Teaser Image

Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2013

A Hack Education Project

MOOCs and Anti-MOOCs

This post first appeared on Hack Education on November 29, 2013. Part 4 of my Top 10 Ed-Tech Trends of 2013 series.

Barely a week has gone by this year without some MOOC-related news. Much like last year, massive open online courses have dominated ed-tech conversations.

But if 2012 was, as The New York Times decreed, the year of the MOOC, 2013 might be described as the year of the anti-MOOC as we slid down that Gartner Hype Cycle from the “Peak of Inflated Expectations” and into the “Trough of Disillusionment.” For what it’s worth, Gartner pegged MOOCs at the peak back in July, while the Horizon Report says they’re still on the horizon. Nevertheless the head of edX appeared on the Colbert Report this year, and the word “MOOC” entered the Oxford Online Dictionary – so whether you think those are indications of peak or trough or both or neither, it seems the idea of free online university education has hit the mainstream.

MOOCs: An Abbreviated History

To recap: in 2008, Dave Cormier coins the term “MOOC” to describe George Siemens’ and Stephen Downes’ course “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge.” In the Fall of 2011, Stanford offers open enrollment in online versions of three engineering classes: Artificial Intelligence (taught by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig), Machine Learning (taught by Andrew Ng), and Databases (taught by Jennifer Widom). In December 2011, MIT unveil MITx. In January 2012, Thrun announces he’s leaving Stanford to launch Udacity. In April 2012, Ng, along with Stanford colleague Daphne Koller, launch Coursera. In May 2012, Harvard and MIT team up for edX. In December 2012, 12 British universities partner to launch their MOOC platform, FutureLearn. And in 2013…


Thomas Friedman declares that “revolution” – the MOOC revolution, that is – has hit the universities.

Coursera launches Signature Track, its plans to verify students’ identities so that it can confidently award “certifiable course records” (for a fee).

San Jose State University forms a partnership with Udacity to offer 3 online classes for credit.


FutureLearn expands its membership to include the universities of Bath, Leicester, Nottingham, Queen’s Belfast and Reading, along with the British Library.

edX expands to include The Australian National University, Delft University of Technology, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, McGill University, the University of Toronto, and Rice University.

Coursera added more university-partners: California Institute of the Arts, Case Western Reserve University, Curtis Institute of Music, Northwestern University, Penn State University, Rutgers University, UC San Diego, UC Santa Cruz, UC Boulder, University of Rochester, University of Minnesota Twin Cities, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, University of Wisconsin Madison, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Tecnológico de Monterrey, Ecole Polytechnique, IE Business School, Leiden University, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitat Muenchen, Sapienza University of Rome, Technical University Munich, Technical University of Denmark, University of Copenhagen, University of Geneva, Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, National Taiwan University, National University of Singapore, and University of Tokyo.


Legislation is introduced in the California Senate (SB 520) that would require the state’s public colleges and universities to accept credit for certain online classes if a student is unable to get into the class on-campus, a move that would be a boon to MOOC providers.

Open Universities Australia, an online education organization, announces the launch of an Australian MOOC platform called Open2Study. Participating universities include Macquarie University, RMIT University and the Central Institute of Technology.


Udacity expands its partnership with San Jose State University, with 5 for-credit classes to be offered over the summer term: Intro to Programming, Intro to Psychology, Elementary Statistics, College Algebra, and Entry-level Math. The classes cost $150 and will offer transferable college credit.

Another Stanford-based MOOC initiative, NovoEd launches to offer a “team-based, collaborative, and project-based approach” that “helps learners foster the core competencies of leadership, collaboration, and communication.”

Universities from 11 European countries join forces to launch the MOOC initiative OpenupEd which says it will offer 40 classes, taught in 12 different languages. (Ironically, there was a technical glitch at the opening event and video recording of the announcement was lost.)


Coursera launches a set of professional development courses for K–12 teachers.

Coursera, textbook publishers, and Chegg team up to give students access to DRM’d digital course materials for some Coursera classes.

