The MOOCs fad and bubble: please tell us another story!

photo réduiteIn the context of two recent GlobalHigherEd entries about the global geopolitics and geoeconomics of MOOCs (see ‘Are MOOCs becoming mechanisms for international competition in global higher ed?’ and ‘On the territorial dimensions of MOOCs’) we are pleased to post this guest entry by Dominique Boullier, Professor in Sociology, Sciences Po Paris. Professor Boullier has served as scientific coordinator of the médialab (with Bruno Latour) since 2009, and serves as executive director of the educational innovation program FORCCAST. He has studied information and communications technologies (ICT), digital innovation policies, and technical architecture policies since 1983. Our thanks to Professor Boullier for his very thought provoking guest entry, the first we hope, regarding MOOCs from a European perspective. Please let us know if you would also like to contribute to the debate!  Kris Olds & Susan Robertson

ps: Link here for the Inside Higher Ed version of this article if you need a better format for printing or sharing (e.g., via Twitter).


The MOOCs fad and bubble: please tell us another story!

by Dominique Boullier

How can we escape this new buzz about MOOCs, since the launch of Coursera? Is there anything else than the bubble effect created by the media that is part of the strategy itself? This is how our financial economy works, nowadays, this ‘opinion economy’ as André Orléan labels it, where opinion and reputation are the main resources to be processed and produced in order to create attractiveness for investors without any thorough analysis of the properties of the goods or of the company which is assessed. The focus on figures that must be huge as usual was well documented by Kris Olds in ‘On the territorial dimensions of MOOCs.’ It should have attracted more comments since at the age of Web 2.0 and especially for matters of education, one does not really expect this focus on figures, on massive online courses that are exactly the same courses as the ones our parents used to attend. (yes, indeed, more slides but what else?).

This massive commercial war on education is now launched and everyone is supposed to adopt a strategy to counter it, especially in Europe, and this is what the Times Higher Education reports for England’s Futurelearn consortium, which seems to follow exactly the same path, because the opinion economy is mostly a matter of provoking imitation, contagion and standard for the benefit of the first to enter the market.  What are the features of this attack on education business? Let’s check them and the ones that are missing and the comparison with any other marketing strategy will become clear.

1/ Brands.  Who is in the field? The world famous universities, American ones first, and any other university that would try to replicate their model will have to think it twice because their reputation status will not challenge the big ones. Which means a business model and an attractiveness that will remain limited to the leaders, the ones who will monetize their reputation worldwide. Universities are supposed to act as brands, and this recent move is a major strategic one to consolidate this mood.  Did you hear of any quality assessment for a specific course? No: the only fact of being delivered by the big ones is enough to suspend all critical capacity from media or competitors as well.

2/ Scale and standards.  No standard for quality, for sure (just remember the content of courses of OpenCourseWare at the MIT available or the ones on iTunes that are often of a very poor quality, apart from the quality of the teacher as a scholar, but many of the Edx, Coursera or Udacity products are of the same didactic level, except for the video quality that has really improved!). But standard for the massive online process that MOOCs are supposed to disseminate. The effect of scale is absolutely critical for these platforms, and by entering the market with such a powerful offer, they will prevent any other challenger to invent new formats, methods or platforms. This is how Microsoft, iTunes (and in a different way, Facebook) managed to frame our everyday life architecture, and it has become very difficult to adopt software and platform better suited to specific activities.

3/ Free. This is one of the main features of what economists call two-sided markets and we are just at the first phase of this strategy. Delivering this supposedly high standard courses for free seems weird if one does not point out that all free offers tend to prepare a second phase (or sometimes in the same moment) where the public will be monetized (through advertising) or will have to pay (through premium services that will devaluate the quality of the basic offer). This is almost what we see now, because coaching and other added value services require a fee. This is the typical drug dealer method for addicts and this is obviously not a charity business offer but a very well designed strategy to capture the audience before others do it.

4/ Platforms.  The model of the platform is invading the web and it is much more than software: it means an integrated management of every feature of the consumer relationship through a private model of platform.  Doing so, the control is guaranteed and the dissemination of the innovation within the community gets restricted to the developments done and labeled by the big ones.

5/ Cheap resources. The great trick of the so-called ‘contributive’ economy is to capture the value produced by the ordinary activity of users and consumers themselves when they click, like or recommend some paper, product or service.  Same for the academic whose work is available for free for the scientific editors who make huge profits in selling them to the proper universities that pay the academic for the free work in the journals. Of course, as it works for the SDK of various platforms, the big ones will create incentives so that academics do not feel abused for the only profit of their boards. But the idea here is that the production costs are kept at a low level because teachers are asked to work as they used to do, without any innovation in their mode of education. Extending these outdated and boring models of massive classrooms does not cost a lot but does not offer any new chance for the learning process to be enhanced or triggered.

