June 19, 2013

MOOCs Thinking Outside the Box

Third in a series on education.

The previous post assumed inside the box behavior by MOOCs, supplementing or augmenting existing educational institutions. As with any new technology, opportunities exist to create new markets and new businesses by thinking outside that box. After all, as noble a goal as it is, solving the 2 sigma problem isn’t the only way to create value using the tools of online education. This post discusses the potential for applying the same technology to achieve a completely different result.

Many MOOCs report enormous dispersion in the performance of their students. At the high end of the distribution reside some tales of  astonishing accomplishments. Blogger Felix Salmon of Reuters recounts the back story of the first course offering by the team of the company now known as Udacity.


“It started as a way of putting his (Sebastian Thrun’s) Stanford course online — he was going to teach the whole thing, for free, to anybody in the world who wanted it. With quizzes and grades and a final certificate, in parallel with the in-person course he was giving his Stanford undergrad students. He sent out one email to announce the class, and from that one email there was ultimately an enrollment of 160,000 students…when it finished, thousands of students around the world were educated and inspired. Some 248 of them, in total, got a perfect score: they never got a single question wrong, over the entire course of the class. All 248 took the course online; not one was enrolled at Stanford.”

This experience has potentially changed the lives of individuals from around the globe who uncovered a previously unknown ability and demonstrated their prowess. At the same time, over 100,000 dropped out before finishing the course, so the averages were uncompelling.

The massive scale and near zero marginal cost of delivering MOOCs, however, opens up some radically different business models. Consider, for example, MOOC as talent scout, scouring the globe for individuals who possess the right combinations of talent and motivation, developing those talents into skills and then connecting those individuals with prospective employers (presumably for a modest fee). Think of a virtual basketball tournament, drawing players from all over the globe with the prize of a spot on an NBA roster. It’s a far cry from the democratizing effect of a low cost individualized tutor, but it makes for a perhaps more achievable business goal than inventing the Holy Grail and then displacing entrenched competitors.

Whether any entrants choose to base their business model on mining the right tail remains to be seen, as does how successful such a strategy proves to be. The idea does, however, rather crisply illustrate how the new world of education may be very different from that which came before.

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A nautical term that indicates a favorable position relative to the wind. A ship that "has the weathergage" has the initiative and hence a significant advantage over its rivals.