MOOCs are dubstep: how big money changed a small scene.

Those big “M” MOOCs, xMOOCs, “open-as-in-door” MOOCS, call them what you will are not going to go away, but neither are they going to take over the world. They’re a bit like dubstep (bear with me here). Basically:

–    A group of early pioneers based around a local scene begin interesting experiments.

–    Via the web it influences like-minded people globally.

–    Certain influences seep in to the mainstream

–    Big business sits up and takes notice, they attempt to sign up and create people who are more marketable than the early pioneers

–    The most obvious and striking features of the original underground are copied, over-used and drained of meaning. The subtlety and mood is forgotten.

–    People are ashamed to admit they like the style, because in most peoples heads it is associated with a multi-million-dollar product which has nothing to do with the early stuff they fell in love with.

– the now-mainstream style percolates into other areas

(if you want to an easy intro around how that happened in dubstep, try the BBC R1 “Generation Bass” documentary. Here’s the trailer.)

When, in February 2012, Global Industry Analysts Inc. suggested that e-learning would be a $107bn global market in 2015 (a little under half of the UK national deficit), they were examining a sector that seems far from the “cottage industry” derided by Sir John Daniel (Commonwealth of Learning) in 2010.  In a segment that extends from traditional higher education, through corporate training, to every aspect of adult learning and compulsory sector tuition, it is little wonder that one start-up has generated $16m of venture capital without even having a defined business model.

That start-up is Coursera, spun out of Stanford and now offering more than 30 classes, in partnership with big names like UC Berkeley, U Michigan and Princeton. The catch is: the courses are offered for free to anyone in the world who wishes to take them. And Coursera are just one of many.

Udacity have secured significant venture capital and private investment around a similar model. Sebastian Thrun initially led an experimental open course (again out of Stanford), before moving to a start-up phase.

The Khan Academy is a not-for-profit that has secured $150,000 in donations alongside a $2m grant from Google. The initiative was kicked off by one former hedge fund manager making cheap videos for YouTube, and is now expanding faculty, offering summer schools, and accrediting learning – supported by a $5m grant from the O’Sullivan Foundation in Ireland.

Harvard and MIT have sunk a combined $60m into EdX, a not-for-profit online learning collaboration offering open learners free high-quality materials and tuition alongside the option to seek certification for successful completion.

StraighterLine does not offer free content (there’s a $99 fee for “all you can learn”). But it boasts content from many notable private US institutions and Pearson, infrastructure from Blackboard, and easy transfer of credit gained into a range of accrediting partner colleges. It aggressively markets itself as an alternative to traditional university study – “the shortest distance between you and your degree”. It has already raised $10m in venture capital.

The OER University (OERu) is a collaboration of a number of institutions internationally, intending to offer free materials and volunteer support, alongside supporting paid-for assessment and accreditation. It has not (yet) received venture capital, but has worked to closely integrate itself with influential international bodies.

Browser company Mozilla are developing a system of “Open Badges”, allowing learners to reliably “show what they know”, as validated by a range of non-education experts including NASA, Intel and Pixar/Disney.

And there are many, many other examples of start-ups and initiatives attempting to short-cut the existing Higher Education system using online tools.

So the question is not “how can open online learning succeed?”, the question has become “given open online learning, what should we be doing?”

But for all Peter Theil’s dire warnings, there’s only one group of people chucking millions of dollars at start-ups with no viable business models.

In the words of UMW Web Manager Cathy Finn-Derecki: “It looks like the anxiety-provoking media coverage about “the latest web thing that the cool schools are doing” speaks louder to these business-types than the actual business of teaching and learning, and that’s pretty darned sad.”

However, if money does talk – why do we hear so little in the mainstream press about the MOOC that raised hardware costs and more via voluntary contributions from course adherents?

Traditional higher education needs to be involved in experimenting with and analyzing this model. But no one would recommend a wholesale adoption at this stage. The business-backed MOOC movement will change the higher education landscape, but it will not obliterate it.

And even if you don’t think you like “dubstep”, you’re probably hearing the influence and effects of the early pioneers in the new music you *are* listening to.

(Similar thoughts from Pat Lockley on his blog, “Pgogy”) 

2 thoughts on “MOOCs are dubstep: how big money changed a small scene.”

  1. And here I was thinking there was no way I could like dubstep any less, and then you have to go associating it with MOOCs, an acronym so cringe-worthy they’d have to call them “Courses Reaching Awesome Proportions” to be worse. Curses, Kernohan!


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