What happened here? MOOC mania seemed to come from nowhere.
Faster than Facebook and 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
popularised 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
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 organisation. 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 spiralling 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.
MOOCs: taxonomy of 8 types of MOOC
MOOCs: Who’s using MOOCs? 10 different target audiences
MOOCs: a breath of fresh air, albeit the same air