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MOOCs Find Their Niche

There are many reactions to Rebecca Schuman’s article about Sebastian Thrun and Udacity’s “pivot” toward corporate training. Everything from ”I told you so” to “shame on Udacity”. And this is not just about the failed pilot with San Jose State to utilize Udacity to provide greater opportunity to the underserved students in their community. Although Sebastian was a bit too candid in his appraisal. I attribute that more to early confusion about what MOOCs were really about. I do believe that MOOCs have finally come of age and can be utilized for what you wish. But we can’t make a MOOC what it isn’t. MOOCs are a product of our time leveraging the incredible capability of media distribution thanks to the amazing Internet. Let’s face it, anything that can be placed on the Internet generally does and the number of hits or users is the validation of success.

MOOCs were validated by Internet success statistics and the world clamored to define them. How quickly the innocence of experimentation with massive online delivery of a few college courses turned into a disruptive movement within higher education. But disruption is all MOOCs needed to be. Udacity is a company commercializing the delivery of interesting college type courses to to world. If the courses maintained the strict requirements of their traditional university origins then we found that not that many students could really succeed. So to many academics that was a validation of the ineffectiveness of online learning. But I think we had already proven the value of online learning. All that was happening with the various MOOC providers was experimentation with a valid business model.

The business model for a Udacity appears to be steering toward the corporate or continuing education market. Profit needs to be realized and that is not a problem when you have engaged users. The key is the engagement. EdX which more closely emulates higher education standards is up front about their value proposition of research in effective online delivery of courses. And Coursera probably falls in between. MOOCs are now carving out their various business niches just like the many other social networking industries have done. And I think higher education can relax a bit from the fearful prediction that MOOCs would change their world. MOOCs have been disruptive as documented in Jeffrey Young’s new book “Beyond the MOOC Hype: A Guide to Higher Education’s High-Tech Disruption”. I think we also realize that disruption can be healthy and MOOCs are truly stimulating a lot of efforts to improve teaching and learning in our educational institutions.

November 24, 2013 by Jeff Selingo – MOOCs Move Beyond the Perfect Media Narrative

Are MOOCs Hitting Market Critical Mass?

The talk today in or around higher education is all about the MOOCs. And in recent months I have been privy to an increasing number of inquiries about this MOOC phenomenon from those outside of higher education, golf tends to open that door. What I am saying is that with recent announcements and publicity surrounding the MOOCs we may have reached critical mass where change occurs in the market space. So I have tried to put this in proper historical context with respect to how short history has become. Amazon and Facebook jump out as endeavors that hit critical mass and dramatically changed the market place. The key here is how do you reach critical mass.

I will define critical mass as the point where most everyone involved with a market segment becomes aware and makes a choice. And guess what, increasing access to information to form this opinion is why we are seeing such rapid change. How long do you think it took Sears & Roebuck to hit critical mass? Facebook probably hit critical mass in half the time it took Amazon. I’m not saying MOOCs have hit critical mass but the time to critical mass is only getting shorter.

Reaching critical mass does not mean anything other then enough people will have an opinion that will create a turning point, typically of rapid success or dismissal. Remember Amazon, as that new idea evolved pessimism was aboundant. It can’t succeed based on the current definition of success. I said there was no way they could continue to lose so much money and ever come out in the black. But the reality was that we all appreciated the opportunity and eventually voted with our positive opinion at critical mass which allowed the final thrust of resources to insure success. Yes, behind these opportunities tends to be venture capital.

Critical mass is just a decision point milestone identifying success or failure for a service or product that requires a representative customer base. Consumers have incredible power and influence and this is where higher education finally needs to acknowledge that students are consumers. Putting everything else aside about what MOOCs represent, consider what might happen as they reach critical mass. When I talk to these consumers outside of higher education they have the opinion that higher education is broken and they see options like MOOCs as a possible answer.

If you are higher education then consider your customer base. Consumers create change with their dollars and political influence. Are you dependent upon money or politics?

The Game keeps Changing, Coursera Offers Solutions for Public Higher Education

Coursera announced today that it is working with 10 Public Universities to essentially facilitate the sharing, brokering and delivery of online courses. There are lot’s of questions and secrets but the bottom line is there are significant Public University Systems exploring the use of Coursera to provide an online learning service that they have not been able to do themselves. I see these institutions as hedging their bets on where they think Higher Education may be going. And guess what, faculty are not happy and feel left out of the conversation. Yes, most of them are, but that is their choice. My advice to faculty is to make sure you understand what is really happening. This is the business side of higher education and you are an employee of that business.

I read into a few of these university systems as looking to Coursera to help them accomplish what they have not been able to achieve internally. I am a part of state system that has a goal to grow online learning and make it equally available to all students within our 4 campus system. Guess what, this is not easy even if we did have popular support. But I could justify partnering with a MOOC to solve all of our logistical and administrative problems. Heck they would probably solve our political problems and we could blame them for it. This is serious business. I believe and support the fact that online learning provides better learning analytics, which those of us not involved with online learning, are scrambling to find a way to identify.

We have Retention and Assessment initiatives that rely on technology that we hope will provide us the answers to validate that our educational systems are still the best. But we are ignoring the truth that today’s learners really can thrive with online options.

We are not missing the boat we have chosen not to board it.

I applaud Coursera and Udacity for stretching their model based on their strengths. Sure it is good for the investors but it is not bad for the industry. The MOOCs may very well give us the educational model that we have all talked about, where our students are allowed to take the best course available for every subject. However, when we talked about this or were questioned about it we never really believed it would be possible. FastCompany’s article today drives home this point. The MOOCs are just helping us to serve a greater number of students more effectively, isn’t that “Our Mission”.

Here’s the full list of public universities partnering with Coursera:

  • The State University of New York (SUNY)
  • Tennessee Board of Regents
  • University of Tennessee System
  • University of Colorado System
  • University of Houston System
  • University of Kentucky
  • University of Nebraska
  • University of New Mexico
  • University System of Georgia
  • West Virginia University

For more coverage on today’s announcement:

GT’s partnership with Udacity & AT&T is a game changer

We have had about a week to digest the latest MOOC bombshell that Georgia Tech is offering an online MS in Computer Science via a partnership with Udacity and funding from AT&T. An offering of an affordable degree, approximately $7000, conferred by Georgia Tech delivered via Udacity’s MOOC engine. Oh yes, available for free through that same engine but with no official blessing. Reaction from our higher ed community is more jaw dropping by the EdTech folks and skepticism by the traditional academic. 

This latest move is just another sign pointing to the changing world of higher education. Agree or disagree but change is happening. What is significant to me about this deal is the AT&T investment. Traditional funding for public higher education is under siege by  constituents who are requiring outcome assessment, as in, what is the value proposition for a college degree. Employers just want validation of skills and thinking so they can filter their employment recruiting pool. So do you think this deal for AT&T is about hiring only those graduates from Georgia Tech. No it is probably about access to all of the other student taking the courses for free. The actual degree must be validated with official assessment, hence the $7000 price tag. Here lies the real significance of this bombshell. This program will generate a quantifiable comparison of of the outcomes of the degree vs non degree students.

I really admire Georgia Tech for hedging their bet with this innovative move. They win either way, but what about the rest of higher education on the sidelines still claiming that online learning will never be able to produce qualified employees? Notice I said employees not graduates.

Impending Disruption to Higher Education

I have spent a lot of time in the last week thinking about what disruption to Higher Education will really look like. I got to spend some time with Richard DeMillo after I read his book, “Abelard to Apple“. The book is an excellent review of what Higher Ed was and in some cases still is. And Richard offers sound ideas about the obvious need to adapt education to our current information rich world. What struck me was that he identified the significance of MOOCs before they had evolved as we see them today under flags of Coursera, Udacity and edX.

DeMillo was a guest speaker for our NWACC Summit which happened to be our 25th anniversary with a major strategic planning purpose. So it also surprised me that discussion amongst the 30+ CIOs from the Northwest also focused heavily on the ramifications of the MOOCs. You see MOOCs are not the disruption, they are just exposing the problems so that we will finally need to deal with the disruption that is already upon us. Many have chosen to focus on the MOOCs themselves, determining how they will inevitably fail to compete academically and with respect to profitability. But it is not about the MOOCs succeeding in our traditional measures. The MOOCs have been funded by venture capitalists who tend to know when a profit is to be made and the Monetization value of MOOCs is starting to become clear. Exposure brings fame and fortune and access to valuable data or clients does as well. Coursera Career Services is not just about about helping their students find a job. I believed for many years that there was no way Amazon could ever make a profit, now I realize there are bigger forces at play.

The disruption comes from the MOOCs exposing the weakness of our traditional Higher Education course and degree delivery system. An obvious threat comes from the career service aspect. That is a domain that Higher Ed needs to control. Our degrees need to be the preeminent standard for validation that learning has  been accomplished. At the foundation of our system is the credit hour. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching announced this week that it is rethinking the value of the Carnegie Unit for which we have defined the credit hour. Higher Education; we need to respond to this disruption with innovation rather then denial.

These MOOCs are Shaking Things Up

The MOOC debate is not going away. Offering free online courses whether Massive or not is part of the Higher Ed landscape. Early on we tried to dissect why these elite institutions were participating in the MOOC phenomenon. Of course it was about research and goodwill but I always leaned to control and marketing. How better to deal with this emerging validated course delivery model then to help define it. Reminds me a bit of the various UNIX or open source software initiatives that always had the support of the key industry players only to insure that the initiatives never gained any momentum. I do still believe that these MOOCs are defining the baseline for a online course which helps to keep the lower tier of online courses from establishing any quality validation. But the “cat is out of the bag”, online or especially blended learning is a viable alternative to traditional classroom course delivery. Now we see how one might adapt a MOOC to fit into our traditional academic structure.

Today I read about Colorado State University’s new Online Campus is accepting a successfully completed Udacity Computer Science Course for credit. And edX is offering to validate a MOOC course with a proctored final exam via Pearson’s VUE Services. In fact hasn’t Pearson positioned themselves well with this growing dependency on online learning.

No, the MOOC debate continues. At a minimum I see all of us needing to offer free online courses as a marketing tool. The other article today “MOOCs’ Little Brother” by Steve Kolowich at Inside HigherED outlines an example of a small institution opening up some seats for free to expand their reach. I have been pushing this in my own institution for a while, asking our academic leaders to consider what would be a good seeker course to introduce our institution to prospective students. I may even offer my “Information Services” course I’ve taught for our School of Business as a MOOC or at least CUOOC, “Check Us Out Online Course”.

Addendum 9/7/12: A second major MOOC provider signs deal to hold exams at physical testing centers, potentially elevating the credibility of certificates.

Good article by Kevin Carey in the Chronicle, Into the Future with MOOC’s, More focus on how the MOOC explosion will accelerate the breakup of the college credit monopoly.

They are changing the face of education globally

I checked out Coursera’s course offerings and I have to admit they have a great lineup of quality courses. I signed up for “Introduction to Logic” from Stanford which begins soon so I could evaluate the process and quality of delivery, plus I am somewhat interested in logic. Then I signed up for “Introduction to Genome Science” from University of Pennsylvania for a fun refresher to my MS in Bioinformatics where my thesis was “Security of Our Personal Genome”. Purely continuing education but what a huge market that could be. You do realize this is wave 2 of open courseware. Coursera’s quote: We are changing the face of education globally, and we invite you to join us. Let’s assume Coursera is able to competently deliver these courses to any number of students. And let’s assume their student assessment techniques allow them to validate that learning took place. They have the prestigious of elite institutions of higher education. What does this mean?

What if a year from now millions of people are successfully completing courses through Coursera, Udacity and probably other copycat competitors. First Coursera is going to be worth billions and second a benchmark will be established that will define what is a quality online course. What will this benchmark mean? It will eliminate the argument that legitimate For-Profit online providers lack in quality. But more important it will validate the other argument that many of the online courses from traditional non-profit institutions are not worth the bandwidth you are wasting on them. So what does this mean for most of us (higher education)? Our online or blended offerings which we realize we must offer will have to be of similar quality to the free offerings from the Coursera’s of the world. We will have a benchmark. And then we just worry about holding on to our control of accreditation for validating what is a college degree and what is it worth. I am thankful that we will still have the value of the campus experience, but again, what will it be worth.

Update July 17, 2012 – More research universities join Coursera