Coursera and Udacity are NOT Open Courseware

Baywatch The MOOC

For a guy who says he doesn’t blog about MOOC’s much, 2 in a week might be a record. But there is something about this Exporting Education article that really bugs me. It is the way that the article implies that Coursera and Udacity are the same as Open Courseware and they clearly are not.

At the heart of the difference is the way the content is licensed in the different courses. OCW courses use open licenses, meaning the content can be modified. Courses from Coursera and Udacity are not openly licensed; they cannot be modified for local contexts. In the context of the article, this is a vitally important distinction to make since the article states that:

MOOCs are being welcomed as a free resource and adapted to local contexts

Well, not if they are Coursera or Udacity courses since most of the content is copyright by those corporations (unless the participating institution negotiates to releases their Coursera MOOC material intentionally with open licenses, like, I believe, UBC has with their Coursera offerings).

This is the fundamental problem many in the open movement have with Coursera and Udacity – they are not open resources. But yet they are getting connected by association to the open resource movement. And this is wrong. Not only does it undermine the many years of hard work done by open education advocates to make sure educational resources are openly licensed resources, it is a vitally important pedagogical difference, especially when examined through the lens of this article.

The article makes the point that, MOOC’s as they are being implemented and used in developing countries have the potential to reduce local capacities and lead to the Americanization of education in the developing world. The MacDonald’s version of higher ed. Or, as the author puts it with a better metaphor, the “Baywatch” of learning.

It’s easy to imagine a future in which the educational equivalent of reruns of Baywatch—a limited menu of glossy American fare—comes to dominate the cultural landscape in developing countries around the world, making it more difficult for cash-starved universities in those countries to pursue scholarship relevant to local contexts

One of the ways to keep this from happening is by making sure the courses are openly licensed so that they can be legally adapted to a local context. If developing worlds end up relying on corporations like Coursera and Udacity who tightly control courses using copyright as their enforcement hammer, then developing worlds will end up with a corporate one size fits all educational model. Education outsourced to America. Whereas if those developing countries are free to take and modify courses & educational resources to fit their local context – like they are with OCW materials – then they will have a distributed, highly contextual model of education that better fits their community.

Coursera vs OCW are fundamentally different in this regard. Open Courseware material empowers educators whereas Coursera material creates dependency. Or a market, depending on how cynical your perspective is.

Photo: Baywatch The MOOC is released by me under a CC-BY-NC-SA license. It is a modified version of the following images:


Big Money

Big money pull a million strings
Big money hold the prize
Big money weave a mighty web
Big money draw the flies

Catching up on weekend news and see that Coursera has landed $20 million more in VC funding. $20 million dollars. That’s bigger than the entire annual operating grant (pdf) Royal Roads University (my previous institution) gets from our provincial government.

Coursera has raised to $63 million dollars in funding. $63 million that it will have to pay back someday. And I wonder how long it will be before Coursera joins Udacity in the pivot game? Could Alan’s Pivot MOOC mashup (used under CC-BY license) be prescient?

Pivot MOOC

Big money make a million dreams
Big money spin big deals
Big money make a mighty head
Big money spin big wheels

I don’t write about MOOC’s much. There are many others who are much smarter writing better  analysis on all this MOOC stuff than I ever could.  It’s like the drunk frat boy trying to talk hockey with Ron McLean. But just in case it hasn’t been blindingly obvious what the end game is for Udacity and Coursera, then let’s be perfectly clear. It is profit. These are corporations who exist to make money for shareholders and investors.

I know. Never let it be said that I don’t state the obvious. This is the limit of my MOOC analysis. Sharp, isn’t it? But I think it needs to be reiterated to remove any doubt for causal MOOC viewers who believe the “save the world” rhetoric.

Of course, this is not new. That has been the game plan from the get go. But whenever something like a pivot happens, or a new round of funding gets shoveled in, it’s important that we stop and remind ourselves of the fact that this is for-profit education that is, in many cases, being built on the backs of a public system. Last year at OpenEd 2012 in Vancouver I remember hearing Athabasca University’s Terry Anderson talk about this rush by public institutions to partner with the shiny new kid on the block Coursera. He made the statement “I don’t know if they quite realize who they have gotten into bed with.”

