Chances are that by now you have been hit by “MOOC Fatigue,” unless you are—like me--seriously interested in what this may mean for the future of Higher Education (HE), not only in the US, but globally. A Google search on “MOOCs” produces 1.86 million hits,  pretty good for a phenomenon that only hit the public consciousness in a serious way less than 18 months ago. This voluminous coverage reflects great deal of interest not only by the popular press but increasingly seen in the academic literature. And the coverage--and, yes, the inevitable hype--has been such that for our upcoming session of Silicon Vikings SIG on Entrepreneurship and Learning that we will have on June 20, we decided to leave out MOOCs out of the title altogether. Although the topic will of course get attention and discussion, as we decided to entitle the session The Future of Higher Education. This title means that we will also cover many other issues besides MOOCs, because although MOOCs continues to be an important issue, there is a great deal more to the topic of what lies ahead for HE. We hope you will join us and have a chance to contribute to the debate and discussion (The event description will be up shortly on our event calendar)

Growing Fear—Amidst Hope of Great Benefits

The coverage of MOOCs continues, seemingly unabated, driven by great interest but also by what seems to be growing fear, especially among teachers/professors who worry about what this new wave of MOOCs may mean for their job security. Although you can find articles in the academic and popular literature that takes a neutral or objective stance to what the future of MOOCs holds--A recent and well-done and “impartial” survey article, Laptop U: Has the future of college moved online?, by Nathan Heller, appeared in the New Yorker on May 20--much of the literature seems “bi-polar,” where articles are either fearful and dismissive of the good that MOOCs can bring HE, or praise them as a major and positive innovation. In recent weeks, rising reports of “MOOC fear” has hit the press as a number of universities have either declined to join the MOOC parade of edX, for example, and another online initiative led by 2U, to create a pool of online courses—although not really MOOCs because of smaller scale and other characteristics—resulting mostly from growing concerns of faculty members about the longer term implications of such online courses.

In Europe and the Nordic regions we may see a (delayed) replay of what we are now seeing here in the US, but so far European/Nordic universities are more focused on starting to test the MOOC waters and experience for themselves what they may want to do, or not do. A recent article by Jan Petter Myklebust at the University of Bergen, Norway, appearing in University World News (but since their site was hacked recently we don’t provide a link to the article) entitled “First MOOCs for Denmark, European universities sign up,” describes growing activity around Europe, including a number of Nordic countries. Not surprising, a number of European universities are choosing to go with the Coursera platform, although some, including University of Helsinki, are reportedly building, or considering building, their own MOOC platform.

Over the next year or so, I anticipate a growing debate in the Nordic region as to what Nordic universities want to do on the MOOC front, and whether they want to go it alone or try to collaborate with other Nordic, European or US players, and if so, what this collaboration—or coordination—should be, especially if building their own platform is viewed as a viable option. And what MOOCs might have appeal across the Nordic region?

“Digital Exhaust” or Digital Footprints

Big Data and related analytics is a topic that has gained similar, or probably even more attention and hype, than MOOCs, so it should perhaps not be surprising that many educational researchers now get excited about the convergence of these two developments. The hope it now that we will gain new insights about how people learn, at least online (where learners will leave their “digital exhaust” as everything they do will result in digital footprints, and the data of which will go into huge data repositories that educational researchers will dip into. 

I have touched upon this topic in some previous blog posts, but since I last raised the issue I have learned that Stanford has established a lab——to allow computer scientists, statisticians and education researchers greater opportunities to tease out new insights about learning from Stanford MOOCs and other online courses. Mitchell Stevens—a good friend of the Nordics (he also is the director of SCANCOR at Stanford, and recently took on additional responsibilities at Stanford by joining the Office of the Vice Provost for Online Learning (headed by John Mitchell)—is also excited about learning data analytics (as is his colleague, Roy Pea (professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education) and the co-convener of Stanford’s 403x course on Education’s Digital Future). Mitchell was recently in the Nordic region to discuss both SCANCOR and online learning at Stanford so future collaboration around online learning data and analytics between Nordic organizations and Stanford may soon emerge.

What’s Next?

Given the growing intensity of the MOOC debate, but also the continuing innovation that we see around this space, it is very difficult to anticipate what’s around the corner. Personally, I was very happy to see NovoEd join the MOOC fray early this year as the latest Stanford spinout, taking Stanford’s Venture Lab platform out of Stanford. Amin Saberi (now on leave from Stanford and his previous position as Associate Professor and 3COM faculty scholar at Stanford) seek to enable better group or team-base collaboration in a MOOC-like experience, a valuable functionality for many courses that involve online collaborative work and teams among learners. I suspect future MOOC platforms will bring other functionality, especially for social science and humanity courses which currently may not be as well served by existing MOOC platforms than more science and engineering courses.

Another recent and interesting development—which also may be a sign of other developments to come—is what Georgia Tech & Udacity have decided to do, with the support of AT&T. According to a note in EdSurge--a great resource for edtech developments--these three players have decided to “put a full computer science Master’s program online”, and “AT&T's chairman says he thinks that fully online degrees could be ‘on par’ with traditional on-campus degrees. Price for students: $7,000.” This new initiative and its courses may not really qualify as MOOCs and this is perhaps a key point, namely that online initiatives and experiments will come in all shapes and forms, and many will likely involve “blended learning” rather than being totally online—whether “massive” or not. If they can expand reach to currently un- or under-served students, and do so at much lower price than what is available today, and at the same time offer quality educational/learning experiences, society will benefit.

Finally, at our session on june 20, we will hear more about Ben Nelson’s radical plan to build a new type of elite university, and if you want to check out another interesting model, of another innovative player here in the Bay Area, check out what UniversityNow [ ] has been doing, again using technology and an innovative technology platform to reach adult learners who need alternative models.

Eilif Trondsen