the problem with EdX: a MOOC by any other name?

Since it started last fall, I’ve heard the 36-week experimental #change11 course referred to – half tongue-in-cheek – as “the Mother of All MOOCs.”

Back when the course started in September, it seemed like a reasonable description. #change11 was designed and run by Massive Open Online Course pioneers George Siemens, Stephen Downes, and Dave Cormier, and had 36 separate facilitators lined up to cover everything from soup to nuts in the grand scheme of instructional technologies and 21st century learning.

Apparently, however, George and Dave should have kept the crystal ball from their Edfutures MOOC a few years back.

Because in thinking about the Mother of All MOOCs, it seems none of us in #change11 were thinking big enough.

Today, the New York Times announced that Harvard has paired up with MIT in a new non-profit partnership called EdX, which will offer free online courses from both universities, following the MITx model begun over the winter.

The New York Times called EdX a MOOC.

#change11, I think you’re gonna have to give that “Mother of All MOOCs” tshirt back.

It’s too early to say what EdX is going to mean for higher education in North America. That two of the most prestigious universities in North America, however, have seen fit to join forces to go down this road of free and open online courses means the rush to figure that meaning out? Is on.

And the stakes – in a time when universities & colleges are already struggling with smaller demographics and tightened pursestrings – are high.

For awhile now, MOOCs have been hailed as “the Great Disruption” in education.

EdX is staking out serious ground in this new model of course delivery, framing itself as a clearinghouse platform on which other institutions can offer their own courses under the EdX brand. It’ll be open source, enabling other institutions to host their own courses if they wish, without having to pay for or license for-profit software. This challenges not only the traditional pay-for-learning model of academia, but the growing encroachment of startup edupreneur-style companies into the territory of higher ed.

EdX is clearly setting out to be the mothership.

And it may well succeed: reputation has always carried a lot of weight in education. When you combine two of the biggest names in academia with unlimited access to courses, you get interest. People want to affiliate themselves with what carries cache: in network theory, this tendency to connect to hubs that are already well-connected is called “preferential attachment.” If EdX turns out to be good at what it does, it will have the potential to take over the market in terms of massive open online courses.

It doesn’t stop there. EdX also has designs on research, not just teaching and learning. Its stated intent, according to today’s press release, is to “research how students learn and how technologies can facilitate effective teaching both on-campus and online. The EdX platform will enable the study of which teaching methods and tools are most successful.”

And this is where I begin to itch.

It’s not that I don’t think free learning is a great idea. Or that I don’t welcome Harvard & MIT’s interest in the enormous and interesting task of researching effective online learning.

We live in a time when frictionless sharing of information makes massive open courses possible. And when learning analytics make massive amounts of data available from any online venture. These things are going to affect academia, make no mistake, and our current institutional models – our business models, our learning models, and our research models – are all going to have to adapt in response.

Until this sudden explosion of major institutional interest in the idea of Massive Open Online Courses, I’d thought the adaptation might actually move in the direction of – gasp – complexity.

The original MOOCs – the connectivist MOOCs a la Siemens & Downes, and the work of David Wiley and Alec Couros and others – have been, for the most part, about harnessing the capacity of participatory media to connect people and ideas. They’ve been built around lateral, distributed structures, encouraging blog posts and extensive peer-to-peer discussion formats. Even in live sessions showcasing facilitator’s expertise, these ur-MOOCs have tended towards lively backchannel chats, exploring participants’ knowledge and experiences and ideas.

They’ve been, in short, actively modelled on the Internet itself. They’ve been experiential and user-driven. Their openness hasn’t stopped at registration capacity, but extended to curricular tangents and participatory contributions and above all, to connections: they’ve given learners not just access to information but to networks.

They’ve been messy, sometimes, but they have definitely not been business as usual.

The problem with EdX is that, scale and cost aside, it IS essentially a traditional learning model revamped for a new business era. It puts decision-making power, agency, and the right to determine what counts as knowledge pretty much straight back into the hands of gatekeeping institutions.

Those who complete the courses will get a certificate of mastery, and a grade. Their data will be harvested to determine what learning methods help them succeed.

I see value in this, and suspect that for many it will open doors. But.

If you want to deliver mass courses to enormous numbers of people, and mastery and measurable, extrinsic success are your aims, you will be inclined to keep your offerings to the concrete and the certain. Some types of knowledge are privileged in this kind of decision-making climate. Experimental, experiential knowledge tends not to be.

Particularly when the course delivery is itself an experimental undertaking to which sizable reputations – in this case, the good names of Harvard and MIT – have been attached.

Big reputations make careful, strategic changes, not great disruptive ones that go against self-interest. And thus the courses that EdX will offer and the research that EdX will produce are not likely to be modelled at all on the messy, distributed, peer-to-peer versions of knowledge production that the internet and the original MOOCs encouraged.

Words change with usage, of course. And “MOOC” certainly fits the EdX model, perhaps better than it did the original connectivist offerings: EdX will be more massive and far more a traditional course than the originals.

It’s ironic, though: this brand-new Mother of All MOOCs is, in the end, likely to do as much preserving of the traditional structures of education – especially in terms of learning – than it is to disrupt them.




19 Comments the problem with EdX: a MOOC by any other name?

  1. Vanessa Vaile


    Got tangled up in community blogging and missed seeing that this morning. Makes me itch too but can’t say it is unexpected. Observing, reading the admin, ID, learning and management analytics specialists (not Martin who has been issuing warnings about data ethics), corporate and for profit educators in LAK and eduMOOC, I could imagine the wheels turning, thinking, how can we harness this, monetize it, use it to manage…

    Yet those most likely to share concerns are, all too often, not just Luddites but ill informed. Bad strategy, acting without intel.

    Out of curiosity, do you read Historiann or More or Less Bunk? Both, especially Jonathon at MLB, are critical of online learning. Yet Jonathon uses tech, stays informed, attended a THATcamp and I suspect would fit right in with the more experimental, less institutionalized MOOCs. His beef is with instructors losing control over material. Tayorization. He’s a labor historian. I’d like to see him in a connectivist MOOC. I’ve been sharing occasional posts to potcert and sending Lisa and other mooc-folk over there. I think Kate (Music for Deck Chairs) does the same. But he listens, talks to, accepts challenges to try out technology, etc.

    Campaign for the Future of Higher Education is different, seeing no difference between connectivist moocs, WGU, online for-profit or EdX, Lumina/Gates Foundation number crunching ~ and not willing to look for any either.

    Follow the money… it will be in the testing and assessment that lead to credentials and credit.

  2. Pingback: #Change11 #CCK12 MOOC is on the move in a BIG way | Learner Weblog

  3. bon

    Taylorism is the main thing that concerns me about the push to edupreneurship: once you start thinking of educational research as something that should deliver a product, you have to work awfully hard to stay out of those “ed out of the box” models that appear so linear and effective to those who only see numbers.

    On that front too…you mention follow the money. I think with EdX the shift may be that the money has decided to follow the data. I think that’s what the new plan is about. Which makes sense, in terms of convergence of all kinds of current priorities, but…given the kinds of teaching structure these courses privilege (largely a traditional correspondence model) I’m concerned about the findings they’re likely to collect from their data on efficient learning, and the weight that will be given to those findings given that Harvard & MIT are affiliated.

    I’ve got to stretch out and connect with some of the people you’ve mentioned here…I think Music for Deck Chairs and I have crossed paths. Thank you.

  4. Jlmag

    I wonder if it’s possible that the medium of this kind or course will actually frustrate the more traditional expectations, and force the providers to reexamine authority and delivery. If they really are MASSIVE, then it seems that control will be extremely difficult to actually maintain, and we may see shifts and cracks and changes despite the original intentions and aims of Har-MIT. Or maybe I’m just being a Pollyanna.

