Response to critiques of Open Course Educause article and the free economy generally

Earlier this year, while George Siemens and I were working our way through teaching the Edfutures course, we were contacted by the fine folks at the Educause review and asked to contribute an article on ‘the open course.’ I’ve been fortunate enough to run a few open courses now, some inside and some outside of the academy, and while we’ve yet to do formal research on the topic, I felt pretty comfortable taking a run at what is, in the sense that we mean ‘open course’ a very recent development. The article has recently been published, and while there has been some positive response ( willrich45and courosa for instance) one particular blogger has raised some valid concerns about some issues that may have been taken as read for that particular issue of educause… I thought i might address them here.

The post and the context
White i was wandering around looking for responses to the article I came across Suifaijohnmak’s Weblog post (well known connectivism thinker) and the first commenter struck a note with me and it occurred to me that talking a little about the reputational economy, the value of things being free and how ‘capital’ is more than simply throwing bits of change from my bucket of gold into your bucket of gold. I’ve tried to cut out the claims that the critic has made and structure them into three basic questions.

  1. How can we assess ‘value’ to an open course? How is an open course ‘different’ from ‘commodity education’?
  2. What are the motives of people who are hosting an open course?
  3. Why do so many people ‘leave’ an open course?

A few notes on our critic
Our critic ‘Ken’ has gone private on his blog since yesterday, and while I can’t imagine that the reason is because of this issue, it does seem fitting the anti-openness blogger has gone private. I will say that ‘Ken’ has been following this issue for a while as this post from google cache attests, which makes me feel like there is an issue here that is worth addressing. While the tone (as the author himself suggests) could have been a bit more productive

“A short ways into it [the open course article], what I starting reading/hearing was blablabla. (Started to gag).”
and then…
“Perhaps I offended some with my somewhat brash claims?”

The issues are important ones and are critical to resolve if the idea of openness is going to avoid some of the pitfalls pointed to in the Jim Groom and Brian Lamb article in the same educause issue.

The ‘Value’ of an open course

“Because commodities are little valued if they are free.”
“Sure, open courses up, make them free. Then they approach the value that their zero cost would suggest. “I still think that humans place high value on items that are scarce; when commodities become free-ish (I’m thinking about potable water in Canada) we tend to undervalue them.”
“And isn’t education a commodity in our systems?”

Leaving aside the issue of ‘how people are going to make money’ to a later question, what is the difference between the MOOC model and the commodity model. In thinking about an example for this distinction i came back to Socrates again for some reason. In ancient Greece, there was a distinction between the ‘sophists’ who were paid to teach people, and people who would speak to people who would listen to them, Socrates being an example. I think there is a reification of the idea of ‘education’ in Ken’s comments that make the discussion more complicated. Education is a complex word that includes the content of the course, the structure of the institution, the teacher and their expertise, and the accreditation that goes with it. Of these, the accreditation seems to to have the most ‘commoditiness’… followed by the content.

The MOOC model, really the openness model generally, takes the commodity out of the content of education. It does not address accreditation. Maybe it should, but I don’t think we have that sorted… and I’m not sure it should be sorted out.

What are the motives of people who are hosting an open course?

No, this term was actually created by Siemens and Downes as part of the salesmanship in relation to the course. “(Now I’m guessing you’re going to say they don’t intend to get rich from their endeavours!)” “But at the end of the day, aren’t these [gnu/linux, open courses] both still business models upon which some people make a living/profit etc?”

I wont speak to the motives of anyone other than myself. I would love to make lots of money doing the work that I love doing. I have two kids, I love to travel… I like having the income to be able to do the things that I like to do. I have a company that does some consulting on education, and have found that my openness has lead to contracts and connections that have been very useful to me. I am working on a career, and the work that I do in open courses will probably positively contribute to that career.

That being said, there is no specific connection between that and the work that I do on a given course. I freely contribute my time to some courses, and am paid to teach others. I ‘believe’ that working in the open makes my own work better, gives me broader access to other people’s idea and, well, i find it fun.

Why do people not stay in these courses

So bragging about a large initial enrolment number is just b/s and illusory. “The section on filtering that you refer to seems to be merely conjecture on your part. I could equally ‘conjecture’ that participants left the course because it held little value for them. Spinning this as ‘filtering’ seems to sugarcoat this issue.”

I think there are a number of issues that contribute to the decline in participation. First, i think i need to better understand how to facilitate to 1000 people. There are a number of things that we’re starting to believe might work, and I’m part of several research projects right now exploring those ideas and trying to find better ways to get people involved. Second, the goal of an open course is NOT to have everyone finish the course. It’s open, people can choose to take as much, or as little of the course as they like. The responsibility for the course resides with the student. Third, either the open course is ‘not for everyone’ or people are going to take time before they are able to take accept the responsibility for finding their own way in a course. It is a very difficult kind of learning for some people. Fourth, and finally, i think the filtering thing is true. I believe that people take an open course without spending much time considering it, only to find that they don’t really want to study for whatever reason.

