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 checked out Coursera’s course offerings and I have to admit they have a great lineup of quality courses. I signed up for “Introduction to Logic” from Stanford which begins soon so I could evaluate the process and quality of delivery, plus I am somewhat interested in logic. Then I signed up for “Introduction to Genome Science” from University of Pennsylvania for a fun refresher to my MS in Bioinformatics where my thesis was “Security of Our Personal Genome”. Purely continuing education but what a huge market that could be. You do realize this is wave 2 of open courseware. Coursera’s quote: We are changing the face of education globally, and we invite you to join us. Let’s assume Coursera is able to competently deliver these courses to any number of students. And let’s assume their student assessment techniques allow them to validate that learning took place. They have the prestigious of elite institutions of higher education. What does this mean?
What if a year from now millions of people are successfully completing courses through Coursera, Udacity and probably other copycat competitors. First Coursera is going to be worth billions and second a benchmark will be established that will define what is a quality online course. What will this benchmark mean? It will eliminate the argument that legitimate For-Profit online providers lack in quality. But more important it will validate the other argument that many of the online courses from traditional non-profit institutions are not worth the bandwidth you are wasting on them. So what does this mean for most of us (higher education)? Our online or blended offerings which we realize we must offer will have to be of similar quality to the free offerings from the Coursera’s of the world. We will have a benchmark. And then we just worry about holding on to our control of accreditation for validating what is a college degree and what is it worth. I am thankful that we will still have the value of the campus experience, but again, what will it be worth.
Update July 17, 2012 – More research universities join Coursera
The recent discussion created by Stanford student, Ben Rudolph, in his blog post about the Rigor of Stanford’s Free Classes, is a good opportunity for us to step back and critique the larger picture of our digital course delivery strategies. The reality for most of us is that we will deal with an increased adoption of online interaction in higher education teaching and learning. For pure online courses there are best practices, similar rules for blended or hybrid delivery and yes traditional course delivery can benefit from the adoption of online tools. But we have to keep a proper focus on what the product really is. For the traditional college degree which still relies on a Face-2-Face model, that product may be less about the dissemination of information but it will always be about the shaping of knowledge.
Stanford student, Ben, does ask some valid questions about why his course experience may be diluted by a course design that caters to a massive public audience. And it may be that this specific course lost its true compass, but it has caused me to consider where this may be headed. I think most of us have been intrigued by the increased amount of open access to courses at some of our most prestigious institutions. I have written it off mostly as publicity that they can afford. Of course it does offer valuable structured learning material that is sometimes helpful to other educators. And these open courses that Stanford and MIT have offered that connect a form of certification of completion do move toward a new form of a student’s accreditation of learning. This is good for our society, it provides opportunity for all. But let’s make sure we in higher education understand our product. We help a student transform information into knowledge and hope to mold their character so they utilize that knowledge to benefit a greater “Good” for all. Higher Education must deliver a version of that product and our warranties must be true to the expectations of our students.