Torrents and Moocs: the paradox of sharing

Time was too short to write a blog last week. To the why I will return later in this blog.

Sometimes things take some time before you make certain combinations. A few weeks ago I saw a documentary over the process against the people of the Pirate Bay in Sweden: the Pirate Bay away from key board.


The last week I was working on a paper, with a colleague of mine, concerning the effects of Moocs on Higher Education: are they disruptive or not?  And suddenly, I am thinking about this paradox between Torrents and Moocs.

People invest in making things, physical or virtual objects. Growth theory tells us that property rights are very important for innovations. Given that

  • most inventions never will become more than a nice idea in the laboratory and
  •  that between the state of creativity and a commercially interesting innovation the organizations has to spend a lot of money,

it is clear that organizations have to earn a lot of money to pay back for all those investments.

So -according to the theory- this earn back period depends on the time  an organization can protect its product or service from becoming replaced by cheaper copy cats. Hence the importance of property rights.

This paradigm is adjusted in recent years, both in practice as in theory. Open innovation still builds on solid property rights but sees a lot of wasting resources because of the closed approach to research and innovation. In practice there are firms who decide against the long period of patenting their inventions, stating that the patenting process in itself increases the possibilities of competing copies and results in losing valuable marketing time (move fast before they catch up).

Yet, the entertainment sector still bases itself on the old growth paradigm. They point to the investments of artist and producers to develop books, music and movies; things that can be digitalized and copies. An interesting exception are paintings. There is a whole industry offering Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and nobody is treating to shut down my printer if I make a color print of a picture of the Rijkswacht of Rembrandt.

However, exchange of digital copies of other artistic products will result in a world where no movies are made, no books will be written and no original music will be composed.

There is something strange with respect to this attitude. When I buy a book or a cd, all rights are mine; I can resell them, give them away or donate them for a good cause. There are even organizations who buy books and leave them in trains and other public places. I can make copies for “home-use” and share those with friends. Sharing in this sense is seen as something good and socially desirable behavior. However, when I buy an electronic book, I can only resell it if I read it online at who put it in a vault. When I resell it, it is not the book I sell, but the combination of this vault. I have the feeling that when I buy something digitalized, I never become the owner but will always rent it in some way. Let alone that people should share on a larger scale, using P2P networks (Pirate Bay) or hosting sites (as Megaupload). The movie about the process against the Pirate Bay shows that the vision of the South Park creators is more than fiction.

So sharing with a small group of people is good, but sharing with a lot of people is bad!! At least that is the message as I read it in the behavior of society with respect to internet organizations who facilitate mega-sharing.

Yet, in the past year, I read nothing but good words about teachers, institutions and foundations who facilitate the free mass sharing of knowledge and education. Of course there are discussions on the motives and the pedagogical models, c- versus x-, definitions of free, gratis versus available and so on. Yet there is a consensus to the fact that free education perhaps not will change higher education, but at least will raise the quality with decreasing costs. The newest hype being Moocs because massive is good adn efficient. So in education Sharing is good, Big Sharing is better!

Why does society feels that big sharing in some ways is bad, whereas it is desirable in other situations? Could it be that developing (good) education does not require investments; perhaps the fact that Moocs build on existing courses and that the ‘putting online’ does require such small sums that these small sums disappear in the larger budgets of universities? Yet 55 % of the Mooc-teaching professors indicate that these activities significantly competes with other activities.

Another explanation can be that the suppliers of the Moocs are different from the owners of education; as I described elsewhere the motives of individuals to participate in OER can be different from those of the institutions involved. So a professor can offer a Mooc because he thinks that his materials are not worth anything elsewhere, or for reputational reasons; organizations often participate because of the additional subsidies, marketing reasons or as part of their corporate governance.

Partly this is recognizable, offering a successful Mooc is good for your professional reputation. Yet, most Moocs contain specially for the Mooc developed materials, no rerun of old presentations and recorded colleges. The participating institutions put a lot of effort in the presentation of the Moocs, not only because of marketing reasons. There are a lot of ideas of potential future business models including providing additional services, selling programs for in company trainings and selling the information about the Mooc-participants. So, the Mooc institutions resemble modern day pop groups who offer (part of) their songs for free at the internet because they decided that their earning potentials are in other areas as life performances or fan goods. the same sense, publications in the form of double blind peer reviewed articles, published in closed journals are seen as of a greater academic value than blogs, columns or contributions to free journals. Also, in this sense free is a disqualification, synonym to bad quality. Perhaps scientific publications have to undergo a disruptive shock, just like education.


Moocs, cMoocs en xMoocs

During the First Unisa international Open Distance Learning conference in September 2012, George Siemens gave a workshop on ‘Designing, development, and running (Massive) Open Online Courses”. Inspiring as his workshop was, it is still a question whether Moocs are a ‘disruptive innovation’ (Guardian) , the Trojan Horse, destroying the business model of universities by themselves, or another hype caused by people who didn’t attend one?


There are different degrees of openness in the “ Open Movement”, ranging from free as in open source software towards open cooperation and open markets as in open innovation. In between those two, we find the openness of Open Universities. In general there is a submission  fee to be paid, however entry is not restricted by formal qualifications and most programs are free in time and place to study. Most Moocs are open in the sense that there are no formal qualifications for participating, no fees to pay, but they are restricted in the time that they are available online.

Secondly, in my view, there is distinction in the case of open educational resources between teacher oriented materials, which should be (re)usable and adaptable versus learner oriented materials, which should be more or less self contained. Moocs are definitely materials of the second kind.

