Coursera has announced, with some fanfare, their Coursera for Campus initiative, which Jeff Young at EdSurge has characterized as an attempted entrance into the courseware market but which Coursera Vice President of Enterprise Leah Belsky described as aimed at the LMS market.
From the EdSurge piece:
Coursera for Campus is designed specifically with colleges in mind, says Leah Belsky, Coursera’s vice president of enterprise. That means the service includes new features tailored for use in an academic environment, including plagiarism detection to spot cheaters and integration with existing student gradebooks in the learning management systems (LMS) that colleges use.
Meanwhile, Coursera is opening up its technology platform to any college to use for free to deliver course materials on their own campuses. That means that colleges could use the Coursera software as an alternative to their learning-management system. Belsky argues that Coursera’s system is better designed for delivering online courses and interactive lessons than most LMSes.
“We’re talking about a potential major disruption to the LMS market,” she says. “We don’t have all the features of an LMS but what we do have is all the tools to create cutting-edge interactive learning experiences.”
This is bad framing from a PR perspective, but more importantly, it just plain misses the real potential value proposition and chases a plainly imaginary one instead.
First, I hear a constant stream of complaints about both major MOOC providers having platforms that are not even fully adequate for their original purpose (though the situation does seem to be improving, particularly in terms of data analytics). At least one very high-profile customer, who I won’t name here, uses the MOOC platforms basically as a store front while putting their actual courses in an LMS. This comes at a time when some Blackboard customers still balk at switching from the classic to the Ultra experience because of feature gaps on level of granularity of test question feedback. MOOC platforms are interesting and have some innovative features, but they are neither mature for their original purpose nor tuned for the broad range of usage that a campus LMS must serve. Second, disruption talk is particularly tone deaf from anyone in a product category that was very recently known for hyping that they would be disrupting the university itself. And finally, disruptive innovation is an unfalsifiable theory that has thus far shown itself to have no predictive power in higher education. It’s a provocative idea that may have some generative intellectual value, but really, it’s well past time for every company that has aspirations in education to drop the word “disrupt” from their public vocabularies. Coursera for Schools may well have a decent value proposition, but this isn’t it.
Jeff’s framing is closer to the truth: This is primarily a courseware play. There’s a little bit of gray area because courseware platforms and LMS platforms are slowly drifting toward each other in terms of design, but if they ever do converge, it won’t be in the next couple of years. No, this is about repurposing content. And the real story here is that the content needs to be repurposed because we have an overpopulation of MOOCs that are in the midst of a die-off. I’m not saying that MOOC companies are dying off. As far as I can tell, Coursera seems to be healthy. (I have less visibility into EdX’s financial status.) What I mean is that previous generation of the Stanford/MIT/Harvard-style xMOOCs, having failed to achieve either their mission or their sustainability goals, are now being repurposed into other things. Because we don’t have better names for those things, we still call them “MOOCs.” But they don’t meet the definition of Massively Open Online Courses. Even the Stanford/Harvard/MIT definition.
Meanwhile, there are zombie MOOCs on these platforms that are in the process of getting killed off. Not too long ago, one campus stakeholder told me that their MOOCs basically serve the same purpose as their YouTube marketing videos, except that the YouTube videos get much better viewership and cost a lot less. I don’t expect the MOOC to die entirely, but two years from now, there will be a lot fewer of them than there are now. We just may not recognize that change if we insist on continuing to call any online enrollable thing with more than 30 students a “MOOC.”
The known failure
What’s weird is that everybody has known that the xMOOC was a failed experiment within 12 months of it reaching peak hype, and the widely known evidence has only mounted since then. In a January 2019 article in Science that was tellingly titled “The MOOC Pivot,” authors Justin Reich and José A. Ruipérez-Valiente write in the summary,
When massive open online courses (MOOCs) first captured global attention in 2012, advocates imagined a disruptive transformation in postsecondary education. Video lectures from the world’s best professors could be broadcast to the farthest reaches of the networked world, and students could demonstrate proficiency using innovative computer-graded assessments, even in places with limited access to traditional education. But after promising a reordering of higher education, we see the field instead coalescing around a different, much older business model: helping universities outsource their online master’s degrees for professionals (1). To better understand the reasons for this shift, we highlight three patterns emerging from data on MOOCs provided by Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) via the edX platform: The vast majority of MOOC learners never return after their first year, the growth in MOOC participation has been concentrated almost entirely in the world’s most affluent countries, and the bane of MOOCs—low completion rates (2)—has not improved over 6 years. [Emphasis added.]
The entire (paywalled) article is worth reading, but honestly, is any of the above a shock to you? xMOOCs, as originally designed, are not replacements for face-to-face classes. They do not lead to reliable course or credential completion. They do not do a good job of serving underserved populations. And they do not create sustainability models by giving a way expensively produced courses and making up for the cost on volume. They have value for some folks. I’m glad they exist in the world. But as an alternative system of education, they are a failure.
We see this proven out again and again, in multiple variations. Most recently, ASU has largely shut down their Global Freshman Academy, a large undergraduate MOOC experiment designed to give students credit for their first year of college and attract them to matriculate to ASU for a degree. From the IHE article:
Of 373,000 people who enrolled, only 8,090 completed a course with a grade of C or better, just over 2 percent of all students enrolled. Around 1,750 students (0.47 percent) paid to receive college credit for completing a course, and fewer than 150 students (0.028 percent) went on to pursue a full degree at ASU.
Was Global Freshman Academy an experiment worth running? Absolutely. In fact, I fervently hope that ASU will be more forthcoming than they have been so far with the lessons they have learned from the experience. Did students in those courses gain value? While that article doesn’t provide significant data on this question, I strongly suspect that many did. Were MOOCs an effective vehicle for saving freshmen roughly 25% of the cost of a college tuition while still getting them on to sophomore year? Clearly not.