Udacity, Georgia Tech, and AT&T partner to offer an online Master’s Degree in Computer Science (cost: $7000).

Yale joins Coursera.

edX adds 15 new members to its consortium, including Tsinghua University, Peking University, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong University of Science & Technology, Kyoto University, Seoul National University, Cornell University, Berklee College of Music, Boston University, Davidson College, University of Washington, Karolinska Institutet, Université catholique de Louvain, the Technical University of Munich, and the University of Queensland.

Coursera signs a series of deals with 9 state university systems: the State University of New York, the University of Tennessee system, The Tennessee Board of Regents, the University of Colorado system, the University of Houston system, the University of Kentucky (The Chronicle of Higher Education has a copy of this contract), the University of Nebraska, the University of New Mexico, the University System of Georgia, and West Virginia University.


edX releases the code for its learning platform under an open source license, noting contributions from Stanford, UC Berkeley, and the University of Queensland.

Former Zynga COO Vish Makhijami takes over that role at Udacity.

World Wide Ed declares its plans this week to be an “online, open education platform dedicated to increasing access to learning for Canadians and other global citizens.”

NovoEd unveils what it calls the “first team-based MOOC in Spanish”: “Evaluación de Decisiones Estratégicas” taught by Catholic University of Chile professor Patricio del Sol.

Australia’s Monash University, Ireland’s Trinity College and the University of Edinburgh join FutureLearn.

Tiffin University in Ohio says it will be teaming up with Altius Education to offer a 3-credit MOOC for $50. Then just one day later, the university says that the deal is off “due to concerns over accreditation.”

The University of Chicago, Technion-Israel Institute, and Tel Aviv University join Coursera.

edX partners with the IMF to offer the latter’s training coursers in macroeconomics and finance via its MOOC platform. IIT Bombay also joins edX.


Coursera announces that it’s raised another round of funding: $43 million from the International Finance Corporation (the investment arm of the World Bank), Laureate Education (a for-profit education company formerly known as Sylvan Learning), GSV Capital, Learn Capital (of which Pearson is its largest limited partner) and Yuri Milner, Russian tycoon (formerly with the World Bank).

Citing the poor performance of enrolled students, San Jose State says it’s putting on “pause” its pilot program with Udacity.

7 Indian Institutes of Technology and a number of IT firms, including Infosys and Cognizant, say they plan to team up to offer MOOCs.


SB 520 fails to move forward through the California legislature.

Coursera announces that it’s struck partnership deals with the University of New South Wales, University of Western Australia, University of Zurich, and the University of Alberta.

President Obama unveils his plans to help make college more affordable. Among the experimentations his administration is interested in: MOOCs.

Coursera names Lila Ibrahim, a venture capitalist from the startup’s lead investor, Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byer, as its first President.


UC Irvine says it will offer a MOOC in conjunction with the fourth season of its popular zombie show The Walking Dead. The MOOC, which will run on Instructure’s Canvas platform, involves several professors from different departments and will include topics on math, head-severing, and public health.

Timed with an appearance on stage at Techcrunch Disrupt by Sebastian Thrun and California Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom, Udacity announces the Open Education Alliance, a partnership with several tech companies.

Google "joins the “open edX platform.”

Coursera reveals it’s earned $1 million in revenue from its Signature Track courses.

Peking University and Nanyang Technological University join Coursera.

edX launches a new program, “the XSeries,” that will offer certificates for students who complete a sequence of classes offered on its MOOC platform. The program starts with two series: Foundations of Computer Science and Supply Chain and Logistics Management. These new certificates will require an ID verification program, newly launched from edX too.

FutureLearn officially opens its doors, with 20 upcoming classes on the schedule. There was a bit of furor online about FutureLearn’s Terms of Service, which included an “English-only” provision that, thankfully, were amended (because we don’t want to be too overt about the imperialist thrust of MOOCs, right?)

CalTech joins edX.

A Star MOOC Professor Defects.” Mitchell Duneier, a sociologist at Princeton, described by The Chronicle of Higher Education as a “conscientious objector,” says he’ll no longer offer classes via Coursera. Duneier pulled out after Coursera approached him to license his content so that other colleges could use it. “I’ve said no, because I think that it’s an excuse for state legislatures to cut funding to state universities.”


