The age-old model for higher education is under
Now granted, it may have been a long time since
colleges conformed to the romantic stereotypes: ivy-covered stone walls, cozy
seminars around long oak tables, crusty but lovable professors with tweed
jackets and meerschaum pipes who took an active interest in each and every
one of their pupils. But even the modern, 50,000-student campus versions are
being turned around by the potential threat of a new model for education,
It's a tsunami that is bearing down on every
institution of higher education in the country. And anyone who doesn't act
with appropriate foresight risks inundation, a threat which has university
officials around the nation acting out of panic.
The idea of moving classes to the Internet is not a new
one, of course. The University of Phoenix – one of the pioneers in the
commoditization of education – started its for-profit
"distance-learning" program with an initial class of 12 way back in 1989, first over private networks and later
the Web. Although Phoenix has come under heavy criticism for its students'
high debt loads and low job prospects, it nevertheless still enrolls over
400,000 per year.
There is also the Khan Academy, a non-degree tutorial
program begun in 2006 by Bangladeshi-American educator and Harvard Business
School graduate Salman Khan. Khan had a vision – to construct "the
world's first free, world-class virtual school where anyone can learn
anything." To this end, he has overseen the creation of more than 3,000 microlectures via video tutorials, stored on YouTube and
covering subjects from physics and chemistry to art history and
In addition, most schools now offer at least some
online instruction. According to the Babson Research Group's annual survey of
more than 2,500 colleges and universities, more than 6.1 million students
took at least one online class during fall, 2010. That's a 10% increase over
the year before, and represents 31% of all students – up from less than
10% in 2002.
And it isn't as if forward thinking JVs haven't been
tried before, notably with Fathom, an unsuccessful 2001 commercial venture
that involved the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, and
Columbia University, and AllLearn, a nonprofit
effort from Yale, Princeton, and Stanford that was canned in 2006.
So what is new?
In a May 3 op-ed in the New York Times,
columnist David Brooks wrote that, "[O]ver the
past few months, something has changed. The elite, pace-setting universities
have embraced the Internet. Not long ago, online courses were interesting
experiments. Now online activity is at the core of how these schools envision
Take MIT and Harvard, which rolled out a new
educational partnership in April. Dubbed edX, it will offer free online
courses from both universities, starting with its first five this coming
fall. edX will be overseen
by a nonprofit organization governed equally by the two universities, each of
which has committed $30 million to the project.
And that JV followed hard on the heels of MIT's announcement
last December that it was starting an open online learning project, called MITx.
Its first course offering, "Circuits and Electronics," debuted in
March and attracted an enrollment of about 120,000. Those who complete the
course get a certificate of mastery and a grade, but no official credit.
That's similar to what will happen with edX.
Developments like this require a new acronym, you know.
So we are going to have to become comfortable with MOOC, which stands for
"Massively Open Online Course."
MOOCs are a hot topic on both coasts and everywhere in
between. At the same time as the Boston duo was trumpeting edX, another consortium – consisting of Stanford, UCal Berkeley, Princeton, and the Universities of
Michigan and Pennsylvania – was introducing Coursera.
Unlike edX, Coursera is a commercial company. The founders –
Stanford computer scientists Daphne Koller and
Andrew Ng – have so far attracted $16 million in venture capital from
such luminaries as John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins Caufield &
Byers – who has backed some of the world's most successful
entrepreneurs, including the likes of Larry Page, Sergey Brin,
and Eric Schmidt of Google; Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com; Scott Cook and Bill
Campbell of Intuit; and Mark Pincus of Zynga.
The tech behind MOOCs – characterized at the
moment by video-lesson segments, embedded quizzes, immediate feedback, and
student-paced learning – is still evolving, albeit rapidly. And the
future is unpredictable.
However, "Projects like this can impact lives
around the world, for the next billion students from China and India,"
says George Siemens, of publicly supported, online Athabasca University in
Canada. "But if I were president of a mid-tier university, I would be
looking over my shoulder very nervously right now, because if a leading
university offers a free circuits course, it becomes
a real question whether other universities need to develop a circuits
Put another way, if you have a choice between a course
taught by an average professor at your school and one taught online by a
nationally recognized expert in the field, which are you going to pick?
One such expert is Sebastian Thrun.
