MOOCs Part Two - Thinking about potential solutions
Last week, I covered a number of problems that MOOCs currently face in an attempt to grow and eventually monetize. So, what should MOOCs try to become more profitable? Here are some potential changes that could help:
Make a clearer distinction between practical learning and more "liberal arts" courses. An introductory Roman History class has a completely different purpose and audience than a Machine Learning course, so they should be treated as separate 'products' for the user. These two types of classes should arguably be on completely different platforms.
Grading and assignments should be harder - and don't charge for this. Some MOOC courses offer students the chance to complete more work and pass a higher bar to earn an extra distinction when passing the course, but these usually cost money and there's not much marketing presented as to how these distinctions are worth the money (I suspect that it's because there is no evidence yet, but that's a study that can be done.) It shouldn't cost me extra money to prove that I mastered the subject more than the average user, nor should it be easy to demonstrate that level of mastery. This will make completing the course (and with a high grade) a clearer signal of what was accomplished.
Don't be as strict with the timing of courses, and allow students to take and complete past courses on their own timeline. (Corollary: Figure out a way to make learning asynchronous with the provider's offering of the course.) It is difficult enough to create a coherent curriculum conferring a skillset. It is even more difficult to structure and market to users a curriculum that will take potentially years to finish. There is definitely some benefit to only holding courses "live", that is, when the course is being taught at the providing school, or when a professor and teaching fellow(s) have the time and energy to focus on the course to facilitate Q&A sessions, forums, and other kinds of student-faculty engagement. But this is the internet here...removing that kind of person-to-person engagement might remove a level of support for the student, but would provide vastly more flexibility for students. Udacity is a great example of a MOOC offering courses without strict start / stop dates.
Reduce emphasis on provider institution. The provider institution can be a signal for the quality of the instructor and teaching assistants. But, the MOOC medium is a new pedagogical tool for everybody, and it's not immediately clear to me why a decorated professor at a great research institution is obviously a better instructor for a MOOC than a professor from another school. Marketing these courses with the names of the best universities in the world is also a bit misleading - you aren't getting a "Harvard education" by taking Harvard MOOC courses.
Increase the emphasis on learning the skills and meaningful results. For MOOC classes teaching a practical skill (e.g. CS, stats), students take them because they want to learn a subject or develop a skill. The "learning objectives" of a MOOC course should be very clear to students, and should emphasize what students will understand or be able to do at the end of the course. This will also help employers and institutions understand what exactly a student should be able to do after completing a course. It may be unrealistic to assume that every student who completes a MOOC on machine learning will be proficient enough to be a data scientist. But, setting clear objectives and goals should reduce a lot of confusion when talking about MOOC courses.
Student-student interaction is nice but not necessarily that helpful. An integral part of most higher-end higher education experiences is the interaction among students. In a MOOC setting, however, this is not necessarily the case. There are, of course, benefits to student-student interaction in a MOOC. For example, students can help each other solve problems, or discuss interesting topics. However, by nature of being remote and, ideally, asynchronous (as discussed in the last post), a MOOC course probably should not institute strict start / stop times on courses just to facilitate student interaction; the benefits might not outweigh the cost of decreased flexibility. (I'm fully ready to admit that I'm wrong on this point though - at the very least, I hope it becomes the target of some rigorous academic study!)
Decide on a more defined target audience. I'm betting that a lot of the confusion around the direction of MOOCs stems from the lack of clarity around just who they're targeting. Are they goign for people looking to switch careers? High school students who want to supplement their school offerings? Retirees who are looking for something productive to do? Figuring out what to do next is probably easier if the scope of the problem is narrowed. (Note that one MOOC platform can also choose to target different audiences with different courses.)
Consider teaching very practical courses as well, e.g. professional certification and test prep. This veers a bit from the mission of democratizing the current state of higher education. But, MOOCs offer a new pedagogical medium for this which might help many students. This would pit MOOCs against some very established companies (e.g. Kaplan), but it is definitely a rich market to target. However, this strategy would make less sense for certain kinds of target audiences - HarvardX, for example, probably has no brand authority to offer a CPA training course.
Overall, MOOCs have grown on a great promise of providing access to the world's knowledge. There's been a lot of progress on the content side, with hundreds of new courses popping up on even just the biggest MOOC platforms. However, if these organizations want to become independently profitable (which is by no means a necessity - they could go not-for-profit, or be a non-profit part of other institutions), something's going to have to change soon.
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