The French Ministry of Higher Education says it’s adopting edX’s open source platform to build a “national portal for MOOCs.”

But I guess a couple of institutions in France didn’t get the “open source portal” memo as École Normale Supérieure and HEC Paris join Coursera.

The Brazilian online education company Veduca launches what it calls the “world’s first open online MBA.” The online video classes are free, but those wanting a certificate will have to pay a fee and take their exams in-person.

Coursera partners with a Chinese Internet company to allow its customers access to Coursera courses.)

edX says its open source platform will be adopted by a consortium of Chinese universities.

The German online education startup iversity launches its first MOOC classes.

Ecole Centrale Paris, The Copenhagen Business School, Eindhoven University of Technology, Koç University, Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, IESE Business School, Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, National Geographic Society, National Research University Higher School of Economics, Saint Petersburg State University, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Università Bocconi, University of Lausanne, University of Manchester join Coursera. Coursera also partners with the World Bank.

Coursera launches “learning hubs,” physical spaces where people can access the Internet in order to take a MOOC. Partners in the effort include the US State Department, the Bluebells School International and Lady Shri Ram College for Women, Digital October, Overcoming Faith Academy Kenya, Learning Links Foundation, TAPtheTECH, and LEARN. TT and the University of Trinidad and Tobago.


Coursera hires former Netflix-ers John Ciancutti and Tom Willerer as its Chief Product Officer and VP of Product Management. The two were involved in developing Netflix’s movie recommendation system.

Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan announces the launch of Edraak, an Arabic language MOOC portal build on the edX platform.

Udacity launches a “Data Science and Big Data Track,” partnering with Hadoop provider Cloudera for the curriculum.

In a Fast Company profileUdacity co-founder Sebastian Thrun reveals the company is pivoting away from higher ed disruption towards corporate-sponsored tech training.

Carnegie Mellon University creates a Global Learning Council to “spearhead efforts to develop standards and promote best practices in online education.” Council members include edX’s Anant Agarwal and Coursera’s Daphne Koller.

Coursera announces that it has raised another $20 million in investment. This brings to $63 million the Series B funding that the company raised in July (and $85 million total). Part of this cash influx comes from three unnamed universities.




MOOCs expanded greatly in 2013 – expanded their partner institutions, expanded their course offerings, expanded their investment dollars, grew the number of students enrolled, and so on. But there were lots of questions along the way: who’s succeeding in MOOCs; how will MOOCs make money; how will MOOCs affect higher education; and how will MOOCs affect open education?

MOOCs and Shared Governance (Or The Lack Thereof)

The MOOC movement did not march forward in 2013 without a fair amount of faculty and institutional challenges.

The faculty at Amherst, for example, voted down a proposal to join edX in April. Professors said they were “underwhelmed by the tools edX currently offered, that edX seemed too new and unreliable a program, that there were better things to spend money on and that the requirement to offer certificates, either immediately or after the first time the course is offered, was against the College’s interests.” And in May, the administration at American University issued a “moratorium on MOOCs,” saying it was “purposely avoiding experimentation before it decides exactly how it wants to relate to the new breed of online courses.”

But many institutions did move forward with deals with MOOC providers, even when faculty objected. The result: several well-publicized “open letters” and op-eds that appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, campus newsletters, blogs, and the like over the course of the year: an open letter from the faculty association at San Jose State about the university’s deals with MOOC providers; an open letter from the San Jose State philosophy department to Harvard professor Michael Sandel (whose JusticeX course was set to be piloted at SJSU); an open letter from the Council of UC Faculty Association to Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller; 58 Harvard professors signed a letter to Dean Michael Smith asking for more oversight of edX. The thrust of many of these: faculty demanding shared governance and a larger role in decision-making about these ed-tech deals, as well as articulating their concerns that outsourcing classes to MOOC providers would encourage privatization, undermine faculty IP, and degrade students’ university experience.

