The MOOC Gorilla

When I started an economic discussion of MOOCs and what they’re worth, I anticipated someone would bring up the two-ton-ape economic controversy surrounding free online college-level courses: their impact on the traditional academy.

I didn’t anticipate that this would coincide with yesterday’s story regarding the high-profile refusal of the Philosophy Department at San Jose University to use courseware from edX to teach subjects like ethics (using Michael Sandel HarvardX Justice course).

If I were still studying (or teaching) rhetoric, I would commend the authors for skillfully framing their message (clearly aimed at the powers-that-be in their own university system) as a letter to a colleague (Sandel), written more in sorrow than in anger – a rhetorical strategy that increases profile while reducing risk.

Looking at their missive from a pedagogical standpoint, they bring up all of the shortcomings of MOOCs that I and others have been discussing for quite some time (lack of interaction between professors and students, limited assessment methods, etc.), while also pointing out that material (such as Sandel’s Justice video lectures) are not necessary in a setting where local professors already create the range of content needed to support blended learning.

But their biggest complaint (an economic one clearly targeted at the decision-makers who chose to license MOOC content at San Jose State) is that the availability of high-profile, third-party content from name-brand universities will make it easier for a university’s leaders to start downgrading the role of the existing faculty, turning them into glorified adjuncts supporting content provided by distant “star” professors.

Given that I’ve been approaching the subject of MOOCs (including my recent slight foray into MOOC economics) from the standpoint of what they might mean to an independent learner, I’m going to defer a longer conversation about how MOOCs might be integrated into traditional college classrooms and the impact this might have on institutions until after I’ve researched and thought about the topic more deeply.

But I can tell you now that this eventual analysis will be informed by an important book that should be read by anyone trying to speed up, slow down or simply understand the transformations currently underway in education: Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.

Written by Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen (with coauthors Michael B. Horn and Curtis W. Johnson), the book builds on Christensen’s earlier work on the impact of disruptive technologies on institutions.

In this earlier work, the author sketches out a dynamic that tends to impact any industry undergoing disruption.  The computer industry, for example, was once dominated by “Big Iron” manufacturers like IBM and Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), companies that built and sold machines costing hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars to institutions that could afford to buy them (such as corporations and government agencies).

During the period when inexpensive personal computers were first coming onto the scene, no one buying computers from IBM or DEC was asking those companies to make machines that were smaller and cheaper.  In fact, they were asking them to make their computers bigger and faster and were willing to pay extra for ever-more powerful systems.

So the initial customers for these clunky, underpowered PCs were not traditional computer buyers (who considered the new devices little more than toys) but a new group of home and small business users for whom any computer was a step up.

And so a new market was created that was big enough of fuel the rapid innovation-based evolution of the micro-computer, to the point where it eventually caught up with and ultimately demolished companies like DEC who kept building what customers claimed to want (bigger, faster and more expensive machines) until those customers realized that wasn’t actually what they wanted or needed any longer.

If you apply this same formula to education, the customers for disruptive technologies such as MOOCs will not likely be institutions that already have resources in place to teach courses in the same subjects offered by organizations like Coursera, Udacity or edX.  Such institutions might flirt with these resources or (as in the case of the San Jose State philosophy department) reject them.  But the real market for such courses will be places where no other alternatives are available.

Such places might include a high school where students want to take high-level classes not taught in their district, or a college that doesn’t have a philosophy department that still wants to offer a class in ethics.  Or it might include my house or the coffee shop down the street (or in Brazil) where life-long learners take classes without having to be attached to any institution at all.

And these educational niches might just be big enough to sustain the kind of experimentation, investment, innovation and patience needed to let these new educational tools develop, just as personal computers (once considered joke technology) eventually grew up to define an industry (not to mention the world we now inhabit).

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5 Responses to The MOOC Gorilla

  1. Mike Schneider May 3, 2013 at 2:56 pm #

    When I first learned about MOOCs, I wondered how long it would take until someone attempted to do a 4-year degree equivalent amount of classwork. Kudos!

    I’m wondering how it’s going so far, and whether you have a good feel for your progress. Is it more or less work than traditional college courses?

    • DegreeofFreedom May 6, 2013 at 12:34 pm #

      So far so good. You can track my progress on a week-by-week basis by subscribing to the newsletter, but in answer to your questions I would say that even doing all of the course requirements for each of the courses I’m enrolled in, I would say that the average workload per class is less than the equivalent I remember from college. That’s not to say that I’m not learning the equivalent of what I’d get from a traditional college course in the same subject. But it does mean someone looking to just do the minimum could probably pass these same classes while learning less.

