Friday, October 10, 2014


Some Friday homework posted here.  I was listening to Audrey Watters's keynote address at CETIS a few weeks ago and I thought this would make some good material for thinking and a critique - so here it is.  Your thoughts?

Watters, A. (2014, June). Un-Fathom-able: The Hidden History of Ed-Tech. Keynote presented at the 2014 Center for Educational Technology, Interoperability and Standards Conference. Bolton, UK. Retrieved from:

This review focuses on Audrey Watters’s keynote address at the CETIS 2014 conference. There are a number of elements that intrigued me enough to make it the focus of my second review.  This keynote is about the history of educational technology, but it artfully weaves together three distinct but related areas: First, Watters talks about prevailing narratives in the US-centric technology industry; secondly, she discusses Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and their historical antecedents; and, finally, she makes reference to long-term effects of previous educational technology efforts. For this review I focus mostly on the first two.

The first thing that really grabbed me was Watters’ anecdote of her friend, who was invited to speak about the current state of education to other investors, CEOs, engineers, and entrepreneurs. He was of the opinion that online courses were first developed in 2001 at MIT, something which is factually wrong.  He may have been thinking about OpenCourseWare (OCW), but the fact that he was conflating OCW with online courses speaks volumes as to what passes for education in some circles.  Even though I didn’t know that online, or technology enhanced, courses went back to the 1960s, with efforts such as the University of Illinois’ Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations (PLATO), I knew that MIT was not the first to delve into some sort of online, or computer-enhanced, teaching since my University had a learning management system (LMS) at least since 1998.

There are a number of fascinating points here to consider.  First, it’s interesting to ponder who is getting invited to these gatherings to discuss the future of education. Noticeably absent from these presentations are people actually involved in education, people in secondary or tertiary education. Investors, Engineers, Entrepreneurs, and CEOs are outsiders in the field of education, but also have a lot to gain from it, namely lucrative contracts. As such they have an incentive to view the past, as Watters describes it, as a “monolithic block of brokeness - unchanged and unchanging until it’s disrupted by technological innovation, or by the promise of technological innovation, by the future itself.

The other interesting aspects here both deal with how the narrative is framed.  First, the educational narrative, as is told these days, is US-centric if we exclude the brief mention of Prussian. These narratives have permeated the discourse of education and have gained a foothold. This exclusionary narrative is not healthy to continued excellence in education, because we don’t take into account information that is potentially valuable and useful as we move forward.  The other aspect that bears noting is a Randian (as in Ayn Rand) aspect that frames entrepreneurs and engineers as saviors of education’s ineptitude, and above all frames the individual as that ingenious person that will save the day.  We see this in Sal Khan’s History of Education the big thing, that his interviewer notes as they skipped over one hundred years of education history,  was the founding of Khan Academy, adding fuel to this Randian narrative of education.

 The second aspect of this keynote are the historical antecedents of the current MOOC phenomenon.  Watters discusses Fathom, a venture spearheaded by Columbia University, and Alliance for LifeLong Learning (AllLearn), a joint venture between Stanford, Oxford, and Yale. AllLearn originally intended to offer courses exclusively for alumni, a move that we see Harvard contemplating with MOOCs today (Kolowich, 2014), before they opened it up to everyone. Fathom, on the other hand, was open to anyone who was interested in paying for the coursework.  Some courses were free, but it appears that the cost was at least $500 per course, for a non-credit course.  Both of these initiatives failed and closed their doors by 2006. There are a few interesting things to note here.  First, it would appear that xMOOCs, like coursera and edx, follow the model and design set forth by AllLearn and Fathom courses both in their “best courses from the best processors” rhetoric, but also from the course design perspective. The thing that should raise some eyebrows here is that when you’re touting a “best courses from the best professors” you are putting learning in the backseat and you are putting something other in the center, something like the institution or the professor.  A name brand, instead of actual learning.

Secondly, it’s interesting to note that the prevailing narrative is that we can do things cheaper and faster these days with the internet; however, as Watters breaks it down, venture capital invested in xMOOC platforms has been more than doubled what was invested in Fathom, AllLearn, and UKeU. Additionally, course development costs for these platforms are about the same as they were a decade ago.  Finally, thinking about how successful such initiatives are, when people who worked at these ventures were interviewed about their eventual failure, the scapegoat was the low levels of broadband internet availability for properly sharing course materials.  This is ironic on multiple levels, including: (1) high-speed (aka broadband) internet penetration levels are marginally better today - 8% higher than the early 2000s, to make it 28% ; (2) those initial ventures offered courses on CD-ROM for people who didn’t have high speed access, so in theory the lack of broadband is moot; and finally (3) some of those same individuals are at the helm of xMOOCs today!

Finally, Watters mentions some unintended consequences of previous educational technology developments, like the LMS, which have permeated the way that we think of things.  For instance, if you look at xMOOC platforms, like coursera, it’s clear to see that their underlying design language is that of the LMS, a siloed environment where there are no connections between courses, or even course resources.  What happens in the LMS stays in the LMS, and once the course is done you, as a learner, lose access to the materials. The question then becomes, when we are talking about an Open course, why are we building silos and walled gardens? Why not focus on actual open practices? The alternatives that we can build on are, are Watters says, a “future of learner agency, of human capacity, of equity, of civic responsibility, of openness.”

Kolowich, S. (2014, February 11).  Harvard U. WIll Offer Exclusive MOOCs to Alumni. Chronicle of Higher Education.
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