Some of faculty's worst fears were probably confirmed by the work of Inside Higher Ed’s Ry Rivard, who did a lot of excellent investigative journalism this year, uncovering many of the contracts that MOOC providers had struck with universities. In March, he wrote about Coursera’s “contractual elitism” – that is, contracts that stipulated that Coursera would only partner with “elite institutions” (members of the Association of American Universities or “top five” universities in countries outside of North America). In May, Rivard wrote about the “fine print” of the deal between Udacity and Georgia Tech to create its online CS Master’s Degree, highlighting its rush to sign a deal and its plans to meet the demands of MOOC students without hiring more tenured faculty. In July, Rivard noted that at least 21 universities had signed deals with MOOC providers without going through a competitive bidding process.

In an overview of these days between MOOC providers and universities (Udacity in particular), UC Santa Barbara professor Christopher Newfield argued, “…Though we shouldn’t expect a company CEO to protect the public interest, we can and should expect it of public officials. After 18 months of MOOC-promises of a cost revolution, the public discussion of MOOC budgetary detail boils down to one intrepid reporter, Ry Rivard, who got the spreadsheets through a public records act request, one professor who spent hours thinking about them, and one company executive who replied.”

MOOCs, A “Lousy Product”

"We were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don’t educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product,” Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun told Fast Company in November. “It was a painful moment.”

Sadly, 2013 gave us lots of painful moments with lousy MOOC products.

In February, the Coursera/Georgia Tech course “Fundamentals of Online Education” was cancelled, with everyone booted from the course (meaning students lost all their online contributions), following a lot of technical and pedagogical hiccups. The cancellation was a move described by MOOC pioneer George Siemens as “negating the learner in the learning process”: “This incident is significant. MOOCs are nothing without learners. In this instance, it looks like the instructor decided to shut down the course. Faculty own the content, Coursera owns the platform. But neither should own the conversation. That belongs to the learners. The difficultly is that many learners interact in Coursera forums. Learners should own their own spaces.”

Then, just one week later, UC Irvine professor Richard McKenzie left his Coursera-run economics MOOC mid-stream “because of disagreements over how to best conduct this course." The course continued without him.

In July, Michigan professor Gautam Kaul caused waves with his Coursera-run finance class by refusing to give students the correct answers to assignments: “If this were a one-time class, we would have considered posting answers,“ he told students in an email. ”It will however be very difficult for us to offer this class again if we have to keep preparing new sets of questions with multiple versions to allow you to attempt each one more than once. Handing out answers will force us to do that.”

In September, Georgia Institute of Technology professor Karen Head wrapped up her Chronicle series blogging about the “First-Year Composition 2.0” MOOC she taught on the Coursera platform, with a look at what was “successful” and not about the course. An excerpt:

“I don’t think any of us (writing and communication instructors) would rush to teach another MOOC soon. For now, the technology is lacking for courses in subject areas like writing, which have such strong qualitative evaluation requirements. Too often we found our pedagogical choices hindered by the course-delivery platform we were required to use, when we felt that the platform should serve the pedagogical requirements. Too many decisions about platform functionality seem to be arbitrary, or made by people who may be excellent programmers but, I suspect, have never been teachers.”

While there were lots of concerns about the quality of MOOCs (and, to be fair, there was praise about MOOCs too), it was the failure of the Udacity-run courses at San Jose State that made the most headlines (and is in turn mostly likely to shape the future course of MOOCs, I'd predict).

In January, the two organizations announced a pilot program where the latter would offer college credits for classes offered by the former. Techcrunch, with its typical hyperbolic flair, said it would “end college as we know it.” But in July, SJSU put the program on pause, citing the poor performance of enrolled students. “74 percent or more of the students in traditional classes passed, while no more than 51 percent of Udacity students passed any of the three courses."

Despite the grim results, Sebastian Thrun told Information Week in August that the company had found the “magic formula” for success. Yet only a few months later, in an interview with Fast Company, Thrun revealed the company had pivoted to corporate training, suggesting perhaps that the “magic formula” was to move away from university education, notably away from the types of students at San Jose State. "These were students from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in their lives," Thrun said. "It's a group for which this medium is not a good fit."

Wise words from Mike Caulfield: despite all the hype and rhetoric and press releases about pivots and progress about MOOCs, “sometimes failure is just a failure.”

Who’s MOOCing Who?

One of the ongoing concerns about the SJSU and Udacity pilot program – indeed, about many of the MOOC experiments – has been a lack of transparency about who was participating and who was succeeding and why.

It continues to be mostly up to individual instructors (and sometimes their home institution) to publish information about demographics, success rates, and the like. In general, the MOOC platforms themselves have not been forthcoming with this information.

Open University grad student Katy Jordan has tracked the completion rates across the various MOOC courses and platforms – those that make the data publicly available, that is. Her work confirms the low rates of completion of MOOCs – most are less than 13%.

Some have suggested that the completion rate isn’t the right measurement, particularly when it’s so easy to sign up. But Jordan's research raises other questions too: does robot-grading versus peer-grading make a difference in student completion? Does the subject matter or level make a difference? What about the educational attainment and subject matter expertise that students already bring to the table? Again, who is succeeding? Who is dropping out? Why?

We started to get a better sense of how to answer these and other MOOC-related research questions, thanks to the institutions, organizations, and courses that released reports on their MOOCs this year: Duke University, HarvardX, P2PU, Stanford’s “Statistics in Medicine,” Vanderbilt, Georgia Institute of Technology’s Computational Investing, University of Edinburgh, University of Toronto, MITx’s Circuits and Electronics, and the University of Pennsylvania.

The takeaway (in part. In terms of demographics at least): those enrolled in and succeeding in MOOCs are overwhelmingly male and already have Bachelor’s Degrees. They’re likely to be taught by men as well.

If you’re looking for a visual depiction of MOOC participation – by students and by institutions – you can find maps here, here, and here.

And if you’re looking for survey results (good god, please take with a grain of salt): 50% of employers would not consider recruiting someone who had studied for their degree online. Professors who’ve taught MOOCs are optimistic about MOOCs. Less than 10% of universities say they’re planning on offering MOOCs. Few professors think that students who complete MOOCs should be awarded credit. 2% of university presidents think that MOOCs will solve their institutions’ financial woes. And after all those Thomas Friedman and David Brooks op-eds, just 22% of the public say they’ve heard of MOOCs.

Of course, none of this data was enough to give Bill Gates pause. Speaking at the Microsoft Research Faculty Summit earlier this year, he said that MOOC providers should learn some lessons from the for-profit college sector in order to better support students’ success. “Because they are profit driven, the way they track students and see what’s going on” could be seen by MOOCs and public universities as a ‘best practice.’" Ugh.

Thankfully, his Gates Foundation is funding actual research into MOOCs, with an initiative led by George Siemens. I’m thankful too that Justin Reich, a Berkman Center fellow and someone who helps keep my ed-tech snark and statistical dumbassery in check is now a HarvardX Research Fellow. Stay tuned for more there…

MOOCs for Credit

As the cost of college continued to grow, so too did the search for cheaper alternatives. MOOCs have been showcased as one such option, despite the realization by many faculty members and instructional designers creating MOOCs that the development and maintenance costs are actually quite high.

Arguably for MOOCs to be accepted – not just as nice thing for curious learners who already have degrees – they have to be available for credit. There was significant movement to that end this year.

Both Udacity and Coursera had courses approved for ACE credits (although interestingly, two universities that offer the ACE-approved Coursera MOOCs – Duke and UC Irvine – said they will not allow their students to use these MOOCs for credit). In August, The University of Maryland University College said it would be the first university to offer transfer credits to its students who complete MOOCs (or more precisely, who “demonstrate learning” from 3 Udacity or 3 Coursera courses, the ones that had been approved for ACE credit). The University of São Paulo said it would offer credit for two MOOCs offered via the Brazilian MOOC platform Verduca – Basic Physics and Probability & Statistics. MOOC2Degree, a program run by Academic Partnerships, said it would forge deals with its client universities (including the University of Arkansas system, the University of Cincinnati, the University of Texas at Arlington College of Nursing, the University of West Florida, and Cleveland State, Florida International, Lamar, and Utah State Universities) to offer MOOCs for credit. MITx said that it would offer continuing education units for its “Mechanics ReView” series through a collaboration with the American Association of Physics Teachers. Florida governor Rick Scott signed into law a bill that would encourage schools in his state to use MOOCs for credit. (I believe accreditation is one of the big ed-tech trends of the year. More on that in a subsequent post in this series.)