Thrun is a computer scientist, a research professor at
Stanford, and a Google Fellow. At Google, he founded Google X, which has
launched projects like the self-driving car and the new Google Glass wearable
computer. In 2011, he offered a free online course through Stanford called
"Introduction to Artificial Intelligence." 160,000 students from
all over the world signed up... 800 times the number that used to pack
his lecture halls at Stanford.
That level of global interest convinced Thrun that MOOCs are the wave of the future. So he gave
up his Stanford tenure last year and cofounded a new company called Udacity.
As Thrun describes his "Matrix" moment:
"Having done this, I can't teach at Stanford again. I feel like there's
a red pill and a blue pill, and you can take the blue pill and go back to the
classroom and lecture your 20 students. But I've taken the red pill. And I've
Classes from Udacity, which
has been generating a lot of buzz in academic circles, are different from
simply watching a recorded lecture. Besides letting you proceed at your own
pace, they're interactive, stopping to quiz you on what you've learned. They
also use Google Moderator to let students submit questions.
Startup money came out of Thrun's
own pocket and from a venture capital firm, Charles River Ventures. He opened
his school in late February with two offerings from the computer field he
knows so well: "Programming a Robotic Car," which he taught,
and "Building a Search Engine," taught by Dave Evans of the
University of Virginia. Four additional courses were added in mid-April, and
five more at the end of June. The last batch incorporated subjects outside of
computing, and Thrun says his ultimate intention is
to offer a fully rounded curriculum.
As with the other new online schools, Thrun's courses are not for credit. You can't pursue a
B.S. in Computer Science through Udacity. So in
that sense, MOOCs are not an immediate challenge to brick-front institutions.
But down the road, might they become accredited and degree-granting? While
possible, it's not likely, because it would be difficult to offer a fully
comprehensive degree program without charging for it.
Since they don't charge and don't intend to, the
obvious and giant looming questions are: how are they going to make ends
meet? What's the business model here? After all, the seed money will run out
eventually. By then, the nonprofits will be expected to stand on their own
electronic feet, while the private companies will be facing early, anxious
investors who expect some kind of return on capital.
So far, no one is saying exactly what the business plan
might be. The only revenue stream that the major new MOOC providers have said
they will pursue is charging a fee for a certificate. Coursera,
the largest, with over 1 million registrations, says it may charge between
$30 and $80 per certificate, depending on the course. MIT and Harvard expect
to charge a "modest fee" for the opportunity to earn an edX cert.
Problem is, these are tough
courses. Among MOOCers, only a relatively small
group – between 10 and 20% – successfully makes it all the way
through the final exam to cert eligibility.
But Daphne Koller of Coursera notes that course registrations are on such a
massive scale that monetizing merely 20% of them makes the business
potentially sustainable. Doing the math: a million registrants x 0.20 x $55
(avg. cert fee) = $11 million. And if the million students turn over two or
three times a year, then revenues could be a multiple of that. It might
Growth prospects remain a question mark, however, and
the whole thing depends on the worth of the certificate. If it proves to have
value to a prospective employer, then of course more people will strive to
get one. But if it's not held in high regard, then the great bulk of
registrants would remain non-paying, simply seeking the knowledge without the
paper, as is generally the case now. Revenues would suffer.
Another possibility is "job matching," and
here's where Udacity's Google connection becomes
provocative. Udacity has admitted it might serve as
a kind of headhunter to the information industry. But instead of just presenting
students with certs that they can list on their résumés, Udacity would set up matches that bring together
exceptional students and companies looking for someone with that particular
skillset. And it would take a commission for each successful marriage.
Here again, it's questionable how much such a venture
would bring in, given the low percentage of students who are apt to be placed
and the competition from highly credentialed specialists already seeding
their résumés across Silicon Valley. But Coursera's
Koller and Udacity's CEO,
David Stavens, maintain that this service should
generate enough money to help beef up the companies' bottom lines. In Silicon
Valley, headhunters generally get paid finder's fees equivalent to 20% of a
software engineer's starting salary, Stavens says.
That could mean around $15,000 per match, or $1.5 million per hundred –
definitely not chump change.
Koller also points out that the MOOCs will have a deeper
knowledge of their students' capabilities than an employer could glean from a
standard college transcript. "Employers [could] be able to search
against our databases, where you have very detailed, quantitative performance
information on people across different skill sets," she says. "That
might be something they would be interested to look at," and perhaps
might be willing to pay for the right to peek.
