Higher Education Strategy Associates

Overhyped Higher Education Meme, Summer 2012 Edition

I’d be remiss not to mention the latest round of educational techno-fetishist whooping that has accompanied recent announcements from EdX and Coursera. To recap: Berkeley has crashed the Harvard-MIT party at Edx (formerly MITx), a system for providing free online courses. Meanwhile, online education company Coursera has signed up a large number of universities – including the University of Toronto. Coursera and EdX are both providing free, non-credit courses to worldwide audiences; the main difference is that EdX is a university-owned co-op, while Coursera is a massively VC-funded start-up which is providing its platform to a number of carefully chosen, prestigious universities to set up non-credit courses.

These two companies have some big pluses over some of the other online education experiments out there; namely, their courses come entirely from serious, brand-name institutions. That’s a big deal, because brands are almost everything in higher education. No-name start-ups simply aren’t going to be able to compete head-on with established university brands.

The big negative is that there’s still no real business model here. Remember the 100,000 students Sebastian Thrun’s MOOC attracted that got everyone so excited? Turns out almost 85% of them were gawkers – only 13,000 or so actually bothered even opening the final exam. And only about 6,000 actually graduated. That’s still a pretty big number, of course. But is it going to make governments start pushing institutions down the on-line path? Just imagine being the poor schmo writing the Minister’s briefing note explaining why he/she is pushing an education model with a 6% completion rate. Not fun.

To be clear, the lack of a business model doesn’t mean that Coursera and EdX aren’t doing great stuff. Loads of people around the world suddenly have access to great course content, and partner universities are getting some great publicity out of it (“extending their reach” is the preferred phrase, but it amounts to the same thing).

But all of this is for free, non-credit courses. No one knows if there’s any way to monetize this. Presumably, the way this is going to happen is by moving from non-credit to credit courses, to actual degree completion. But this of course is where serious universities – the ones whose names Coursera relies on for volume – draw the line. The only alternative means of monetization seem to rely on sudden, widespread adoption ideas of like Open Badges which seem highly optimistic. As in, Mulcair-mania-comes-to-Calgary optimistic.

If Coursera or EdX can crack the problems of global simultaneous proctoring and invigilation, these businesses have a future. If not, all the educational techno-fetishists will look a lot like Wall Street tech analysts during the Web 1.0 boom.

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5 Responses to Overhyped Higher Education Meme, Summer 2012 Edition

  1. AMD says:

    I don’t always agree with you, but I think you are right here. Plus, your prose is very funny and dear to my polisci heart (you almost made me spit my coffee at “As in, Mulcair-mania-comes-to-Calgary optimistic.”)

    • Alex Usher says:

      Hi, AMD. Thanks for reading our stuff. And thanks for your note.

      If everyone agreed with me, I wouldn’t be doing my job ;-).

  2. KML says:

    Hi Alex: Given the uber excitement of MOOCs, the gratification of badges, and speculation that certificates are the credential of the future, (http://thedegree360.onlinedegrees.com/are-certificates-the-credential-of-the-future.html) should the humble bricks and mortar among us start paying attention?

    • Alex Usher says:

      Hi KML. Thanks for reading our stuff.

      Well, it never pays to ignore anything *completely*. But while it is possible that certificates are the credential of the future – it’s a fairly distant future, I think. Employers don’t just casually discard the method they’ve been using to screen employees for decades. Think how may individual employers would need to get up to snuff on what each badge means, the level of credibility of each badge issuer, etc. etc. The degree system we’ve adopted over the last two centuries, on the other hand, is well understood by everyone. Take a look at how long it took employers (about a decade) to work out what to do with even a small change to the degree system like “applied degrees”. Badges and certificates are a bigger shift by several orders of magnitude. I can see how in some fields where highly specific content knowledge is required and where this content changes rapidly – computer programming, say – this kind of thing might be appealing enough that employers would see the benefits of this approach. Other than that – I can;t see it. Not yet, anyway.

  3. KML says:

    I think you’re right, at least for a while. My teen-aged children, however, have opened my eyes to the possible value we may place on online learning in the future. They have an intuitive understanding of the internet and technology which includes an ability to differentiate between information that is valid and that which is…well, less valid. They recognize cues, references, sources and regularly suspend their disbelief – and belief – when necessary. They’ve learned to speak a bit of French, how to play and tune a guitar, and how to build a website. It’s enviable in some ways – its like they grew up speaking a language I’ve had to learn as an adult. Although change seems to take a long time, I think about how much universities have changed since I attended in the late 1980s when ‘accommodation’ meant student housing, student service offices didn’t exist (or if they did, you never went into them), and nary a parent could be found on campus nor regularly calling university presidents (my mother would have been appalled if I’d asked her to call my teacher). It seems that more (and arguably weaker) students are attending and graduating from university. My children have been told all of their lives that all kinds of intelligences count, and have witnessed students receiving ‘credentials’ for everything from A to Z.

    My dream is that my children do graduate from university. A good one, to be honest, but that could be my generational bias showing. As they frequently tell me, education happens outside of the classroom, Mom. Take the internet, for example….

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