Other than the troubled experiment with Udacity and San Jose State University, the highest profile “MOOC for credit” deal was that struck between Udacity, Georgia Tech, and AT&T to offer a computer science master’s degree. The degree will cost students less than $7000 (significantly cheaper than the MS that the university currently offers – cheaper in part because of the financial support for the program from AT&T). Early signs are that there’s a high demand for the online program (not surprisingly, higher than the applications for the more expensive, on-campus version.)

But not all MOOCs for credit have been warmly received by students. Not a single student at Colorado State University-Global Campus signed up for MOOC-for-credit this year, for example. (Students there could pay $89 for a proctored exam, “compared with the $1,050 that Colorado State charges for a comparable three-credit course.”)

But hey. You can always simply show off your MOOC certificates on LinkedIn. No course fee required; just your personal data is all you need to hand over – sorta like you already do in these free MOOCs, eh.

But How Will MOOCs Make Money?

“For credit” does seem to hint at one possible revenue stream for MOOCs. But for the most part, these online courses remain free. And after raising millions and millions and millions of dollars in investment, many people started asking this year how the hell MOOCs will ever make money.

There are some hints. Udacity, for example, will take a 40% of the revenues from the deal it struck with Georgia Tech and AT&T to offer an online master’s degree in computer science. Udacity is also offering more and more corporate training courses – efforts subsidized by major technology companies in course creation, enrollment, and recruitment.

edX, which is a non-profit but still needs to find a path to some sort of financial sustainability – will, according to The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer try the ol’ “Red Hat for Linux approach,” charging for services to help others implement an open source infrastructure and/or blended learning courses. edX has also struck deals with institutions and will offer some sort of revenue-sharing model if they charge money for courses or certificates along the way. A hint at what that will look like: MITx unveiled “XSeries” certificates in aeronautics, computer science, and supply chain management. While the courses remain freely available for anyone, a certificate will cost students $50-$100.

The latter echoes what we know so far of Coursera’s business plan: its Signature Track, whereby students pay a fee for an official certificate for a successfully completed MOOC. In September, Coursera said it had earned $1 million in revenue from the Signature Track courses (noting, incidentally, that “over 70% of students earning them already have a bachelor’s degree or higher.”) There are hints too that Coursera might, like Udacity, pursue the corporate training route. But there are still lots of questions about whether or not the Signature Track (and swag store) can generate enough of a profit for Coursera and its investors. When Coursera announced its massive fundraising this summer, founder Koller said “We hope it’s enough money to get us to profitability. We haven’t really focused yet on when that might be." Higher Education Strategy Associates’ Alex Usher, speculated recently that Coursera is burning through its funding at such a rapid rate that it only has “maybe 15 months before the VCs pull the plug.” Of course, shortly afterward, Coursera announced it had raised $20 million more. So adjust your timeline accordingly.

But alas, as in quite common in Silicon Valley, the revenue model for ed-tech does often involve simply raising more venture capital, particularly when part a hot new trend. Putting "MOOC" on a pitch deck probably helped this year. Gutenberg Technology raised $6.5 million, according to Edsurge, for digital textbooks with “MOOC features” for example. CreativeLIVE, which offers video-based online courses raised $8 million in March and another $21.5 million in November. Lots of education startups raised money this year for software on which instructors could offer online courses with videos and forums. Lots and lots of startups.

If VC funding doesn’t work out, there’s always Kickstarter, product placement, or required in-course purchases. Of course, one of the long-running requirements for courses has been textbooks. And it seems like textbook publishers, well in advance of MOOC startups, have schemed ways to make money through these online courses.

