Refactoring Coursera

There’s really four elements companies like Coursera have brought to the table.

  • Massive Classes: This was the original “intellectual” pitch. Massive data was going to build better product. Massive classes were going to provide new ways of formative assessment via peer assessment, and new modes of support via massive forums. The idea here is a single large cohort has efficiencies of scale that outweigh the drawbacks of centralization.
  • Elite Content: This was the press story. The giants of education, who had been on the sidelines, were now entering into the online market. The national press, which often graduate from elite schools, tended to ignore that the best research schools do not necessarily provide the best education, but more on that in a minute.
  • A Technological Framework: The LMS of Coursera is streamlined to give a certain type of educational experience. Most of the technology tends to focus on two aspects – peer assessment frameworks, and in-video questions.
  • Open Access: Students, in case you haven’t heard, are able to take these courses for free.

With today’s announcement, it’s interesting to recalculate where we are. Coursera’s business model, after a year and change of talking about massive cohorts, is now to sell a combination of technology platform and content. They are, in fact, an educational publisher. How does that affect things?

  • Massive Classes: Massive turns out not to matter, at least in any revolutionary way. Publishers like Pearson have been using online data to make widely distributed courses better for well over a decade, so the iterative quality piece turns out not to be a differentiator in publishing. And in small local classes what peer assessment there is is likely to come from the local cohort, not the global one. With those advantages removed, the tendency will be towards decentralized use of “copies” of courses instead of massive events.
  • Elite Content: The “elite” content pitch was a good opener, because it’s easier for someone at a state school to use “elite” content than a rival university’s content. (We really need to get over that). Most obviously, this play undermines the image of Coursera as a purveyor of elite brands. Less obviously, as faculty modify even the provided “elite” courses over time, the likelihood is that they are going to want to mix and match material, which means the “brand” of the course becomes much less pertinent. A course taught at SUNY Buffalo is going to become increasingly a SUNY Buffalo course, no matter what the original material. Or a SUNY system course. Branding in such a mashup becomes problematic.
  • Technological Framework: The glory of the Coursera framework was that it was streamlined to teach a certain way, unlike LMS’s which provide for a wide range of structures. But as Coursera moves from a direct-to-consumer play to a services play that streamlining becomes a bit of a curse. Customers like to customize. Add to this the fact that a Coursera + LMS play splits our view of learning data at a time when we are trying to get a unified view of it.
  • Open Access: The open access in a direct-to-consumer play is “ability to take the course”. But the concept of open in institutional reuse involves additional types of open: remixing, redistributing, access to data, and ability to hack multiple systems together. It looks like Coursera is promising some of that – if only to institutions that are its customers (that is to say, not really “open”, but less cookie cutter). But it’s hard to see how that’s going to be a key advantage of working with Coursera, when others have been working at cracking the reuse nut for years. Canvas, Blackboard, and others have been working on the sharable courses issue for quite some time now. And Open Educational Resources (OER) projects like Lumen Learning’s Open Course Frameworks encode years of thinking about what the true barriers to reuse are.

In short: massive doesn’t matter, the elite lure will fade under remix and collaboration, publishers have better content and more mature production processes, LMS’s do platforms better, and Open Educational Resources provide the more useful kind of open.

That said, can they do it? Can they survive? I think it’s largely a momentum play at this point. They’ve made a name on things that cease to matter much in their new business model, but they’ve managed to leverage the early hype and get a good number of systems to make the sort of step they need to make towards collaboration.

That’s nothing to scoff at. But now that they are explicitly competing with publishers, Open Educational Resources, and learning management systems it’s hard to believe these entities won’t wage the sort of counterwar they are well-equipped to wage. I can’t see Coursera surviving that without some immediate partnerships to backfill some of its deficiencies. Or, perhaps as likely, Coursera ends up being bought by some entity looking to backfill its own gaps (SNHU’s President suggests Pearson or similar). Either way, it’s probably for the good: the fake discussion we’ve been having about Coursera’s blue-sky “disruptive” business model and its fit with education can now move to a real discussion about the impact of Coursera’s actual business model, including its pros and cons against other potential models.

