June 5, 2013

MOOCs: Salvation, Hype or Bubble?

Second in a series on education.

In faculty clubs around the globe so-called “MOOCs” (Massive Open Online Courses) are the hot topic, and it seems a day does not go by without an announcement of a new MOOC initiative. Dr. Jeff Borden recently wrote a piece for Wired that illustrates the buzz – and panic among educators to not be left behind.


“I took a trip to London where I spoke at the OBHE conference at a session called “Online and open-access learning in higher education: MOOCs, new pedagogies and business models.” It was actually a fairly lively discussion, debate, and driving conversation about the massive online courses coming out of North America and now beginning to come out of other parts of the world.

What interested me most was what seemed to be about 80% fear and 20% excitement by the gathering of educators (mostly faculty). It was also interesting that most of those who were currently building massive open online courses (MOOCs) were doing so under some kind of duress. From pressure of being left behind to mounting pressure from administrators to even financial pressure to grab a “piece of the MOOC pie,” it seemed rare to find a MOOC builder who was doing so because of the innovation or excitement over the possibilities of helping facilitate learning for so many potential students…The assumption was that because X or Y University was launching a MOOC, that our institution should also build one… ”

We can debate whether such ambivalent motivations will bring success. The point is that the subject is red hot, garnering attention not just from entrants focused on playing “offense”, but also from players most definitely focused on playing defense. The concept is sufficiently new, however, that there is no dominant model yet, but rather a wide variety of structures, sponsors and business models, almost all of them experimental. Below is a very brief survey of some of the best known.

MIT and Harvard have teamed up to produce EdX, “An organization established by MIT and Harvard University that will develop an open-source technology platform to deliver online courses.” Cal Berkeley, the University of Texas, Georgetown and Wellesley have since joined.



Coursera is a for profit company founded by Stanford Professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller with a similar mission. In its twelve month history it has established relationships delivering online versions of classes from some 33 universities, among them Stanford, Penn, Brown, Princeton, Columbia and Duke.

Udacity was started as a for profit company by visionary Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun. It is delivering for credit courses to San Diego State students, and recently announced a joint venture with Georgia Tech that will offer “Online Masters Degrees” in Computer Science for $7,000. The marketplace will sort out the market value of students who hold degrees that carry the “online” prefix, but presumably the value discount won’t come close to the 85% price discount.

Meanwhile, Salman Khan’s wildly popular non-profit Khan Academy is delivering secondary school content in bite sized pieces. For the record, Salman Khan has said that he does not consider the Khan Academy to be a MOOC at all. Perhaps it is better characterized as a MOON, with the “N” for Nuggets. In any event, according to its May fact sheet, it has delivered some 250 million instructional videos to date. Can 1 billion served be far off?

Despite their differing structures, missions and profit motives, these early leaders do share some commonalities, as described by Stanford Professor Kevin Devlin. http://mooctalk.org/tag/khan-academy/

“But it’s important to note that the first major-league MOOCs all came out of Stanford’s Computer Science Department, as did the two spinoff MOOC platforms, Udacity and Coursera. When MIT teamed up with Harvard to launch their edX platform a few months later, it too came from their Computer Science Department.

And there’s the rub. Computer Science is an atypical case when it comes to online learning… Instructional courses that teach students how to carry out various procedures, which can be assessed to a large degree by automatic grading (often multiple choice questions) are the low hanging fruit for online education.”

The same can be said for math and science, where Khan Academy has its strongest purchase. “Softer”, less procedural subjects may prove to be far less susceptible to MOOCing. In the parlance of Benjamin Bloom, techniques that produce a 1 standard deviation benefit with procedural subjects may produce zero or negative benefits when applied to the humanities.

Make no mistake. Many players in this burgeoning space are taking dead aim at the Holy Grail. Khan Academy comes closest of the widely known players. While its efficacy does not appear to match the “two sigma” level of individual tutoring, the benefits appear to be material and the price (free) is right. Regardless of whether the current state of the art is analogous to the Wright Flyer or a DC-3, there are many improvements yet to come, both at Khan and more broadly. In the long term some institutions will win and some will lose, and it seems a bit premature to anoint the long term winners at this early date. It is interesting to note that at this juncture the most likely winner is humanity itself.

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