Have MOOC Challenges Already Been Solved?

Those in the MOOC business face a number of seemingly daunting challenges.

What is the business model that can turn millions of subscribers into a profitable (or at least sustainable) business?  How can the intimacy normally associated with learning be replicated in classrooms containing tens of thousands of students?  Is there a solution to fundamental security issues (like who is doing the work in a MOOC class)?  How can MOOCs gain recognition as legitimate (and credit-worthy) courses?  Can MOOCs be used to teach subjects (like lab science or art) that go beyond words and images, requiring interaction with the real world?

I’ll stop here to avoid coming off like a Cassandra.  Especially since the point I want to make is that there is precedent for a solution to each and every one of these problems.

After all, while MOOCs are unique in terms of their scale (not to mention the support they are receiving from major universities and the interest they have generated in the popular media), they are pretty much a new packaging of a product that is decades old: online learning. And if you scan the landscape, you’ll find a number of online learning vendors who are not just making a living, but making a killing on the Internet.

Similarly, online learning for credit does not merely have precedent; it’s become an educational norm both in places like University of Phoenix that’s offered online degrees for over a decade and in traditional universities increasingly offering online versions of their classes (or course that blend classroom and online experiences).  And let’s not forget the UK’s Open University (parent of FutureLearn) that has been offering remote degrees since before the PC (much less the Internet).

Solutions to security issues related to remote testing or test-taker authentication are not available off-the-shelf.  But most of the players in high-stakes testing (in fields such as standardized educational testing, certification and licensure) have been experimenting with and even implementing ideas that close these security gaps for at least two decades.

And if online learning only works for content that can be turned into 1’s and 0’s, how can organizations like the Museum of Modern Art be offering a whole range of studio art classes taught online?

When you’re working in an industry that sees itself as hot and new, it can seem as though “inventing the future” means coming up with your own unique answer to every problem. But as cool as MOOCs are, they are simply the latest step in the evolutionary chain of online education vs. a product that came into the world without an umbilical cord.

As I’ve mentioned before, MOOCs already represent “mashup” technology vs. something that needed to be coded from the ground up.  For whenever you take a MOOC class, you’ll be interacting with videos deployed via YouTube, downloading files located on Amazon cloud servers, reading a syllabus off a Wiki or interacting in forums powered by open-source software.

So if MOOCs are already made up of existing solutions at the technical level, why not look to existing non-technical precedents to solve other problems (such as business or pedagogical challenges) noted at the top of this piece?

With that call to action in mind, I’m planning to dedicate the next few podcasts (and probably a blog entry or three) to the subject of how adjacent industries have already solved many of the problems those of us in the MOOC game discuss daily.

And to kick things off, join us tomorrow to hear from the CEO of a company that has unquestionably cracked the code regarding how to create a successful business model for digital education.  (You’ve got 24 hours to guess who that is.)

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