Coursera continues to make headlines as additional "top tier" universities sign up to offer courses (16 institutions and 116 courses, at latest count), and hundreds of thousands of students sign up to take those courses. MITx, on the other hand, has not gotten much coverage lately, especially since the creation of EDx. MITx is moving much more deliberately, of course, with only one course up at this point (3 more announced for the Fall of 2012), so we know much less about how MITx will actually look and feel than we do about Coursera. However, Coursera and MITx seem potentially to represent very different approaches to the expansion of online learning, and those differences may be very important in determining the ultimate impact on higher education of online learning. In this post, I will explore some of those differences as I see them, and their potential implications.
We are a social entrepreneurship company that partners with the top universities in the world to offer courses online for anyone to take, for free. We envision a future where the top universities are educating not only thousands of students, but millions. Our technology enables the best professors to teach tens or hundreds of thousands of students.
.... our courses are designed based on sound pedagogical foundations, to help you master new concepts quickly and effectively
In order to advance this mission, Coursera provides a state-of-the-art platform to institutions that enables them to put their courses on the web with minimal cost and effort. Obviously, Coursera itself does not create courses, so the actual quality of the courses depends on the institutions themselves and the way in which they view this innovation.
The Chronicle of Higher Education has provided a copy of the contract between Coursera and one of its partner institutions, the University of Michigan. Presumably contracts with other institutions are similar. This contract shows how Coursera will try to maintain the desired quality level in the courses it carries. Requirements are very general; for example Sect.1.6 defines that the universities will provide a rigorously designed course meeting high academic standards that uses multi-media Content in a coherent, high production-value presentation... Specific design requirements are also very general; for example, Coursera pledges to work to develop best practices for online presentations and share them with instructors (Exhibit A), and the university promises to present the video lecture content "chunked" into short videos (Exhibit E).
To get some idea of what is actually happening at the partner institutions, I spoke with provosts at two of them - obviously not a scientific sample, but a start. In both cases, they reported that their institutions were providing few, if any, resources for the preparation of the courses being given by their faculty. In particular, they were not providing any pedagogical help in the preparation of the courses (in fact, they looked confused about the question). Both described this an "experiment", but had no ideas about what their institutions might do with the results of the experiments. Coursera clearly was a low priority venture for both.
I also signed up for a course at Coursera to see what the actual experience would be, and chose a course taught by a faculty from a third institution. On a positive note, the lecturer is quite good- personable, clear, etc. The pedagogy, however, generally did not live up to the Coursera pledge of sound pedagogical foundations, such as described in the recent book, How learning works. The course is basically a typical college lecture, chunked into roughly 15 minute segments. The only variation is that the lecturer works a few more examples than might normally be the case, inviting the students to work along. There is one weekly problem set designed to measure algorithmic rather than conceptual learning. Answers to the set are either multiple choice or a single number which is typed in. As happens with traditional classes with such assignments, the students learn little when they get their assignments back except the grade - there is little guidance possible concerning where the student went wrong in case of error. All in all, it seemed pretty obvious that no one who had any working knowledge of research in pedagogy was involved deeply in the creation of the course, which suggests that this third institution has similar views as the two provosts with whom I had spoken regarding what needs to be done to make a truly effective online experience.
This obviously is a very small and perhaps very unrepresentative sample of the offerings of Coursera, and I hope that readers who experience courses that have greater emphasis on sound pedagogical principles will share the information through comments.
Because of the lack of specificity of requirements of course design, Coursera will over time provide us with a very interesting window into the developing internet strategies of the individual institutional partners. Jeffrey Young reported in the Chronicle recently that most of the administrators he talked with seemed to be motivated at this point primarily by fear of ultimately losing revenues if they don't learn how to do this well. Fear is not, of course, a strategy, but strategies will certainly develop over time in institutions of the quality of Coursera's partners. How the institutions define "doing it well" in the design of their courses will say much about the strategy they have chosen, and whether it is focused on revenues or learning.
In the short run, Coursera allows institutions to begin to dabble with online learning without making major investments, and without exposing their brand to damage. Not a bad approach for major institutions that have little fear of being disrupted.
As with Coursera, MITx is part platform, open to other institutions that want to use it. The difference is that MITx is building the platform to advance its own strategic vision of the online space:
Why is MIT creating MITx?
