© The Greening of Gavin, 2012

Well, 2012 was certainly the year of the MOOC. Audrey Watters provides a comprehensive overview of what happened with MOOCs in 2012, so I won’t repeat what she has done. Instead in this post I will focus mainly on trying to explain with regards to MOOCs what appears to me to be highly irrational organizational behaviour, more akin to lemmings than pillars of higher learning.

Why MOOCs?

For those of us who work mainly in universities and colleges, the hype around MOOCs is like living in two parallel universes: what we do every day in online learning, and what we read or hear about in the media. (I leave you to judge which is the true reality.) Even organizations that should know better think that online learning started at MIT in 2002 with OpenCourseWare. So why have MOOCs in particular got so much press?

This is an exercise in social anthropology.

To quote from Wikipedia:

It is unknown why lemming populations fluctuate with such variance roughly every four years, before plummeting to near extinction.

Now some evidence suggests their predators’ populations, particularly the stoat, may be more closely involved in changing the lemming population

Lemmings can swim and may choose to cross a body of water in search of a new habitat. In such cases, many may drown if the body of water is so wide as to stretch their physical capability to the limit.

 I believe there are several themes that have led to MOOC hysteria in 2012:

  • they appear to be free. The direct costs of higher education, especially but not only in the USA and the UK, have been systematically transferred from the tax payer to the individual student or parents through cuts in government funding and increases in tuition fees. In other words, the cost of higher education has become more transparent. It’s really expensive. Free of course is better than expensive. MOOCs have been promoted as being free. However, there are no free services. All services have a true cost. At least to date, MOOCs are the opposite of transparency on the true cost. We do know that over a hundred million dollars have been invested this year alone in MOOCs, but what are the costs of the professors’ time, the cost of managing large numbers of students, and above all, the cost of ensuring student learning (however it is measured)? We just don’t know. Until we do, it’s a shell game
  • it’s also a numbers game: input matters more than output. The focus of the media has been on the massive numbers enrolling. However, there has been little focus on what students are actually learning. All we know is that completion rates are pathetic (less than 10%), and many of those that do complete are already well educated. Nevertheless it is argued that on a global perspective, the completion numbers are still large. However, so are the numbers in traditional higher education, and also in credit-based online learning. Sloan and Babson have been tracking the online credit numbers for years. They have been growing at a steady rate of between 12-20% a year. Ontario alone has over 500,000 online course registrations in its public universities and colleges, with completion rates in the 75-85%, matching completion rates in face-to-face classes. Millions are taking online courses for credit in Asia. But does this get mass coverage in the media? No.
  • technology triumphs over teaching: MOOCs in general have been driven by computer scientists who believe that just ‘delivering’ content over the Internet equates to learning. It doesn’t, but broadcast content delivery is something that lazy reporters can easily understand.
  • it’s all about the elite institutions. The media love to focus on the ivy league universities to the almost total neglect of the rest of the system (the cult of the superstar). Here is an appalling irony. The top tier research universities have by and large ignored online learning for the last 15 years. Suddenly though when MIT, Stanford and Harvard jump in, all the rest follow like lemmings. MOOCs are seen as an easy, low risk way for these universities not only to catch up, but to jump into the front line. But they are hugely wrong. Moving from broadcasting to learning is not going to be easy. More importantly, MOOCs are a side issue, a distraction. The real change for universities is going to come from hybrid learning – a mix of on-campus and online learning. Those top tier research universities though are going to miss out on this, by sidelining their online learning to a peripheral, continuing education activity.
  • don’t forget the politics: There’s just been a presidential election in the USA. A number of corporate leaders and some in the Republican party want to privatize the US higher education system. Anything that will undermine it is heavily promoted. MOOCs to some extent have been a tool in the hands of the media for suggesting that education need not be expensive and could be ‘free’, or at least much lower cost, if left to business. This fits the agenda of the right.

Having said all this, I believe that there is a future for MOOCs, but that’s for another post, my outlook for 2013, which comes in January.

In the meantime, there were, believe it or not, several other interesting developments in online learning, but before exploring those as well, let’s see how right I was in my outlook for 2012.

What I predicted

  1. The year of the tablet: 99% probability
  2. Learning analytics: 90% probability
  3. Growth of open education: 70% probability (depending on definition of open education)
  4. Disruption of the LMS market: 60% probability
  5. Integration of social media into formal learning: 66% probability
  6. The digital university: 10% probability
  7. Watch India
  8. The great unknown: 10% probability

Well, not a great record at prediction. I suppose you could include MOOCs within ‘growth of open education’. But look at what I actually wrote:

open access to high quality (all right, highly qualified) instructors is likely to be limited to idealistic volunteers, or to limited events (e.g. a MOOC), mainly because of a mis-match between supply and demand. Too many people want access to what they may incorrectly assume to be high quality instructors at elite institutions, for instance. This is partly an institutional barrier, as institutions try to protect their ‘star’ faculty, which is why this form of openness depends largely on individual volunteers.

