Stackable Credential Courses Are Not MOOCed

Waves are flat today on the East Coast. According to Jeffrey R. Young, edX, founded by MIT and Harvard, is planning to offer a MicroBachelors program as a logical complement to their MicroMasters.1 Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX, got it almost right when he said, “Education in five to ten years will become modular, will become omnichannel, and will become lifelong…. Modular is good because it can create new efficiencies and new scaling.”

Where he falls short is in the “omnichannel,” which boils down to required on-campus, F2F attendance. In this bait ‘n’ switch business model, the fully online options are teasers, the wide open end of a funnel that narrows to a tiny trickle at the campus end. Agarwal says, “The idea behind both MicroMasters and MicroBachelors is that they are ‘about putting stuff that can be done online, online.’” The assumption is that online is still a second-rate channel, incapable of delivering the right stuff.

Anant Agarwal, George Siemens, and Stephen Downes.

Young compares this “‘stackable’ credential” program to Arizona State University’s Global Freshman Academy, a joint venture with edX. He describes it as an “attempt to rebrand a concept that was once known as MOOCs, or massive open online courses.” By their own admission, GFA hasn’t been very successful. From the standpoint of these stackable programs, MOOCs are dead. 

The problem is that MOOC isn’t a buzzword, a brand, an approach, a model, a concept, or even a school of thought that can be dumped for the latest buzzword. As presented by its founders, George Siemens and Stephen Downes, it’s simply a universal descriptor, for want of a better word. It’s an acronym that defines the outer or extreme limits of the virtual context for learning. This context, or medium, is massive and theoretically includes the entire web. It’s open, meaning free and accessible to everyone. It’s completely online. And it can be configured or scaled into infinite shapes for an infinite number of courses.

MOOC is a simple template to assess or categorize online course and program designs. Overlaid on these stackables, for example, we can quickly gauge where the MicroBachelors and MicroMasters programs are failing to take full advantage of the online medium. The courses are massive, but only temporarily. They’re open, at first, but close soon enough. They’re online, but only in the beginning. The only criterion they satisfy is that they are courses. One out of four simply means they’re not optimized for online learning.

But what does “not optimized for online learning” mean? One way of looking at it is that they won’t be able to catch a good wave. Think of MOOC as the layout for a surf break. To catch a wave, you need to locate the lineup, or the spot where the waves are just about to break. This spot is a constant, determined by the geography of the underwater landscape. Although the spot is constant, the sweet spot varies depending on other conditions such as wind, tide, and general wave action. Thus, on the lineup, surfers are constantly reading the swells forming far out and gauging where the sweet spot will be. The first to get there and catch it owns the wave and has a great ride.

Applying this analogy to stackables, we see that they’re far from the lineup. They’re so far inshore that the only waves they can catch are the spent remnants of the larger waves that reach the shore. Not much of a ride in the choppy shore break.

1 Jeffrey R. Young, “EdX Quietly Developing ‘MicroBachelors’ Program,” EdSurge, 25 Jan. 2018.

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