Now that Coursera for Campus—which I have occasionally erroneously referred to as “Coursera for Schools” in previous blog posts—has been launched, we have some more information about what it’s really about. (I’ll embed the launch video at the bottom of the post, but if you’d rather go straight to it, you can find it here.) I think it’s significant and portends significant trends in the sector.
Before we get to that, let’s get one item of business out of the way related to my previous posts. As IBL Education notes, Coursera CEO Jeff Maggioncalda said, “Coursera for Campus is not a full-featured LMS. We expect many universities to stay on their LMSs.” IBL News further notes, “According to the company, Coursera for Campus’ LMS is designed to supplement the existing Canvas, Blackboard and Moodle systems.” [Emphasis in original.]
So Coursera for Campus isn’t LMS play, at least for the foreseeable future. I was pretty harsh on Coursera’s SVP of Enterprise Leah Belsky for her disruption language, but as I’ll get into later in this post, this kind of category mistake is actually quite easy to make and one that other courseware providers have made.
Because that is exactly what Coursera has explicitly become with their Courseware for Campus offering: a courseware provider. The less obvious part is that MOOC design and courseware design have been converging for some time now. Their increasing similarities in instructional affordances have been masked by the differences in the business models of their parent companies. And even less obvious is that the Venn diagram of courseware companies and OPM companies is starting to overlap significantly.
“A 21st-Century textbook”
In the launch presentation, Maggioncalda called Coursera for Campus, in part, a “21st-Century textbook.” Take that seriously. These are MOOCs repurposed as curricular materials. And it’s really not that big of a leap. Remember that the pedagogical model of the xMOOC course generally doesn’t require heavy participation from the instructor. Some instructors do participate heavily, while others, less so. A lot of instructor energy goes into course design and lecture video production. The actual live support could be from the instructor, but it also could be from TAs, or it could be self-study. Or, in the case of Coursera for Campus, it could be a different instructor. From its inception, the design model of xMOOCs began decoupling faculty course design from faculty course delivery.
There is some messiness, of course. The biggest challenge in terms of textbook-like may be the lecture videos. Faculty may not love having some other personality featured as the star of the show. But there are two mitigating factors to that. First, Coursera’s design staff is likely guiding faculty toward authoring instructionally sound videos, which would tend to reduce the total amount of talking head content in any given course. Second, textbook-provided commercial courseware, which is still often written by star authors in their field, now also features talking heads. Here, for example, is the Cengage MindTap introductory video for Economics, by author Greg Mankiw:
“But,” you may be thinking, “MOOCs are not designed like courseware.” One of my Twitter followers made a comment to the effect that at least courseware has an instructional design philosophy, unlike xMOOCs.
That person is mistaken, and here is the proof:
During the launch presentation, a Coursera executive made the statement that “any of the courses that have been authored on Coursera come with an out-of-the-box analytics platform.” If those analytics look anything like the picture above—and I would bet money that they do—then the courses have been built on a backward design philosophy like the one I have been describing in my recent post series on content as infrastructure.
This shouldn’t be surprising. As I wrote repeatedly throughout that series, almost every professionally designed course uses that design pattern. And Coursera is known for having strong professional course design support.
(I’m telling you, folks. That content pattern is the revolution of our time.)
Update: Matthew Rascoff has reminded me to acknowledge that the professional course designers on campuses play large and critical roles in the design of these courses. The larger point is that, on both sides of the fence, there are trained, professional course designers who are applying this design pattern.
While I haven’t looked at their catalog myself in quite some time, I would not be surprised at all if many of their offerings stack up pretty well against commercial courseware titles. For one thing, while xMOOCs have a bad reputation for anemic social interaction relative to other course models, they probably have more social interaction designed into them than many commercially published courseware titles.
Courseware platforms vs LMSs
It’s easy to get confused about the boundary between a courseware platform and an LMS. I know because I have worked on and consulted on both. The LMS companies inevitably start thinking, “Damn, there are so many courses that get delivered through our platform, and so much money made on selling them. And guess what? Everything that faculty build and deliver through our product is a course! The textbook publishers keep rebuilding what we’ve already built. Badly. I mean, have you seen their grade books? Why can’t we be the platform and get a cut of all that money?”
So they try to displace the publishers. And they fail. Every time.
The textbook publishers, meanwhile, start thinking, “Damn, our customers really hate their LMSs. We’ve built all these LMS features, and they keep asking for more. I mean, we’ve already built a grade book. Wow, that was painful. Why can’t we be the platform and get a cut of all that money?”
So they try to displace the LMS companies. And they fail. Every time.
Here’s the critical difference:
LMS developers have to optimize for a wide range of faculty preferences, teaching styles, and teaching conditions. They have to accommodate every grading scheme imaginable. They have to handle huge classes and tiny classes. They have to deal with face-to-face, online, and blended. Constructivist, lecture, and whatever else. That’s why they spend so much time adding grade book micro-features and then optimizing the usability to handle all those micro-features without being totally overwhelming.
