Pew, Coursera and the future of online education (1)

“Experts expect more efficient collaborative environments and new grading schemes; they worry about massive online courses, and the shift away from on-campus life”

Update: Stop reading – here’s the audio version of this post (about 6.5 min).
[haiku url=”post-2012-08-17-onlineED.mp3″]At the end of July, Pew Internet and research partner Elon University released another of their reports from the 2012 Internet Futures survey – this one covering the impact of the Internet on higher education. Once again, the report is divided between the two groups that form organically around the questions: the change-for-the-better gang vs the don’t-hold-your-breath pessimists. (For an overview of the methodology, see what I posted last October after the 2012 survey was fielded; to get straight to the July pdf, go here).

As a participant in the last two surveys, I’ve taken a close interest in this exercise about the future of the Internet and its anticipated impact on the future of life as we know it. There’s a further motive at work here, and that would be spending time every week in a university classroom. With summer school just finished, it’s time to think again about exactly what we’re all doing in our classrooms, and just what role digital technologies should play, if any, in improving how students learn.

In the survey answer on education I submitted last fall (and posted here), I generally agreed with the pro-tech stance taken in one of the 2 question options: “By 2020 … [t]here will be mass adoption of teleconferencing and distance learning to leverage expert resources.” That part wasn’t so hard. The big question, however, is whether this mass adoption will be good or bad for learning. Moreover, I still wasn’t budging on prospects for technology in the classroom:

“By 2020, we’ll see what results from the continuing pressure to contain costs at universities, while catering to the career needs of students. Above all, learning will go more high-tech simply because so many people in education, government and business believe that technology makes kids smarter. The fact there’s no good evidence to support this belief is unlikely to discourage investment in the coming years. Moreover, I am deeply skeptical of the idea that students should all be given tablets or other devices to work with, in the expectation they will be used to study rather than for entertainment or socializing. Of course, tech in the classroom is not the same thing as tech that supports distance learning.”

Go MOOC yourself

The debate over online higher education has been making the pages of the NY Times, among others. A piece that ran on July 17, under the title Top Universities Test the Online Appeal of Free, describes an industry evolving “with astonishing speed,” under the handy Web acronym MOOCs, for massive open online courses.

Although distance learning has been around for many years (before we had IP on everything), we now seem to be in the middle of a blossoming of online-ed startups and related academic initiatives: Coursera out of Stanford; the Harvard-MIT edX platform, described as The Future of Online Education; and several smaller competitors including Udacity and 2tor. “Universities Reshaping Education on the Web,” as a companion piece in the Times noted boldly.

The upmarket trades have also taken note. The day Pew released its report, e.g., GigaOM ran an analysis with this headline: Memo to higher ed: get ready for remote learning to rock your world.

Coursera: a going concern in search of a revenue model

Coursera has 1,033,438 Courserians signed up for 117 courses at 17 universities. Yes, they call them Courserians, and don’t get too stuck on that enrolment figure, which is ticking up every few seconds. The courses are offered by faculty members at their partner universities, among them Stanford, Princeton, CalTech and UC Berkeley… and alone in Canada, eh, the University of Toronto.

Despite these impressive numbers, Coursera co-founders Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng are following the classic Silicon Valley script: they haven’t yet figured out how they’re going to make money. Koller and Ng do have one great advantage in that they teach computer science at Stanford, an institution that’s no stranger to innovation and monetizing new ideas. So far they’ve managed to raise $22 million in VC funds, while still in hot pursuit of their revenue model.

Not much has been disclosed publicly about Coursera’s financial arrangements with their academic partners. But some sleuthing over at GigaOM turned up a few clues in a post on “How education startup Coursera may profit from free courses.” The first idea is pretty straightforward: they give a free course, then charge for shipping out a branded certificate of completion, with the institution and in some cases the instructor adding to the brand equity. I noticed at least one course will add “with distinction” to the certificate for those who score high grades. Setting price points for this certification angle will take some serious testing, given the wide-ranging geographic, demographic and psychographic mix in the target market, which is huge and scattered across the globe.

The other model being mooted is pairing participants looking for the right job with employers looking for the right hire, with brokerage fees for successful matchmaking. Other items on the tentative list include tutoring for a fee, sponsorships and paid online courses offered on university campuses.

Despite the distinct lack of agreed revenue models, never mind actual money, the big universities are piling on. If you’re one of the world’s leading academic institutions, it would be unthinkable to miss the Next Big Thing in education.

Except for those who beg to differ. It appears many people in academe are not looking forward to getting their world rocked. For some, online-ed represents a betrayal of deeply held pedagogical principles, with inevitably bad outcomes (e.g. see this opinion piece claiming online-ed “tends to be a monologue and not a real dialogue”). For others the problem has more to do with fear of being left in the dust, especially for those at less prestigious institutions, which lack the resources to compete with the top tier universities.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. One of the potentially positive consequences of this monster trend – if we’re lucky – will be a serious re-examination of what’s going on in our classrooms today, and what goals we think we’re achieving by teaching what we already teach – offline, face to face. I think it’s critical that we not let technology distract us from these more fundamental questions.

Coming in part 2… I fess up about my Courserian experiences this summer with Dr Chuck and the University of Michigan.

D.E.