Which turns out to be educational publishing.

As we were saying… (Coursera as Provider of Courseware)

Given the recent Coursera news, in which Coursera has essentially become a supplier of courseware to higher education, I made a snarky comment on twitter that I was surprised that so few people had seen this coming. Martin Weller quite politely replied that he hadn’t seen it coming, at least not clearly, and could I link to the piece of mine that discussed this.

It’s a good question. Unfortunately, I tend to advance arguments over a series of blog posts (which is probably why I end up permanently a niche blogger — most people coming to my blog for the first time probably have no idea what I’m on about).

So Martin’s question is a good excuse to do a “story up until now post”, and point to posts over the last six or seven months that have advanced the argument. The most free standing one is probably January’s “Both MOOCs and Textbooks Will End Up Courseware” but the earliest one is from October 2012’s “Coursera Praises MOOC-Wrapping as They Attempt to Ban It“:

We now understand the endgame here. We now get the business model. The idea is not “send your students to us!”. The idea is to become yet another online vendor of services to higher ed.

[It also worth noting that a number of others have been making this argument as well. Michael Feldstein’s April 2013 article is probably the most complete example, but Downes, Wiley, Phil Hill, Bryan Alexander, Amy Collier, Derek Bruff and others have alluded to aspects of this transition too. (I missed people there — I’m sorry, not intentional)]

But here we go, working backwards. Just a sample, because, as I said, it’s been an obsession:

May 2013. “The Bigger Picture is Corporate-Built Online Delivered Through Traditional F2F Institutions

Schools are going to have to build online resources with someone. It could be CourdacityX, it could be Pearson, or it could be with each other. The online resources are coming. It’s really just a matter of choosing how we want to build them.


February 2013: “The Oddity of MOOCs as OER and the Issue of Integration Cost

In other words, as the hype about classroom use of MOOCs is beginning to hit the inflection point, we find that MOOCs in face-to-face classrooms are essentially being used as OER and OCW.


January 2013. “Both MOOCs and Textbooks Will End Up Courseware

What’s happening right now is that xMOOCs are moving backwards into replicable content from the interaction and assessment pole while textbooks are  are moving forward into interaction and assessment from the replicable content pole.

The end result of this is not necessarily massive classes. It’s broadly used courseware — software that provides much of the skeleton of standard classes the way publisher texts do today. In other words, the best way to think of a MOOC isn’t really as a class brought to your doorstep — it’s more a textbook with ambitions.

October 2012, “MOOCs = OCW + Cohorts

What I think is missed in the hoopla about xMOOCs is — if you look at this long term — this is precisely what has happened. Right now, as we look at the first pass of these courses we are looking at new video, new pieces, etc. We think of it as a new course being “run”. But these courses will start to be rerun soon, and at that point it is basically OCW with a cohort. 


 October 2012  “Coursera Praises MOOC-Wrapping as They Attempt to Ban It“:

We now understand the endgame here. We now get the business model. The idea is not “send your students to us!”. The idea is to become yet another online vendor of services to higher ed.


January 2011 (Oh, why not, just for fun — to show this issue existed pre-MOOC): Course Redesign @ KSC: A Courseware Approach [Slides from AASCU Winter Meeting]

“What’s a better idea [than traditional OCW]? Framework-based, open teaching materials with assessment baked in…A project where multiple campuses draft up a couple frameworks that work, and start building 2-8 hour modules on the basic skills stuff that is a barrier for our students…In ways multiple campuses can use out-of-box, from web-enhanced, to blended, to online.”

