Fools rush in?

moocI’ve only been working in higher ed for a few months, but in that time I’ve heard the term MOOC hundreds of times (I’d never heard it before). For the uninitiated, MOOC is an awful-sounding acronym that stands for Massive Online Open Course, and it’s got everyone in higher ed in a tizzy, for one reason or another.

Put simply, MOOCs are college courses offered online for free to anyone in the world with an Internet connection. The most famous provider of the MOOC is edX, a not-for-profit founded last year by Harvard and MIT.

Now, you don’t get college credit for taking a MOOC, but you do you get free access to some incredible courses. And to say that MOOCs have taken off like wildfire is an understatement: When MIT first offered its Circuits and Electronics course last year 155,000 people signed up (7,157 passed), and when Harvard launched its first three classes under the edX banner last fall more than 100,000 students signed up from all over the globe.

Students aren’t the only ones who are MOOC-crazy. The New York Times dubbed 2012 The Year of the MOOC, their columnist Thomas Friedman waded into the discussion last week with a somewhat contradictory op-ed (either 14,000 Koreans watching an American professor on stage is the future of education or the “sage on the stage” era of education is done, which is it?) and higher ed watchers everywhere are giving themselves asthma with breathless predictions of the end of college as we know it.

On the other end of the spectrum are people saying that, while higher ed needs to change—and certainly needs to harness the power of the Internet to help bring about that change—MOOCs are a fad in search of a business model: If you give away the product, how will the store stay in business?

So what’s a college president to do? Order her faculty to quickly create a MOOC so she can call herself an innovator and early adopter? Sit back and watch the market develop to see if MOOCs are indeed nothing more than a passing fancy? If she chooses the former, she runs the risk of saddling her institution with lots of classes that bring in no revenue. If she takes the latter path, she could end up like University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan, who briefly lost her job last year because her Board of Trustees thought she was moving too slowly in adopting a MOOC.

All of this reminds me of the frenzy that took place four or five years ago when companies scrambled to decide if they should start using social media. Remember those days? A few companies grabbed headlines for moving boldly forward and starting a Facebook page, a Twitter feed, even (gasp!) a blog. Others said the risks were too great and that they would stick with the tried (tired?) and true methods of communicating with their customers.

And where are we today? Most companies have added at least some social media to their communications and marketing arsenals, some are “sunsetting” social channels they set up years ago because they haven’t performed as they’d hoped (there are even tips for doing it wisely) and others have fully embraced social and reaped the benefits.

And what’s driving those decisions today? Strategy. Plain and simple. Now that the attention has waned a bit and social media are no longer the must-have shiny trinkets, marketers and communicators are making their decisions based on the strategic needs of their organization, rather than on what everyone is telling them they must have. Is Facebook right for our audience, or will LinkedIn be more effective? How will Twitter get more people into our store? Should we really start a Pinterest page for Gaskets, Rubber and Plastic Hoses (OK, maybe these guys weren’t thinking strategically)?to_mooc_or_not_to_ mooc

My guess is that this is what will happen with MOOCs as well. Right now the peer pressure is high; to MOOC or not to MOOC, that is the question. But in a few years the question won’t be quite so black and white. Business models will spring up around MOOCs that will allow them to bring in tuition-paying students while hewing to the high-minded ideal of knowledge without borders. MOOCs will thrive and MOOCs will fail (there’s already been at least one high-profile failure, one called The Fundamentals of Online Education, no less). Individual colleges and universities will look objectively at the opportunities this new phenomenon has to offer and decide if they want to pursue those opportunities based on the needs of their specific businesses.

In short, MOOCs will soon enough find their own level. The breathless will stop hyperventilating, Thomas Friedman will decamp from MOOC-town and higher ed will be left with one simple question: Couldn’t we have come up with a better acronym for something that’s changing our field forever?



  • Peter says:

    I do think MOOCs and social media are similar insofar as they can permit suppliers a new way of interacting with customers or prospective customers, promoting offerings, and conducting research on consumer preferences. The difference, I suppose is that few organizations actually deliver their core business offering via social media – for free – apart from social media companies. So the strum and drang in higher education is about trying to weigh the promotion and research benefits against the cannibalization risks of giving it all away. At least at the moment. In the long term, it’s difficult to imagine any but a very few institutions continuing to invest in an activity that is not without costs and offering the service for free, even if merely as a loss leader.

    One other difference between MOOCs and social media is that no state senator ever – to my knowledge – proposed a bill mandating that companies use social media. But in the last few days a state senator in California, Darrell Steinberg, has proposed a law that would require state colleges and universities in California to accept, for credit, courses students completed via MOOC if they were otherwise closed out of the same course on their campus either because there weren’t enough seats in the classroom or the class wasn’t being offered when the student needed it. Most of the details of the proposed legislation are still be defined, but this story represents yet another odd twist in the short history of MOOCs, and the many possible purposes (each seemingly less probable than the next) to which they might be put.

  • Pepe says:

    I took two courses in Coursera and I’m taking others in Udacity .As says the true, I was at university a place where just few students are serious students(at least in my country) in comparison, people in MOOCs solve my doubts, i can solve others doubts, people in MOOCs contribute a lot by using forums and at the end you learn by asking questions and teaching others. For my its just awesome.

  • John Graves says:

    If what you give away is knowledge, then you don’t lose it when you share it, so the costs to service hundreds of millions of learners can be under 1 cent each. Little known fact: Wikipedia’s annual budget is under US$50 million. The US Department of Education budget is $68.1 billion. How much of a “business model” do you need before going after a potential 99.9% reduction in education expenses? Let’s collaborate on putting free lessons on-line.

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