Wednesday, October 17, 2012

MOOCs: An Alternative Business Model for Higher Education

Let's face it: Higher Education needs a different business model.

What we have now is what has been handed down to us from previous generations. This is a model based on reputation, based on the demand for the aspiring classes to be like the previously (and still) privileged classes. But this is snake oil in a sense as no such pathway exists anymore. And, besides, one can't mass supply exclusivity: The more education there is, the less special degrees are.

So, we have had an onward and forward arms race, and sadly, this was mostly about things which matter less for plain old teaching and learning. There were things about research, which creates knowledge and informs teaching, only if it is humanly plausible to do a full year's worth of teaching and maintain high research productivity: More often than not it proved very difficult. And, then, the features race descended, or should we say ascended, into absurd - heated swimming pools, professional athletics facilities, et al - and indeed, to pricing. The point was, when nothing else matters, charging a high price for your courses may make you look exclusive.

This is typical, though. It happens in many industries. The competition results into features arms race, and what the customer needs - plain good meaningful teaching in this case - is mostly forgotten. The meaningful bit is meaningful too: What's being taught must create a realistic expectation of one's life chances, and not be situated on some dated promise of solid middle class existence, which isn't valid anymore.

Online Education was touted as a game changer, but hardly was it so. This was about cheap and cheerful degrees and selling more, not less, of the promise of middle class jobs. The providers were non-selective, because they had to be, but they were undifferentiated too: Mostly this was about getting credentials and hoping something will work out. If it didn't, most people blamed themselves or their aunt: The schools got away.

The problem is, online education was trying to play the same game, perhaps on the cheap. It was about adjunct faculty, no frills teaching and virtual presence, but it was still about credentialing, value chain thinking that when one emerges on the other side of the process, enough value was added to him/her to get her a middle class job. It was a welcome departure from the ivory tower, solution shop, mentality of great research universities, not ready to take on the mere mortals, but this was factory age thinking of processing individuals for a steady future which did not exist anymore.

The point, then, is to prepare students for what matters. What matters today is continuous learning and search, knowing people and places, being nimble and flexible: It is counter-intuitive, but for most of us, life is different from what's shown on TV. The condo is missing, but it is not all bad news: There are many possibilities if we explore and have the spirit to connect and keep learning. For most of us, pensions are for ghosts and retirements are what our fathers had, as we have to keep doing things all our lives and keep producing one way or other. Whatever the shape of our lives are, in summary, it looks different from what it seemed in 1950s, which TV shows still depict and what the universities still prepare for, offline or online, selective or non-selective.

To do so, I shall argue, the schools themselves will have to change. They will have to alter their factory character - that they are repositories of knowledge which they inject into students as they go through the curriculum - and connect up to the possibilities outside. The only way to do it, and this is where the promise of Online Technologies can be fully realised, is to become Network Universities, where the value the students get is by connecting, and they also create value in turn. This is User Network thinking, so alien to our factory-like universities but native to many modern industries, such as telecom, social networks or all the crowd-sourced fields (Airbnb or crowdfunding), where the users are not just consumers but creators of value themselves. 

What I am talking about is a diverse global community of learners and tutors. Universities were just that before - communities - where the like minded came together; we created them into factories of knowledge in the industrial age. Hence, this much-needed update, made possible by online learning and teaching technologies, that will bring education up-to-date with what's happening outside. In this model, a global network of learners will pursue learning with a global network of tutors, creating knowledge as much absorbing, and where connections and conversations will be as important as content and credentials. In fact, I shall argue, that these models will crowd-source credentials: Being part of a global peer-group will become a badge of honour as much as being part of the Harvard's class of 2012 would be. 

That may sound crazy now, but it may not be in a few years time, as our conceptions of authority is changing. This is where the MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses, for the uninitiated), the new breed of online education, represent a point of departure. This is, in my view, their missing business model: Creation of universities as user networks, where communities generate credentials. The various services will be spread along the spectrum, some more open and some less so, but they are new and ancient at the same time: They will spawn the user network thinking befitting our age, and will be based on knowledge communities like the ancient universities. They would restore the spirit of the universities: It would no longer be processing houses for sales people for the industries and would not be selling themselves on the promise of middle class jobs and careers, but instead be about learning and connecting to global communities, and be about mobility and openness, and for careers of self-creators fit for our age.

It is now time that online education will change our world.


Matthew Rosenthal said...

Interesting analogy, Supriyo. But where's the business in your "alternate business model?"

Supriyo Chaudhuri said...


Thanks - I would say going forward, in the next 2 to 5 years, outside elite universities, the accreditation and delivery of education will begin to diverge. Great universities like MIT, Harvard, Chicago, Michigan, Stanford, will continue their research and production of knowledge, but the dissemination will increasingly depend on platforms with global knowledge communities. These communities may belong to Coursera etc. I hope by this time, the predominantly state funded model of education may give way to a more privately funded or employer sponsored model, and these knowledge communities will thrive once the state subsidies start disappearing and the current integrated teaching+research model of universities become unviable.

It will be interesting to know what you think.


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