Barriers to Entry

I recently listed the components of a MOOC course to a friend working in edTech who wanted to figure out which pieces he already had in place.  The things I told him he needed included:

  • Video lectures
  • Static document management (for syllabi and other course-related materials)
  • Quizzing
  • Discussion forum management
  • A learning management system to tie everything together

In addition (and depending on the nature of the courses he wanted to create), he might also need:

  • Document sharing capability (possibly supplemented with rubric-scoring tools to facilitate peer-grading)
  • Scheduling or calendaring tools (above and beyond what was already in his LMS)
  • Conferencing tools (to support virtual meet-ups))
  • A content management system for blogging or other curating activity

What’s interesting about this list is that everything on it is likely to already be included in a large educational portal system, like the one my friend is building.  But tools that perform these functions can also be stitched together by people without millions of development or investment dollars to draw upon.

For example, Open Source software is available for free (or nearly free) for almost every one of the features we interact with when we take a MOOC class.  To cite a simple example, an educational project I did last year included audio lectures (facilitated with free podcasting software) and document sharing (a syllabus, weekly classroom materials, etc.) with free WordPress software acting as both a blog and content-management system.

While I farted around with quizzing towards the end of that project, if I were to revisit it today I’d start by kitting the site out with one of the LMS plug-ins or themes that could turn my material into a full-blown online course.

You can actually see many of these tools in play whenever you interact with your MOOC course from Udacity, edX or Coursera.  The most obvious example is YouTube which is responsible for video storage and deliver for every MOOC course I’m taking.  Google Hangouts are also identified as such when they’re used within a course (like the Hangout where a select group of students got to do some Q&A with the teacher of my Modernism/Post Modernism course).  And a trained eye can pick out other free tools and services like Drupal and Amazon which do their things behind the scenes when students read a blog entry or download assignments.

This is not to diminish the technical prowess of those able to leverage open-source tools when building powerful learning platforms.  For example, building a peer-grading system that can handle the input of tens of thousands of students without losing anything is a remarkable technical achievement, and the exciting thing about Open Source is that it allows developers to focus on creating new technologies, rather than having to build from scratch features that already exist as plug-ins or add-on modules.

The prevalence of these tools is also behind the latest startup binge, allowing entrepreneurs to kick off a web-based business (or at least build their first minimally viable product) in days (rather than months) for a few thousand (rather than tens or hundreds of thousands) of dollars.  In fact, many startups designed to plug holes in the MOOC ecosystem (from course review to portfolio sites) have gotten off the ground in record time thanks to the availability of open software.

But this low barrier to entry also means that it’s not that hard to jump into a newly opened niche or jump onto the latest hot trend – including the MOOC trend itself.

After all, you don’t need to be a Stanford professor in order to deliver your course for free to anyone in the world, given that sites like Udemy allows any teacher with a video camera, some time and wherewithal to get into the game.  And, as you’re reading this, new players are jumping into the MOOC space which focus on specific categories of learning (such as design), or working in specific countries.

But if you look at the largest Udemy courses covering academic subjects (like the art history class I’ll be starting in a few weeks), you’ll notice that their numbers are 2-3 orders of magnitude smaller than equivalent courses from the Big Three MOOC providers.  Which means that something beyond technology must be providing the value that will turn an offering from a free online course to a massive one.

Having just completed Coursera’s Property and Liability class (reviewed in this week’s Degree of Freedom News) understanding sources of value is top of mind.  Which is why I’ll be turning to this subject tomorrow.

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One Response to Barriers to Entry

  1. Robert McGuire May 1, 2013 at 1:06 pm #

    Jonathan, you’re hitting on what I think is one of the most overlooked aspects of MOOCs. We are so enamored of how the “open” part means anyone in the world can be a student, because of no admission process or no fee. But the flat world metaphor applies to the producer end — there is no barrier to entry for institutions, teachers and even people with no credentials or affiliations. Anyone in the world can be Harvard’s students, but now anyone in the world can put their product alongside Harvard’s. If that sounds ridiculous, consider that Sal Khan — no teaching credentials or academic affiliation — is the most popular teacher in the world. I think it is very similar to publishing. You were kind enough to mention MOOC News and Reviews, which uses free tools (WordPress) to put our reviewers’ contributions alongside name-brand media. I think a similar thing will happen with the “publishing” of educational content.

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