It appears that Udacity, one of the early MOOCs, founded by Sebastian Thrun, has found a profitable model based on vocational training. When the MOOCs started out the assumed model was the college course which made total sense with respect to attracting university partners and investment dollars. What a frenzy they created 3-4 years ago as the elite universities strutted their expertise in education technology. MOOCs could make college accessible to the masses, unfortunately, that may not have been what the masses needed nor what the higher education wanted. The elite universities jumped on the bandwagon to make sure they had some control over the destiny of these Massively Open Online Courses, MOOCs. MOOCs have been successful with respect to exposure of college courses to the masses but they have been a dismal failure when evaluated against traditional college courses. That is exactly what higher education wanted, validation that their course delivery model was superior to these new online options.
The New York Times article, “Udacity Says It Can Teach Tech Skills to Millions, and Fast” gives us the story on how transitioning to a vocational training model is paying off for Udacity’s bottom line and for the careers of their students. The test market was obvious, software development, which has been pioneering new models based on the boot camp concept of intensive training typically under the guidance of the interested employers. Good jobs exist for coders of today’s popular development platforms. AT&T has been a leader in trying to manipulate the traditional computer science degree feeder system. I was highly impressed with their Georgia Tech and Udacity partnership to create an affordable MS degree in Computer Science. But that degree program was about affordability and marketing, not about a more successful MOOC model.
The MOOC supporters such as AT&T may have finally found the right formula with Udacity’s Nanodegree. Instead of hiring college graduates with programming aptitude and retraining them maybe the corporate employers have finally found a way to satisfy their appetite for software developers.
I came across a blog article I would never have found on my own thanks to a reference from a colleague I was following. The post, “The world is going digital; Where is Extension going?”, by Greg Hutchins, Associate Vice Chancellor of University of Wisconsin-Extension. I was stimulated to open the link since I know what Extension means in the context of Cooperative Extension Service because my father was an Extension Agronomist at Purdue. The actual definition expands greatly but here is Wikipedia’s stab at it: the mission is to “advance agriculture, the environment, human health and well-being, and communities” by supporting research, education, and extension programs at land-grant universities and other organizations it partners with. This is a very important service that focuses on farming, food and nutrition with a foundation based out of our land-grant universities. I have always explained it in reference to my father’s occupation as he taught farmers how to farm.
The blog post title immediately interested me to compare how this higher education connected service was struggling with their digital future. What I found was an excellent article presenting the reality that change was inevitable and you can look to many similar industries for validation. This post used the decline of the newspaper industry. The connecting thread was the challenges facing those entities whose mission it is to disseminate information for the purpose of creating knowledge. The obvious connection for me would be the struggles facing higher education in general, but this sector touches home. The extension agent’s work is based on providing information through personal communication. My father was successful serving the farmers of southern Indiana because they let him into their culture. No academic from Purdue was going to tell these German heritage farmers how to farm. But they did need to be reached so you adapted to their culture of eat, drink and then talk farming.
How does the Extension service reach their constituency today? For the most part same way they always have. And all can agree that their effectiveness is in decline. So do you open your eyes and anticipate the future or do you rationalize the present. The comments to Greg’s post were so typical of our industry. Many applauded his vision but many also cautioned against how change could underserve the less fortunate. But the arguments about protecting the less fortunate were really about protecting a way of life that they love. A professor can mount an effective argument about why their lectures are the most effective way to teach students. But all that really matters is the motivation of the student. How does the new farmer of today learn about farming? They go online and look for resources. How about the NFL football player, Jason Brown, who said he learned to farm by watching YouTube. Something tells me that if the Extension Services of the Land Grant Universities coordinated and invested in their YouTube video efforts they would bring great visibility to their mission. And the Extension agent would find a way for the underserved less fortunate customer to benefit from this effort.
I think the most important thing for all of us involved with the dissemination of information for the sake of learning is to to realize that you have to adapt to the culture of the consumer. You must stay relevant with the current generation or your mission will fade away with your generation. My father was never going to understand how to use forms of digital communication, but I think he wanted to. So have an open mind and try to be supportive of change.