No doubt, we should probably ask too what universities’ business model will be in coming years, particularly as public funding and tuition dollars decline. Moody’s Investor Services said this year that offering MOOCs could boost a university’s credit ratings. But let’s take Moody’s with a grain of salt, shall we? After all, even the fabulously wealthy Harvard has opted to ask its alumni to donate their time as online mentors and discussion group facilitators on the edX platform. Times are tough all over, I guess.

The MOOC Acronym Mutates

It was already clear in 2012 that there was a huge difference between the original, Canadian, connectivist MOOCs and the venture-capital-backed ones out of Stanford and MIT. That distinction is sometimes known as cMOOCs versus xMOOCs.

In 2013, we were introduced to a number of new acronyms as MOOCs developed in various directions: DOCC (distributed open collaborative course), BOOC (big open online course), MOOD (massive open online discussion), MOOA (massive open online administrations), SMOC (synchronous massive online course), SPOC (small private online courses), and MOOCoW (because someone had to do it).

But in many cases, rather adopting than new acronyms or encouraging new permutations (including really interesting developments like the “distributed flip”), we saw instead appropriation of the term MOOC to mean any sort of online offering. So many MOOCs: Moodle.org said it was launching its first MOOC, Moodle for Teachers. “First,” that is, if you don’t count the very first MOOCs which were run on Moodle – but I guess those Canadian MOOCs don’t count. The German business software giant SAP launched its own MOOC platform — Open.SAP.com — to teach its employees about the company. (The student code includes the following priceless tidbit: “I will not make available solutions to weekly assignments and exams in any way to other learners on openSAP.” Because “Open.”) ISTE said it was running a MOOC. Well, it was a STEM conference, but marketed as a MOOC. Because it’s 2013. That’s what you do. Warren Buffet’s sister offered a the philanthropy MOOC which culminated in helping Buffett decide how to give away $100,000. Open your heart and your wallet. MOOC Campus said it would charge students $15,000 to live in a North Carolina YMCA while they take classes online. News Corp’s education wing Amplify said it was offering its AP computer science offering as a “MOOC Local,“ and while there’s currently a free trial, the course will eventually cost $200 per student per year. And Bruno Latour announced he was teaching a MOOC on the “Scientific humanities, ” as part of the new French MOOC platform called FUN (short for France Université Numérique). FUN, I tell you. FUN.

In July, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that “Blackboard Announces New MOOC Platform,” although it wasn’t really clear how this would be different than its pre-existing CourseSites offering – other than in that ever-important branding, of course. And Desire2Learn said in October that it would offer "MOOCs within its integrated learning platform, redefining the MOOC model.” Redefining MOOCs indeed. MOOCs begane to look more and more like LMSes; and the LMSes wanted to look more like MOOCs. As if that weren’t enough, even Facebook announced this year that it sees itself as becoming a distribution vehicle for MOOCs.

So if in doubt, I guess, just add a MOOC subdomain to your site, folks, to join those at mooc.amplify.com and mooc.khanacademy.org. Bonus points if you can hire a celebrity to teach a class.

Inside Higher Ed blogger Josh Kim has written repeatedly over the last year or so about the conflation between MOOCs and online education, blasting pundits and journalists for using the wrong terminology. But it’s becoming increasingly difficult, I think, to separate these two, particularly as “MOOC” gets murkier. It’s difficult, I’d say, to write about MOOCs and anti-MOOCs in 2013 and not include updates about 2U and its Semester Online program (2U positions itself as a residential online alternative to MOOCs and it gained and lost several partners this year – a reflection, perhaps, of schools’ hopes and fears about ed-tech experimentation). It’s difficult to not talk about Pearson’s growing market-share among universities that looking to outsource their online courses. It’s difficult not to talk about the Minerva Project and its plans to “disrupt” the Ivy League with a cheap hybrid education offering. It’s difficult to only talk about MOOCs in their original connectivist format, to limit the discussion to those who fulfill the “massive” or the “open” aspects in the ur-MOOC way. To do so would miss much of the story.

