The mushy MOOC middle.

“Few people would now be willing to argue that massive open online courses are the future of higher education. The percentage of institutions offering a MOOC seems to be leveling off, at around 14 percent, while suspicions persist that MOOCs will not generate money or reduce costs for universities—and are not, in fact, sustainable.”

– Steve Kolowich, “The MOOC Hype Fades, in 3 Charts,” Chronicle of Higher Education, Wired Campus, February 5, 2015.

“When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer.”

– Hans Gruber (as played by Alan Rickman), “Die Hard,” 1988.

The idea that MOOCs would somehow take over the world was always ridiculous.  After all, if everyone had their own MOOC nobody would have any time to watch anyone else’s.  And please don’t claim I’m participating in the Gartner Hype Cycle by writing this otherwise I’ll have to scream.

What I do think we have here is a new place that I’m going to call the mushy MOOC middle.  This is where everybody assumes that all that MOOC hype was overblown, but also that MOOCs still have an important role to play in the future of higher education.  You can see that new conventional wisdom surface in many different MOOC mentions these days.  Here, for example, is the guy whose book is going to be completely overlooked once Audrey Watters finishes her edtech magnum opus (if it hasn’t been already):

There are those who view MOOCs as the savior to managing the ever-spiraling cost of higher education, and others who see them as sowing the seeds of the demise of the university as we know it. The truth, of course, lies somewhere between.

And here is the great historian and (alas) superprofessor, Eric Foner:

But this is not the future of education. At least I hope not. But it is a tremendous adjunct to education.

“Adjunct” to education?  Yup, adjuncts all over the country will be forced to assign Foner’s lectures long after the great man is retired, while one of his best students continues to teach Civil War history the old-fashioned way to anyone with the ability to pay tuition at Columbia and the credentials to get admitted.  So while MOOC hype may be on life support, the MOOC itself remains alive and kicking as a viable alternative for short-sighted administrators to short-change the less-affluent or less-qualified college students of the future.

Indeed, I am reminded of another Hans Gruber line from “Die Hard” here:

“Well, when you steal $600 you can just disappear.  When you steal 600 million, they will find you, unless they think you’re already dead.”

Don’t let the Hans Grubers of the edtech world get away with their $600 million just because MOOCs are dead to you.  This fight has to continue – even when the MOOC hype finally disappears entirely – for the sake of all the faculty and students left behind.

Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

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