So what has worked as a MOOC-like alternative to the traditional degree? What’s the closest we’ve come to fulfilling the original vision? The most high-profile success has been Georgia Tech’s affordable graduate degrees at scale. Note: I have not seen them refer to these courses as “MOOCs.” They talk about “affordable degrees at scale.” Yes, these are big classes. And yes, Georgia Tech does use MOOC platforms as part of their delivery ecosystem. But their experiment was never about “massively open.” It was about “affordable at scale.” They wanted to see how inexpensively they could offer a degree while keeping some of the same structures and conventional quality checks that their face-to-face programs have. And for Udacity, Georgia Tech’s first MOOC partner, the degree program represented a pivot. (The first of several.) They essentially acted as a kind of Online Program Enabler, which is a weird category that crosses boundaries of platform, content, and services.
When I look at Coursera’s latest announcement, I see an offering very roughly akin to the one that Udacity originally made for Georgia Tech, but with a heavier emphasis on prepackaged content—likely because Coursera already has a lot of content on the platform that may be quite good but is apparently not going to be disrupting universities, or conventional degrees, any time soon. If Coursera were to become (in part) a two-sided market for universities to buy and sell interactive curricular materials from each other, that’s not necessarily a horrible future for either the company or its customers. But it is suggestive of the collapse in the hype we’ve seen in both the MOOC and the OPM markets.
OPMs, courseware providers, and “MOOCs”
I want to return to the portion of that quote from the Science article about MOOC providers turning into OPM companies, which I highlighted but didn’t address. Again, that’s obviously true. All this talk about “micro masters” and “degree pathways” essentially amounts to a claim that many working professionals would like to pursue their post-graduate education in small, career-oriented (but still accredited and tuition-burdened) chunks. Likewise, MOOC providers like to talk about how MOOCs provide an inexpensive sales funnel to get degree students.
While I haven’t seen direct hard data to support either claim, I’m more inclined to believe the former than the latter. A “micro-masters” program is essentially a large certificate program that can count toward a larger degree. Certificate programs have been around forever, and they sell. On the other hand, I’ve seen no public evidence that the MOOC, a course genre which has trouble getting students to the end of the first course, is going to be successful at getting students to matriculate to a program in significant numbers. The ASU Global Freshman Academy isn’t a direct comparison, since it is undergraduate, but the numbers are still pretty discouraging.
Reich and Ruipérez-Valiente have their own opinion about the competitive advantage of MOOC providers in the OPM space, and it is revealing:
The primary competitive advantage of MOOCs relative to established school-as-a- service providers involves cutting labor costs through automation. Many “traditional” online programs include small class sizes, synchronous sessions with instructors, and human-graded assignments. Many degrees offered by universities with the technology and support of Coursera and edX will be one- half or one-quarter as expensive as typical U.S. professional online credentials, with the bulk of savings coming from a combination of larger class sizes, fewer or no synchronous sessions, reduced contact with instructors, and more autograded assignments (12).
This is precisely the value proposition that the digital homework solution—courseware’s older sibling—brought to the face-to-face lecture hall in survey-level courses. Digital assessment is what enabled those courses to swell to 500 or more students. The authors continue,
Because MOOC platforms support programs that look more like “traditional” online higher education, the literature on online learning can provide guidance. By most indications, students typically do worse in online courses than in on-campus courses, and the challenges of online learning are particularly acute for the most vulnerable populations of first generation college students, students from low-income families, and underrepresented minorities (13). If low-cost, MOOC-based degrees end up recruiting the kinds of students who have historically been poorly served by online degree programs, student support programs will be vital. Some recent research has explored online and text-message–based interventions for supporting these students, but most research suggests that human connections through advisers, tutors, and peer groups provide the most important student supports (14). These human supports will push against lower tuition costs. MOOC- based degree providers may find that highly effective online learning for diverse populations costs about the same to provide as highly effective residential learning (12).
When you start playing with this balancing act in order to arrive at…ahem…an affordable degree at scale and quality, you likely end up with something that looks very much like the Georgia Tech solution. It’s not a free degree or a $1,000 degree. It might be a $7,000 degree or a $14,000 degree. And that’s at the graduate level. It’s not clear that we know how to do this at the undergraduate level yet.
But the more interesting implication vis-a-vis MOOC providers is that their value proposition starts looking more like that of modern courseware support with some services bundled in.
As MOOC providers compete with conventional OPMs, there are entirely separate questions of financing the program development (via revenue share or some similar mechanism) and marketing. The MOOC providers have the advantage of their portals for marketing; students may go to Coursera or EdX to look for a credential program (as opposed to a full graduate degree program) before they’d go to their local university. I’ve not seen that proven, but at least it’s plausible. And the financing is what it is. Either you want a revenue share or you don’t.
But as a genre of course, the population of xMOOCs is dying off. We don’t see it because we’re also calling the thing that is replacing them—which isn’t open—a “MOOC.” The collection of actual xMOOCs that are still functioning as full and (more or less) open courses is slowly shrinking to fit the size and shape of the professional non-degree credential market. Forking off from that is something that looks like a MOOC but is actually prepackaged courseware, to be licensed like a textbook and taught by individual instructors at different universities, with or without a face-to-face component. Then there’s this third thing—the affordable degree at scale—that is using MOOC and courseware affordances, which are increasingly the same affordances, to teach more students with similar learning outcomes at a lower cost. So far, only in professionally oriented graduate degree programs. And finally, there are zombie MOOCs that have no strong reason to exist and are being killed off by the platform providers for whom they are loss generators (sometimes to the dismay of the universities who invested considerable time and money in creating them).
OK, maybe I was wrong. The word “disruption” is still relevant in at least one sense.