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Since it started last fall, I’ve heard the 36-week experimental #change11course 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 purse strings – are high.

For a while 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 MOOCsa 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.

This post was first published at http://theory.cribchronicles.comand was cross-published with permission from the author.

Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada.

Bonnie Stewart is a Ph.D. student at the University of Prince Edward Island, Canada. In higher ed since 1997, Bonnie has lived and taught on all three coasts of Canada and in Eastern Europe and Asia. Her research explores social media identity and its implications for higher education. Published at and winner of the 2011 PEI Literary Award for creative non-fiction, Bonnie blogs ideas at  http://theory.cribchronicles.comand identity and parenthood at Find her on Twitter at @bonstewart.

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