Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Janux Next: A Strange Story of Closed and Open

Last Friday, faculty at my school (all faculty? just faculty on the Center for Teaching Excellence mailing list?) received an email which I've included as an image below, urging us to apply to put our courses inside Janux, a new learning management system in which the University of Oklahoma has invested millions of dollars (one million dollars last year to the company, NextThought, that is building the platform; two million dollars this year... and that is just the budget for NextThought software, so it does not include all the money being spent on actual course development). What was really strange was that these courses, which are being called "Janux Next," will not have an OU-version and open-enrollment version; instead, these will be for University of Oklahoma students only. So, the one thing that is open about Janux currently — open enrollment — will not even apply. These will be closed courses in a closed learning management system. Which is about as closed as you can get.

At the same time, it's pretty clear that the open side of Janux has not been a big success, press releases and student newspaper articles to the contrary. I participated in an open Janux course in Spring 2014, but I dropped out after a few weeks because of frustration with the software and lack of any sense of a learning community. When I dropped out of that course, there were three people participating (counting me). I decided to try a different course in Fall 2014, but I dropped out even more quickly; there was even less participation than in the class I had tried during the spring.

So, when the email came on Friday about Janux Next not having an open-enrollment side, it made me curious: is anything really happening at all on the open side of Janux? I just now checked in for all 9 courses currently being offered and, except for the beer course, it appears that nothing much at all is happening. Maybe people are watching the videos (I have no access to those statistics), but I see none of the social learning that Janux claims to promote. Even the beer course, which naturally connects with an existing real-world community, does not appear to have much participation on the open side. Yet the welcome emails to the courses proclaim that I will find true learning communities here: You are about to embark on a one-of-a-kind learning experience through Janux. More importantly, you are joining a true learning community built to connect, engage, and inspire all who wish to learn.

Now, the Janux software is a nightmare to navigate, but here is what I found when I looked in the discussion areas for the courses, seeing the last comment that anyone had posted. Comments are not dated, but Janux labels things by "X weeks ago" and "X months ago," and I looked for comments more recent than 3 months ago:

1 month ago 2 comments total (2 people participating)

Law and Justice
3 weeks ago 5 comments total (4 people participating)
2 months ago 4 comments total (1 person participating)

Global Community
3 weeks ago 1 comment total (1 person participating)
2 months ago 8 comments total (4 people participating)

Human Physiology
3 weeks ago 1 comment total (1 person participating)
2 months ago 3 comments total (3 people participating)

Computer Programming
1 week ago 4 comments total (3 people participating)
2 months ago 2 comments total (2 people participating)

Gateway to College Learning
no comments more recent than 3 months ago

General Chemistry
no comments more recent than 3 months ago

Philosophy and Human Destiny
no comments more recent than 3 months ago

Chemistry of Beer
There are 8 open discussions, 6 of which have comments:
3 comments (2 weeks ago)
4 comments (3 weeks ago)
5 comments (4 weeks ago)
9 comments (1 month ago)
13 comments (1 month ago)
60 comments (1 month ago)

And here is a screenshot of a typical course discussion area. The Janux software automatically pops up the discussion board topics unit by unit, topic by topic, but no one is there to comment:

I find this all very depressing. I personally believe in open everything: open content, open learning, open outcomes, open it all up! If someone wants to justify a closed system with open enrollment because, they believe, a closed system is needed to build trust in a community... well, Janux apparently is not succeeding in that, as the low participation rate shows. I suspect there are many reasons contributing to the low participation in the open side of Janux. The main reason I would guess is the top-down, instructor-driven course design but low-to-no instructor presence. The software is also a serious problem. Problems like these would not be easy to fix now that the courses have been designed and the software has been built.

Is Janux succeeding better with paying students who are taking the courses for a grade? I am sure that it is, but because that side of Janux is completely fenced off, there is no way to see what the Janux software is like when people are actually using it in large numbers. So too with the new History-Channel-branded courses; those courses will have no open side at all ($500 for credit, $250 for badge only), so we will not get to see what is actually going on.

Are there going to be faculty who want to put their courses in Janux Next? Maybe there are. I am not one of them.

Instead, I'm sticking to the open Internet. I was always a believer in open courses, and the people I've met in Connected Courses and the great examples of their work that I have seen make me an even stronger believer in the pedagogical value of open. I sure wish we were spending millions of dollars on open courses at my school, instead of on Janux. Luckily, though, whatever the budgetary priorities of my school, I still have the freedom to teach my classes in the open, and that's what I will keep on doing!

~ ~ ~

Here is the email announcing Janux Next:


  1. Yay, you! Connected Courses has changed us for good, I'm not even taking any paid professional development courses this year, and find everything I need in open courses now. When I finish the school year I'm going to look more closely at your post 'Anatomy of an online course' and think about how I can make a difference at my school. To be honest, unless Australian universities change their admission criteria (which is their ranking), smart students will not be interested in anything that doesn't bring them closer to the highest ranking possible so they can pursue their careers (typically Medicine, Commerce, Law, Engineering). We have smart boys here at our selective school but the demographic has changed dramatically in the last few years, and they are predominantly the very tutored boys. Lifelong learning? Critical and creative thinking? won't get you a ranking.

    1. Oh, I hear you there, Tania! And listen, there was a great post that Bill Benzon did for #ccourses about lifelong learning where he looked at the Google Ngrams for lifelong learning and learning to learn. It was really interested to see just when use of those terms became more and more widespread. I really DO believe in lifelong learning, and my dream vision is that ALL the university courses would have their materials in the open AND we would be teaching students how to blog and network and connect (like you and I are doing now!), so that they wouldn't need "courses" to learn... just access to the materials 24/7 and the confidence and skills to build their own learning communities! Globally!
      That is what I am hoping for and Connected Courses has made me feel less alone in having goals like that! :-)

    2. (now feeling bad about being behind on Benson... not worse because that would break the chain of alliteration)

      Even missing and not having time for chunks, #ccourses reinforced that for me too. Like you, I'd picked it up far enough back to be ingrained. Being less alone may be why I keep signing up for courses I know I don't have the time for...because that's where I keep running into and

      Now I've taken on another project, joining the push back against privatization and the kind of standardization that is the hallmark of LMS and xMOOC driven education. And I'm thinking about how to connect them with connected and lifelong learning folk because that is the only real future education has.

      I am not optimistic about the future of public education. That does not, however, deter me from my appointed rounds.

    3. I am glad our appointed rounds keep intersecting, Vanessa! And Connected Courses really has helped me focus on the idea of connectedness and student agency. Open is still my main rallying cry, but connectedness and agency are now at the forefront also. I'm really not even sure 'connected learning' was a phrase I really used before now, but it sure does resonate! :-)


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