When described in these terms, any other sector of our financialized capitalism would almost fit the model. Education brands are investing in digital platforms for maintaining the traditional way of learning for the benefit of the same big ones, this. “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change” as Lampedusa told us in his famous novel The Leopard. This is how digital technology is perversely used and how we miss their powerful enticement for innovation in education processes.

Two aspects of this change that does not change anything will be emphasized here: the geopolitical side of education and the cognitive and political one.

1/ These announcements are not unusual in various sector of digital innovation. I was an analyst of what happened in the first years of digital imaging systems in health sector. At the beginning of the ‘90’s one Norwegian innovator decided to sell a digital imaging system to Saudi Arabia (which could afford it!) based on the expertise of highly skilled radiologists based…in Norway. This was a radical move for preventing local radiologists to get trained and to become a resource for the country. At the same time, other health organizations tried to reduce their costs regarding the process of routine analysis of huge amounts of digital X-ray: they outsourced it to Moroccan low-level technicians in radiology working in Morocco. All these innovations attracted attention in the media as “the wonderful world of international cooperation allowed by digital networks”. This was clearly a two-sided process of deprivation of development opportunities for countries from the south, the exact contrary of what we are supposed to expect from an empowerment process and a clearly designed unequal development model. This is exactly what we can expect from the propagation of this marketing strategy in favor of developed countries resources in education. Since the quality is associated with the big education brands and become available online, how can local teachers still obtain some recognition for their work? How does this process help them to improve their own skills and more important to create the right balance between the core part of knowledge and the one which requires contextualization, which means, diversity and proximity? (and when carefully studied, this is what occurs for any training process). Governments as well as the public cannot encourage such a predator behavior against the skills of countries from the South. To sum up this point, let’s say that all MOOCs model is more about predation than cooperation, more about reproduction than innovation, more about standardization than diversification.

2/ The second way of preserving the old model will be on the cognitive side of these offers (and we’ll see that it is a major political stake). The courses that are proposed for online diffusion are considered as basic resources of universal knowledge. And this kind of knowledge is supposed to be learned almost by heart, or at least with a cognitive activity where memory is the most important feature as well as the discipline required for hours of listening attitude without almost any opportunity to react, to contribute, to discuss, to explore and so on. The traditional lament from teachers complaining about the lack of attention of students is tamed just by removing them out of sight of the teacher. This does not account for the general feeling of boredom that students experience during these courses. This massive online tactics does not solve any of the training issue of our times. Students will not be more active, they will not leave the tracks of guaranteed knowledge divided in fields, they will not combine them with the huge amount of information they crawl during their connected and mediated lives, they will not learn any of the contextualization expertise which is required for a relevant use of their knowledge, they will not have the opportunity to use their tremendous immersion in visual information, and so on. They will be addressed as an audience, as we used to do for mass media. The problem is that this time has gone!! First, this is old sixties and modernist view of knowledge, where science has no doubt to display to the public, provided that it fuels the continuous trend of innovation in technologies always for the good of human beings. Second, the skills in exploring the data that invade everyday life and that are produced by students themselves cannot be dismissed. This is a good way to “produce” students with a very low awareness of the world they will enter and to maintain the strong cognitive separation between the various opportunities of learning and the school (which does not mean that all of them should be similar).

In order to stop criticism that may outrage promoters of these MOOCs systems and let them believe that I am only a blatant incompetent, I will just say some words about some of my experiences during my career. The idea of a general online course is not new: at the end of the ‘90’s, platforms like Learning Space were famous in trying to invent business models to sell training sessions online. In 1997, the University of Technology of Compiègne created the first (in France) degree fully delivered on line using Learning Space. But we decided not to comply with the educational and business policies embedded in the software (code is law as Lessig puts it, as long as you let it run your life without discussing any choice). We required one week a month of presence which was the best way to get in touch with the students in order to coach them better on line. We organized a full review of all courses that were redesigned and assessed to fit our educational goals, with a large part of exercises, a strong cooperation process among the students, a frequent collective and individual coaching from the teachers, and documents especially designed in Information Mapping format to favor a structured approach and exploration of resources. We did not sell the degree by chunks as the design of the software would have encouraged us to do with superficial online automated quiz to assess the skills. The educational goals must make the technologies as well as the business model give in.