I was happy Udacity “pivoted” because it is one of those moments that makes the end game even more clear. These are not educators hoping to improve the world, or even improve the lives of their students. Let’s drop the altruistic pretension and do goody good bullshit about making higher education accessible and free for the poor yearning masses. It has always been the ickiest part of the Coursera/Udacity MOOC model. It is about profit.

The Udacity pivot and this latest announcement of VC funding for Coursera remind me of a moment that occurred in the spring while I was at the Connexions conference at Rice University, home of the OpenStax College open textbook project. I attended a Skyped in keynote from Coursera’s Andrew Ng, similar to the one that those who attended OpenEd did a few weeks ago (he did take some questions from the audience at the Connexions conference at the end of his presentation, moderated by Richard Baraniuk).

Connexions is all about open textbooks; free for students, CC-BY licensed for reuse and redistribution. In his keynote, Ng spoke about the importance of projects like Connexions and open textbooks in general as ways to reach the goal of free and open courses for all. This happened one day after I read an Inside Higher Ed article which pointed out that Coursera had an affiliate deal with Amazon whereby Coursera makes money from the sale of textbooks. For each textbook sold, Coursera gets a slice from Amazon. So, on one hand, Coursera is extolling the virtues and importance of open textbooks to the open textbook crowd while on the other they are using textbooks as a source of revenue, selling them to students. To me, it came across as hypocritical and was one of those moments where I saw clearly through the fog.

Big money got a heavy hand
Big money take control
Big money got a mean streak
Big money got no soul

It’s about the money, and I wish that Coursera would join Udacity and drop the pretense because altruism alone doesn’t have a good enough ROI to pay back $63 million in investments.

God, Geddy Lee had great hair.


The most important feature of an LMS

Sometime it’s hard not to feel snarky when you read stuff like:

“Really,” says Ms. Manning, “most Stanford faculty wanted to use a platform that they read about in The New York Times.”

Really? That is what faculty want in an LMS? The one that is mentioned in the New York Times? If that is truly the case, then online learning in higher education really is as borked as all the doom mongers are saying.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so snarky. Perhaps I should be happy that Stanford – an institution with massive resources – is willing to put some of those resources into the development of an open source LMS like edX (although there is no shortage of existing open source LMS projects that could have benefited from those resources). But when I read that the motivation to support an open source learning project is to improve the “brand” profile of the institution to make sure faculty feel like they are working with the “right” platform because it is the most popular kid in the playground instead of improving that platform for the benefit of the learners, well…yeah. Snarky.


Online interaction improves student performance. Gee, imagine that.

In a recent blog post, Annie Murphy-Paul notes the results of some recent MOOC research conducted by a group of Stanford researchers on student engagement in a Coursera MOOC. This “finding” caught my eye.

For example, in all three computer science courses they analyzed, they found a high correlation between ‘completing learners’ and participation on forum pages, suggesting a positive feedback loop: The more students interacted with others on the forum page, the better they learned. This led the researchers to suggest that designers should consider building other community-oriented features, including regularly scheduled videos and discussions, to promote social behavior.

Imagine that. Students interacting with each other might actually improve learning in an online course.

This is not new knowledge, and highlights one of the fundamental problems I have with the current crop of MOOC’s. Anyone who has examined any prior research into student success in an online course already knows this. Want successful students in an online course? Have them interact.  Yet somehow in the design of a revolutionary new online course, Coursera seems to have missed this well established fact.

George Veletsianos made the point last year that the current crop of commercial MOOC’s are ignoring a large and deep body of previous work in online and distance learning. George points to a comment Sebastian Thrun made in a NY Times article where Thrun states, “I haven’t seen a single study showing that online learning is as good as other learning.” In his post, George counters:

This perception of online education as “better than” or “as good as” other forms of education (I imagine that Sebastian Thrun is referring to face-to-face education here), is rampant. I believe it is rampant because our field has not done a good job disseminating what we know and what we don’t know about online education. At the same time, individuals do not tend to go back to the foundations of the field to investigate what others have discovered.