Some final thoughts.
Because we want the content to be open, and we want people to be able to participate, does not mean that we are offering ‘charity’. Openness is usually even more valuable to the person being open. Some people call this ‘karma’ and others are more cynical and claim that ‘openness’ is disingenuous. Maybe that’s because those of us who are open aren’t clear enough about why…

I am open because i believe that working in the open makes me better. It makes my ideas better. It helps me professionally. It makes me friendships.

Author: dave

I run this site... among other things.

25 thoughts on “Response to critiques of Open Course Educause article and the free economy generally”

  1. In the parlance of business, I talk about “community ROI” (return on investment), from participating in open source communities.

    However you frame it, I think there is a “return” on open-ness. Some times it is direct (I saw / experienced your work / course and would like to hire you to do something for me) and some times it is indirect (building your career / reputation / karma).

  2. Hi Dave,

    As one of the students in the open course run by yourself and George, my two cents on the issue of high dropout rates is this:

    As the course was free (ie. open), with no established ‘accreditation’ resulting from successful completion or penalty for incompletion (ie. open) and no pre-fabricated right or wrong answers to the issues raised in the course (ie. open), students could, as you say, glean what they needed from the course and then invest no further.

    To me this is a good thing — compared to a ‘commodity’ course, in which students pay to learn to produce the ‘right’ answers so that they can be rewarded with marketable accreditation, itself a valued commodity. Dropouts in the commodity context would be doubly punished, losing both the value of their initial financial investment as well as the potential value of the unearned accreditation. So the commodity context incentivizes successful completion more than the open context — but not necessarily successful ‘learning’ — which I define here as critical engagement with the ideas under study and access to contradictory perspectives regarding those.

    The open context allowed for more diversity of opinion and challenging of perspectives put forth by the course and instructors. I remember with a smile the debates that ensued among instructors and participants during the ‘creative and/versus critical thinking’ section of the course — which, as with many of the issues under study, concluded with no single ‘right’ answer, but which I’m sure expanded the thinking around these issues for those who participated.

    So I think there are two different value systems at play here, and a simple comparison of statistical data such as registration or dropout rates is insufficient to draw conclusions about the success, or lack thereof, of the open course format.

    Personally, I thought the open course did the best job I’ve seen of transparently applying learning theories — in particular by privileging learner needs over institutional or financial needs (bums in seats), and I walked away with a treasure trove of resources, ideas and connections which will be of value to me as I move forward in building my own knowledge around my chosen career path.

    But then I’m one of those people who is less interested in using education to get a job than to build my own practice as I see fit.


  3. Hello Dave. Thank you for being so candid about your motivations for forwarding the open course agenda. I will corral my tone and attempt to achieve greater productivity in this discussion, as you wish. I apologize profusely to you and anyone else who found my previous remarks inelegant. I think you have done a nice job in isolating three main points that I was trying to make in my critique.

    1. It is important (for me, at least) to know that educators/business-owners are one of, if not the primary beneficiaries of open courses as you have noted. You have identififed a number of ways in which you benefit: financial, social, professional etc. Why is it important for an open educator to be candid about their motivations?

    2. I still am unsatisfied that you have dealt with the issue of drop-out rate sufficiently. At this point you have only offered a belief as fact. How is it that you have formed this belief?

    3. You relied on a quote from MIT regarding their open courseware program:

    “MIT began with the realization that they were “not going to try to make money” from their content.1″

    The suggestion is that MIT is not selling the content, but the interaction, debate etc., hence no problem in making the course content open. They still charge for the interaction and debate, I assume. And are they not including accreditation in their price?

    Interestingly, in the CCK08 course, 18 or so students received accreditation for the course, which was one of several courses required to attain a certficate in ed-learning technologies through an accredited university. Those students, as I noted in the blog post you referenced, continued their participation throughout the course. Is it possible they sought accreditation primarily? Is it possible that accreditation (although you place a low value on it) has a high value amongst students? Is it possible that education has become reified as accreditation? Is that so bad?

  4. Regarding the ‘motive’ behind the coining of the term MOOC, I can say that it was coined after the course had reached more than 1700 sign-ups, and hence was rather more of a descriptive term than a marketing term.

    Piror to the course, neither of us expected more than a couple dozen people to be interested enough to sign up, and we would have been quite happy with that level of participation. That said, having 2200 people sign up, and being able to deal with that, showed us that we were on to something special.