As such, it’s probably time to admit that MOOCs have lost their original meaning. That is a hard pill to swallow, particularly for those who care deeply about the meaning of that letter “O.” 

Whither Open?

We’ve seen, as Stephen Downes observed, “the great rebranding.”

To say that the term “MOOC” has been severed from its open education roots does not mean that those building open online courses have contributed nothing this year. One need only look at the work of Alan Levine, Martin Hawksey, Tony Hirst, and many others, for example, to see that. A smart observation from Justin Reich earlier this year that speaks to the differing technologies built to serve differing educational theories: “MOOC Killer Apps: The Autograder vs. the Syndication Engine.”

Nonetheless, as Bryan Alexander has observed from his speaking and consulting work with various institutions, schools want to talk about “MOOCs” and not about “open.”

Sure, there have been some mainstream moves towards “openness.” edX released parts of its platform under an open license, for example, and says it will eventually open sources its LMS, its a course authoring tool, an API for integrating third-party learning objects, as well as its robot-essay-grading APIs. Google also joined what’s being called “open edX” and has released the code for its CourseBuilder MOOC platform. (That being said, it’s not exactly clear what Google’s role in open edX - see also MOOC.org - will be.)

And that’s part of the problem, I think. “Open” is getting murkier, something I plan to examine in more detail in its own “ed-tech trends” article.

But MOOCs – massive open online classes – are (along with Khan Academy I suppose) the best publicized open education effort. So what then do we make of decisions to use proprietary and DRM'd course materials? What do we make Terms of Service that are decidedly not open, as Lorna Campbell notes of FutureLearn’s? And failures to be “open” aren’t simply failures to be openly-licensed either. FutureLearn toyed, for a time, with an English-only provision. Who, exactly, are MOOCs “open” to?

What do we make of edX and Coursera’s move into China? How will these MOOCs handle Internet censorship there and elsewhere?

What about the Open Education Alliance which Udacity announced this summer, a move to partner with technology companies which despite its name has jack shit to do with “open education"?

Again, what is “open”?

The Past is Prelude

I started this (too goddamned long) review on MOOCs by invoking the Gartner Hype Cycle. And a nod here is due to Rolin Moe who’s writing his dissertation on MOOCs and who’s been very clear that the Gartner Hype Cycle is the wrong tool and wrong framework to use to talk about ed-tech. Moe writes that,

“If 2012 was The Year of the MOOC, one would expect 2013 to begin the MOOC’s path into trough of disillusionment. And to be fair, the MOOC has encountered more criticism from a wider array of thinkers and researchers since The Year of the MOOC. But the hype continues to soar. Education continues to be broken. MOOCs continue to focus on their model successes. And history’s biggest backer of education is maneuvering to make the MOOC more than a flash in the pan.”

Indeed. Despite all the criticisms and all the skepticism and all the failures and all the back-tracking and all the protests and all the pivots, MOOCs march onward. Many schools and many states are exploring MOOCs for credit. Many people, including the President, see MOOCs as a way to reduce college costs. Many see MOOCs as an experiment – a big data experiment, natch – that will uncover all sorts of insights into how we learn.

Despite the efforts of those of us who’d want to use more precise terminology, MOOCs and online education have been conflated. And online education doesn’t map neatly to Gartner’s Hype Cycle. We’ve been doing it for a long time now; and we are likely to continue doing so.

Moreover, if we view MOOCs as just part of a Gartner Hype Cycle – whether we position 2013 at the peak or in the trough or somewhere in between – it means we’re likely collapsing the history of ed-tech into a nifty business school narrative that ignores much of the past in order to make a prediction about investments in the future. As Edsurge likes to say, "Kaching!"

Where does I. A. Richards’ “Failed MOOC” of the 1950s fit in to this story?. How does David Noble’s 1998 book Digital Diploma Mills, which as David Wiley argued earlier this year, “reads as if it were researched and written about the current phenomenon called “MOOCs."

2013 may have been more about "zombie ideas," if you will, than hype cycles.