Not actually wrong, but it certainly didn’t capture the mania that would develop around MOOCs in 2012.

Although there have been lots of interesting individual uses of tablets, particularly in k-12, they certainly haven’t taken off to the extent to which I predicted, at least in post-secondary education. However, so much in prediction depends on timing – maybe it will happen this year. For instance, mobile learning, one of my predictions for 2011, certainly expanded in many institutions in 2012, and will certainly continue to grow in 2013. The use of data analytics definitely increased, but still in a minority of institutions, in 2012, but learning analytics are still being used by a very tiny minority. The technology isn’t quite ready yet. (Again, this depends on definition – I’m talking about the hope that learning analytics will help instructors to achieve better learning outcomes, or put another way, will help students to improve their learning.)

What you read

Another way at looking at 2012 is to see what you chose to read. There are just over 1,800 posts on the site. Here are the top 14 posts in 2012, with the number of hits. (If you missed one, just click on it.)

Recommended graduate programs in e-learning


What’s right and what’s wrong about Coursera-style MOOCs


e-learning outlook for 2012: will it be a rough ride?


New technologies for e-learning in 2012 (and a little beyond)


A short critique of the Khan Academy


Can you teach ‘real’ engineering at a distance?


What Is Distance Education?


Why learning management systems are not going away


E-learning quality assurance standards, organizations and research


A personal view of e-learning in Saudi Arabia


A student guide to studying online


10 types of plagiarism (and why I’m pleading guilty to at least one charge)


Daniel’s comprehensive review of MOOC developments


Designing online learning for the 21st century


The numbers of course are skewed by their date of  posting. Those posted early in the year have more chance of being accessed than those posted later. Timing also matters in terms of external events. Despite all the hype about MOOCs, only two of the top 14 posts were specifically on MOOCs (although there were several others posted). I am though surprised at the amount of interest in prediction, especially given how bad I am at it!

The inclusion of ‘Can you teach real engineering at a distance?’ at no. 6 is really interesting. This was posted originally on July 5, 2009, but it has sustained a long discussion that is still active today. I was also pleased to see that designing online learning for the 21st century squeezed in, as this was about design of online learning. I’m glad there’s still at least some interest in this issue. There is also evidence that the site is being used by  a lot of online students (or potential students), which is very gratifying. I need to do more posts targeted to students next year.

What I did

Since I’m not free and open (except here), this is some indication of what institutions were interested in this year (at least enough to pay me for it).

Site visits for consultancies or discussions with faculty/staff on strategies or designs for online learning

  • Mexico City: to develop a business plan for a national Mexican virtual university
  • Edmonton: Campus St-Jean, University of Alberta: informal review of online learning activities
  • Université de Sherbrooke, l’université Laval and Université de Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue, Québec
  • Vancouver Community College, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, and University of British Columbia, BC
  • University of Manitoba, Winnipeg
  • EFQUEL conference, Granada, Spain
  • COHERE conference, Calgary, Alberta

Online consultancies

MOOCs and Webinars

  • planning and managing online learning: participant in #Change 11 cMOOC
  • costs of online learning: guest instructor for University of Maryland University College/University of Oldenberg, Germany
  • Elections Canada: online course design

Institutional site visits and reports on gamechanging institutions

  • Western Governors University
  • Open University, UK
  • Open University of Catalonia, Spain
  • London Knowledge lab, Institute of Education, London, UK.

It can be seen there was a great deal of interest in:

  • strategies and management,
  • new course designs,
  • design and organization of online institutions,
  • the costs of online learning

during 2012. These issues are not likely to disappear next year, either.

Politics and economics

In 2012, there were major developments in both the politics and economics of online learning. Governments in the USA and Europe accelerated cost cutting in post-secondary education. Nearly one billion dollars has been cut from the community college system in California alone since 2008. Student tuition fees have risen dramatically over the last five years in both the USA and the U.K. Even in Canada, provincial governments are facing the need to constrain public funding.

In Ontario, Canada’s largest province, the government threw down a challenge to the post-secondary institutions. Enrollments will need to increase, quality must be obtained, but there will be no new money. What can the institutions do to increase productivity through innovation? It’s a good question. Business cannot go on as usual. There is surely room for improvement and change in our institutions.