  2. Daithi May 3, 2013 at 6:32 pm #

    I agree that the MOOCs customer is not other higher education institutions. If I were a philosophy professor at San Jose State I’d probably be in their camp. The same applies to Amherst deciding not pay fees to be part of edX. The real MOOCs customer, like PC customers, is the little guy. It is the millions of people who want a degree from a good school but can’t afford a degree from a school using the current education model. The first major player in the MOOC model to realize this is the one who will revolutionize higher education.

    Here is what I would do if I were someone like Coursera. I’d start offering an actual bare bones BA degree in Liberal Arts. The courses for this degree would be just basic courses — Eng. Comp., College Algebra, Calculus, Biology, History, etc. The degree would have some upper level course requirements, and would allow some MOOCs to be used as electives. Once a student has earned this basic degree they could take other MOOCs and list them on resumes as Post-Baccalaureate studies, so you could have a BA in Liberal Arts with a Post-Baccalaureate Computer Science Certification. I’d keep costs down to around $99 a course (plus a $49 proctoring fee for major tests), so money would be made on volume. Students can take the courses for free but don’t earn credit. The Certifications should also provide the option of being earned from a single school. This way you could earn a Post-Bach Computer Science certification from John Hopkins, or a Post-Bach Business cert. from Harvard, or a Post-Bach Art cert. from Cal Arts. The degree program itself would be open enrollment, but I would require that students take 3 or 4 MOOC courses as “gatekeepers.” You would need to pass these courses before you can take other MOOC courses (e.g. Eng. Com I & II, Calc I, and Ethics). Furthermore, if you start a MOOC then you will need to finish it or withdraw. If you don’t withdraw it will count in terms of your GPA. There will also be a limit to the number of withdraws allowed.

    The key here is to give customers (i.e. students) what they need — an inexpensive accredited degree. Employers also want to see degrees that are accredited. This paradigm also allows top tier universities to not cannibalize their own degree programs. It also protects traditional non-top tier institutions somewhat. The traditionals can continue to survive by offering a broad range of degrees, a classic teacher/student learning environment, and could even offer their own Post-Bach programs. There are also some courses that need a hands on environment — nursing courses where you interact with patients, teaching courses where you interact with students, etc.

    What the traditionals don’t want to see happen is top tier schools like Harvard, Stanford, Yale, and Princeton begin to offer a wide range of full degrees via the MOOC paradigm. The traditionals would not be able to compete. However, seeing the traditionals stay in business is also in the elites best interest. The elites might even want to partner with traditionals so that a student could earn a Post-Bach Nursing certification from John Hopkins, but did X amount of hours at a local university in hands on courses.

    • DegreeofFreedom May 6, 2013 at 12:36 pm #

      Very interesting thoughts all around and, if you look at a theme that’s been developing on the site over the last couple of weeks, you’ll see that I expect the use of MOOCs to broaden and enter different educational niches over time. Which means the models you describe could very well become part of one or more MOOC experiments in the coming months or years.

  3. James July 24, 2013 at 5:13 am #

    A common assumption (as also marketing spiel) is that the subsribers to MOOCs are the unfortunated ‘little’ guys who seek a ‘good’ degree. The data suggests otherwise: nearly 80% of MOOC subscribers have at least one degree: therefore the broad objective of MOOC students enables the kind of self-actualization that goes beyond the basic certifications provided by the traditional university curriculum. I have a degree in electrical engineering from more than 20 years ago, have formally studied data analytics at a top business school, and own a digital media firm. I attend MOOCs on subjects such as philosophy, law, sociology. finance, gamification and, sustainability, as so do all the associates at my firm. Not because we seek a degree or in thrall of a Wharton or Harvard, but to broaden, deepen, and test our ever-changing base of skills and knowledge. About this absence of a one-on-one interaction with the teacher–Ani Adhikari’s Statistics 2 class at Berkeley has 2000 students per batch. Does anyone seriously believe that a one-on-one interaction is possible in this ‘traditional’ setup? The same with Michael Sandel’s class on Justice at Harvard which is said to attract thousands. Instead of taking an either-or stand, let’s celebrate the idea that mass communications platforms are being put to use not just for silly, trivial conversation or for electronic commercial exchanges, but for the noblest purpose of spreading knowledge.

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