Unlike a scientific experiment that can keep controls and treated samples isolated in separate test tubes, the MOOC experiment is playing out in one of the messier corners of the already messy real world: academia.
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"Faculty Backlash Grows Against Online Partnerships" announces the Chronicle of Higher Education (in a section that includes several stories on schools slowing down or halting some aspect of their involvement with MOOC-related projects). Tales of MOOC skeptics and low completion rates dot the Inside Higher Ed technology pages. And stories of MOOCs in the New York Times seem to be focusing less on Friedmanian enthusiasm and more on the wary glances faculties are giving the new technology.

Last summer, when I was creating a course on critical thinking (tied to the 2012 Presidential election), I did segments on Media Literacy and Information Literacy, which ended with an analysis of a specific issue that taught me to avoid confusing momentum a particular storyline was getting in the news with an actual trend.

And in the case of MOOCs, the negative stories that have been appearing lately no more spell doom than all those positive stories we saw last year meant a new educational era was in the offing.

For, as everyone involved with them will tell you, MOOCs are a work in progress -- usually referred to as an "experiment." But unlike a scientific experiment that can keep controls and treated samples isolated in separate test tubes, the MOOC experiment is playing out in one of the messier corners of the already messy real world: academia.

To highlight just one example of how much we're talking about a moving target, twelve months ago there were not enough MOOC courses to threaten many departments, nor were the licensing deals in place that allowed schools to use courses from companies like edX or Coursera as classroom resources. But now that such content and deals are in place, it's only natural that faculties start debating what they want to do (if anything) with all this new stuff.

Similarly, the fact that Duke University (currently producing eleven online classes with Coursra) has decided to hold off on joining a consortium looking into giving college credit for online courses only demonstrates that the whole issue of credit for MOOCs is at a very early stage.

I suspect the decision of Amherst College to not join other schools like Wesleyan and Berkeley in partnering with a Coursera or edX will put a brake on the "get onboard or get left behind" dynamic that's been swirling around MOOC partnerships over the last 8-9 months. But given that people and institutions choosing to participate in such projects should be doing so for the right reasons, I don't think there's anything wrong with some colleges deciding to take a wait-and-see attitude before throwing their weight behind a technology whose benefits and business models are not yet clear.

The first rounds of analysis we've seen coming from the data generated by MOOC classes have been eye opening (even if media coverage seems to focus primarily on low completion rates). But even completion stories need to be informed by more than just dividing the number of people who complete a course by the number of those who signed up for it.

Did those who signed up but never finish listen to (and learn from) every single lecture but never intended to do the assignments (i.e., do MOOCs generate a high percentage of auditors)? Or did tons of people sign up for something free (a la Facebook), even if they never intended to use it?

Whenever a new technology or trend makes big news, there's a tendency towards the same type of errors made by those five blind guys trying to figure out an elephant: mistaking one tiny aspect for the whole.

Academics who fear replacement by star professors teaching through a browser naturally want to talk about how these courses compare quality-wise with what they do in the classroom. Student and parents looking down the barrel of six figure college costs are naturally drawn to question of whether MOOCs can provide a low-cost alternative to at least some of college. Professors teaching popular massive courses like to focus on the challenges they faced as well as the pleasure involved with potentially teaching more people in one semester than they have their whole lives.

And then you've got people like me who've decided that someone needs to determine how much you can genuinely learn if the new free learning resources are all you're going to use to complete the equivalent of a full-blown college degree.

I can't say which part of the elephant I happen to be touching (hey you in the back -- no giggling!), but I can say that whatever my experiment within the wider MOOC experiment reveals will have to take its place alongside a whole lot of other information and experiences before we can decide what MOOCs are and where they will fit into the wider (and rapidly changing) educational landscape.

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