Coursera founder phones it in at open education conference

Coursera Infographic

#OpenEd2013 is the tenth annual installment of the premiere conference of the open education community, taking place right now in Utah. Open education is currently contested territory, with divisions highlighted yesterday by a flatfooted keynote from Andrew Ng, cofounder of Coursera, that played out to a baffled chorus of mockery on Twitter. Amid the jibes, there’s a serious issue at stake: will the future of education be dominated by a few closed platforms, and limited approaches to teaching, learning and knowledge, or will truly open innovation prevail?

Hope someone warned Ng that he can’t toe the standard Coursera line for #OpenEd13 talk. They have been doing this a lot longer than he has.— Amy Collier (@amcollier) November 6, 2013

Open education was first most closely identified with OER–digital educational resources such as MIT’s Open Courseware that carried an open license, such as the Creative Commons license, allowing them to be freely shared, reused and remixed. For self-identified open and connected educators, though, mostly from the higher ed world, openness wasn’t just a technical designation. They were concerned with democratizing education, making it accessible to all, peer-driven rather than hierarchical, emphasizing the fluid process of learning rather than the rigid gateways of accreditation–“an exploratory, community-created knowledge building process,” in the words of Athabasca University professor George Siemens. In this spirit, Siemens and Stephen Downes ran the first Massively Open Online Course, or MOOC, in 2008, with about 25 University of Manitoba students joined by 2500 students online. The topic–a bit meta– was “Connectivism and Connected Knowledge. ”

Today, of course, the term MOOC means something very, very different. From experiments pursued by a small group of learning and teaching enthusiasts, a handful of platforms — edX, Udacity, and Coursera— have emerged with tens of millions of dollars in backing from venture funders and foundations, hundreds of university partners, and millions of users. There is a dominant format for the MOOCs published by these platforms: they run from six to 14 weeks long, and consist of short video lecture “chunks” presented often by well-known professors, interspersed with multiple-choice comprehension questions, combined with readings, often homework assignments or an exam, and forums for discussion.

–I’m hoping Ng’s keynote is actually a bunch of short videos with intermittent quizzes. #opened13— Jonathan Becker (@jonbecker) November 6, 2013

Most of the MOOCs, while free to access currently, are not open-licensed–they are the intellectual property of the companies and institutions and thus can’t be downloaded, reused, or remixed freely.

–Why isn’t Coursera openly licensed? Ng says that its content creation costs too much money and that wouldn’t be sustainable #opened13 (sigh)— Audrey Watters (@audreywatters) November 6, 2013

Ng is the quieter of Coursera’s two cofounders. He’s also director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab, which means he has a deep intellectual interest in the growing field of “educational data mining,” learning research, training computers to grade essays and tracking student engagement. Coursera, like other large MOOC platforms, offers the opportunity to learn a great deal about the learning process, at least as it plays out online.

@jonbecker our analytics have determined your diminished interest and have now dispatched mentors to keep you engaged. #opened13— George Siemens (@gsiemens) November 6, 2013

His keynote, however, failed to address these research questions, and instead delivered a standard pitch about Coursera to people who are already quite aware of what it is. Also, unfortunately for a presentation on hybrid learning, there were technical problems.

–Oh the irony. Andrew Ng is Skyping in for his keynote at #opened13. So we’ve been asked to turn off devices to save bandwidth. MOOOOOOC!— Audrey Watters (@audreywatters) November 6, 2013

The irony is worth underlining: the OpenEd community, whose major criticism of MOOCs is that they enshrine the one-way, rigid lecture format, was asked not to respond via the open web while Ng was lecturing to them over a video link.

Within the open education world, as summarized by George Siemens’ keynote right after Ng’s, there are a range of feelings about MOOCs–both angst and hope. This is not just a group of hipsters who are upset that their favorite band suddenly got really popular, or merely professors angry that someone is turning their life’s work into a business.

–Sorry Dr Ng, but there are heaps of people who create engaging online learning inexpensively. Too bad you couldn’t meet them at #opened13— Brian Lamb (@brlamb) November 6, 2013

These are engaged, excited, experimental educators and learners, with values that they fear are getting lost as MOOCs get even more massive. They want their due as partners in the creation of a diverse and vital future of education.

@GardnerCampbell Ng’s talk had no sense of or much regard for its audience. Conversation would be great, but there’s a sense + #opened13 in which xMOOCers refuse to meaningfully engage thoughtful critiques that was symbolized by what went down #opened13 — Luke Waltzer (@lwaltzer) November 6, 2013

As the K-12 “connected educator” movement grows, this debate will be increasingly relevant across all levels of education. Do we want a future where mass market MOOCs and similar digital resources are primarily prepackaged and delivered to students via a vendor-like, consumption-based model? One that enshrines the several-week course and the talking-head lecturer as the central model of education? Or will more messy, diverse, participatory models of open education have the opportunity to spread and take root? Can the two approaches interact and maybe even reinforce each other?

This was clearly a missed opportunity to raise these questions and more.

–I’m dropping out of this keynote. #opened13— Jonathan Becker (@jonbecker) November 6, 2013