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 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.
There must have been a press release by Coursera recently to fuel the many articles today about their new partnership with Princeton University, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor to join their charter partner Stanford. This is all about elite universities embracing massively open online courses, or MOOCs. I think this signals a major move of the changing strategy of higher education. And I think this is significant enough that all universities need to take notice and evaluate how this might affect their course delivery strategy and the future of higher education.
MIT, Harvard and Stanford have shaken things up by driving these MOOCs and in some courses offering a certificate of completion for those who have successfully participated. This is not a credential that has any official meaning, however, why doesn’t it. It can now be argued that one could present their successful completion of a series of courses from these prestigious institutions as validation that learning took place and should now offer a certain level of qualification similar to a college degree. That is extremely scary to higher education, but why not to these universities that have pioneered this MOOC strategy?
It appears from the articles that faculty at these institutions are highly motivated to participate in offering these courses that are open to students outside of their traditional classes. Maybe they are inspired by how Stanford engineering professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng parleyed their efforts into the startup company Coursera funded by $16M of VC money. But why are these universities so supportive? Are they jumping into this just because they can? I don’t think so, I think they understand the transition that higher education is going through and they plan on be at the front end of it. They see that that an online component for a course brings the value of the community. And they have decided to perfect this online component to ensure their leadership in leveraging these communities. Not to grow their online revenue, although that may very well be an outcome, but instead this partnership with Coursera allows them to effectively bring the world to their classrooms. If the paying students who benefit from advantages of F2F also have an opportunity to collaborate with an unlimited number of students from the world, then they win. These institutions will move beyond just “Elite” they become “Unique”.