MOOCs are a powerful force for good.
Where did all of the MOOC mania come from? It came faster than Facebook and it’s here to stay. In just a year MOOCs emerged from a unique mix of entrepreneurial spirit, a few leading US Universities, supported by not-for-profits and venture capital. It’s an ecosystem that can take an idea and support it through to a sustainable business. That’s impressive.
Big Bang Khan
Whatever the obscure origin of the word or examples of previous HE online courses, MOOCs mania has its origin in one, big-bang source – Salman Khan. Khan was a necessary condition for MOOC mania. It was he who popularized the short video where the lecturer was literally taken out of the picture. Forget all of that YouTube EDU and iTunes U stuff, basically dumps of dull lectures, it was Khan who got the big numbers by doing something different. OER had also stalled with MITOpenCourseWare languishing and OpenLearn an also-ran; resource dump that simply mimicked all that was lazy and bad about internal HE courses. They were within the paradigm. To be fair, Downes and Siemens were different, and certainly deserve praise for avoiding this old-school approach, but I don’t see any real causal influence on Khan and subsequent MOOC mania. Sebastian Thrun has already paid his dues to Khan.
Why was Khan the catalyst?
This is interesting, as it’s yet another example of innovation coming from outside of the bubble. It took a hedge fund manager to shake up education because he didn’t have any HE baggage. Khan’s developed his ideas through direct contact with learners, not through research project or grants. It was in dealing with his young relatives that he suddenly thought – guess what, I can save time here by doing cool videos. Neither was he hung up on the whole ‘academic hubris’ thing. It didn’t matter that his face wasn’t on screen. He understood that learning maths was about the maths, not the face; semantic memory, not episodic. In short, he dumped the long-form lecture. This was about the learner, not the teacher. His second masterstroke was to slam them up on YouTube. He intrinsically understood scalability, first, in terms of the rapid production of short videos, secondly by making them available on an already existing free platform. Then, something crucial happened, funding from the Gates Foundation ($5.5m), Ann and John Doerr ($110k) and Google ($2m). Lastly, remember the ecosystem here – Khan is a Harvard MIT guy – the institutions that subsequently funded edX.
One University stands out as MOOC central, that’s Stanford. Paul Hennessey is easily the most visionary leader of any Uni8versity on the planet. The man who categorically does NOT want to build any more lecture theatres (that’s counts as a radical position in HE). What Stanford does, and we in Europe should be envious, is understand how to turn students into aspirational autonomous achievers. It’s in the DNA of that organization. Udacity owes its very existence to Stanford, in that Sebastian Thrun, inspired by Khan, set up his Stanford course online and that led to the founding of Udacity. Ng and Koller, both Stanford academics, set up Coursera. NovoED was also a Stanford product, originally Venture Lab, started by Amin Saberi and Farnaz Ronaghi. Let’s not forget Class2go,another open source product out of Stanford, that has merged with edX. Harvard and MIT have each put $30m into edX (other money coming from the liks of Jonathan Grayer and Philipe Lafont).
Another key player has been inspirational in all this – the Gates Foundation. I’ve dealt with these guys and they’re good. They do their research, identify the sweet spots and take action. It was a matter of weeks that a company I had invested in, Cogbooks, who have real adaptive learning and MOOC product, had been spotted through research, invited to the US and put in front of potential customers. They put a cool $5.5m into Khan, $4m into edX. Then we have the MacArthur Foundation, Hewlett and the National Science foundation weighing in with other supportive initiatives.
The third ingredient is, of course, capital. When you have a world class institution, like Stanford, producing students and academics with ambition, it attracts capital. Capital matters, as it allows you to keep up product development, while keeping your promise on delivery. It also allows you to bring on business expertise and support. Coursera has had $16m from Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and NewEnterprise Associates. Andreesen Horowitz put $15 into Udacity.
Lastly, don’t forget existing companies such as Google who put $2m into the Khan Academy and Pearson who have teamed up with both Udacity and edX to offer proctored examinations through Pearson VUE. Desire2learn, a player in the HE VLE market raised $80 million and acquired Wiggio, a group collaboration tool, and Degree Compass, a student support tool. They have entered the MOOC market, with the venerable Siemens and Downes.
It took a drop-out like Gates to turbo-charge the PC industry, a maverick like Jobs to take it much further, Bezos to transform book selling, Torvalds open source and subsequently OER, Jimmy Wales to give us Wikipedia and Khan, then Thrun, to give us MOOCs. As I keep saying, we’ve had more pedagogic change over the last 10 years than the last 1000 years because of these outsiders and technology. It happened because the time is right. HE is in a mess with spiraling costs, old agrarian timetables and old pedagogies. Outside pressure, in the form of entrepreneurial spirit, some leading Universities, with support from not-for-profits and that all important ingredient, capital, has given us, in a year, an alternative to something that has been around for nearly 1000 years. MOOCs are a powerful force for good. They promise to break down the barriers between higher education and the rest of the world, to the benefit of both.
Photo credit: Online Learning Insights