In Sciences Po, four years ago, we began video recording the main courses (more than 800 students in the same amphitheater) and we put them online. The success was one of reputation for the institution, of opportunity for the students who could not attend the class and of relief for the teachers who did not have to change anything to their traditional methods! In fact, the only opportunity to watch oneself as well as colleagues created an interesting emulation. But when we thought about selling this kind of content online out of the institution, we considered that the added value was too low and would not address the need of a fully digitized distance learning approach.

In September 2012, in Sciences Po, we launched an innovative educational program, funded by the French government, called FORCCAST for training regarding the sciences and technologies that uses ‘controversy mapping.’ Controversy mapping is a method that Bruno Latour invented 15 years ago to train his students in his approach to the sociology of science (that is famous worldwide). This method is now used in more than 20 universities all over the world (including MIT) and emphasizes his powerful vision of the educational requirements of our times, the same way John Dewey did it in the ‘30’s (Bruno Latour often refers to Dewey as a great inspiration for multiple reasons).

Where is the Dewey of the MOOCs systems? A Dewey does not seem to exist because MOOCs are a technical and business affair without any serious vision of the educational stakes. Our Forccast project, quite the opposite, will address technical and business issues as well, but only when subordinated to our educational goals. We consider that students today need to get trained using other skills if they are supposed to tackle the complex and uncertain issues of the financial, ecological, political and social crisis that we experience and that is certain to be our future for many years from now. These challenges require a three-fold educational model where the existing skills of the students are favored and not discarded:

  1. Their ability to explore by surfing on the web must be channeled towards a more systematic and critical way of exploring issues, using the method of controversy mapping.
  2. Their immersion in the web and in images and their ordinary experience of writing on the web and of publishing images and videos must become a resource for a digital literacy based on content production (read and write web), new ways of writing and publishing websites as well as short videos.
  3. Their experience in contributing and commenting on websites, watching TV shows with poor debates on any kind of issues, should be used as a basis to put them in realistic situations where they will have to simulate debates or negotiations. This case-based method is of course something business schools are familiar with but here it will be designed so that it encourages the exchange of various views of the same issue and the skills of debate.

These three methods (explore, publish, debate) represent the core of a new philosophy of training which was developed in many institutions and are known as active learning methods. We shall try to adapt them to the high school environment, and to equip them with a large scope of digital resources and tools. This is how we shall answer to the challenge of MOOCs systems: emphasizing the need for educational innovation, adapted to the new skills of the students and to the requirements of our times. Watching, listening, obeying, memorizing were the key methods of old times education: putting them on line will not change anything to the tremendous weakness of responsibility skills that today leaders are demonstrating and that we, as educators, are supposed to enhance. Of course, it will take us time to develop and test these methods but we need to be sure that they are really improving the learning process before we extend them and deliver them.

Of course, we shall miss the rush for MOOCs fame, but since the same fad occurred at the end of the ‘90’s, we know that there is time and room, especially in Europe, to invent another model, a responsible and relevant one for the challenges of our time.

A Columbia University/Millennium Promise response to ‘A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational-ethical dilemma)’

Editors’ note: today’s guest entry has been kindly developed by Dr. Lucia Rodriguez, director of the Global Master’s in Development Practice Secretariat, Columbia University. For the past 20 years Dr. Rodriguez (pictured to the right) has been involved in the field of education, including at Teachers College and the Department of Bilingual/Bicultural Education (Columbia University), and the United Nations Association of the USA (UNA-USA). A native of Cuba, Dr. Rodriguez completed her undergraduate work at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and received her Doctorate in Education from Teachers College, Columbia University.

Dr. Rodriguez’s entry focuses on an innovative global educational initiative that has much potential to generate substantive, organizational, pedagogical and technological lessons. The Global Master’s in Development Practice (MDP) is a two-year graduate degree program involving the participation of 22 universities around the world. Further information about the MDP is available below, and also in ‘Some Important Lessons for Global Academic Innovation’ by John W. McArthur (Huffington Post, 17 May 2010) and ‘Needed: a New Generation of Problem Solvers‘ by John W. McArthur and Jeffrey Sachs (Chronicle of Higher Education, 18 June 2009). Our sincere thanks to Dr. Rodriquez, and John W. McArthur and Vibhuti Jain (both of Millennium Promise), for enabling the development of this entry.

This entry is the sixth response to Nigel Thrift’s ‘A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational, ethical dilemma)‘. The first five entries were provided by the people below and can be linked to via their names:

Finally, please note that we will continue to welcome proposals for responses to Nigel Thrift’s ‘A question‘ through to the end of 2010.

Kris Olds & Susan Robertson


Nigel Thrift’s recent post asked the question: Are the world’s universities doing all they can to prepare their students for the complex challenges facing this interconnected and interdependent global community?  Speaking as the director of the Global Master’s in Development Practice Secretariat, I believe that, although progress has occurred, much more is needed.