Courseware developers, in contrast, have to optimize for the content. If the subject is software development, then you need an interactive code editor and test engine. If it’s accounting, then you need a test engine that looks like a spreadsheet. If it’s chemistry, then you need a molecule visualizer and manipulator.
Which side of the divide do MOOC platforms land on? Here are a couple of slides from the Coursera on Campus launch:
These subject-specific affordances, plus competency-based analytics, were the platform highlights of the Coursera for Campus presentation. Not the grade book that can do anything. Not the test engine that can provide any kind of feedback. Not announcements or an event feed. This was all about courseware.
“But wait,” you say. “Courseware for Campus lets faculty author their own courses. Isn’t that different?”
Yes. And no.
Way back the better part of a decade ago, when I was at Cengage working on the MindTap platform, the company debated whether to open it up to customers and license it without content. (“We can disrupt the LMS!”) In the end, there were two major barriers. First, as a print-centric company in the midst of a transition, the authoring tools were not remotely faculty-friendly. And second, as a publisher whose bread and butter came from royalties, there was a fear of cannibalization of the business.
Coursera has neither of those problems. It was born as a two-sided market, which means that it never owned the content to begin with and always had an incentive to make authoring as easy as possible. It may have taken some time to fully realize that vision, but we were destined to arrive where we are now.
Further, as textbook publishers increasingly move away from celebrity franchises and toward fee-for-service contracts with their authors, they will have motivation to make similar moves. McGraw-Hill Education doesn’t advertise it widely, but they have been licensing the authoring platform for SmartBooks for several years now. Authoring support can work with a courseware platform as long as the range of course expectations for delivery models can be constrained. And MOOC courseware fits the bill. It’s a genre.
Coursera for Campus is a harbinger of the future, not for the LMS industry but for the textbook industry. And they are an early mover with certain advantages in their business model.
The courseware/OPM convergence
One critical element that I don’t want to lose in all of this is the implications for the OPM market. Let’s not forget that (a) Coursera has been pushing into that market aggressively and successfully and (b) that market has been under massive pressure and upheaval lately. 2U has been the canary in the coal mine, having lost roughly four fifths of its market value since the beginning of the year.1
To be clear, I think there’s some noise obscuring the signal. Two of the reasons why 2U took such a big hit are that the stock got way ahead of itself and some self-interested players have been extraordinarily successful at generating FUD around the market category in general.
That said, there is no question that the hype around selling an infinite number of $40K masters degrees has met its demise. There are two barriers to OPM growth, which is another way of saying that there are two barriers to conventional online degree growth, and they have both proven formidable barriers to crack. The obvious one is cost. The less obvious one is geography. It turns out that, even in an era when people can take courses from anywhere in the world, they will tend to take them from their local institution or not at all. For all the talk of “national universities” and “mega universities,” it’s not clear that such beasts really exist. For the most part, big universities have proven exceptionally good at soaking up every ounce of demand for education in their local areas. So the next sustainability play is not so much about reaching students far away as it is about serving students you already reach for 40 years rather than for four.
And interestingly, that is essentially the pitch that the Coursera executives made about Coursera for Campus—even when they were pitching in India. They weren’t making the pitch that the American stereotype would have predicted, of reaching the rural millions. They were talking about lifelong learning. Skilling and reskilling. From an OPM perspective, this pitch gives the company with the large catalog of low-cost and constantly refreshed inventory a competitive advantage.
That said, there was definitely a bit of hand waving going on regarding completion rate. The Coursera executives talked about University of Illinois’ degree program as having over a 90% completion rate as if that remarkable achievement could be solely attributed to the fact that it was a degree program. I suspect there are some hard-working support staff at the University of Illinois who might quibble with that clean of a causal analysis. I don’t think the Coursera folks are directionally wrong, and I don’t think they were intentionally misleading, either. But I do think that they oversimplified, and that running a highly successful program at scale with a 90%+ degree completion rate entails a lot more than just handing out a piece of sheep skin at the end. The reason I bring this up is not because I want to snark on Coursera but because the part that is being glossed over represents a number of support areas that OPMs compete on (and that more traditional OPMs and OPEs pride themselves on excelling at).
The gap between “MOOC” the course model and “MOOC” the courseware model is very much an open question in terms of student success. The MOOC courseware model, particularly as implemented into affordable degrees at scale delivery models by pioneers like Georgia Tech and University of Illinois, are creating an alternative delivery model that could start putting pressure on OPMs supporting more traditional models. Coursera on Campus, in addition to creating an additional revenue stream for the company and putting pressure on courseware providers, potentially ups the ante in the OPM market. But we need to look to those universities which are pioneering affordable degrees at scale to understand the service gaps, marketing gaps, and cost differences between MOOC courseware and the totality of what they are doing in order to understand the what it would take to replicate their success.
In the meantime, consider the implications of the Coursera on Campus model for the future of companies like Pearson and Wiley, which own both courseware and OPM divisions, or McGraw-Hill Education, which has begun experimenting with opening up its platform for content authoring by customers.2 It’s not necessarily all bad, but it is a potential accelerant to change that is already in the wind.
It’s a wild, wild, wild, wild world, my friends.
Here’s the full launch event for your viewing pleasure: