“Let’s MOOC the midnight bell”

by David Kernohan on September 18, 2012

Quietly, imperceptibly, educational technology has become big money. A perception, fed by rising tuition fees and concerns about student satisfaction, that HE is not fit for purpose has transformed into a business opportunity so massive that even Rupert Murdoch is getting on board.  When, in February of this year, Global Industry Analysts Inc suggested that e-learning would be a $107bn global market in 2015 (a little under half of the current UK national deficit), they were examining a sector that seems far from the “cottage industry” derided by Sir John Daniel (Commonwealth of Learning) in 2010.

In a market segment that extends from traditional higher education, through corporate training, to every aspect of adult learning and compulsory sector tuition, it is little wonder that one start-up has generated $16m of venture capital without even having a defined business model.

That start-up is Coursera, spun out of Stanford and now offering more than 30 classes, in partnership with big names like UC Berkeley, U Michigan and Princeton. The catch is: the courses are offered for free to anyone in the world who wishes to take them. Called Massively Open Online Courses (or MOOCs), it’s difficult to read the education press without seeing an article claiming one or other is the “future of education”.  And Coursera are just one of many MOOCs attracting serious money and serious enrolment.

Udacity have secured significant venture capital and private investment around a similar model. Founder Sebastian Thrun initially led an experimental open course (again out of Stanford), before moving to a start-up phase.

Harvard and MIT have sunk a combined $60m into EdX, a not-for-profit online learning collaboration offering open learners free high-quality materials and tuition alongside the option to seek certification for successful completion.

The Khan Academy is a not-for-profit that has secured $150,000 in donations alongside a $2m grant from Google. The initiative was kicked off by one former hedge fund manager making cheap videos for YouTube, and is now expanding faculty, offering summer schools, and accrediting learning – supported by a $5m grant from the O’Sullivan Foundation in Ireland.

StraighterLine does not offer free content (there’s a $99 fee for “all you can learn”). But it boasts content from many notable private US institutions, resources from Pearson, infrastructure from Blackboard, and easy transfer of credit gained into a range of accrediting partner colleges. It aggressively markets itself as an alternative to traditional university study – “the shortest distance between you and your degree”. It has already raised $10m in venture capital.

The OER University (OERu) is a collaboration of a number of institutions internationally, intending to offer free materials and volunteer support, alongside supporting paid-for assessment and accreditation. It has not (yet?) received venture capital, but has worked to closely integrate itself with influential international bodies such as UNESCO.

Browser company Mozilla are developing a system of “Open Badges”, allowing learners to reliably “show what they know”, as validated by a range of non-education experts including NASA, Intel and Pixar/Disney.

And there are many, many other examples of start-ups and initiatives attempting to short-cut the existing higher education system using online tools.

So the question is not “how can open online learning succeed?”, the question has become “given open online learning, what should we be doing?”

For all Peter Theil’s dire warnings of a “Higher Education bubble”, there’s only one group of people chucking millions of dollars at start-ups with no viable business models. For those of us interested in academia employing academics, the MOOC model – currently without a revenue stream – holds little promise.

But, in the words of UMW Web Manager Cathy Finn-Derecki: “It looks like the anxiety-provoking media coverage about “the latest web thing that the cool schools are doing” speaks louder to these business-types than the actual business of teaching and learning, and that’s pretty darned sad.”

Traditional higher education needs to be involved in experimenting with and analyzing this model. But no one would recommend a wholesale adoption at this stage. The business-backed MOOC movement will change the higher education landscape, but it will not obliterate it.

However, if money does talk – why do we hear so little in the mainstream press about the course that raised hardware costs and more via voluntary contributions from course adherents? There are other approaches to online learning that are making genuine advances, in community growth, peer learning and in understanding the way people interact online.  DS106, a free online digital storytelling course, is one major example. The JISC-supported PicBod and Phonar free online photgraphy courses at Coventry are another. Confusingly (for historical reasons), these are also known as MOOCs but could not be more different in practice and ethos

As higher education policy wonks, we should be seeing online culture as more than just a promotional tool, a way of grabbing mindshare and building a reputation. People are interacting, making connections, building resources and – above all – learning in new ways. And universities and colleges have the chance to learn from this. We could look at building contacts, collecting user data and measuring “reach” on social media – fine, at least until we pretend that the numbers mean something. Or we could engage in a more collegiate, inclusive approach to becoming a part of a genuinely new conversation.

If you want to learn more about MOOCs, you can view a JISC webinar featuring UK experts, or a number of further blog posts and links to other resources.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Louis M M Coiffait (@LouisMMCoiffait) September 20, 2012 at 8:56 am

There’s certainly a lot of hyperbole surrounding education at the moment, mainly coming out of silicon valley. Although I agree some of the language, investments and claims are looking unrealistic I don’t think it’s sufficient to be quite so dismissive or create us/them divides. Personally I think it’s largely a communication problem and we should be trying to collaborate more. How can new services be queried, refined and helped to prove their impact. And how can existing initiatives learn to tell their story better, to be more engaging and to scale quicker.

UniTragic September 21, 2012 at 9:40 am

In a recent American Radioworks documentary “The Rise of Phoenix” I was struck by a quote from Rob Wrubel, Phoenix’s Chief Innovation Officer. He believes education is behind the curve when it comes to technology, saying,
“We’ve reinvented media; the experience of music. We’ve reinvented social connection. We really haven’t applied those same sophisticated technologies at scale to learning.”

Phoenix are investing a billion dollars in new research and technology “to help students learn better”. They want to focus on adaptive learning.

All of this is very interesting but it brought to my mind the excitement around MOOCs. It feels like the idea is winning out over the pedagogy.

It is also clear that these entrepreneurs don’t understand what they’re trying to “fix”. It is critical that universities push back on the need for reinvention. Otherwise we face the same future as journalist or musicians where there isn’t enough funding to support good investigative journalism at scale or musicians forced to tour til they drop because their hits make money for Apple not them. Will research and personalised teaching give way to 24/7 questions on a bulletin board?

dkernohan September 21, 2012 at 3:08 pm

@UniTragic – spectacularly good point! thanks.

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