This is the first of three posts in which I look at some of the ways in which the new, "off the shelf" course-rich world created by the Open Courseware Consortium, MOOCs, commercial publishers such as Pearson, etc.( all of which I called the new college level courses, or NCLCs) might impact the business model of higher education.
In an earlier related post, How can we think about the wave of new innovations in higher education?, I suggested that the course-rich world would greatly change the Resources box of the higher eduction business model. In a subsequent post, Michael Raynor's analysis of disruption - and higher education, I reviewed Michael Raynor's extension of Clayton Christensen's theory of disruptive innovation, and promised to apply his results to a study of the NCLCs. This is that promised post, in which I look at some of the characteristics of the NCLCs that may determine whether they have the potential to drive a disruptive innovation.
Raynor's work indicates that the speed with which the NCLCs can improve in value will tell us something about the ways in which their use may impact higher education. Thus, we should first focus on the characteristics of the NCLCs and not on specifics of how they might be used. To think about that, we need to attempt a definiton of "value" for the NCLCs.
"Value" in education is a mixture of attributes that students may desire. Since we are talking about NCLCs, we are really concerned only with those attributes most connected to education itself, and not to related areas such as social growth or research. The value of education itself is certainly composed of several components, among which are: the effectiveness and depth of the learning that can be achieved; the ease and convenience of access; the academic brand of the provider; and recognizable certification. However, issues of such as specifics of how the NCLCs are used and whether certification follows are really part of the Procedures box in the higher education business model, and will be discussed in subsequent posts of this series. In this post, I will look at questions of the academic brand of the NCLCs and the effectiveness and depth of learning that can be achieved - and how fast they might be improved.
Brand is very important in higher education, and the NCLCs themselves start with some level of brand. The breakthrough power of the MOOCs has been the brand-by-association that most get from the brand institutions that are their partners.Other NCLCs are created by globally familiar corporate names such as Pearson or McGraw. The new MIT courses coming through MITx will clearly have greater brand value than the old MIT open courseware contribution because of the importance that MIT has placed on the development of MITx courses. As a general rule, open courseware materials will have lower brand value than the newer materials that are more closely identified with a significant brand institution. However,the important question is: Can, or will, the brand value improve in time?
At the present time, MOOCs are improving their brands by bringing on more partners who have their own strong brands. This will probably work for some period of time, but obviously there are diminishing returns to this: what is the visibility difference between have 50 famous partners and 100?; and how many potential globally visible partners are out there? Ultimately, however, brand creation of the NCLCs will have to depend on the learning effectiveness of the product and, in particular, the velocity of improvements in the learning effectiveness.
My colleague Richard Clark caused a storm of controversy three decades ago when he wrote:
Recent meta-analyses and other studies of media's influence on learning are reviewed. Consistent evidence is found for the generalization that there are no learning benefits to be gained from employing any specific medium to deliver instruction....
.....It seems reasonable to assume, therefore, that media are delivery vehicles for instruction and do not directly influence learning
In other words, it isn't the media (i.e. the technology), it is the pedagogy that makes the difference in learning. More recently (2005), Clark looked again at research findings to see if newer media were changing the relative importance of technology vs pedagogy in producing learning. Again the answer was the same: technology delivers instruction, but the quality of the learning depends on the quality of the instruction rather than the delivery vehicle.
Of course, technological innovations are often important in making it easier to emphasize some aspect of good pedagogy. In addition, improvements in technology obviously are critical with regards some key aspects of disruption such as convenience, cost, scalability, etc.- but research shows that increases in technology alone are unlikely to lead to better learning outcomes. It may well be that the newest technologies will somehow change these results of Clark and others. One never knows, but history is a pretty good predictor of the future in most areas.
Having provided that caveat, it is critical to recognize that some of the producers of NCLCs are using technology in a new way - to add to our understanding of good pedagogical principles. They are combining the large sample size often available with the use of NCLCs with big data approaches to analyze student responses in order to better understand what works and what doesn't work. Examples of improvement-focused producers of NCLCs in the non-profit arena are Carnegie Mellon's Open Learning Initiative, edX and Coursera and, in the for-profit arena, the partnership of Pearson and Knewton, and McGraw-Hill through its arrangements with Western Governors University and others.
