The May 20th 2013 edition of The New Yorker has an article by Vogue writer Nathan Heller on Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) titled "Laptop U: Has the future of college moved online?" The author explores, or at least raises, a number of related questions. How (well) does the traditional offline learning experience transfer online? Is the online learning experience more or less effective than the traditional one? (By what standard? For what material? What is gained and lost?) What will MOOCs mean for different colleges and universities, and their faculties? How will the MOOC revolution be funded? (In particular, what revenue model will emerge?)
Having worked a lot in the sector, for both public and private university clients, developing everything from technology, to online-enabled programs themselves, to analytic approaches, and even on marketing and promotion, the article was a good prompt for me to try to boil out some ways to think about answering these questions.
The article focuses almost exclusively on Harvard and EdX, the 12-school joint venture through which it's pursuing MOOCs. Obviously this skews the evaluation. Heller writes:
Education is a curiously alchemical process. Its vicissitudes are hard to isolate. Why do some students retain what they learned in a course for years, while others lose it through the other ear over their summer breaks? Is the fact that Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard to revolutionize the tech industry a sign that their Harvard educations worked, or that they failed? The answer matters, because the mechanism by which conveyed knowledge blooms into an education is the standard by which MOOCs will either enrich teaching in this country or deplete it.
For me, the first step to boiling things out is to define what we mean by -- and want from -- an "education". So, let's try to unpack why people go to college. In most cases, Reason One is that you need a degree to get any sort of decent job. Reason Two is to plug into a network of people -- fellow students, alumni, faculty -- that provide you a life-long community. Of course you need a professional community for that Job thing, but also because in an otherwise anomic society you need an archipelago to seed friendships, companionships, and self-definition (or at least, as scaffolding for your personal brand: as one junior I heard on a recent college visit put it memorably, "Being here is part of the personal narrative I'm building.") Reason Three -- firmly third -- is to get an "education" in the sense that Heller describes. (Apropos: check this recording of David Foster Wallace's 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College.)
Next, this hierarchy of needs then gives us a way to evaluate the prospects for MOOCs.
If organization X can produce graduates demonstrably better qualified (through objective testing, portfolios of work, and experience) to do job Y, at a lower cost, then it will thrive. If organization X can do this better and cheaper by offering and/or curating/ aggregating MOOCs, then MOOCs will thrive. If a MOOC can demonstrate an adequately superior result / contribution to the end outcome, and do it inexpensively enough to hold its place in the curriculum, and do it often enough that its edge becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy -- a brand, in other words -- then it will crowd out its competitors, as surely as one plant shuts out the sunlight to another. Anyone care to bet against Georgia Tech's new $7K Master's in Computer Science?
If a MOOC-mediated social experience can connect you to a Club You Want To Be A Member Of, you will pay for that. And if a Club That Would Have You As A Member can attract you to its clubhouse with MOOCs, then MOOCs will line the shelves of its bar. The winning MOOC cocktails will be the ones that best produce the desired social outcomes, with the greatest number of satisfying connections.
Finally, learning is as much about the frame of mind of the student as it is about the quality of the teacher. If through the MOOC the student is able to choose a better time to engage, and can manage better the pace of the delivery of the subject matter, then the MOOC wins.
Beyond general prospects, as you consider these principles, it becomes clear that it's less about whether MOOCs win, but which ones, for what and for whom, and how.
The more objective and standardized -- and thus measurable and comparable -- the learning outcome and the standard of achievement, the greater the potential for a MOOC to dominate. My program either works, or it doesn't.
If a MOOC facilitates the kinds of content exchanges that seed and stimulate offline social gatherings -- pitches to VCs, or mock interviewing, or poetry, or dance routines, or photography, or music, or historical tours, or bird-watching trips, or snowblower-maintenance workshops -- then it has a better chance of fulfilling the longings of its students for connection and belonging.
And, the more well-developed the surrounding Internet ecosystem (Wikipedia, discussion groups, Quora forums, and beyond) is around a topic, the less I need a Harvard professor, or even a Harvard grad student, to help me, however nuanced and alchemical the experience I miss might otherwise have been. The prospect of schlepping to class or office hours on a cold, rainy November night has a way of diluting the urge to be there live in case something serendipitous happens.
Understanding how MOOCs win then also becomes a clue to understanding potential revenue models.
If you can get accredited to offer a degree based in part or whole on MOOCs, you can charge for that degree, and gets students or the government to pay for it (Exhibit A: University of Phoenix). That's hard, but as a variant of this, you can get hired by an organization, or a syndicate of organizations you organize, to produce tailored degree programs -- think corporate training programs on steroids -- that use MOOCs to filter and train students. (Think "You, Student, pay for the 101-level stuff; if you pass you get a certificate and an invitation to attend the 201-level stuff that we fund; if you pass that we give you a job.")
Funding can come directly, or be subsidized by sponsors and advertisers, or both.
You can try to charge for content: if you produce a MOOC that someone else wants to include in a degree-based program, you can try to license it, in part or in whole.
You can make money via the service angle, the way self-publishing firms support authors, with a variety of best-practice based production services. Delivery might be offered via a freemium model -- the content might be free, but access to premium groups, with teaching assistant support, might come at a price. You can also promote MOOCs -- build awareness, drive distribution, even simply brand -- for a cut of the action, the way publishers and event promoters do.
Perhaps in the not-too-distant future we'll get the Academic Upfront, in which Universities front a semester's worth of classes in a MOOC, then pitch the class to sponsors, the way TV networks do today. Or, maybe the retail industry also offers a window into how MOOCs will be monetized. Today's retail environment is dominated by global brands (think professors as fashion designers) and big-box (plus Amazon) firms that dominate supply chains and distrubution networks. Together, Brands and Retailers effectively act as filters: we make assumptions that the products on their shelves are safe, effective, reasonably priced, acceptably stylish, well-supported. In exchange, we'll pay their markup. This logic sounds a cautionary note for many schools: boutiques can survive as part of or at the edges of the mega-retailers' ecosystems, but small-to-mid-size firms reselling commodities get crushed.
Of course, these are all generic, unoriginal (see Ecclesiastes 1:9) speculations. Successful revenue models will blend careful attention to segmenting target markets and working back from their needs, resources, and processes (certain models might be friendlier to budgets and purchasing mechanisms than others) with thoughtful in-the-wild testing of the ideas. Monolithic executions with Neolithic measurement plans ("Gee, the focus group loved it, I can't understand why no one's signing up for the paid version!") are unlikely to get very far. Instead, be sure to design with testability in mind (make content modular enough to package or offer a la carte, for example). Maybe even use Kickstarter as a lab for different models!