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Mooc creators criticise courses’ lack of creativity

Original vision lost in scramble for profit and repackaging of old ideas, say pair

Stephen Downes

Source: Stephen Downes

Look what they’ve done to my Mooc: ‘as deployed by commercial providers they resemble television shows or digital textbooks with – at best – an online quiz component,’ argues Stephen Downes

When The New York Times declared 2012 the “Year of the Mooc”, you would have been forgiven for thinking that the term – which stands for “massive open online course” – had been coined some time that year.

Not so. “Mooc” was first used five years ago in Canada by a group of academics who can claim to be the true originators of what has become the academic buzzword du jour: a type of online learning that, although not without its critics, has taken the global academy by storm.

It was Stephen Downes, senior research officer at Canada’s National Research Council, and George Siemens, then working at the University of Manitoba and now a professor in the School of Computing and Information Systems at Athabasca University, who created the online course Connectivism and Connective Knowledge in 2008: it is widely regarded as the first true Mooc.

“I approached Stephen to ask if he wanted to co-teach a course,” says Siemens. “Since this time, we have taught more than a dozen courses using a similar format and the technology that Stephen developed.”

For Downes, it was clear, even at an early stage, that there was a big future for open online learning.

“I don’t think anyone can ever expect their concept to be called the ‘concept of the year’ – it would take quite an ego to assume that. But it was evident early on that we had latched on to something when we got 100 times more participants in our course than we expected.”

The “Mooc” acronym itself emerged from conversations between two colleagues: Dave Cormier and Bryan Alexander.

At the time, Cormier was web projects lead at the University of Prince Edward Island and had been helping out with the Connectivism course (he is now project lead for student relations at the institution). For him, the newly christened Mooc was interesting but not exceptional.

“I didn’t really feel like it was much different from the other things we had experimented with,” he says. “I’ve been part of numerous groups of folks experimenting with what you can do with the internet and education for the past 10 years or so.”

It was the same for Alexander, at that time director of research and now senior fellow at the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education. He says that it was only when Stanford University’s artificial intelligence Mooc, announced in July 2011, attracted 160,000 enrolments that he thought the medium could “get very big”.

Growing backlash

Five years down the line, the term has become commonplace. Hundreds of universities have developed Moocs, and the organisations that have established platforms to host them – such as Coursera, edX and Udacity in the US and FutureLearn in the UK – have become increasingly well known.

However, Downes fears that modern Moocs are placing less emphasis on providing an “interactive and dynamic” approach to learning (such as he championed with his 2008 course) and more on “static and passive” education.

“Moocs as they were originally conceived…were the locus of learning activities and interaction, but as deployed by commercial providers they resemble television shows or digital textbooks with – at best – an online quiz component,” he argues.

Siemens believes that attitudes towards Moocs are in a period of flux and that criticism is mounting because of what he calls the “biggest failing of the big Mooc providers”: they are simply repackaging what is already known rather than encouraging creativity and innovation.

“There has been a growing backlash against Moocs over the past year. If 2012 was the ‘Year of the Mooc’, 2013 is shaping up as the ‘Year of the anti-Mooc’,” he says.

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