This theme is likely to continue into 2013. Governments, parents and increasingly students will be looking to online learning to increase productivity: better learning outcomes for less money. Are we up to the challenge?

Goodbye, 2012

I asked the question last year: will it be a rough ride? It’s certainly been a fast ride and quite bumpy at the same time. I don’t know how you feel, but I feel I’m hanging on, but only just. It’s good though that it’s exciting, stimulating, infuriating, and frustrating. It means that online learning is alive and well, growing in both breadth and more importantly depth.

So to all my readers, thank you for coming along for the ride. Have a great break, merry Christmas, happy Hanukah, or just have a good time, whatever your religion or beliefs. And I look forward to sharing my outlook for 2013 in the new year.


1. What pleased, surprised or disappointed you in 2012 with regard to online learning?

2. What do you think was the most important development in 2012 for online learning? Obama’s re-election? MOOCs? New course designs? Or something else?

3. Are we up to the challenge of using online learning to increase productivity through innovation? If so, what would that look like?


  1. Dear Tony
    Excellent article as always .
    I am very glad that you see a future at MOOC . I call it only NEW ONLINE = NOL

    I see future only in EDX Non profit by most elite univerwsities of the world .

    Why :
    1.- Their courses are the same as oncampus courses, that means when edx provides degrees they will provide the same education to online students as well . That means MITx degree = MIT Degree . Sure employers will make the distinction about 2 . But that is not too much . USA needs HE for 18-22 years olds to get a degree and job .

    2.- EDX will attract enough students in the world to make cost nill, therefore EDX will charge also a small fee.

    3.- MIT is capable of creating authentication of the students software and automatic grading software . Both are developing in many places . MIT can do the best .

    4.- EDX is expanding its size accepting less competitive ( I do not want to say that , but not everybody can go to MIT and Harvard, therefore EDX need some less competitive schools too . ) schools such as University of Texas, Wellesley, Georgetown .

    5.- Brand name is important for employers , therefore edx will win . ( Tony does not believe that elite universities can also have good teachers )

    6.- My model, suggested 10 years ago , that is now 2U model. 10 schools got together to share their online courses and degree programs .
    So I suggest edx schools should share online courses among themselves and should start awarding degrees . A student registered at one school can get courses from any edx school but eventually he gets his degree from the registered school . This way edx can start awarding degrees within 3 years .

    Thanks billion Tony :
    Please help NEW ONLINE Initiative started by edx .

    Sorry to say that Coursera will be a fad . They do not offer real university courses . They do not select good school to join them . People complain the quality of the courses . Still no business model to finance .
    They emphisize the MASSIVENESS , but there is nothing massive . DUKE has 2.5 % finish rate . They could keep their name with only elite schools . Most elite school will leave soon .

  2. Stephen Downes reminded me something about old online for 15 years.

    2.- 1,300 schools provide online courses and degrees too , at $ 1,500 per course or more
    3.- For profits made a huge money on it, more than $ 1 billion by one school in one year
    4.- LOANS got to $ 1 trillion yes trillion
    5.- Quality is discussable, but mainly not good .
    6.- Therefore elite schools did not come to close to online business.

    7.- In 2001 MIT has started investigation by opencourseware project .
    8.- MIT has reached to 100,000,000 students and teachers globally
    9.- MIT realised that they should go to ONLINE since ONLINE IS FOR MILLIONS .
    And MIT can attract and reach to millions . Then cost is nill .
    10.- Therefore they declared first online course in December 2011 before any MOOCs are around .
    EDX is not a MOOC . They are unique .
    11.- They do not want to disrupt the existing system, therefore they go very carefully and strategicly
    12.- Eventually they will provide degrees too
    13.- Harvard is smart . Harvard has seen online with MIT platform is perfect they joined the club.
    14.- MIT is very selective to choose new partners . So they choice Berkeley.
    15.- They needed some less competitive schools too, therefore Uni of TEXAS and Wellesley and Georgetown joined too .
    16.- Now I propose an edx degree . Students can get online courses from edx schools with the help of an advisor , when he completes 40 courses he gets an EDX Degree. That is very valuable degree .
    17. Fees for courses will be $ 10-50 per course. Then a degree will cost 40 x 50 = $ 2,000 for a BA .
    Beautiful . In 2020 I expect 100,000 degrees will be awarded and in 2025 1,000,000 degrees
    18. Tony says edx has many defects in instructional design etc. So I wish Tony helps edx in those areas .
    It is his obligation to the society. It is a social responsibility on his part . Tony has 15 years of online experience .
    I cross my finger for the progress of edx .

