Saturday, September 21, 2013

Google, EdX and why Coursera is vulnerable.

This week's announcement by EdX and Google is very significant.

I'm quite a fan of Coursera.  I love their simple approach to teaching, and not just because it annoys those who have been working in edtech for last 10 years using approaches that are more sophisticated than they need to be.  I think "simple" is a great place to start and can form a core that other services can be added to if required.  As someone who has been working with educational technologies for nearly 20 years, I don't mind these upstarts coming in and stealing our thunder as they are finally bringing the attention of the public at large to the potential of learning technologies, even if in a way that might a little too simplistic.

Now, far be it from me to criticize such smart people in Coursera, but I think there are some things about their approach that might make them vulnerable.  When I saw their MOOCs I first thought "Hey, we can do that very easily".  It is not unlike our synchronous online teaching.  In fact if you look at it, there may be less to it than our online courses as it is like fee-paying courses with tutor support and assessment replaced by peer support, peer assessment and automated assessment.  In fact I came to the conclusion that anyone could do this and, indeed, very quickly Canvas and Blackboard provided free infrastructure for anyone to host and deliver a MOOC.  Admittedly, the many MOOCs that will be developed by individuals on these platforms may not have the superstar professors and the high production values to Coursera courses, but it remains to be seen if these features have that much impact on quality of instruction.  Salman Khan's original videos demonstrate that clearly.

So this is why I think that the announcement from Google and EdX this week is very significant.  Unlike Coursera, EdX has taken a more open approach to MOOCs and the platform for delivery, holding out the hope for us that the rest of us might be able to get our hands on infrastructure designed specifically for MOOC delivery (as opposed to Canvas and Blackboard).  Not only will we be able to host our own MOOC sites but we will also have access to a free platform at where we can host our MOOCs and where people can more easily find them.  This has been described as a YouTube for MOOCs and I think this analogy is very relevant on another level.  For me one of the most important conclusions that can be drawn from the success of YouTube is the victory of content over production values.  On YouTube, entertaining videos will draw viewers even if they are grainy and badly made.  On YouTube you don't have to be a superstar to get viewers.

So this is where I think Coursera is vulnerable.  If we have an open public platform for MOOCs lots of individuals will put up courses and many of these will be excellent.  For a lot of institutions (like us in IT Sligo) it will cost the same to put their online courses up as MOOCs on this platform and will be worth doing for the marketing value of extra viewers, many of whom may sign up for assessment and accreditation on a fee-paying basis.  Very quickly, Coursera will be swamped with lots of free courses on the web.  The platform with the most courses will draw the most viewers, and the platform with the most viewers will draw more courses.  Coursera's high production values and exclusivity may well be its downfall.