Yet another piece on MOOC’s from Wharton

The piece doesn’t necessarily shed much new light on the emergence of MOOC’s (“Massive online open courses”, ie the likes of Udacity and Coursera)– or rather, it makes rather similar points to the tens and hundreds of articles already written about MOOC’s. Does this pose true disruption to higher education, is the level of education comparable? Is the business model sustainable? The piece doesn’t make any groundbreaking discoveries or arguments on these points– everything is very preliminary, much like the emergence of MOOC’s themselves.

What did strike me was this personal portrait of a student, Bilal Shah, who took Andrew Ng’s course on Machine Learning.

When Bilal Shah got his doctorate in computer science from the University of Southern California back in 2010, the job market wasn’t exactly welcoming. .. 

Around that time, he heard about a free massive online open course (MOOC) on machine learning…he gave it a try. Every morning for three months, he sat in Peet’s Coffee & Tea in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Brentwood, drinking coffee and watching lectures on his laptop. He took pop quizzes, did programming assignments and checked his work on the course’s online discussion board…

Soon after getting certification from the class, he landed a job interview with ID Analytics…”They prodded my knowledge [of machine learning] and they could tell I knew the material well,” he says. “I got the job. It was a great feeling.”

Here was the first example of someone that tangibly benefited from an MOOC and could prove/transfer his knowledge after the course. A couple of things came across my mind after reading this passage:

  • Shah received a doctorate in Comp Sci! What is going on with our education that it doesn’t adequately prepare students with such advance degrees with the right skills?
  • MOOC is a great way to provide training for a specific skillset, and could easily be tied in with job market or employer needs. MOOC’s could be a easily accessible, low-cost and low-risk intermediary for training the currently unemployed or in transition for the right skills.
  • While it’s great that here we have a live example of someone that benefited from an MOOC, I am surprised that this turns out to be a student who already earned a doctorate in Comp Sci. Can someone who didn’t have the proper education foundation benefit from the MOOC’s in a similar fashion, or will that gap be structural and systemic?

Besides this, the piece makes some other points that I don’t completely agree with– or feel that they have been treated in a rather superficial manner, namely the following:

True impact & reach

  • Ng quotes an enrollment of 100,000 students with one of his online classes, yet this quote very likely misrepresents the true reach in terms of completion of the class. I remember a statistic from the Coursera Software-as-service class– the course had over 60,000 signups, about 20,000 watched one video, and only 3,500 actually completed the course. Make no mistake– that is stil a huge number, and most of that is global in nature (what is truly impressive!) But we should still not confuse the scale of enrollment with the scale of completion
Why are MOOC’s blowing up now?
  • The piece claims that it’s because of three factors: 1) the technology has improved enough to make online videos more accessible, 2) the current population of students are much more technologically savvy, and 3) the sluggish economy and rising education costs are prompting people to seek alternative venues to restart their education. All of these are good points, but I think it misses a critical observation of why and when exactly MOOC’s gained full momentum– i.e., after Sebastian Thrun’s open AI course in fall 2011.
  • Why is that precise timing and event significant? Because it was the first time that someone with intellectual authority experienced on a massive scale that students from non-Stanford institutions could be in the same competitive standing as Stanford students. The likes of open courseware and extended learning offered by elite universities have been around forever. The content and quality of instruction are often on par with what happens on campus, but neither have ever garnered the same interest and momentum as the new wave of MOOC’s, and are still treated as somehow not a intellectually validating.
  • Contrary to the above,  for the first time in open learning, it was witnessed, acknowledged, and publicly publicized by a Stanford professor that students around the world in any capacity can be just as equally competitive. That is– it’s not merely because of the quality of the content, but the underlying faith in the quality of the students as well.
  • Another more technical fact is that when the courses have proper deadlines and run-time, their legitimacy as proper classes also increases.

Is the business model sustainable?

  • There are questions around the business model given the conflict between altruistic open education and the need for profit, but I think this may actually be one of the most financially promising startup ideas ever. Much of this hinges on the law of large numbers (it may not be 100,000 students every course, but it is still a good few thousands!), and the fact that this is a very good way to discover raw talent for recruiting needs. But even without the potential of recruiting (which I believe to be a very real avenue of revenue), there are all types of extended services that one could offer and charge for without compromising core content. For e.g.: the ability to archive your work in some manner, some advance features for notetaking or note-downloading, etc, convenience features on mobile apps, etc. Not everyone will pay for this, but that is the golden rule of tech startups anyway– the 10-20% that will could support your whole business. And the most promising thing is that people have always been willing to pay for education.

The lack of a student environment as a disadvantage

  • Much of the argument on why MOOC will always be inferior to colleges/schools comes down to having the proper environment surrounded by other students. I find this rather shortsighted on the part of professors, who clearly do not know of the enthusiasm that these students have and their initiatives in starting study groups all over the world! Personally, this was one of the facets that I found the most touching as well as surprising. Thousands of people around the world putting in so much effort just to enrich themselves– this may arguably be more effort than most people ever put into their college degrees.
  • There are, however, still two disadvantages: 1) it may be difficult to schedule meetings and manage other commitments 2) unlike traditional university settings, there isn’t a prior intellectual segmentation– which means that you might not always benefit from the similar intelligence of your studymates. On 1), this is not a facet of MOOC’s but a facet of life itself for those who have moved beyond their student stages. On 2), I believe this may not be a bad thing. Traditionally, school has always been one of the most effective segregating mechanisms, and it may be refreshing and beneficial to work with people that would not normally be in your social path.

At the end of the piece, the article alludes to access to education as the core promise of these platforms. What is truly inspiring about these platforms is not merely the technical access, but the hope of intellectual/social mobility that it has restored to a society all too much shaped by its economic segregation, and to those who believe that they can do better and more.


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