What are MOOCs For?

Hearing about this Degree of Freedom project, a friend who teaches at a university made the comment that online learning does the most for people who need it the least.

I appreciate the sentiment, especially from someone who teaches at ground level where many students struggle to pay attention and keep up with their work, even with all of the support provided in a traditional college environment.  In fact, it’s safe to say that most of the people now attending college lack the self-discipline to manage an independent learning program equivalent to a genuine college degree.

But most does not mean all, and this week I’d like to take a look at a couple of people who embody the independent learning ideal and use them as case studies to determine the type of student for whom free learning can provide the most benefit.

But before going there, we need to ask a more fundamental question of whether we should be thinking about MOOCs entirely from the perspective of what they replace (i.e., traditional college classrooms) vs. what new options they add to an already expanding educational mix.

If you think about last week’s protests by teachers at San Jose State University over the use of MOOC content in their school, they are not responding to MOOCs as a replacement for college courses.  Rather, they were protesting the replacement of a component of what they do (give lectures) with videos featuring “star” professors like Harvard’s Michael Sandel lecturing on the same topic.  In other words, they were zeroing in on a use for MOOCs as a supplement for, rather than an alternative to, traditional college courses.

Looking at another set of data, in my interview with edX President Anant Agarwal (which will appear on the site at the end of the week), he pointed out that about half the students enrolled in edX courses are beyond the traditional age when they would be enrolled in college.  In other words, the plurality (maybe even the majority) of current MOOC students are participating in classes for reasons other than replicating or replacing a traditional college experience.

Then you have folks like pre-college age students (such as my 8th grade son who just enrolled in a Udemy course on music theory) who may be eager to take college-level classes before they get into college out of curiosity or passion for a subject (or to add them to their resume for when they apply to college, as one student did successfully to get into MIT).

And so within those huge numbers of people who have chosen to participate in at least one MOOC program, the number of people who are considering their own Degree of Freedom pathway is probably quite small.

But as I mentioned last week in a discussion of disruptive technology, most examples of traditional industries being overturned by technology do not follow predictable trajectories where highly resourced market leaders invest the capital derived from past success to build their future.  Rather, that past success becomes an anchor, limiting their ability to innovate or to bring any new things they create in the lab to market (especially if such innovative new products would replace higher margin older ones).

You’ve seen this with cameras where companies like Polaroid and Kodak missed the chance to dominate digital photography the way they once dominated film.  And you saw it in computing where companies like Digital Equipment Corporation were once dominant are now just memories.

More recently, we’ve seen newspapers and magazines that couldn’t make the switch to digital shut down their publications or dramatically slim down (possibly on their way to oblivion).  And hungry entrepreneurs are already circling the multi-billion dollar textbook industry, anticipating that current major players will not be able to innovate their way into whatever lower-priced digital options ultimately replace overpriced high-school and college texts.

Given the similarities between college textbooks and college itself (in terms of “selling” highly conventional products at ever higher prices), it’s hard to believe that the educational technology (including MOOCs) currently being created to service the different types of learners described above  will not find its way into the hands of independent learners who will use it to create (or hack) a set of pathways that makes it easier for other independent learners to follow their lead.

But who are these independent learners? What are they like?  And do they represent such a small and unique sample that their numbers will never increase to the point where free learning becomes a big enough “market” to mainstream a parallel path for higher education?

Let’s meet them and find out.

Next – The Uncollege Moment

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