ORLANDO -- The men and women who attend the Sloan Consortium's annual meeting have been toiling in the fields of online learning for many years, so they could be forgiven for having a wee bit of skepticism (if not resentment) about "MOOC mania," the hubbub of hyper-attention that has been paid in recent months to the massive open online courses developed by Harvard, MIT, Stanford and other elite universities.
"MOOCS will change the world and make the rest of higher education obsolete. Hyper-prestigious universities are driving all the change. Umm, I don't think so, folks," Jack Wilson, president emeritus of the University of Massachusetts system and Distinguished Professor of Higher Education, Emerging Technologies, and Innovation at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, said during the conference's opening plenary Wednesday afternoon.
"They're certainly not the first movers; they're not even the fast followers," he added, to applause from some in the audience. "It's great to have them on board. But that is not who has led online learning, or who is going to lead online learning."
Wilson's comments were only the most public of the many mentions of the MOOC phenomenon during sessions and side conversations at Sloan-C's International Conference on Online Learning. His statements were in many ways typical, in that they reflected a mix of appreciation and agitation.
Online learning is nearly 20 years old (this was Sloan-C's 18th annual such conference), and administrators and professors at many of the institutions that have been at it for a long time take some umbrage at the suggestion that just because some of the country's wealthiest and most-visible institutions have finally gotten in the game, they will necessarily do it best. (Much of that cheerleading, suggesting at times that the MOOCs will obviate the need for other forms of online education, and perhaps all other higher education, has been done by newspaper columnists and bond ratings agencies rather than by the new entrants themselves, but some of the men and women behind the MOOC movement have used some highfalutin' language to describe the potentially game-changing nature of their efforts.)
The perceived arrogance behind the MOOCs is responsible for the agitation. The appreciation reflects the fact that the entry of Stanford, MIT and the others into online education in a big way can be seen as validating the viability and the quality of technology-enabled education generally -- a rising tide that can lift all boats.
So it was with that ambivalence, perhaps, that the members of Sloan welcomed into their midst Thursday arguably the most visible face of the MOOC movement so far. Sebastian Thrun, the Stanford professor and Google entrepreneur, was the co-creator of the 2011 artificial intelligence course with 160,000 students that essentially set off the MOOC craze, and he has at times spoken about the course (which he has parlayed into a new entity, Udacity) with some hubris.
But in his comments to the Sloan-C crowd, Thrun from the very first took great pains not to aggrandize himself or his fellow MOOCsters. He peppered his comments with statements like "I'm not the first to think about online education" and "as you surely know better than me," and at one point told the assembled that he was "just stepping in your footsteps." (In a nod to those who have complained that much of the recent news coverage has ignored an earlier iteration of massive online courses staged several years ago by Stephen Downes and George Siemens, Thrun himself referred to the "MOOC hype" and acknowledged that various people had beaten him to the idea, even if his and other recent courses are "perhaps a bit more massive."
Much of Thrun's talk rehashed material he has shared in other speeches and interviews -- recounting how Salman Khan's Khan Academy had inspired his work by making him realize that Khan was "clearly being more influential" in educational outreach than Thrun was by teaching 200 students a year at Stanford, how 170 of the 200 Stanford students in the on-ground version of his course stopped coming to class when he started the online version, and how moved he was by e-mails he received from U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and single mothers about how much his course meant to them.
He did provide a few updated statistics about the status of Udacity's courses, including that it had 800,000 students in its 16 online courses, that it has awarded 50,000 certificates of completion so far, and that it had placed 20 students in jobs (for which it is receiving some compensation from the companies, he said). Those are the sorts of numbers that have made him and other MOOC pioneers a celebrity -- to the point that one doctoral student in the audience begged Thrun for a job and others swarmed around him after his talk.
Thrun conceded that Udacity had far to go in personalizing the learning it delivers to students, and in giving data on students back to their instructors.
But he had no doubt whatsoever, he concluded, that online education "is undoubtedly the future," and in that view he was on the same page as Wilson had been the night before, when he described online learning as a "relentless force that will not be denied."