As most Moocs are only available for a short defined period of time, and the materials not free for (re-)use in another educational setting, it is hard to see how these kind of courses fit into the definition of Open Educational Resources, other than being free to attend. During the course, sometimes teachers will chat with the non-paying students, sometimes there will be only a discussion group, depending on peer review and peer assessment. This lead Jeff Borden to remark: “It was a study group of sorts.  However, after asynchronous discussions with about 10 peers, I soon realized that I was likely the most knowledgeable person in our group when it came to statistics.  (My mother and father are giggling right now…)  In other words, nobody had anything of value to bring to the table.  Social learning is indeed a powerful thing, but without what Vygotsky would call the “More Knowledgeable Other” in the group, it starts to break down quickly.”

A third question which I have with respect to Moocs is the fact that they are labeled massive by those who supply the open online course. The fact is that several have attracted a massive amount of participants, whereas others have been interested to twenty to fifty people. Massive is a depending on the decision of (potential) participants, not of the suppliers of the course. Yet another problem seems to be the completion rates, which seem to be very low. I haven’t seen any figures, but verbal communication with several people indicated at figures below 20%. This was explained partly by assuming that the participants were only interested in a fraction of the course; they register for the whole course, but after ‘taking’ the relevant part, they dropped out. However, if this is so, the term ‘massive’ is even worse chosen; if the course was split up into those parts which people found interesting, and these parts were offered as separate courses, each of the smaller courses would do worse than the Mooc, combining all these parts together.

Young asked several people for comment on the contracts made between Coursera and the participating universities. One of them commented: “that the plan relies heavily on all of the money colleges are already spending on professors and facilities. “It’s a way to carve out some extra money on the top of the existing program, but it’s not an alternative system that is going to solve the cost crisis of higher education,” he says. “It’s being subsidized by incredibly high-priced education.”

Lane and Kinser had another kind of comment on Moocs: ´But, let’s be clear what this means: thousands of students across the world taking the same course, with the same content, from the same instructor. And that is the problem. MOOC’s are now at the forefront of the McDonaldization of higher education. [..]  MOOC’s play the center against the periphery. They strengthen the ivory towers by enabling a few elite institutions to broadcast their star courses to the masses from the comfort of their protected perches. [..] Yes, the model expands access to many who cannot or do not want to pay for the regular costs, and that certainly has its benefits. [..] A multinational university can’t simply be a broadcasting service to recipients in other countries; it must engage with and learn from other cultures. The “massive” element of MOOC’s and most other technological initiatives has a homogenizing effect that makes this sort of engagement unlikely”.

An interesting observation by Forbes is that Moocs wouldn’t exist is not supported by major traditional universities. Although many people associate Moocs with the persons starting this movement around 2008, as the so-called cMoocs of Siemens and Down, xMoocs of Ng and Koller (Coursera) or Thrun (Udacity) and others, it is often the universities as Stanford, MIT, the Open University of Canada and the UK which supported the initial Moocs, sometimes resulting in independent undertakings, sometime in a cooperation between universities (EdX, Open Courseware Consortium). So the question is whether these universities will drive out other institutes of higher education, will make themselves obsolete or will regret their investments in five years time?

Trojan Horse; Artist: Dariusz Grajek,

Jeff Haywood, who has been working on the design of Moocs which the University of Edinburgh will offer through Coursera, wrote a blog with the title: No such thing as a free MOOC. Besides this obvious observation, he makes two interesting observations in one paragraph: “As with all online courses, the costs are front-loaded but even more so for MOOCs of this type, where the delivery cost (especially teaching) is low. We will spend effort and money on all our courses to get them to the right quality. We didn’t find that we had most of what we needed to hand to ‘re-arrange the pieces’ to form MOOCs, so we are going back to the design stage and creating new where necessary”.

Firstly, making good distance education is expensive, even when you are able to make it teacher independent. Secondly, although he starts his blog with positive remarks on OER, he states that when designing their Moocs, there is not enough open material available to keep the development costs down.

Yet, from the different publications there emerge three new business models, which can be useful for the sustainability of Open Educational Resources.

-1- Haywood and others mention the sales of certificates and other services which could be offered to the participants in the Mooc.

-2-  Another major source of funding is offering the course in two ways. One way is to follow the course, including extensive tutoring, graded assignments and getting a certificate; in addition the course can be made available as a Mooc to non-paying participants, receiving no tutoring, peer assessment and a certificate of participation. For example, in the Coursera contract there is the possibility to offer the courses on your own campus, charging for tuition and paying Coursera for the platform.

-3- It will also be possible to sell the Mooc-courses to third parties, companies or other institutions, for their own training purposes. This is very much in line with the marketing motive as I mentioned elsewhere.

These three ‘earning models’ are interesting extensions to the existing descriptions of business models (subsidizing, marketing, efficiency).

Will Moocs revolutionize education as some expect? Personally, I think the role of certification and formal degrees still plays a major role as evidence that a person has participated and mastered some course. For employers, formal degrees and certificates will not be replaced by document of participation in a Mooc or a portfolio (at least in developed countries). If it makes education and knowledge available in places otherwise without, this can only be stimulated even if it has the danger of the McDonaldization of higher education.

Yet, it will have a positive influence on teaching in the sense that a traditional teacher has to compete with his electronic counterpart. You should doubt your teaching capabilities if your students decide to take a Mooc over your lessons.