The result: A lack of understanding that there’s a whole field out there (here?) that has developed important insights on how we can design online education effectively.

While more research into an area is always a good thing, it does underscore the fact that the current crop of commercial MOOC courses seem to be blazing a trail that has been pretty well laid out. If only they would stop and take a look at the map.


The ds106 snowflake

I love this ds106 data visualization put together by Martin Hawksey at JISC. This video is a representation of the community activity that occurred in ds106 – the unMOOC MOOC developed by Alan Levine, Jim Groom and the rest of the Division of Teaching and Learning Technology at U Mary Washington (whose innovative work I have gushed over before).

With each white circle representing a blog post, and circles clustered around individual blogs, you can quickly see just how much activity occured during ds106, and how much this beautiful visualization represents a model of learning that reflects the qualities of the internet itself – distributed, networked, nodal, autonomous yet connected. It’s no accident that this visualization looks like the internet itself.  As Alan points out, ds106 was specifically designed this way.

The very essence of ds106 is that it is made of the same stuff that the web is made of, a distributed, open, decentralized connected network managed by participants in the space it inhabits. You will hear people talk about their organizations or projects being on the web. but there is more than a shade of difference of ds106 being of the web.

In an environment that has proven its resilience, growth, and capability, should we not emulate the very ideals of the internet in the learning experiences we create? For the most part, while being on the web, the majority of MOOCs are operating via a structure that is not built by nor cared for by its learners. The truly open, syndicated model of ds106 works because it acts like the web itself.


My Coursera profile

I’m taking a Coursera course this fall called Networked Life and blogging my reflections/experience about both the content and the format.

A brand new (August 30th, 2012) feature of Coursera is the ability to create a profile on the Coursera site – a good thing as it makes it easier for students to find and connect with each other. Here’s mine.

The bit I really like about the profile is that Coursera has given you the ability to make your profile open to the world.

As a networked learner, I believe being open to the world is an important principle and core networked learning concept. Open to the world as the default is the first step that enables learning connections beyond the institution – something that I want.

Now, giving me the option to make my profile open to the world doesn’t guarantee that those connections will happen, but I can tell you that without having the option, they won’t. So, I think Coursera has done a good thing by including the “open to the world” option.

The profile also gives you the opportunity to add in links to a personal website, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or G+ account, and (reflecting that Coursera was born out of computing science) a GitHub account, again enabling connections to happen outside the institution; connections that can carry on long after the course is finished.



Taking a Coursera course: Step 1 signing up

One of my goals for this fall was to enroll in a Coursera MOOC to both get a better understanding of how they work, and to learn some new stuff.

The course I decided on is called Networked Life, offered by Dr. Michael Kearns at Penn State. The description looked intriguing as network theory is something I have wanted to dig a bit deeper into for awhile.

Networked Life looks at how our world is connected — socially, strategically and technologically — and why it matters.

  • What science underlies companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google?
  • How does your position in a social network (dis)advantage you?
  • What do game theory and the Paris subway have to do with Internet routing?
  • How might a social network influence election outcomes?
  • What are the economics of email spam?
  • How does Google find what you’re looking for… and exactly how do they make money doing so?

First thing I did was Google Dr. Kearns, hoping to find a Twitter account where I could connect and follow him. But the best I could find was a group Twitter account from his department at Penn State.

Sign up process was pretty straightforward and asked for the bare minimum of information: name, email and password.

As soon as you sign up you get the ability to share that info with your network.

Now, no doubt a large part of the intent here from Coursera is to increase enrollment. But it was also good to see not only an acknowledgement that a learning network was going to be an important piece in ensuring that you, the student, will be successful, but an actual prompt to begin developing your own network so that;

You will be able to discuss and work on material together.

This is where having an already established network of people begins to (hopefully) pay off for students. I was able to send a tweet, post on FB and post on G+ that I was not only taking the course, but also looking for others to come along and learn with me (and help me learn as well).

A few minutes later, I got an email welcoming me into the course.

Dear Clint Lalonde,
Thank you for signing up for Networked Life!
We look forward to seeing you in class, and we’ll notify you again when the class is about to start. Stay tuned!
Prof. Michael Kearns

For this interested in the PKM mechanics of how I am going to organize the info during this course, step one was creating a label in Gmail that automatically filters Coursera email and adds a colour code to those emails so I notice them in my already cluttered inbox. I have also created a Twitter list and any other students who I come across on Twitter that are also enrolled in this course will be added to this list. My other plan is to blog as much as I can about not only the mechanics of the course, but about the contents as well. So, if I can stick to it for 10 weeks, expect a few blog posts about networks in the coming weeks.

The Honour Code

I read over the honour code (thanks for keeping it short and sweet Coursera), which seems fine and fair, although this little bit in section 3 (my emphasis) does make me pause for a second:

I will not make solutions to homework, quizzes or exams available to anyone else. This includes both solutions written by me, as well as any official solutions provided by the course staff.

Quizzes and exams – okay, fair enough. But my own homework? Heck, getting feedback on my homework from THE WORLD is something that I want to happen. I want to be able to post my homework online and have others take a look at, respond to, critique, agree/disagree with and otherwise hack at ‘er. I want to share my homework, not for the benefit of someone else (although that may happen) but for the benefit of myself and my learning.

Mind you, if most of the homework I get is more cut and dry answer-10-multiple-choice-questions-that-will-then-be-graded-by-a-machine (which I suspect will be the case), then my homework may be more like a quiz than some kind of long form piece of writing that might be more conducive to open discussion among peers. We’ll see.

The ToS and Privacy Policy

On to the Terms of Service, which includes this line:

Neither the User Content (as defined below) on these Sites, nor any links to other websites, are screened, moderated, approved, reviewed or endorsed by Coursera or its participating institutions.

I read this as a) fair warning that the forums could be a free range for all kinds of opinions, some good and some bad and b) there will probably be little instructor presence in the interactive bits of the course (ie forums), which I’d expect when there are thousands of people in the course contributing.

There is also this bit in the terms of service where I grant Coursera the right to use whatever content I post in the course:

With respect to User Content you submit or otherwise make available in connection with your use of the Site, and subject to the Privacy Policy, you grant Coursera and the Participating Institutions a fully transferable, worldwide, perpetual, royalty-free and non-exclusive license to use, distribute, sublicense, reproduce, modify, adapt, publicly perform and publicly display such User Content.

Well, at least it doesn’t say “sell”. But I did pop down to take a look at the Privacy Policy and found this bit that makes me wonder exactly what a “business partner” is:

We may share your Personally Identifiable Information with business partners of Coursera to receive communications from such parties that you have opted in to.

Not sure who that might be or what that might mean. Free may have a bit of a price.

Finally, this bit in the Terms makes it clear that Coursera MOOC’s are an ongoing experiment, and we, the students, are the data providing subjects:

Records of your participation in Online Courses may be used for researching online education. In the interests of this research, you may be exposed to slight variations in the course materials that will not substantially alter your learning experience. All research findings will be reported at the aggregate level and will not expose your personal identity.

Hopefully, there is some research work going on behind the scenes and that work gets published so that we all benefit from understanding how (and if) this model works, and how it can be refined and improved.

Okay, on to learning new stuff!



What is a MOOC?

MOOC is an acronym for Massive Open Online Course, and it seems like there are more popping up these day, primarily aimed at educators. Which is one of the reasons why I think Jim Groom’s DS 106 course on Digital Storytelling is an important evolution in the MOOC trail, blazed by people like Alec Corous, George Siemens, David Wiley, and the recent PLENK 2010 course run by George Siemens, Dave Cormier and Stephen Downes. Jim’s course is pushing the MOOC beyond educators and towards a more general audience in that the subject matter is not specifically related to the process of networked learning or educational technology.

If you are not familiar with the MOOC model of online learning, Dave Cormier (who, along with Bryan Alexander coined the term) has created a great primer video on MOOC’s. I think this is an important video as it clearly articulates, in less than 5 minutes, what a MOOC is, how it works, and how it is different than other types of online courses. I think it provides a great introductory gateway to the concepts of networked learning for those unfamiliar with the terrain.

