Wednesday, November 20, 2013

SPOCs are illogical

Angry Spock (Star Trek reboot)
OK, OK... the title was easy pickings but this article is quite serious.  I've chosen to ignore, for the most part, the whole idiocy of the term SPOC (small private online course).  SPOCs are really just "regular" online courses, as I've written in my one other post about SPOCs. It bothers me that there is so much revisionist history around the topic of "traditional" online education with articles such as these where organizations like Colorado State University claim to be "pioneers" in SPOCs since they've been doing online education for the past five years.  A whole five years? Our fully online Applied Linguistics MA has been around for eight years, and our overall organization, UMassOnline, has been around for about ten years doing "SPOCs." Maybe we are pioneers too, who knows, but it's really difficult to critically discuss MOOCs, traditional online education and flipped classrooms when people muddle the water with SPOCs, another useless acronym that overlaps with currently existing terms.

So, I was pretty content to just ignore SPOCs, but this blog post came across my twitter feed (I think courtesy of EDCMOOC) that I couldn't ignore from a philosophical perspective. Well, it was this article, and the mentioning of the term from a colleague of mine which made me almost gag that really was the impetus for this post. So, in this article SPOC has been succinctly defined as:

The term “SPOC” has been used to describe both experimental MOOC courses where enrollment was limited as well as packaging options whereby academic institutions can license MOOC content for professors to use as components in their traditional courses.
This is a good place to point out that an "experimental MOOC" is redundant.  ALL MOOCs at this point are experimental.  We haven't cracked this nut, so we're experimenting with large scale online courses and various evaluation mechanisms in an environment where we're not worried about accreditation and academic honesty as much.  Sure, we pay lip service to academic honesty by clicking the little "I am in compliance with the honor code" button, but at the end of the day no one is risking their reputation, as far as academic honesty, retention and measurable outcomes, goes.

Beyond the whole experimental thing, I should point out, and will go into a little more elaboration later on in this post, that MOOCs and licensing are antithetical to one another.  Part of MOOC is Open.  We can argue all day about what "Open" really means, but at the end of the day the Open in MOOC was intended to be Free to use, Free to Remix,  Free Repurpose, Free to Feed Forward. But for now, let's focus on the limited enrollment:
One of the most successful limited-enrollment MOOC/SPOC classes was CopyrightX from Harvard that only allowed 500 who made it through an application process to enroll. The course was still free, but students who took part were expected to be full participants (not auditors or dabblers), and the combination of limited enrollment and a decent-sized teaching staff meant that students could be given research and writing assignments that would be graded by teachers vs. peers.
Last summer I was having a chat with a respected friend and colleague, over beers, after the end of Campus Technology 2013. My colleague works for an entity that deals in MOOCs, and the organization does cap courses for one reason or another.  When I discovered this, I shot off the first volley and proclaimed that those courses weren't MOOCs if they prevented more than X-amount of people to sign-up. An interesting discussion ensued whereby I was able to work out and better articulate (and understand) my own positions on MOOCs and course caps.  At the end of a very interesting discussion this is what I came up with:  It's perfectly fine to have an enrollment cap in a MOOC if it's about one of two things: (1) You are either unsure of the various technology pieces and thus you can to hold some variables constant while you stress test your system.  After all, you don't want a repeat of the Georgia Tech MOOC #Fail. And, (2) the other acceptable, for me anyway, reason to cap the course is to experiment with some sort of new pedagogy, design or technique and you want to make sure that you aren't juggling too many things; thus having fewer students is preferable to research purposes.

That said, even with lower course caps, this doesn't make it any less of a MOOC.  After all, as I have argued in previous posts, Massive is relative. Some courses will garner 100,000 students because the barriers to entry are lower, and others will only get 100 because the barrier to entry, such as previous knowledge that is discipline specific, is pretty high.  Further more, the CopyrightX course isn't really a MOOC, in my book.  Not because of course cap, but the way they approached the course.  They expected each and every student to participate based on their own rules, and they treated the course like a web-version of a large, auditorium delivered, course. This came part and parcel with the assistants that they had to help out in the course. This wasn't a MOOC. Perhaps it was more along the lines of a traditional online course, but calling it anything other than a free traditional online course is disingenuous and shows that there is no understanding of past precedents.  Next we have the who sticky issue of licensing.
 The licensing of edX content to San Francisco State College that caused such a ruckus earlier this year represents the other phenomenon being commonly referred to under the name SPOC.  In that case, the same material you or I would see if we enrolled in a MOOC class (such as the lecture videos, quizzes and assignments associated with Michael Sandel’s HarvardX Justice course) would be given to professors who would be free to pick it apart and put it back together in order to customize their own classes in a way that represented their preferred combination of their own teaching resources and third-party materials.
I have two problems with the notion of licensing of MOOC content.  Both of my issues are philosophical. First, as I said above, we've established that MOOCs, have an Open component for use, reuse, remix, and redistribute.  This also happens to be in the tenets of Open Educational Resources.  Sure, with OER you are technically providing materials under an open license, but the language used in the discussion over licensing of MOOC content is really much more commercial in nature.  It's seen as a way of making money for the venture capital funded MOOC LMS platforms like coursera and udacity.  In addition to the philosophical issues of what constitutes open, I have an issue with the crazy amounts of money pumped into VC funded ventures, which inevitably might likely raise tuition and fees for students who are paying to get their accredited degrees. So, in addition to signing contracts with these companies, and giving them the right to redistribute the content, and handing over a considerable chunks of change to design or run these courses, we have content locked up in a closed system. This is a far cry from the Open we envisioned before EdX, Coursera and Udacity came onto the scene.

This reminds me of parallels in the academic journal publishing industry.  Authors do the work for free.  For the most part editors also do the work free.  Journals however cost, and they cost our libraries a pretty penny to have access to journals that those same authors (and their students) are members of.  If you are designing MOOC content with the intent of making a profit from it by reselling it to classroom flippers, then you're not making a MOOC. You're just developing content, like people have done in the past. If MOOC content is available freely for use in other courses, small, large, campus, online, flipped, blended or whatever - you don't need to call it by a new name.  Just use the OER like we've used it before.

Your thoughts on the matter?
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