    • Thanks, Muvaffak – your comments are always welcome.

      Just one point of clarification: MIT certainly does not need me to improve its edX courses. They have the resources, and there are plenty of people around Boston who can provide the instructional design help needed. I suspect (although I don’t know) that edX is already doing this.
      The key point here is that teaching is not just about technology; it’s about learning, and online instruction needs to take account of what we already know works (and doesn’t work) with regard to online learning.
      If edX is using teams of subject matter experts, educational designers, and IT specialists, then they will prevail. If not, like many other ivy league initiatives in online learning before them, they will fail, due to their own hubris.
      I do hope for the sake of learners everywhere that edX does succeed.

  3. Thanks Tony.

    (1) Re: the definition of OER. I recommend Hewlett’s OER definition: http://www.hewlett.org/programs/education-program/open-educational-resources

    “OER are teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others.”

    That is, for an educational resource to be “open” it must be both gratis (available at no-cost) and libre (everyone has the legal rights to re-purpose the resource). An OER cannot be freely available *or* openly licensed – it must be both freely available *and* openly licensed (or in the public domain) to be an OER.

    (2) MOOCs may be open admissions and “free”… but they have not yet become OER – see definition above. For a MOOC course to be “open content” or OER – it must have an open licnese that legally empowers everyone to: reuse, revise, remix and redistribute the MOOC course. That said, Creative Commons is working with / talking to all of the major MOOCs to help them enable CC licensing on their platforms. With a simple pull down menu, MOOC platforms could make it simple for contributing Universities / Colleges / faculty to add a CC license to their course.

    See CC’s post on this: Keeping MOOCs Open: http://creativecommons.org/weblog/entry/34852

    Happy Holidays!

    Cable Green
    Director of Global Learning
    Creative Commons

    • Many thanks for this, Cable.

      This is really important because MOOCs could go either way: a free and open resource, or a ‘free’ resource that is licensed to a private company that can restrict the contexts in which the materials are used.

  4. […] 1) The xMOOC movement caused a level of mania, hysteria and irrational decision-making by numerous educators in 2012.  It also sparked controversy, discussion, change—just what is needed to address the challenges facing education. Audrey Watters of Hack Education wrote a stellar summary, the Year of the MOOC, chronicling developments over the entire year. From another perspective, Tony Bates wrote a thoughtful piece, ‘Why MOOCs?’ in his year-end post Online learning in 2012: a retrospective.  […]

  5. Thanks Tony for another provocative article.
    You claim that “lower cost” fits into the business agenda to undermine public education. Isn’t it sad that lower cost not only
    does not fit into the public education educators’ agenda, but seems to be anathema to it. If this attitude continues to prevail among public educators then the business agenda will surely win. AND they deserve to win. Why do all too many of us in the public sector believe that lowering costs is somehow “evil”.

    The task, I believe, for educators of the 21st century is to find many ways of educating many more millions and billions of students. How can we do this if we don’t consider how to reduce per student costs? You can look at the reality from one angle or you can look at it from another angle or from many angles, but the bottom line is that the present system, even present hybrid systems are not capable of providing learning opportunities to those that need it. Cost effectiveness is crucial. We need to find the means to deliver quality education to masses of learners. MOOCs point to one (or several) way of doing this. OERu points to another.
    Happy Xmas to all
    All the best in the New Year.

    • Thanks, Rory.

      You are absolutely right: we do need to find ways to reduce the costs of higher education so that it is more accessible, and more productive.

      The challenge is doing so while maintaining quality, in terms of the kinds of students it helps develop. This will vary from country to country, but in economically advanced (but perhaps economically declining) Western countries, that means producing high quality independent learners with a range of skills that include critical thinking, originality, and good communications skills. We also need highly skilled tradespeople, also with the higher order learning skills. And we need lots of people with these skills, not just a small elite.

      However, too often, low-cost’ solutions aim at the lowest common denominator in learning: memorization and reproduction. To get the higher order learning skills, you need some kind of transactional process that involves often an expert or skilled facilitator, and that costs money. Just providing content for free doesn’t cut it, although it can help reduce costs.

      I think there are possibilities to reduce costs, but mainly through organizing resources differently, through open educational resources, through better management, and probably a sharper distinction between different institutions, in terms of their goals and learning outputs (i.e. teaching vs research). But the transactional nature of learning is a tough one in terms of cost reduction.

      I do feel that there is a growing acceptance even in academia that costs are too high and need to be controlled. The fear though is loss of ‘quality’, however that is defined. My main point is that it isn’t going to be as easy to reduce costs without losing quality as some like to suggest, but it is possible. But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.


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