Update: About 30 minutes after I published this article I read a post by George Siemens entitled What’s Wrong with (M) OOC’s in which he hilights three concerns he has with MOOC”s, which are the high drop out rate, degree of technical skill required by both participants and facilitators, and learner disorientation. I am guilty of the first one – dropping out of PLENK. I started strong, but couldn’t finish. This was due mostly to the other commitments I have going right now (my Masters research). It was too easy to not participate, which is reflected in another concern with MOOC’s which Alan Levine brings up in his comment to Georges post:

To me a missing piece is the challenge of creating the stake that a learner has in a MOOC- not paying for a course, not working with a grade or credit as incentive, it falls completely on an individual’s own internal drive to participate, and to do so fully.

One thing is clear – the MOOC model is emerging and there are people who are working hard at figuring out all the bits and pieces. And they are doing it out in the open for all of us to see and participate in.


See, this is why I can't do ds106

#ds106. I am sure that is going to be a trending hashtag in the new year as Jim Groom’s MOOC  (Massive Open, Online Course) on Digital Storytelling gets underway in January. And looking at the participants who have signed on so far (or are contributing without actually jumping into the course), it is going to be a heck of a fun ride.

So many people in my network are participating (including one of our Art instructors) that I am feeling quite bummed about not being able to take part. But this winter/spring will see me finishing my Masters thesis, and, after the time I spent putting this together last night, DS 106 would just be too compelling a reason to not transcribe that 90 minute interview.

Here is the gist of a potential DS 106 assignment (suggested, I believe, by Tom Woodward)

Make an animated gif from your favorite/least favorite movie capturing the essence of a key scene. Make sure the movement is minimal but essential.

So, here is my contribution.

From Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. This captures the moment where Alex, sitting with his droogs in the Korova Milk Bar, hears a woman singing opera. As that sly smile creeps across his face, we are fooled into thinking that he has nothing but scorn and derision for the older group of well dressed people sitting in the bar, and that he is about to call his droogs and go all malarky on their asses. But, what becomes clear a few moments after this, is that smile is not a smile of wicked delight at the thought of going ultra-violent, but a smile that revels his love of music. It is this moment that reveals both a weakness and a humanity that is ultimately both sympathetic and repulsive.  And, if you know the movie, that love of music becomes a key plot device later on when his behaviour gets modified.

I did this using the frame capture feature of the VLC player, and then created the animated gif in Adobe Fireworks.

This is the reason why I can’t do DS 106. As I beavered away on this in the basement last night, 20 more invitations to participate in my thesis research didn’t get sent out. Too…much…temptation.

What I find really interesting about this (besides the subject and the delivery method) is how Jim has taken the Instructional Design of the courses out into the open. Jim is certainly at the helm here, but he has asked his network for ideas. What kinds of assignments should this course include? How does one go about designing a MOOC?

He is crowdsourcing instructional design.

@jimgroom another #ds106 idea, 3 degrees of wikipedia competition see who can come up with most obscure wikiP “triple” (from @sleslie)

I’d like to see someone write a story/poem with a “googlewhack” in each line #ds106 (from @twoodwar)

5 Card Flickr #ds106 Story: Life is Like a Barrel of Pandas Add to pool tag ds106 in flickr Play (from @cogdog)

Maybe a good idea to use in #ds106 “Tim Burton’s new project: Storytelling with Twitter fans” (from @jtcf)

It’s a conversation that not only are his network of educators contributing to, but also potential students for the course.  This course is being designed, at least in part, by the crowds, led by a trusted network of educators that Jim has invested the time and energy in to developing relationships with.

It is a testament to the benefits of educators being open and engaged in social spaces, and taking a long term approach to developing relationships. If Jim had just started blogging or had just started using Twitter a month ago, this type of collaboration would not be possible. The network effect would not be there.

For me, a learner trying to understand the process of designing engaging learning experiences in a technology mediated environment, this type of transparency of process is invaluable, as it is to Jim, who builds on the successes and challenges of those who came before him. Standing on the shoulders.

Rock on, my droogs. I’ll be lurking along the sides and look forward to seeing what you all come up with.