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The Rise of the MOOCs

This week, the University of California, Berkeley was the latest to announce that they are joining forces with Harvard and MIT to offer free online learning through edX, a provider of massive open online courses (MOOC).  A competing provider, Coursera, was created by Stanford University and currently has a total of 16 partners including Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, and Michigan.  MOOCs have been widely followed in the media since their inception about a year ago.  In March, the New York Times quoted Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford research professor who had recently taught a MOOC course on "Building a Search Engine" as saying, "Having done this, I can't teach at Stanford again. I feel like there's a red pill and a blue pill, and you can take the blue pill and go back to your classroom and lecture your 20 students. But I've taken the red pill, and I've seen Wonderland."

It certainly true that the whole business model of the institution is utterly changed if one superstar professor can reach more than a hundred thousand students in one course in one year!  Per student prices could go way down, and the productivity of a notoriously low-productivity industry could take off.  Demand could surge again.  Quality could actually go up as more students are exposed to great teachers and technological resources such as student discussion forums, peer feedback and assessments, interactive exercises and quizzes, video segments and more.

But some interesting things happen in this model--or might happen.  Great teachers could become very hot properties. Talent agencies might add college professors to their roster of sports figures and movie stars.  Or individual professors might incorporate as businesses and seek capital to put together their own production companies, selling their courses--like TV series--to the highest bidders.  In the TV business, of course, the question is who owns the product and who gets the residuals from the showings of that product in which markets.  There is always a struggle between the "talent" and the people who own the pipeline to the customer.  That will happen here, too.  

For some time, the university superstars have been the top research professors, who are now in a position to command very high salaries, get their research teams paid for and avoid teaching altogether, if they wish.  In the new dispensation, the balance might be righted, with great teachers commanding the same kind of prestige.  That rebalancing of priorities, long overdue, might trickle down to lesser professors and institutions.

The biggest audiences will likely accrue to those producers who can put together the best teachers with the highest production values, meaning the producers with access to highly skilled case developers, critical data bases, powerful analytical tools, great ways to visualize complex relationships and so on.  All of that costs a lot of money.  

The great universities are obviously in a very good position to be these producers and successfully monetize these new possibilities.  They have access to the talent and the capital, and they can easily buy the production capacity.  Most important, they have a pipeline to the customer, because of their credentialing role, and, the best ones have the brand.  But what happens if the best talent wants a better deal than the top universities are willing to give them?  Consider the fate of the studio system in Hollywood.

But, why all the speculation about who is going to make how much money on this new development?  As I understand it, the coalitions said that the courses would be free, and that they would give web-based exams on the basis of which they would award certificates to course takers who meet certain standards of performance.  But they will not offer credit toward degrees to anyone who is not admitted as a regular student.  So there will be at least two classes of service.  And there is nothing to prevent the universities from offering multiple classes of web-based services, so that the stripped-down "Khan Academy" offering would be free, but the full-on bells and whistles version would be offered at significant charge, but still less than the regular on-campus experience. The whole "stripped-down-version-for free-but-charges- for-bells-and-whistles" idea is entirely consistent with the whole open systems approach to software development now so popular in many quarters of the tech world.  Many variations on such themes are possible.  

Obviously, these developments have the potential for putting first rate college professors in front of millions upon millions of students who could not otherwise dream of being taught by such capable teachers, many of them people who could not have afforded any kind of college education.  And it has, too, the potential of augmenting the simple lecture with tools that could greatly enhance the processes of absorbing, appropriating and using the knowledge gained.  But there are possible hazards, too.  I'll get to those in a later blog.
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