I’m bored of cows as a MOOCy metaphor; I found a new one:

Isn’t he cute?

The inspiration comes from a wise one — Neil Young — in The Donkey and Digital Music: The Full Dive Into Media Interview. Neil was on his stump, in grand ripping form, about how the digital music format that most people listen to, the mp3, is decrepit because it contains only 5% of the original sound quality of the high end masters.

Out trots the donkey:

Neil Explains the Donkey

Somewhat paraphrased:

We can’t control the back end of the donkey… but that’s where all the products are focused. There’s no one talking about the front end of the donkey. That’s what I’m talking about.

He’s saying that our music consumption is happy to be focused on the back end of the donkey. Like we do not know there is a front end.

But I am going to reverse Neil’s donkey for it’s relationship to MOOCs.

Everyone is looking on the front end, the massive gorging of the MOOC Donkey. The lightning rod, the force generating the so called tsunami – is the massive course size. The measure that gets mentioned again and again, is 140,000 students registered for this course, 300,000 for that one. That is the thing that is making some people claim the tree is dead.

For the most part, MOOCs are doing little to leverage that capability of the masses. The virtue of a massive course is the hand rubbing glee (and the supposed doing a favor for the world), is the idea of broadcasting an education to hundreds of thousands, or millions.

That is all going in the front end of the donkey. Don’t worry, the back end is not what you think. Stay with me.

What ever happened to Collective Intelligence? Did that just go thud falling off the Hype-Curve-Horizon-Report? What happened to the Everybody that was coming Here? “The Power of Organizing Without Organizations is that de-shirked? Are MOOCs deploying massive numbers for anything beyond inflating their own hype?

As a sideshow, it’s a bit of a quicksand situation to talk about c and x Donkeys as all having the same virtues. The Coursera course, by its association a cMOOC, E-learning and Digital Cultures (#etcmooc) is actually, from what I can see, using their scale, and acting more cMOOC like than any other xMOOC.

Be careful with those generalizations.

But let’s look again at the back end of the MOOC Donkey.

Watch where you step.

The usual approach, one I have done myself, is to look at the single digit percentage of completion rates.

I still maintain that the Big Money MOOCs need to own those numbers as much as their front end boasts. If they are going to cite as a mark of success how many people are signing up for open courses, they ought to be held somewhat accountable or at least in the spotlight for what comes out their back end. Typically it’s tiny pellets. Oh they will make hay when some sheep farmer in Mongolia passes a physics class or a teen girl in a remote Indian village aces Calculus. Those are commendable stories. But there’s a whole lot more that is not even getting in the digestive tract of the donkey.

The usual response, and in many cases valid, is that a lot of people sign up for MOOCs without the intent to complete. They just want to partake a little bit. I agree that happens. At least for Jon Becker.

The word “dropout” has zero relevance in this space. I suggest flogging with old celery anyone who uses that term for MOOCs

We ought to not be looking at one poop stream at the back end. If I was in the Big MOOC business, and getting 50,000 clams (or is it 250,000?) per course, I’d be really putting those learning analytics to work. Actually maybe one does not need the full Monty data package. A survey might do.

I signed up for a MOOC in Film. I watched 50% of the first week’s lectures and I watched one film. And I never went back. If Coursera cared about anything but the front end of the donkey, they would be doing something to understand why I was not coming out the back end of its donkey.

If people entering the front end of the MOOC Donkey were asked and tracked based on their intent in the course, then the numbers at the back end might be more meaningful. Who knows, maybe that is happening. We likely will never know, because Coursera, Udacity, EdX all have a lot to gain, just like all the other web giants (google, facebook, twitter, yadda, badda, bing) from hording the data patterns of their users. It’s gold. The only “Open” in the acronym is open as walking in the front end of the donkey’s mouth. These folks are not going to be transparent about their inner workings.

Check this out.

My colleague Donna Gaudet is teaching a MOOC on Canvas in Basic Arithmetic, a developmental level class she has taught in person and online for community college audience. In a talk last month about MOOCs and hers (it is well worth a watch, she gets her facts better than mainstream journalists), she shared results of a survey she did on the 500 people who enrolled.

The largest percentage were aged 30-50 and had graduate degrees. Why are they in a basic arithmetic class?

Donna is smart. She is tracing what goes into the front end of the donkey. If you are not doing that, then all you get on the back end is…. well you know.

I guess the difference will be when people are paying for MOOCs, maybe it’s their 10k degree or their Californicated McDegree. But that to me, is a step off of the ideal of educating millions around the world for free. Then it is just another online degree program. At a discount.

Who cares what goes in the donkey’s mouth? Look at the other end.

cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo shared by magnusfranklin

We can’t control who goes in the front end of the donkey… but that’s where all the journalists and fad monkeys are focused. There’s no one talking about the back end of the donkey. That’s what I’m talking about.

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An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at CogDogBlog.com on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.


  1. Useful model for any processing system. Wonder though if we should spend more effort on the middle rather than always seeking “results”–especially when the learning (in a cMOOC anyway) seems more an assembly of skills and insights that are useful as operational tools rather than as firm conclusions.

    As a learning organism it seems preferable to load copiously at the front, digest ferociously in mid-section and excrete only that which has been drained of useful content out the back. Hanging around the back end to see what comes out is how we measure learning already.

      1. Messy, but still fruitful.

        Seriously, I really like Scott’s assertion that the stuff that happens in between mouth and back end is where the magic happens. According to this metaphor, that should be learning.

        And, yes, we can predict what will happen in the middle by looking at what is consumed and how, or even by examining what comes out the back end. But that’s indirect. But if that’s all that’s being looked at it suggests there’s not a lot of interest in learning, or interaction, or the development of community, or user behavior, etc. There are exceptions, of course. I think most recently of Martin Hawksey’s awesome hack of RSS feed data from a discussion forum (http://mashe.hawksey.info/2013/02/lak13-recipes-in-capturing-and-analyzing-data-canvas-network-discussion-activity-data/). Now that is fascinating stuff, easily got.

        Alan, forgive me, but I can’t resist suggesting that — while I love the donkey metaphor *and* Neil Young — maybe it’s worth shifting the metaphor back to cows: Stomach windows, anyone?

        1. Many stomachs and massive output do favour the cow but attitude still goes to the donkey. Trouble is many stomachs still result in BS out the end.

          My take on xMOOCs is they are mostly entertainment and might act as an intention to learn, but like diets, fall away quickly when any effort is expected. With PBS in decline, people still need something to associate with that gives their mind some exercise and makes them feel less dumbed-down. xMOOCs ask nothing, emphasize the isolated individual and will probably flash by pretty quickly. The missing ingredients of participation and engagement that you allude to Jared are going to make them obsolete. People want more than TV.

          In the mean time we ruminate on education as a group activity that brings people together.

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