If you're Google, whom would you rather hire, someone
fresh out of a traditional college with a general CS degree or a programming
genius who has proven his or her worth to you by acing Udacity's
tough online course in search engine structure?
Thus, the current industry rumor, that Google is already raiding Udacity for its future superstars, just might not be
unfounded (it's amazing what companies like Google will do to procure
top tech talent).
Another possibility for MOOCs down the road is lead
generation. Info on the many students who do not complete their courses might
be sold to traditional online programs where they might have better luck.
Lead gen is a big business, and Koller says it's
Ann Kirschner, dean of the
honors college at the City University of New York, suggests that MOOC
providers could sell "accompanying content and services, so that it's
not all about the courses themselves." The companies might make money by
providing or outsourcing library resources, tutoring services, and other
facets of the normal university life. "That 'envelope of learning' is
going to have to happen somehow in order for this concept to really take off,
and in creating that envelope will be opportunities for new businesses,"
Kirschner says. The MOOC companies might do it
themselves, or a new satellite industry might grow up around them.
Adding "layers of more robust assessment” to
their courses is another way to go, says Paul LeBlanc, the president of
Southern New Hampshire University, a school that has a strong national online
presence. A higher tier of feedback and human interaction –
"something that inches closer to
credit-bearing," in LeBlanc's words – might be a feature students
would be willing to pay for, especially if it layered on greater credibility
with prospective employers.
All of these potential sources of revenue have their
pros and cons. But in the end, LeBlanc says, "Most of the stuff that
will hold up over time, will be that which is
attached to the brand … [if] everybody would put it on their
résumé, they could make a billion dollars."
Maybe. But in order to get there, MOOCs will have to
maximize their strengths.
Convenience and access to world-class instruction are
not all they have going for them. There is also the prospect of selecting
from a wide array of different lecturers with differing perspectives from
across the planet; you could take the same subject twice, from separate
scholars, extracting the best from each; two professors could link up to team
teach, taking the parts of the subject in which they are most well-grounded;
or the team might consist of experts in different but related disciplines,
teaching together in a bidirectional learning experience, helping break down
the historic walls between university departments.
MOOCs are by no means incompatible with traditional
instruction, either. The two could combine, with far-flung masters supplying
the lectures and on-site mentors concentrating on the more intimate
give-and-take of one-on-one tutoring.
There are also many potential hard questions. Brooks
online learning diminish the face-to-face community that is the heart of the
college experience? Will it elevate functional courses in business and
marginalize subjects that are harder to digest in an online format, like
philosophy? Will fast online browsing replace deep reading? If a few star
professors can lecture to millions, what happens to the rest of the faculty?
Will academic standards be as rigorous? What happens to the students who
don’t have enough intrinsic motivation to stay glued to their laptop
hour after hour? How much communication is lost – gesture, mood, eye
contact – when you are not actually in a room with a passionate teacher
Those questions will be answered one way or another, because
MOOCs are here to stay. They won't replace the higher-educational experience
as we know it – after all, students probably learn as much swapping
ideas with their peers as they do in the classroom – but they will
surely transform it.
With student debt loads at all-time highs, and with
students from around the world simply unable to even dream of attending
places like MIT in person, the demand for these courses will likely grow like
crazy. If quality and availability continues to improve, they could become a
real threat to the sustainability of growth in the university system.
Free courses from nonprofits or sponsored by companies
with an eye toward large recruiting bases might pull marginal students out of
the expensive university system, threatening the less elite schools. And they
might cause the most talented kids – regardless of country of origin
– to skip the degree system altogether and jump from a brilliant MOOC
performance right into a high-paying job, much like the pros recruit sports
stars directly from high school or early college.
No one can say how it's all going to shake out, not at
this early stage. But at least some universities are not going to just sit
around and wait to see what happens.
In summary, David Brooks wrote:
early Web radically democratized culture, but now in the media and elsewhere
you're seeing a flight to quality. The best American colleges should be able
to establish a magnetic authoritative presence online. My guess is it will be
easier to be a terrible university on the wide-open Web, but it will also be
possible for the most committed schools and students to be better than
That seems like a good guess.