How many MOOCs does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
It is a delicious rhetorical irony that the acronym for massive open online courses happens to be a homonym for the word for losers and patsies. Of course, no one would ever accuse the army of idealists in the massive open online course (MOOC) universe of cynicism or a sense of humor, so we have to assume that this is an accident. There are no mooks in MOOCs, there is only opportunity.
Indeed, the arguments against MOOCs seem either to be predictable or self-serving. One point of view is that the mook in the MOOCs is the student, who is being deceived into believing that a remote online education can in any way be a substitute for the real thing, attendance at a four-year residential college like the ones you see in the movies. Denied of direct contact with engaged instructors, stimulating discussions with classmates, and of course the usual dollop of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, the MOOC enrollee will not get the benefits of the full “experience.” I am not sure who is being deceived here. The value of MOOCs is not in those who are in a position to take advantage of the four-year system as it stands (attended a good high school, affluent parents, reasonable aptitude) but in those for whom Amherst and Princeton are out of reach. (See the Tina Fey chuckler, “Admissions.”) But even for those lucky students at Bowdoin College or the University of Chicago, there may be a reason to take a course from Stanford or Dartmouth. Perhaps there is a cultural anthropologist whose book impressed you? Or a geophysicist who helped to mastermind Arctic Ocean oil drilling? Why not check these guys out? Or you are pre-med at Tufts and want to exercise a passion for Victorian fiction without screwing up your GPA. Or just because, which remains the best reason for young people to do anything. For the traditional student (meaning elite) attending the traditional school (meaning elite), MOOCs are additive, not subtractive. And as for the untraditional student, MOOCs could open up a new means to learning about things of importance, some of which may alter that student’s trajectory in the workplace or even build a bridge to a more traditional education.
Of course, the mook in the MOOCs may not be the student but the faculty. Putting aside the thorny issue of who actually owns the content of MOOCs (the IP battles on campuses are yet to begin), there is the possibility that as instructors are enlisted to teach a hundred, a thousand, a million students at a time, the number of instructors needed to educate the world’s students will decline. There is something to this, but there are offsets. If you think of the number of students as a constant, and if you migrate some portion of those students to high-enrollment MOOCs, the arithmetic says fewer teachers. On the other hand, if you subscribe to the notion of lifelong learning, and if you find a means by which people who currently don’t take courses begin to sign up (flexible schedule, low or no cost, ability to drop out without repercussions), then the population of students could grow considerably.
I am one of these prospects. My years of formal education are long behind me, but (putting aside my professional interest in MOOCs) I am intrigued by the possibility of studying computational linguistics, an area that I bump into almost daily but in which I have no formal training. And if I drop out of that course after four weeks, what’s the downside? There are thousands, probably millions like me, and we will collectively create new demand for instructors. It may be that that demand will be for a different breed of instructor, so in that sense the faculty are the mooks, but surely we can ask of faculty the same thing we do of workers in the commercial world: job instability, commoditization of work and hence income, and the need to constantly retool oneself (which creates an even larger market for MOOCs). Hmmm. Sounds like the life an an adjunct.
The real mooks, in my view, and I do believe that there will be some serious losers in this game, will be those who don’t see what the game is. MOOCs are the application of modern industrial techniques to a market that has operated for decades with a pace and set of interests that bring to mind the old Bell telephone system. A university president once proudly noted to me that companies come and go, but universities last for hundreds of years. That was then, this is now. The combination of industrial analysis, information technology, and venture capital is set to disturb if not disrupt business as usual. A liberal arts college is like the independent Main Street retailer before Wal-Mart comes to town; a university is like an esteemed publisher, which now grapples with the insatiable appetite and exquisite cunning of Amazon. Participants in the institutions of education should be aware that the business of education is (now) first of all a business.
It is thus intriguing to consider Coursera, which has managed to persuade a number of elite institutions to participate in its services. Coursera has taken venture capital from Sand Hill Road’s Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers — which should tell us something — and before heading off to the Coursera site to see what they are all about, I recommend going to the Kleiner Perkins site, to see what they are all about. There is a something of the feel of the Internet bubble era here, with companies (in this case universities) jumping into businesses they do not understand because they do not want to be left out. What would Coursera be without the brand names of its university partners? Could they have gotten the New York Times to write articles about them without the brands of such institutions as Stanford, Princeton, and the University of Michigan? I don’t think so. The success in drawing attention to Coursera lies mostly with the combination of the word “open” (as in “free”) and the brands that have been loaned to them.
What Coursera will do with those brands remains to be seen. It’s prudent to assume that the management of Coursera will be clever, and that if they are not, in time Kleiner Perkins will replace them. We should assume that Coursera will develop into a meaningful business, and we should assume that in time that business (along with any other successful MOOCs) will begin to nibble at the franchise of residential education, just as Gold OA has set up shop on the perimeter of the established research journals. Whether MOOCs will be angels or monsters, we do not yet know, but I look at the Kleiner Perkins investment and make my own determination. If MOOCs become a monster, its participating universities will have made it possible.
Harvard and MIT apparently share the same uneasiness with Coursera, which prompted them to set up a competing MOOC, Edx, which, presumably, they can keep under their control or the control of the academic institutions that are now partnering with them. As a competitor to Coursera and Udacity, Edx promises big brands, but their most intriguing step to date was making their software platform open source. While this may simply be a mechanical reflex on Edx’s part (open is good, proprietary is bad), it is also a tried and true technique in the technology business (the scorched earth strategy). Open source software denies Coursera a revenue opportunity in that it makes it much harder for Coursera to “white label” their platform to third parties for a profit. So rivalries are now emerging and the future of MOOCs and mooks may be determined by the physics of the marketplace.
We know something about the physics of new media; it’s a winner-takes-all battlefield, where outcomes are driven by audacity, speed to market, network effects, and hyperbole. On this head you would have to say that Coursera is winning, and the fact that it has as of now no discernible business plan is besides the point. But it is too early to predict winners and mooks, though there will indeed be both. The question is how many, who they will be, and how they get there. If the Internet has taught us anything, it is that the many voices that participate in it are presided over by a handful of giants. There is at this time no reason to believe that online education will be any different.
Which raises an interesting question: If over the long run MOOCs, which may be commercial enterprises, come to chip away at or even eliminate the current institutions of higher learning, who will be said to be responsible for that? And if the success of those MOOCs is in large part enabled by the partnership strategy that made prestigious academic brands available to MOOCs beyond those institutions’ control, would we not say that the universities themselves played a role in their own undoing? If universities themselves cannot look out for their own existential interests, then perhaps it is well that they get washed away. Parents, as they write those staggering tuition checks, may even begin to doubt that such institutional blindness makes a compelling case for placing children in the charge of such a collection of mooks.
For it did not have to turn out this way. A vigorous program of online education and concerted efforts to drive down the cost of higher education have been a real option for almost two decades. Why is everyone jumping on the bandwagon now? Where was the foresight then? Instead of investing in building after building, could some money have gone into the very value propositions that are before us now? Instead of foresight, we have Coursera and Udacity.
Which brings us back to the question that opened this post: How many MOOCs does it take? It takes one.