  5. Question for the pro-accreditation folks — and the question did come up and remained an undercurrent throughout the course — as accreditation requires evaluation, and as the course was being given by the instructors on their own time, how would such evaluation (and accreditation) be done for such a large group?


  6. Some ideas that have been swimming around and deserve more time to distill/ferment….

    * Is the “massive” part really important? Why must an open course have hundreds, thousands to be valuable?

    *it seems most of the example open courses are courses *about* open courses or edtech. I’m curious where the ones about history, art, math are (yes, Stephen did a logic one)

    * As someone who has only peripherally participated, I am seeing a value judgement via the words “drop out” “people not staying in courses”. It seems to be using the mindset of a traditional course in what is being pitched as untraditional. What is wrong with choosing some minimal or micro level to be in an open course? Is the only way to get something out of such a course is to be an active over-achiever in the forums? Why am I a no good drop out if I choose to pick the parts that interest me and leave the rest? Is it open or not, cause I smell a wee bit of hypocrisy if the assumption is I have to have a high attendance rate in an open course.

    Sure it makes sense that people doing this for official credit are going to have the extrinsic carrot motivation to be active. Frankly, I think a sign of a successful course might be ones where people who are not in it for credit have some staying power (if that is critical) or contribute a lot.

  7. Alan… bringing the business.

    No. Massive is not necessarily important exactly, but it sure does change the way that you have to act as a facilitator. I also think that there are possibilities at a larger scale that aren’t present at a smaller scale. The class I just taught was, in my mind, an open course, and we had 16 people in it.

    I think there are fields that are going to respond better than others. we’re going to be running one on analytics (and… educational) in the winter which should present some challenges.

    You’re probably also right about the drop out issue. I was trying to address the issue, and probably should have worded it better.

  8. @Alan Levine “it seems most of the example open courses are courses *about* open courses or edtech. I’m curious where the ones about history, art, math are”…

    “people doing this for official credit are going to have the extrinsic carrot motivation to be active”…

    I was recently enrolled in a 2 week course taught by Dave, and I had the same thoughts. Since completing the course, I have been considering the different ways I can incorporate openness into the subject I teach, (Video Game Art & Design).

    Unlike other areas of artistic expression, there are very few “published” teaching resources I can use in my classes. By that I mean things like software, DVDs and books. Dave’s course showed me that I ought to be using technology to go directly to my contacts in the games industry rather than waiting for one of them to write a book.

    I’ve also observed some of my students entering the workforce without the necessary social skills for professional communication in the digital age. Openness might be the carrot on the stick that helps them fix this.

    For me, the benefits of openness are to expose my students to resources that aren’t accessible through last-century channels, and to encourage them to join the community which they hope will eventually employ them as graduates.

  9. Hi Dave. The responses are running in favour of your concepts of openness etc. and clearly your work is valued by many. The comments have caused me to review what I have learned from participating in CCK08 etc.

    I must say that I learned a lot about many concepts and tools I had not come across in depth before, but perhaps the best learning for me was through the discussions/debates on various topics. The social media affords me (and others) the opportunity to express views and opinions in an open forum wherein challenges can be made and received and both serve to assist in self-development, IMHO. Sharing ideas and content with a very diverse group (geographic, ideology etc) is to me the great benefit of being connected through the web.

    Folks such as yourself, who take the initiative to organize studies/provide the opportunity to bring groups together are to be commended for your efforts. The issues of accreditation/drop-out are difficult to understand and resolve, if in fact a resolution of sorts is even to be considered a good thing. It appears that there are different needs by different folks and it is good that these needs can be met through the different means of accreditation/non-accreditation etc.

  10. I’d like to add to Alan’s questioning of the concept of “drop-out.” It’s highly likely the majority of enrollments stemmed from the viral amplification of the significance of the course for influencing the future acceptance of alternative models of teaching and learning. Enrollments skyrocketed as the course was promoted through blogs and Twitter. The water-cooler conversations were around, “Are you participating in the MOOC?”

    George was a keynote speaker at a local conference during the course, and I had the privilege of sitting with him and joining in one of the live Elluminate sessions. I questioned the tracking of referral sources for enrolling students, as well as the relevance of prior knowledge, based on the fact that so many had heard about the course through media central to the participation in the course.

    I think it is important to consider motivation for enrollment. How many of us enrolled so we could be a part of something big? How many enrolled because of social influence or reputation management? How many enrolled because of research interest? How many enrolled as doubters, hoping to observe failure? I doubt there is ground to consider relevance of “drop-outs,” in the traditional, academic sense. Enrollment, for many, was parallel to wearing a “cause” bracelet. We wanted to show support and interest, and promote the concept, but never intended to participate as traditional students. I’m not a drop-out, I’m a learner.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.