The news last week that Harvard was joining MIT in its experiment to offer massive online courses to the world for free had some in higher ed reaching for the Maalox and others scratching their heads. The most common questions I heard from those in higher ed: Should I worry? Should I copy them? Given [...]
The news last week that Harvard was joining MIT in its experiment to offer massive online courses to the world for free had some in higher ed reaching for the Maalox and others scratching their heads. The most common questions I heard from those in higher ed: Should I worry? Should I copy them?
Given their brand names, the actions of Harvard and MIT tend to generate a lot of press coverage. The announcement also attracted attention because it followed so closely behind a similar one just a few weeks ago by another group of elite institutions: Stanford, Michigan, Penn, and Princeton.
They must be on to something. Either that, or they have lots of money to throw at ideas whether they work out or not. That’s not a luxury most in higher ed have.
Here are five things to consider as you decide whether you should worry about these massive online open courses or whether you should consider copying the idea, albeit likely on a smaller scale:
There is no business plan.
Coursera, the platform being used by Stanford and others, said last month that it secured $16 million in venture capital funds. This is another example of an investment betting on an idea, not a business plan. For right now, Coursera or the others don’t seem to have a business plan. Perhaps one option is to eventually follow the iTunes model and sell access to a course for $1.99. That starts adding up to real money if you get 100,000+ people to sign up for the course. Depending on the course subject, I could see academics selling access to corporate recruiters. That’s essentially what Sebastian Thrun did when he sent the resumes of his best students from his massive course to Google and other Silicon Valley companies.
There was lots of talk in recent weeks that the introduction of these courses could give individual professors more brand power than their home institutions. I wouldn’t bet on it, at least at first. The reason 160,000 people signed up to take Thrun’s course last fall was because he taught at Stanford. Without Stanford’s brand behind him he might not get 160 people. And that university brand matters. That’s why only a select number of institutions with world-wide name recognition can pull this off, at least on the scale that many of these institutions are planning.
You might not have the brand recognition on your own, but what if you partnered with a group of other institutions, in the area or similar institutions across the country? What I found most interesting about these two announcements is that they were joining together universities that compete for students, faculty, and grants. This could signal a new era in loose federations of colleges and universities joining together for a common good. Check out this course-sharing idea from a group of 16 Southern liberal-arts colleges.
Where’s the credential?
None of these institutions will be giving out anything that smacks of a credential. Their names are built on being exclusive. Even so, they will be giving out a certificate of completion. The question is whether employers one day might accept these certificates in certain fields just like they do degrees now. It remains easy for me to see how such certificates can signify learning in technical fields (IT already certifies people in various coding languages, etc), but I’m still unclear how they might work for more intuitive disciplines or softer skill sets. If they’re able to figure that out, it could mean the end for many traditional colleges and universities.
I’m taking one of these massive courses right now by Scott Page at Michigan. It’s interesting and engaging because of the subject matter, but more so because he’s a talented professor. To pull this off, you need both – a marketable subject/topic and a dynamic professor.