Excellence in teaching and learning. MIT must always provide its students the very best teaching and learning tools possible. MIT began experimenting with online technologies in its educational programs long before we launched OCW in 2001. We have only increased our emphasis in recent years, as several MIT committees have studied how MIT might enhance the learning experience of its students and expand its impact worldwide through new online offerings.
......Once up and running, MITx will be a laboratory for online learning. Whether MITx learners are MIT’s on-campus students, university students elsewhere, or independent learners, MITx will help us understand how online learning occurs and how virtual communities of learners assemble -- information that in turn will allow us to improve both MITx and our on-campus teaching.
The theme of ultimately improving (and changing) on-campus teaching runs through statements from MIT, and I think this reflects the key difference between MITx, and Coursera and its partners. Both share the goal of offering essentially free high quality education to millions of people around the globe, but MIT also is using its global efforts as a massive (and probably expensive for MIT) laboratory to learn how to use new technologies to most effectively educate its own on-campus students. Thus MITx is a laboratory to help reinvent MIT education, a goal then president Susan Hockfield emphasized when she described MITx as a transformative initiative for MIT and for online learning worldwide. Hockfield's successor as president of MIT, L. Rafael Reif was the provost who oversaw the creation of MITx, and so likely shares Hockfield's perspective.
Of course, it is not surprising to read that not all faculty at MIT are totally supportive of this potential transformation. One has only to search the MIT Faculty Newsletter site with "MITx" to find a wide variety of opinions being expressed - with the center of gravity being somewhat to the negative side. Obviously, there are valid concerns on the part of many faculty that this effort might lead MIT to deemphasize its truly exceptional on-campus programs. The president, provost, and other leaders have tried to counter those concerns, but clearly many faculty will continue to be uneasy with this leap into the unknown.
For MITx to have its desired transformational effect, the lessons of sound pedagogical research need to be built into the model at the outset - research has shown that technology does not product superior learning outcomes, pedagogy does. MIT has many internationally recognized experts in this area due to innovative programs such as TEAL and CDIO, and one hopes that these experts are helping to define the MITx product.
Sustaining or disruptive?
In his pathbreaking work, The Innovators Dilemma, Clayton Christensen points out that new innovations can be used in either sustaining or disruptive ways. When the innovation is used in a sustaining way, it is incorporated into the existing way of doing things in order to make a product incrementally better or more attractive. When it is used in a disruptive way, however, it is incorporated into a new way of doing things that is optimized around the new innovation. The combination of innovation and an optimized operation then ultimately leads to efficiencies and superior product characteristics that put the producers of the older product at risk.
In his original work, Christensen found that very few traditional producers were able to incorporate a new innovation in a disruptive way. There were many reasons for that, but one of the key problems was that everyone in the traditional producer thought that their way of doing things was the best possible - after all, they were very successful in what they were doing. To suggest that there was a better way of doing their work called into question the value of what they had spent their working lives doing. The faculty responses at MIT reflect this understandable conflict.
More recently, however, Christensen has found that more producers are learning to incorporate disruptive innovations with the requisite changes in organization. Often they set up incubators or skunkworks where new core competencies can be developed, and new ways of creating, capturing, and delivering value can be derived from those new competencies. These incubators are shielded as much as possible from the usual rules, constraints, and mindsets of the main company. At some point, the new competencies and approaches are rolled out into the main company, leading eventually to a fundamental transformation of the company.
MITx bears all of the characteristics of a skunkworks. New institutional competencies are being developed around the idea of providing a high quality, mass education at very, very low cost. These competencies involve both technology and pedagogy development. MITx is exploring the value propositions that can be created around this new approach, and the organization and cost structures associated with various levels of performance. In short, MITx seems designed to bring a disruptive innovation into MIT in a strategic way.
Coursera, on the other hand, does not look the same to me at this point. By providing a great online technology, it offers institutions a way to stick a toe into the water without making a commitment. However, as Christensen emphasizes, it is not technology by itself that makes an innovation disruptive - it is combining the technology with an optimized business model. Without the commitment, the institutions are not developing the knowledge, infrastructure and perspective which would allow them to create and incorporate a business model that would change this new online learning technology into more than a sustaining innovation. This could change, of course, and one of the partner institutions could begin to think as strategically and as large as MIT apparently has. But Coursera makes it very easy to not take that step.