Google Hops on the MOOC Bandwagon

Google is always trying to expand our access to information, so it’s no surprise that it’s teaming up with the MOOC platform EdX to create Open EdX, a website that will open up the MOOC-building process to anyone with a message, an Internet connection, and a few pieces of hardware. “All of us are learners and all of us are teachers,” EdX president Anant Agarwal remarked in an interview. To that end, the platform is meant to be the “You Tube of courses.” Where Coursera and EdX primarily offer courses from elite colleges, and where Udacity builds its own courses privately, Open EdX will allow anyone, from the creative college professor to the entrepreneurial teen, create a MOOC. EdX, in announcing the project, says it also hopes to glean ideas on how to improve its own platform.

Open EdX isn’t the first “build-a-MOOC” station. Google has already operated an open source MOOC platform, Course Builder, for some time (though the site will likely fold into this new platform), and EdX made its code XBlock open to the public in June. But Open EdX is the first high-profile partnership dedicated solely to a slew of self-made courses.

Open EdX might turn out to be a godsend for amateur historians, independent scholars, and neighborhood nonprofits with worthy messages to share. But even if Open EdX works as hoped, with a plethora of new courses populating Internet, many of these courses may reach smaller audiences than their regular MOOC counterparts. Perhaps Open EdX will become the home of the “SOOC”: the smaller open online course.

In an age of information overload, we  need a good metanarrative to piece fragments of data into a coordinated whole, and we tend to look to reliable, reputable institutions to perform that interpretation for us. MOOCs, to the extent they’ve succeeded, have so far brought those institutions and experts to a larger audience. With Open EdX, Agarwal hopes to showcase new teachers and data interpreters (some of them untested) and apply crowd-sourcing techniques to the courses, democratizing teaching so that a MOOC’s user ratings indicate quality. But can we crowd-source knowledge? Yelp is helpful in locating a decent sandwich shop, but no food critic would turn to it, and neither would an aspiring chef.

Perhaps the best way to think of Open EdX is as a video version of WordPress: some users will gather a following (some for excellent, and others for less excellent, reasons), while others will remain small, appropriately focused on a group of family and friends. Either way, Open EdX will advance at least part of Google’s mission: it will organize and make accessible increasing amounts of information. Its usefulness, though, remains to be seen.

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Rachelle Peterson

Rachelle Peterson is a research associate at the National Association of Scholars.

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