I keep thinking I’m going to run out of things to write about regarding the whole MOOC thing before the year is out.  At the same time, the running list of subjects I’ve been trying to get to never seems to shorten.

So time to knock a topic off the list that’s been sitting there far too long: what are we to make of “SPOCs,” Small Private Online Courses that some think will finally be the way MOOC content can be turned into sustainable revenue.

The term “SPOC” has been used to describe both experimental MOOC courses where enrollment was limited as well as packaging options whereby academic institutions can license MOOC content for professors to use as components in their traditional courses.

One of the most successful limited-enrollment MOOC/SPOC classes was CopyrightX from Harvard that only allowed 500 who made it through an application process to enroll. The course was still free, but students who took part were expected to be full participants (not auditors or dabblers), and the combination of limited enrollment and a decent-sized teaching staff meant that students could be given research and writing assignments that would be graded by teachers vs. peers.

The licensing of edX content to San Francisco State College that caused such a ruckus earlier this year represents the other phenomenon being commonly referred to under the name SPOC.  In that case, the same material you or I would see if we enrolled in a MOOC class (such as the lecture videos, quizzes and assignments associated with Michael Sandel’s HarvardX Justice course) would be given to professors who would be free to pick it apart and put it back together in order to customize their own classes in a way that represented their preferred combination of their own teaching resources and third-party materials.

Such arrangements are supposed to accelerate the pace of classrooms becoming “flipped,” a term used to describe a teaching strategy whereby lectures would be assigned as homework while class time would be dedicated to expanded discussion or work on individual or group projects.

Flipping is an interesting concept, one which deserves its own posting (which I’ll try to get to this week).  But for purposes of this SPOC discussion, this arrangement is particularly attractive to MOOC vendors since licensing might provide that elusive revenue-generating business model that could help make the whole MOOC experiment financially sustainable.

To a certain extent, whenever MOOC content is worked into a small-classroom arrangement (like we’ve seen in remote or Third World school systems, or through programs like Coursera’s Learning Hubs), you’re dealing with something more SPOC-like than MOOC-like.  But since these types of activities are already possible without the need for special licensing from a MOOC vendor, I would think that people interested in paying for this same MOOC content would expect something more for their money.

This might include moving elements of a MOOC content library to a private server where it can be built into local online learning programs delivered through a schools’ learning management system (LMS).  Or perhaps the learning platforms created by Udacity et al can already be configured so that students can enroll in a way that keeps their registration and scoring data separate from the general MOOC population.  At the very least, proper licensing should allow colleges (including for-profit colleges) to use educational content originally created for free distribution without running afoul of intellectual property rules or contractual requirements involving third parties.

While I’m a big fan of using MOOC content in creative ways (especially ways that allow smaller intimate learning groups to take a course together), there are too many issues that need to be worked out before declaring SPOCs a Holy Grail that will lead the MOOC world to undergraduate relevance and profitability.

For starters, the professors who are currently most excited about flipping their classrooms are what would be called “early adopters,” dabblers and experimenters willing to take a chance on how their courses are organized. Such experimenters tend to also be innovators, meaning they are already searching the web or turning to colleagues to obtain open educational resources they can use while curating material for their flipped courses.  For these types of early adopters, it’s not entirely clear that they want to pay for (or be limited to) content created for a single MOOC course (no matter how good it is).

And while these innovators tend to make news, it’s not entirely clear how much of the rest of the academy is eager to engage in similar transformation of the classroom.  For as sexy as the flipped classroom might sound, many professors got into teaching to be able to lecture in front of a class (rather than ask students to watch someone else give talks on the same subjects via video).  More importantly, while there is probably ample video content available from MOOCs and other open sources to support one half of he flipped classroom model, resources to support professors trying to find new uses for class time are getting scant attention.

Finally, having run a business that sold access to a single centralized content-delivery system, I remember many deals we had to turn down that required us to find a way to put that same content behind someone else’s firewall (i.e., license, configure and transfer it to them in a way that allowed them to replicate what we did on their servers).  Not that such deals weren’t potentially lucrative, but once you mapped out everything needed to turn a complex system that had developed organically into a standalone sellable product, bottom line and opportunity cost considerations made them less attractive.  And even if edX or Coursera or Udacity technology makes such transfer a breeze, most people paying for training content expect to get a reasonable amount of customization and support for their money, which means edX or Courera or Udacity (or anyone else getting into the SPOC game) need to ask themselves if they want to be in a services business that might be low margin and difficult to scale.

As I’ve noted ad nauseum, people are willing to do different things with their money than they are with their time.  So while we should welcome all the experiments and ideas percolating throughout the MOOC universe, counting too much on SPOC to solve all problems (including financial challenges) might not be logical.  (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)


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