Adjacent possible: MOOCs, Udacity, edX, Coursera

A few days ago, the New York Times ran an effusive articles on the general awesomeness of MOOCs: The Year of the MOOC. This comes on the heels of MIT declaring MOOCs The Most Important Education Technology in 200 Years. Sebastian Thrun responds to the times article by drawing attention and recognition to himself and his work “Wow – this all started with our class on AI!”.

Lost in this MOOC conversation, and a key goal of our book with Johns Hopkins University Press, is the historical context in which MOOCs are situated. Advocates of open education, going back to the open university movement of the 1960′s, feel slighted that their history is being ignored. Online universities – such as publicly-funded Athabasca University – similarly feel left out as they’ve been in this online learning game for a long time (over two decades). Where is the innovation in MOOCs? More recently, Stephen Downes, Dave Cormier and I get mild rashes when MOOCs are treated as an “invented at Stanford” model, even by my hometown newspaper, the Edmonton Journal: Online guru to help develop free courses for University of Alberta. Dave, Stephen, and I ran the first MOOC, if only by name, in 2008. Go back a year or two and we find folks like Alec Couros and David Wiley. Go way back, and you’ll find schools systems like University of South Africa dating back to 1873.

Clearly the history of MOOCs is more complex than the New York Times or Sebastian Thrun acknowledge.

But let’s start by doing away with the “lone genius myth” of MOOCs. Thrun, Udacity, Coursera, and Stanford did not invent MOOCs. They did run them on a much larger scale than we have done with our MOOCs. They had better PR connections and better funding. Our own MOOCs, in turn, borrowed heavily from online learning research, our work with networked learning, and the experiences of conferences and online courses that are at least 20 years old. In academia, there is a desire for attribution, an acknowledgement of the origin of ideas. In this regard, NYTimes fails at basic literature review. Most of this relates to my own ego, so it is largely inconsequential. Having the idea first is not the same as succeeding in commercializing and moving ideas into the public sphere. In regards to the ladder, Udacity and Coursera have been wonderfully capable.

Stuart Kauffman has advanced the idea of Adjacent Possible. Clear definitions of AP are hard to come by online (you have to turn to his book Investigations). The closest I’ve come to a definition online is in this NPR article:

the universe is open upward in complexity indefinitely. Based on unprestatable Darwinian exaptations, the evolution of the biosphere, economy and culture seem beyond sufficient law, hence the universe is again open. The unstatable evolution of the biosphere opens up new Adjacent Possible adaptations.

Or in his Edge interview:

fourth concerns the idea of the adjacent possible. It just may be the case that biospheres on average keep expanding into the adjacent possible. By doing so they increase the diversity of what can happen next. It may be that biospheres, as a secular trend, maximize the rate of exploration of the adjacent possible. If they did it too fast, they would destroy their own internal organization, so there may be internal gating mechanisms. This is why I call this an average secular trend, since they explore the adjacent possible as fast as they can get away with it.

The adjacent possible essentially refers to what is possible next. Most of Kauffman’s discussions of AP refer to biological systems, but the concept can be applied to social systems or innovation in general. You can’t, for example, have an iPhone if you don’t have the development of the individual innovations and technologies that make an iPhone what it is. It sounds like a simple argument, but it is rather complex. We went, in a period of about four years, from not having touch screen phones to have dozens of options. The possibilities arose only after a period of development and innovation in the sub-elements of touch screen mobiles. Adaptations are only possible at the edge. As the edge advances, new possibilities arise.

When MOOCs are viewed through this lens, it deflates the bold innovation claims of MOOC providers and media. And my own. MOOCs started happening because technologies developed to a point where video, media, assessment, online interaction, and digital literacy of learners were broadly available. If we hadn’t run our first MOOC in 2008 at University of Manitoba, someone else would have. If Stanford hadn’t run the AI course, someone else would have run something similar. The edge of technology and society had advanced to a point where MOOCs were possible. Where credit is due to edX and Coursera is in their ability to recognize the potential, direct resources, and gain media recognition. While they may be the face of MOOCs today, they stand on a long history of innovation in technology and pedagogy.

10 thoughts on “Adjacent possible: MOOCs, Udacity, edX, Coursera

  1. Hi George. You nail the points about why the xMOOC model gets mainstream media love, and I greatly appreciate the cMOOC want to define their movement in terms of history, theory and pedagogy. Is the reason the xMOOC movement does not follow suit because they do think they invented sliced bread here? A few of them link their movement to Sal Khan, who himself thinks he changed education from an 1892 model. American research universities have been attempting to massify their offerings via computer for at least 50 years…from PLATO to AllLearn. Do you see these groups ignorant of educational theory and history, or are there ulterior motives? Last, to get away from conspiracy theory, where do you see common ground b/t your vision and that of xMOOC?

  2. Steven Johnson describes the adjacent possible nicely here:

    “The scientist Stuart Kauffman has a suggestive name for the set of all those first-order combinations: “the adjacent possible.” The phrase captures both the limits and the creative potential of change and innovation. In the case of prebiotic chemistry, the adjacent possible defines all those molecular reactions that were directly achievable in the primordial soup. Sunflowers and mosquitoes and brains exist outside that circle of possibility. The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.

    The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore them. Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations. ”

    So, in addition to questioning the understanding of the MOOC-enthralled about MOOC’s origins, this also points out that MOOCs (as they now exist) are not some grand destination point. What will emerge from the MOOC soup that is so rapidly bubbling now?

  3. MOOCs have 2 models to be useful to society :
    1.- MOOCs elite universities would give credits and degrees after some time , and charge a small fee as promised .. That is at least 4-5 years . It takes time to develop a complete range of degreecourses

    2.- All college students take 5 online courses from elite universities , college would award a credit toward a degree from the College . Again MOOCs charge a small fee. Colleges even assign a facilitator for each online course.
    Then tuition is dropped by 50 %
    Quality is increased due to elite universities online courses .
    Side effects :
    a) There will be more room for oncampus students since all room and teachers are idle 50 % . Then college can increase its enrollment by 100 %
    b) Now there are room for 36 million students instead of 18 million right now .

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  8. Nothing wrought by humans is utterly new, including MOOCs. Every movement has a lineage, and this post includes some good info on the MOOC pedigree.

    You know a shift in social thought or action is of real value when people take the time to write that they’ve been doing it all along, and it looks like MOOCs are there. I don’t mean to mock those writers, because it’s probably true that the new variation would not have been possible without good predecessors.

    But when a new variant is suddenly able to cascade and infect its way to massive impact that the earlier practitioners cold not have achieved, that’s both new and important. That’s what the media and the world are rightfully celebrating. A quality pedigree is basically, and correctly, assumed.

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