I was amused while reading the comments associated with stories of the latest comings and goings within the Coursera and edX executive suites how many people still think MOOCs might immediately decimate the higher education landscape in order to reap insane profits for greedy top-hatted venture capitalists.
I suppose such disruption might someday occur (just as I suppose I may one day get that jetpack futurists promised me back in the 1970s). But now that we are past both the Gartner Hype Cycle's "Peak of Inflated Expectations" and the "Trough of Disillusionment" regarding large-scale open education, perhaps some perspective is warranted.
For we now know that MOOCs are not appropriate for all types of learners, and even for those of us comfortable working in a large-scale online learning environment they have their plusses and minuses. At the same time, the world's great colleges and universities giving their courses away to the world for free hardly seems like some hideous nightmare that needs to be stopped at all cost.
When thinking through historical transformations, one of my favorite ways to get some bearing is to look at an historic change through the eyes of someone who did not modify his or her position or disposition, regardless of the fact that consensus was dramatically transforming around them, be they Cato the Younger (who refused to budge as Rome turned from Republic to Empire) or the guys that kept manufacturing typewriters up until a year after the iPad was released.
It dawned on me that I had fallen into a similar role last year when I found myself transforming into the ardent defender of MOOCs, railing against a string of backlash stories that came in the wake of changes over at Udacity.
The reason why this unanticipated behavior fits into the model I just mentioned for studying historic change is that my Degree of Freedom project was designed to inject some perspective -- derived from ground-level experience -- into a MOOC debate which (during my Freshman and Sophomore years) was characterized by an excess of zeal from MOOC supporters eager to see this new learning medium immediately put on par with attending class at a residential college.
As just noted, such calls today seem like rhetorical excess amplified through an educational and general media eager to blend technical utopianism with a desire to "stick it" to hoity-toity colleges that were ripping off America's youth. But as my One Year BA project moved from Sophomore to Junior year, it was weird watching the ground shift beneath me as rhetorical excess started migrating to those who felt the MOOC experiment was a danger to the entire educational edifice (delivered with the impression that the sooner the whole thing passes into oblivion the better). The thing was, these critics had something important in common with earlier MOOC zealots: lack of experience taking a single MOOC course to completion.
From the vantage point of someone who never budged from my cautious optimism over what MOOCs might eventually become, I'd like to point out that even if massive open courses have not made free learning for all available yesterday, they have raised the bar in online education, created an environment whereby educators eager to teach as many people as possible are given the opportunity to do so, and given hundreds of thousands of people the ability to study serious subjects seriously. And while such successes hardly translate to an educational Utopia, neither do they sound like the stuff of a dystopian vision of education.
So perhaps now is the time to step back, take a deep breath, and make our way hand-in-hand up the Slope of Enlightenment.