    1. bon

      i think overt control of that number of students would, absolutely, be difficult to maintain. the power of the self-colonizing mind, however, never fails to amaze me. people are well-conditioned to think of learning environments (STILL. sigh) as places where they will passively absorb knowledge and regurgitate it for the sage on the stage. or screen.

      one of the things that can be hugely disorienting about MOOCs (or ur-MOOCs, thank you Bryan Alexander) in their connectivist iterations is the lack of clear performative expectations between so-called teacher and student. some of that can help a lot of us function. but leaving room for collaborative or peer-to-peer connection is much harder when there are externalized outcomes like grades or certificates to be granted: the work tends to become geared towards an audience of one, rather than many. that’s the piece that concerns me: the way this move steers us overtly back in that direction.

      now, absolutely, there’s lots of room for subversion of the model, etc. a real possibility. but, given that many will sign on for the grade/certificate, subversion and exploration will likely not be dominant agendas. which is why – in addition to the data piece – it seems like a step back towards same old same old to me.

  5. Pingback: Reconceptualizing facilitation and participation in a networked (MOOC) context | Full Circle Associates

  6. dlynds


    Came by this via IHE.

    Its clear that the EdX model is going to shift things quite a bit and I wonder if the decision makers behind EdX participated somewhat in change11? Did they think that it was too chaotic? Are they more concerned about competencies than literacies?

    Let’s chat more on this soon, but was fun seeing your name in IHE again, and this shows me that I need to check here first rather than there.


    1. bon

      I’d be very surprised if the decision-makers were part of #change11. nominally aware, perhaps, due to the participation of some bigger names like Howard Rheingold? no idea.

      i believe the usage of the term MOOC to describe EdX comes from media, not from EdX itself…and is an outgrowth of application of the term that’s spread through publications like Inside Higher Ed and others through the winter. some of us affiliated with connectivist MOOCs used the term to discuss Sebastian Thrun’s Stanford AI course back in the fall, then it got applied by non-affiliated bloggers to both models and now seems to be picking up generic usage.

  7. Pingback: #Change11 An update on posts related to MOOCs | Learner Weblog

  8. Pingback: #Change11 “One small step for man, a giant leap for mankind” – Is that the MOOC movement? | Learner Weblog

  9. Pingback: More on #BonkOpen and other MOOC-iness | Full Circle Associates

  10. Tamara Powell

    Thanks for this post, Bonnie. I’m new to your blog and look forward to reading more.

    This was the first time I heard about EdX, but I learned about another new course delivery system — — a few weeks ago from a colleague from U Michigan, one of Coursera’s partner schools. It seems to me that Coursera is also trying to establish itself as a clearinghouse platform.

    My initial reaction to Coursera was one of excitement and intrigue, but your post has also encouraged me to think critically about how platforms such as Coursera and EdX privilege certain kinds of knowledge and knowledge production. Thanks!

    1. bon

      glad for the input, Tamara. i’m not entirely cynical about the possibilities of EdX and Coursera, just a little wary…i’ll be really interested in hearing from participants as their models develop.

  11. Pingback: casas rurales en Alicante

  12. Pingback: Weekly Top 5: The Future of Academia and Bottled Water

  13. Pingback: What Lies Beneath: Some Thoughts on MOOCs' Tech Infrastructure | e-Literatee-Literate

  14. Wonia

    Discussions of MOOCs, especially in the ed-media, tend to hihglight the massiveness, which misses the point, in my opinion. Whether they’re truly massive could be questioned as well: a global broadcast system (which xMOOCs are) that only reaches 100,000 people is small-time. The real innovation is the openness I can take what I want, learn what I want, with no financial risk and no pressure to perform on artificial assessments. One of Cage’s rules of learning is particularly appropriate here: There is no win or fail. There is only make. A MOOC is what the learner makes of it. That is true of any learning experience, but the openness means you don’t have to conform to any bureaucratic expectations. When open becomes open-ended, as in CMC or DS106, you don’t even have the time pressure of a schedule. Of course, I’m coming at MOOCs as a person interested in self-directed lifelong learning. Someone looking for a cheap CompSci degree might have a very different view, based on very different needs.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *