SPOC Lobster

The MOOC people have heralded “SPOC’s” as the new innovation– the “plateau of productivity” on their hype cycle that peaked (inflated expectations) in 2012. Funny thing is, educators have been doing SPOC’s for decades already- they’ve just been calling them online and blended courses.

As my plane landed at Boston Logan airport and taxied toward the jetway, the B-52’s song, Rock Lobster came on my mp3 player. It reminded me that lobsters were once considered trash food.

Poor people, servants, and prisoners ate lobster in the early years of our country. The odd creatures were edible but not delectable; they were largely ignored by the wealthy. As the railway infrastructure grew in the mid to late 1800’s travelers to and from the northeast would sometimes be served lobster. Many of the passengers from the Midwest found lobster to be exotic and quite tasty. Eventually, due to food rations during World War II, lobster became a more popular dish among all classes of citizens. New preparation methods were experimented with to enhance the flavor of lobster. By the 1950’s, lobster had earned its place as an upscale, gourmet food.

“We were at the beach, everybody had matching towels”

I attended the open EdX conference at Wellesley College, just outside of Boston. Many of the attendees at this conference seemed to be programmers and developers from top-tier colleges and universities; and it seemed an equal number of attendees were CEO’s of small startups or independent consultants who provided technical services and support

* * *

Distance learning has been around for a very long time. Video-based instruction was used to train U.S. troops during World War II. Video conferencing, digital content, and eventually web-based instruction has demonstrated the ways in which distance education has evolved in parallel with evolving technologies.

Providing distance education has not only been a means for public institutions to offer degrees to new and underserved populations like adults who wanted to improve their employability, but it has also been a strategy for public institutions to increase revenue during times of declining high school graduation rates and economic recessions.

“Lots of trouble, lots of bubble”

For-profit institutions like the University of Phoenix, Kaplan, and Devry also recognized the potential of reaching new customers with online delivery- they were hugely profitable for a while, but criticisms of quality and shady financial practices, as well as competition from new entrants in the online space, have largely tempered their growth.

* * *

EdX is considered a MOOC platform. MOOC stands for Massive, Open, Online, Course. The term rose to popularity in (but existed prior to) 2012 when Stanford’s Sebastian Thrun decided to make his Artificial Intelligence course publicly open to online participants. Over 100,000 participants signed up. Thrun later launched the MOOC platform, Udacity. Around the same time, MIT launched “MITx,” a natural progression from its Open Courseware experiment (taking online content from MIT courses and making it freely available to the public).  This marked the beginning of what have been called “xMOOCs” (which also include Coursera).

In contrast, “cMOOC’s” (the “c” stands for “Connectivism”) predated xMOOC’s by a few years, as Canadian researchers George Siemens and Stephen Downes created online experiences around their Connectivist learning theory.  Proponents of cMOOC’s have criticized xMOOC’s because of the latter’s didactic, video-centered, low-on-Bloom’s-taxonomy, content-delivery format as opposed to the more constructivist participatory experiences embraced by cMOOC’s.

Eventually, MIT partnered with Harvard (and later Berkeley and countless others) to launch the EdX consortium. Shortly thereafter, they released the code to their platform (as “open EdX”).

“Somebody went under a dock, and there they saw a rock, it wasn’t a rock, it was a rock lobster!”

As is wont to occur, the “traditional” LMS providers began offering their own MOOC platforms. As this technology is all relatively new, many institutions have become “early adopters” of MOOC’s (mostly of the xMOOC variety) and their platforms in various forms and initiatives. Some of these experiments have failed, as in UC San Jose’s partnership with Udacity, while others have yielded interesting research results. Thus far, generalizations about success or ROI are hard to quantify (especially with the amount of capital that has been funneled into these initiatives).

It’s really interesting that EdX chose a much different path than its competition, namely, Udacity and Coursera. While the latter two sought to monetize, scale, and attract VC funding as quickly as possible, Agarwal chose instead to make EdX a non-profit and to open source the platform. This really sets EdX aside in terms of philosophical orientation.

The other thing that is interesting is that while it is very LMS-like, it was developed in the 2010’s, not the 1990’s or even the early or mid-2000’s. That means their strategic priorities were scalable architecture, minimalistic UI, and a focus on analytics. Add to that the active open source development community and central governance to ensure quality and versioning, and it is a potentially robust platform that can be customized with branding and bolt-ons without all the messiness of them trying to add random bloatware functionality to the core platform for many different customers. Hopefully, that continues to be true.

“Rock lobster!”


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