We are, indeed, in an urgent situation where the role of universities needs to be clarified if they are to tackle successfully the task of preparing global citizens, workers and leaders.  This urgency to innovate, to think “outside of the box,” to do things differently is the thing for which thousands of the world’s suffering people are clamoring.

Extreme Poverty and Urgent Need

Nihima, a fictitious name that represents many of the world’s most vulnerable children, epitomizes the challenges of the many voiceless people around the world in need of extreme intervention.  Like many poor people, Nihima spends her days sprawled on a mud floor with dried leaves for a roof.  She is a 13-year-old girl who recounts, through tears of despair, her life as the oldest sister, and now main caregiver, of four brothers and sisters.  Her father left the family long ago. Her mother followed shortly after.  Both of them were swallowed by the big city with the promise of returning for the family after earning some money.  Four years later, nothing has been heard from either parent.

I met Nihima several years ago, abandoned and tired.  She shared the difficulties of being a sister-parent of four at the tender age of 13.  She does not go to school because she does not have shoes.  She spends most of the day begging for kernels of millet or dried cassava or whatever she can find to feed her brothers and sisters.  What little energy she has left she spends thinking of how to help her younger sister, a weak and sickly child.

Help did not come soon enough to Nihima’s hut.  All the help funneled into this rural village was well-intentioned, but not comprehensive enough.  Many of the people on the ground, the experts in education, health and agriculture deployed to economically depressed areas, could not go beyond offering solutions that were singularly focused and limiting, failing to address the broad challenges of sustainable development.

In her day-to-day struggles, Nihima is like many of the developing world’s destitute.  She joins more than half of the world’s population who live on less than $2 day.  She, too, is one of the millions of people who cannot read a book or sign their names.  And, if her socio-economic situation does not change soon, her brothers and sisters may join the many vulnerable children who make up the 8 million preventable disease fatalities that occur worldwide each year.

The Global Master’s in Development Practice Program

Universities have a role in training and developing the problem-solvers of the world.  In particular, we believe that practitioners, the people at the forefront of all of these global problems, need to be prepared to confront the multifaceted challenges of sustainable development.

The most disenfranchised people—the poor subsistence farmer, the urban slum dweller, the ailing HIV father and mother and their vulnerable children—need our help now.  For their survival, people like Nihima often depend on the professional knowledge, skills and attributes of development practitioners.  These professionals are often the only hope for poor, suffering people.  Although most practitioners have completed the most rigorous training in sustainable development, few are prepared for the complex challenges they will encounter in the field.  They realize that their knowledge or specialization in a particular area is not enough.  Once in the field, they understand that the interwoven challenges of sustainable development can be solved only by connecting insights from a range of disciplines.

It was this realization that more is needed and the urgency to bolster the leadership and training of development practitioners that brought eminent practitioners and academics across a range of development fields together.  Former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo; global health leaders Helene Gayle, Jim Kim, and Jeffrey Koplan; former UNICEF Executive Director Ann Veneman; Nobel Laureate RK Pachauri; ground-breaking ecologist Virgilio Viana; prominent agronomists Freddie Kwesiga and Alice Pell; and African academic leaders Goolam Mohamedbhai and Livingstone Luboobi are some of those who collaborated.  As members of the International Commission on Education for Sustainable Development Practice, a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation-supported initiative, the Commission provided the insights and recommendations that led to the development of the global Master’s in Development Practice (MDP) programs.

The Global Master’s in Development Practice is a two-year graduate degree program providing students with the skills and knowledge required to better identify and address the global challenges of sustainable development, such as poverty, population, health, conservation, and climate change.  The MDP students take core courses in health sciences, natural sciences and engineering, social sciences and management.

In addition, MDP students take the Global Classroom: Integrated Approaches to Sustainable Development Practice course. This is an information technology-based, interactive course that fosters cross-border and cross-disciplinary collaboration and allows students and professors to participate in collective assignments and learning experiences.  For instance, the first “pilot” global classroom addressed a range of core issues from health, economics, policy, and agriculture, to ethics and education.  It involved the participation of 16 universities around the world.  All course materials, including the syllabus, readings, videos, and assignments, were uploaded to a common course website.  Commission members served as guest experts and provided taped lectures for each of the weekly sessions.  Students from around the world viewed the taped lectures in advance and then joined their classmates and professors for weekly, live sessions.  The weekly sessions were conducted through web-based conferencing software that enables partner universities to log-on free of charge.  Each participating classroom is then able to activate their camera.  The “global classroom” screen becomes filled with live videos of all of the partner universities.

