hole in the Wall” (, which I’d recommend to others. I recently discovered John Holmwood’s post from March 2013: “The rhetoric which surrounds MOOCs can distract us from the broader project of ‘unbundling’ the University in pursuit of profit” ( We really need to pay attention to the political economy of MOOCs, I think. Decisions about whether they (or similar private-funded alternatives) replace components of higher ed that are currently provided through the public system are unlikely to be made for pedagogical or altruistic reasons. These decisions will be made by increasingly corporate-friendly governments looking for the next public service to privatise.

        1. bon

          Absolutely, Mark. The political economy of different kinds of MOOCs is in a sense the real distinguishing factor, as I see it…of realities rather than unicorn salvation fantasies, at least. There’s a wide spectrum rather than the clean x/c divide, but it’s MOOCs as political economies that my “what counts? who for? who benefits?” questions at the end of the slideshow were trying to point to.

    1. bon

      Right now it’s a hope….but absolutely nothing resembling an actuality. If we are able to drum up some sort of funding (magic spells welcome) then we’d love to drag everyone (you) way out here to the Maritimes. But discussion of it is merely an attempt at incantation. :)

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  7. Maha Bali

    Hi Bonnie, thanks for sharing your reflections from #mri13. I think the issue with MOOCs, the disconnect between those of us interested in learning, and the policy-makers/business people is a common divide in educational discourse in general, but even more so in edu that uses technology because of technological determinism. It is inflated in MOOCs, I think, because of a lot of public discourse by non-educators looking at it from outside and making hyperbolic claims. I am also disappointed and disturbed by claims made my Thrun and others who keep failing to see how some MOOCs are serving some purpose for some people. There are huge issues with the way xMOOCs were originally conceived, and also with the hyperbole surrounding them that fails to acknowledge the pedagogical flaws in some of them BUT the biggest issue is generalization: some MOOCs on Coursera are designed and executed with thoughtfulness and do meet high-level learning needs for some learners. I’ll stop here before this comment gets too long.

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  9. Toni Rose Pinero

    I must say, coming all over here in a tiny corner from South East Asia… I never knew all about this “MOOC” hype, before.

    I found out about Coursera from a college friend back in mid-2012 (no idea how he found out about it but educ friends started posting it on Facebook). I attempted to join, but my actual grad school classes were in the way when it came to priorities. But, the “Coursera” hype (wasn’t really a hype though) died down eventually. I never heard my professors speak of it too. (Like I said before, probably we’re too busy with K-12 transition controversy)

    But mid-last year during my vacation in San Jose, California, I remembered Coursera and thought it would probably a good use of my free time to enroll myself in something. Still, never knew it was called a “MOOC”. (My location that time had no influence with my interest with MOOCs. It was just a coincidence.)

    After much “active” participation in the discussion, I found out there were other platforms and eventually I came across the word “MOOC” and started following all the “controversies” about it.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is… I’m glad I end up tracing it back to it’s Canadian roots.

    Being informed only by “mainstream” media clouded my judgement. At the back of my mind, I personally thought MOOCs could find it’s place somehow in Higher Ed. But at the same time, I thought, what’s happening? Too many people reacting too quickly.

    Or I don’t know, maybe it’s just me. Reacting as well.

    Well at the end of the day, my true epiphany was how my little world back here was way behind. Higher Ed is being shaken globally and here we are, still debating if K-12 is a good thing (there’s always that resistance to change).

    But me, you’ll definitely see me prying around. Trying to see how MOOC can be of place here. =)

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