MOOC Mediation

My wife is part of a generation of historians of technology who helped moved the field from a focus on inventions and inventors to an investigation of the broader context in which technologies were introduced and succeeded (or failed).

For instance, it’s easy to assume that technologies we now take for granted (such as the refrigerator) were immediately embraced by the public, given all of the economic and health benefits this device provides and its obvious superiority to other options (such as an icebox requiring regular delivery from the “ice man”).

But if you look at the history of refrigeration, you’ll discover that electric refrigeration and icebox technologies were both improving side-by-side for years and that electric refrigeration only became the standard when (1) an electric grid had expanded to the point where the cost of keeping a fridge cold was less than daily ice delivery and (2) the public had been educated about the health benefits related to keeping food cold and how families could fold this piece of domestic technology into a previously un-electrified household.

This education process unfolded over many years with mediating agents such as home economists (the subject of my wife’s book) working with government agencies, utility and appliance manufacturers to present to and teach the public about the benefits of household devices we now take for granted.

I bring this up since it points out the role mediators (such as government, private sector companies, civic organizations and professions such as home economics) played in creating a market by defining the problems new technologies solved and explaining these solutions in easy-to-understand terms.  And along the way these mediators often surfaced (or created) new uses for technologies originally envisioned to solve a narrower set of challenges.

Bringing the conversation back to MOOCs (as well as other forms of free learning), it seems obvious that students would want to use free courses from some of the world’s best universities to help them cut the cost of a college education (especially in an age when the price of a degree has been growing at twice the rate of inflation).  Which means that the only problem we supposedly need to solve is finding ways students can obtain actual college credit for taking one or more MOOC classes.

But looking back on yesterday’s piece, the fact that there were zero takers for one of the earliest MOOC-for-credit schemes seems to indicate that this issue needs to be looked at beyond deceptively simple economic terms of cheap vs. expensive credit.

For “cheap” in the case of yesterday’s Colorado example is being defined as the $89 a student needs to spend to take a proctored exam associated with completing a MOOC course vs. the $1100 he or she would spend to take that same course within the university.  But I suspect when all of the steps have been completed, the cost for the whole MOOC-test-transcript process is going to climb at least into triple digits.

And even if the process still makes broad economic sense, students need to know such programs exist and may need to be shepherded through the bureaucratic steps needed to get their MOOC experience to ultimately appear on their college transcript.  And unless there is a way for this new teaching technology to knock off something approaching a whole year of tuition, MOOCs for credit may end up being seen (accurately) as an added cost that supports different goals (such as knocking off pre-requisites so students can study more advanced courses while attending college) vs. a solution to the problem of skyrocketing costs for higher ed.

One need only look at the hugely successful Advanced Placement program to see that there is a market for taking care of college-level pre-requisites early.  But AP is a socially and educationally acceptable program supported by thousands of high schools that proudly boast the number of advanced placement classes they provide, as well as a massive infrastructure for implementing and grading a respected and rigorous set of AP exams.  And if you look at the history of AP, you’ll see that this support and infrastructure was not based on some “if you build it they will come” overnight success story but instead evolved over decades.

Now in our accelerated Internet age, we have come to expect that great ideas (like faster microprocessors) should be snapped up by the public based on nothing more than the benefits they seem to impart.  But the landscape is littered with technologies (including educational technologies) that made all the sense in the world but were either ignored or rejected by the public (especially when this public was required to pay something or make changes to their lives or workflows in order to obtain these supposed benefits).

Which brings us back to the question of mediation, notably what kind of mediation is required to turn something that clearly provides educational value (such as MOOCs) into something perceived as having economic value worth paying something (in terms of time and/or money) to obtain.

For instance, it may turn out that Colorado’s post-MOOC proctored exam system is just one small piece of a wider infrastructure that needs to be put in place to help students fit MOOC courses into a broader educational program with well-defined goals (such as cutting college from four paying years to three, or allowing students to make better use of the four years in school by taking care of pre-requisites before they arrive on campus).

Such an infrastructure will need to offer more than free courses and paid exams, especially if goals are murky and/or the hoops a student has to jump through after passing that exam are costly or complicated.  Under such circumstances, perhaps individual mentoring to help students to solve educational goals via MOOCs and other free-learning resources will provide a business opportunity for some inventive soul trying to play a mediating role that can help create a new market, rather than just take advantage of a hot trend (such as the MOOC phenom).

And with this framework in mind, I’d like to spend time next week looking at some of the new entrepreneurial companies, non-profits and services that have sprung up over the last year to see what kind of mediation they may be able to offer that can help MOOCs become the equivalent of the fridge vs. the ice box when the history of educational technology is written.

Next – MOOC Startups

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