Furthermore, all MDP students participate in two hands-on field training and internship experiences.  Only by broadening the MDP students’ educational and practical training will these students be able to more effectively understand and address the root causes of extreme poverty and confront the challenges of sustainable development.  For more information on the MDP curriculum, please go to

The Global Network of Master’s in Development Practice Programs

Two years after the launch of the International Commission on Education for Sustainable Development Practice report and its recommendations, the global network of MDP programs comprises 22 universities in 15 countries and five continents.  Many other academic institutions are soliciting membership into the network.  These universities are not only thinking about the question of how to address the various worldwide disparities, but are working together to address this problem.

The creation of the Master’s in Development Practice program acknowledges that addressing extreme poverty and sustainable development throughout the world requires a concerted effort by experts using a cross-disciplinary approach.  The first 22 universities in the network are:

  1. BRAC Development Institute, BRAC University (Dhaka, Bangladesh)
  2. CATIE (Turrialba, Costa Rica)
  3. Columbia University (New York City, New York)
  4. Emory University (Atlanta, Georgia)
  5. James Cook University (Cairns and Townsville, Australia)
  6. Sciences Po (Paris, France)
  7. TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute) University (New Delhi, India)
  8. Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin (Dublin, Ireland)
  9. Tsinghua University (Beijing, China)
  10. Universidad de Los Andes (Bogota, Colombia)
  11. Universidade Federal Rural do Rio de Janeiro (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)
  12. University of Botswana (Gaborone, Botswana)
  13. University of California, Berkeley (Berkeley, California)
  14. University of California, Davis (Davis, California)
  15. University of Cheikh Anta Diop, UCAD (Dakar, Senegal)
  16. University of Denver (Denver, Colorado)
  17. University of Florida (Gainesville, Florida)
  18. University of Ibadan (Ibadan, Nigeria)
  19. University of Peradeniya (Peradeniya, Sri Lanka)
  20. University of Minnesota (Minneapolis, Minnesota)
  21. University of Waterloo (Waterloo, Ontario)
  22. University of Winnipeg (Winnipeg, Manitoba)

Columbia University accepted its first cohort of students in 2009. Twelve other universities will do the same this September and the remaining in 2011. Although the core MDP curriculum integrates the four pillars of health, natural, social and management sciences, each university approaches the MDP through a highly diverse set of curricular emphasis.  The University of Winnipeg, for example, focuses on indigenous populations and the University of Botswana offers an executive education-type program for full-time professionals who wish to complete the MDP degree while still working.  To learn more about each MDP program’s curricular focus, please go to

We anticipate that the several hundred MDP students trained each year will not only have a broader understanding of the challenges of development, but as leaders will be able to draw on their interdisciplinary training for both policy and practice insights.  They will be the “specialists” of interdisciplinary studies in the field of sustainable development who can speak and understand the language of the various development experts often found in the field working in isolation from one another.

These MDP graduates will go on to professional trajectories within government ministries, bi-lateral and multi-lateral donor organizations, non-governmental organizations, private sector companies, foundations, or UN agencies.  As practitioners, they will be able to propose solutions to the challenges of poverty that are informed by multidisciplinary and multisectoral perspectives.

Benefits of the Global Network

Imagine a student at Sciences Po participating in the MDP field experience organized by Universidade Federal Rural do Rio de Janeiro or a faculty member from the University of Ibadan teaching a course at Tsinghua University’s MDP program.   Through the global network of MDP programs, this and more will be possible.  MDP students and professors will be able to reap the benefits of a global network by participating in exchanges and field experiences offered by the various MDP programs.  In addition, it is expected that, all MDP programs will develop their own Global Classroom course on topics as varied as public health and agricultural systems, which will be offered to students at the 22 MDP programs in the global network.

Furthermore, in order to take advantage of the global resources these 22 universities offer and to ensure that all MDP students receive a rigorous and comprehensive education, the global network of MDP programs will also benefit from the development of an open-source online resource center.  Once developed, this resource center will welcome global contributions from the MDP programs and provide academic institutions with a comprehensive repository of MDP-related educational resources and tools, including case studies, lectures, and e-journals on sustainable development practice.

The benefits of participating in the global network are numerous.  The above-mentioned are just a few.  No longer can conservationist, water specialist, agronomist, and public health specialist working to alleviate poverty depend on narrow expertise alone.  Cross-disciplinary and cross-sectoral knowledge and rigorous, hands-on, field experiences are needed. Nigel Thrift can be certain that universities in the global network of MDP programs are doing all they can and more to prepare their students for the complex challenges facing this interconnected and interdependent global community.

Lucia Rodriguez