Even within the set of NCLCs that are seeking to improve their products, many are doing it by first reinventing the wheel. They are starting off by ignoring almost everything that is known about effective pedagogy, and hoping eventually to hone in on magic learning formulas by analyzing user data. When they do finally find some of those magic learning formulas, the probability is enormously high that they will discover that those formulas are already well known, and already implemented by some of their competitors who started on a sound pedagogical base.
A second exciting new use of technology is in the application of social media to education. Many producers of NCLCs are using techniques of social media to recreate some of the interpersonal peer interactions that are lost when moving from the classroom to the internet. These interpersonal interactions are important for the learning of the course materials, as well as many non-course specific aspects such as networking and developing social skills. Insofar as the interpersonal interactions are related the learning of course material, they also fall into the realm of pedagogy where much is already known about how to increase learning through peer interactions. Again, those producers of NCLCs who pay attention to what is already known about peer learning when designing their use of social media will start out with a major advantage as they seek to improve their product through experimentation.
These mega-learning experiments offer exciting possibilities for significantly increase our knowledge of how to improve student learning, both online and in the classroom. In order for improvements in NCLCs to move rapidly, however, it is important to recognize that this is not a technology problem, but a pedagogy problem with an technological delivery and discovery system. Advances are needed on both the pedagogy and technology sides in order for the NCLCs to be the driver of a disruptive innovation. However, technology generally advances rapidly, and we can expect with some confidence to see wonderful new technological improvements on a regular basis. Improvements in understanding how people learn will be harder and more time consuming.
At each stage in the development of pedagogical knowledge, it will be important to ensure that the then-existing technologies be used to effectively implement the newest and best learning techniques. This suggests that the team that pushes the NCLCs the furthest and fastest will include significant leadership from learning experts of all backgrounds as well technologists. In addition, the active participation of these learning experts will be key to the formulation of new, generally applicable learning principles based on the analysis of the online data.
In the light of the above analyses, how do the current producers of NCLCs stack up? Many of the MOOCs seem to me to have a couple of potential limitations. First, most are multi-university partnerships, with the individual partner institutions defining the quality of their contributed product and the velocity at which that quality will improve. Almost all of these partner institutions view the MOOCs specifically, and online learning more generally, as a sustaining, not disruptive activity. Thus, the individual insitutions will not have a particular focus on rapid improvement in the learning outcomes of their offerings, and will be unlikely to be willing to provide the resources necessary to make rapid improvements. Second, most of the MOOCs themselves view this as a technological innovation, and pedagogical expertise seems to be absent or very low level. As I argued above, I believe this focus on technology will slow their ability to improve outcomes.
Most of the open courseware that I have seen seems to suffer from a similar problem. Some producer, typically a university, has made available notes, lectures, etc. from a course. Some of this material may be quite good, but there is little incentive to make the material pedagogically effective when it is produced, or to redo the courseware periodically to maximize the learning outcomes. This open courseware typically does not play any role in the producer's larger institutional strategy, and especially not a disruptive one. There are notable exceptions to this rule, however. One of these is the Open Learning Initiative of Carnegie Mellon University: Transforming higher education through the science of learning. This group seems to me to be doing things right, and pushing improvement as rapidly as they can.
The group that has the greatest incentive - and financial resources - to push rapid improvement in their NCLCs is of course the for-profit sector, where major corporations such as Pearson and McGraw Hill are making major investments in online learning. They, of course, have close relationships with major scholars around the world through their publishing arms, and can bring those relationships into their online programs. The MOOCs are not the only group that can claim courses using famous faculty! Obviously, the NCLCs produced by for-profit corporations are more expensive than those discussed above (at least at this time), and that difference will obviously lead to some trade offs between velocity of improvement in outcomes and cost when usage is considered.
In upcoming posts, I use these considerations to look at some possible uses of the NCLCs. The first, How a course-rich world might impact higher education: II. Creating new institutions, considers new kinds of institutions that could be set up using the NCLCs, and the second will consider ways in which the NCLCs might be used in existing institutions.