Why MOOCs May Still Be Silicon Valley's Next Grand Challenge

The fact is, Silicon Valley has yet to come to terms with education. It's a massive, global market, but a notoriously complex one that is tricky to negotiate. A lot of what goes on in education is almost certainly not scalable.
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The recent announcement from Sebastian Thrun, founder of MOOC provider Udacity, that he is abandoning his original "teach the world" educational vision and concentrating on corporate training, has been seen by many as marking the beginning of the end of what just a year was being touted as a major revolution in higher education that would disrupt the status quo and lead to many colleges and universities going out of business.

But as Hack Education's Audrey Watters commented, those conclusions and predictions miss the point that, from the start, Udacity was a very different player in the online education space from the other initiatives coming out of Stanford and MIT.

Udacity's focus, and business model, were always directed at (and around) computer science education, a very special, atypical case. Those of us that also got into the MOOC act in the early days, and many who have entered the space since then, came in with very different goals and expectations - and very definitely without a business model.

Thrun created Udacity as a for profit company, funded by Silicon Valley venture capitalists, and is now following a well-trodden path that has led many Valley startups to become successful companies with global reach. From a business perspective, it does not matter that the original plan or product was flawed. In any startup, it almost always is. It's what you do next that matters.

Venture capitalists, like many successful technology entrepreneurs, have a habit of badly misunderstanding education, but it is equally easy to misunderstand what they do. Which is basically to bet on people. As VC Peter Levine, a partner with Andreessen Horowitz and a Udacity board member, says of the $15 million investment in Udacity he led in October 2012, "If it hadn't been for Sebastian, we wouldn't have done this investment." (Ref: first link above.)

In making big bets on individuals, today's VCs are following in the footsteps of people like DARPA program manager Bob Taylor who, in the 1960s, poured millions of (taxpayers') dollars into Doug Engelbart's "crazy project" to develop a radical new way to operate computers using things called "mice" that allowed a user to move objects on a screen that looked like a desktop and to open files called "documents" that were stored on another computer. In the case of Thrun (whom I have met but do not know), my guess is it will turn out that Levine made a good bet - from a business, but not an educational, perspective.

The fact is, Silicon Valley has yet to come to terms with education. It's a massive, global market, but a notoriously complex one that is tricky to negotiate. A lot of what goes on in good (sic) education is almost certainly not scalable. That means the familiar hockeystick growth in users that can result in a hugely profitable IPO or buyout is not likely. On the other hand, as companies like Pearson and Apple know very well, the market for any particular educational product renews every twelve months as children and young adults move through the system. As long as you keep your product up to date, you won't find yourself cast aside like another MySpace.

The hard part is getting any new product into that market. The immediately apparent resistance to change in education (at all levels) is for sure driven in large part by inertia. But not everyone in education is a Luddite. Many of us look for and strive to engender change from within, but being familiar with what it takes to provide good learning, we know that change cannot be wrought with simplistic quick-fixes. We have a reasonably good sense of what can scale and what probably cannot. We also know that simple numerical metrics are poor guides to progress.

As someone who has now taught three iterates of a Stanford MOOC, and who talks regularly with other MOOC instructors, I will tell you that they are alive and well, and getting better all the time as we learn what they really are and how to give them. They are not "regular university courses online" and they won't replace universities. They may well, however, reach a stage where they disrupt higher education, and if so, institutions that don't adapt to a changing landscape are indeed likely to go out of business.

Education is about individual learners. You want to understand where MOOCs are going, don't start with the 50,000 who sign up for a MOOC and never get beyond the first week (if indeed they log on at all). Look at what (the many thousands of) individual, successful MOOC students are doing. And then scale them up.

Here is one. The following two emails (name redacted) from a student who had just completed my recent Mathematical Thinking MOOC, were forwarded to me by the Coursera learning support staff who work with students of need, and who had interacted with the student throughout the course. [Referring to myself as "KD" in all my course postings was a design decision I made.]

MESSAGE 1. Remember me? I am [NAME REDACTED] taking KD's Math course. Although I was having difficulty because of my Asperger's disease, I was able to complete the course with DISTINCTION. Thank you for your support, let alone KD's cordial suggestion to take the same course starting from next April, which I did not have to do.

As my family was not rich enough to put me to University, I am very happy for this chance to get educated like this. Because of my educational background, I am now having difficulty getting a proper job. But thanks to the [certificate] with distinction, it will (I am hoping) serve as a gate of my breakthrough to get a better job. I will put this certificate on my resume/CV.

Give my greatest sincerity and love to KD, and tell him that he has given me a great confidence with which to overcome my mental boundaries.

MESSAGE 2. My parents could not afford my High School tuition, let alone, my University expense. My final educational status is GED, that is all. And because of this, I have not been able to find a proper job. Today, I went to a job interview and I explained about Coursera. I showed my [certificate] with distinction. Now I am hired as a part time worker as a math teacher (Still looking for a better career, though). [INCLUDED RECENT PHOTO OF SELF, SMILING]

Okay, that's just one person's story. That's the part that makes me feel good. But here is where scaling comes in. With millions of students worldwide having taken MOOCs, there are already thousands of stories like this. I have hundreds of emails and MOOC forum posts from students who tell me my MOOC has changed (or helped change) their lives, often in dramatic ways. If MOOCs continue to develop and grow - and get better - soon there may be tens of thousands of such transformations, then hundreds of thousands, and eventually millions.

And there you have tomorrow's talent supply. Those huge dropout rates that were once regarded as a big problem turn out to have been our first glimpse of an amazing global filter for people with commitment, persistence and ability.

MOOCs do not and, I believe, cannot replace a good university education. But they can, and in some cases already have, provide a pathway to such education for millions of people around the world who, for various reasons, do not at present have any access. Scale that across the entire world, and you have disruption.

Come on Silicon Valley, you are superb at developing products to find a place in the market. But for the most part, that marketplace is (like Silicon Valley itself) a legacy of the Cold War. Transforming lives on a global scale is one of the biggest potential new markets there is, and every year it renews. Short term profits are probably non-existent, and mid-term probably meager at best, but the downstream payoff is huge. Particularly when you factor in the associated long term returns that come from being a facilitator of those enabling life transformations.

Can I guarantee that we can make MOOCs sufficiently valuable, at adequate scale, to make the real difference in the world I have outlined, and provide you with the financial returns you seek? No. Any new venture carries uncertainties -- no one knows that better than a venture capitalist! But after giving three versions my MOOC now, I see no unsurmountable obstacles ahead and have a large and growing file of student success stories to give me reason to continue.

Quality global education is, potentially, a huge market. But it's not sitting there, waiting for us to simply tap into with a good product, a smart CEO, and a large marketing budget. We have to create that market as we go. If we want to live up to, and surpass, the successes that came from our Cold War initiatives, I'd say that may be our next grand challenge.

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