The Education Conflation (or how the problems at the top tell us nothing about the bottom)

Expenditure per student at American private research universities grew 23% in the past decade, controlled for inflation. Since the cumulative inflation rate for that period is also in the mid-20s, you can roughly say that expenditure per FTE student rose at twice the rate of inflation (that ignores compounding, but whatever: we’re being lazy here).  Is it cost disease, the amenities war, bloated administration, skyrocketing demand for a scarce resource, or a symptom of an increasingly unequal society that is also exploding the luxury yacht market? Well, I’ll let you decide.

So second question, how much did expenditure per student at American public four-years increase in that same period? Whatever you answered, you’re probably wrong. Over that entire decade, spending per student barely rose at all. Or rather, expenditure rose at exactly the rate of inflation. Public Bachelor’s institutions spent $18,165 in inflation adjusted dollars per FTE in 2000. They spent $18,635 per FTE in 2010, for a net spending increase of 2.5% increase over an entire decade.

Community colleges? They have actually reduced expenditure per student by 4.7%. In other words, institutional spending per student is growing slower than inflation. In real terms the cost to educate students is shrinking.


Now, I’m not defending how we kept that expenditure down. We did it to a large extent with adjunct labor, deferred maintenance, reduced aid, and other methods that are out of line with long-term sustainability and mission. The community college system, in particular, is coming apart at the seams, and a big piece of that decrease in expenditure comes from the ongoing California implosion (one out of every four community college students attends college in California).

Reading Martin Weller’s Uncle MOOC post, however, it occurs to me that this is a big part of our current malaise. Those that make policy, headlines — those that get startup funding, run foundations, and even those that write for the major news outlets are often from the right hand side of the above graph. In particular, many come from that massive outlier in educational spending, the private research university. And this explains to me at last why I keep seeing eduprenuers talking about our out-of-control spending when the main problem has been out-of-control cuts, why I keep hearing about administrative bloat when our administrative costs have been remarkably stable. The assumption is what ails the elite university must be what is killing the less prestigious college downstream.

We find these conflations throughout our discourse on education — the NYT story that starts with the student $100,000 in debt, and sees this giving insight to other students taking out loans, never noting that almost all debt over $100,000 is due to graduate medical programs, law degrees, or vanity visual arts programs at elite design schools. The research school assumption that excellent teaching must lie primarily at excellent research institutions. The belief that most professors who lecture in public four-years and masters institutions lecture the way they have at Harvard or Yale, to hundreds of students at a time, with no interaction (Spoiler: most community colleges have been doing active learning for decades).

How much of the current weirdness of this MOOC moment is due to the fact that the people running the world have very little idea what the other 80% of classrooms look like?

Reply to Cole: Pushing Back vs. Pushing Forward

Cole put up a post recently asking why the open education movement had become so reactive:

Just a couple of years ago we were all trying so hard to get people to accept the idea that open access to learning was a great thing. Hell, some of the best conversations I’ve ever had in this field have centered around the ideals of openness, but now that the MOOC thing has happened the same people who built rallying calls for more open access to learning are now rejecting this movement. Why? Because it is driven by corporations trying to make money? Because it isn’t really open? Because the press isn’t giving a few people the credit they believe they deserve? Because these aren’t really courses? Ok … that sounds like the same stuff we’ve always dealt with.

I respect Cole quite a bit, so I wanted to take some time to respond thoughtfully.

It’s really the openness issue, full stop. And I suppose the reason I feel the openness issue somewhat keenly is that for me open was never about the cult of open. It was about the brilliant idea that if our institutions worked together instead of against one another we could both increase the positive social impact of our universities as well as take control of our destinies.  Open was profoundly empowering.

It’s actually not the MOOC companies that end up irking me I think. It’s the partners. And the thing that gets me is that the partners could choose to use this moment to profoundly empower the education system as a whole — community colleges, less prestigious four-years, heck, maybe even help the for-profits create a better experience for their students.

But by and large institutions have chosen to work with companies that, as far as I can see, are on a path to disempower us, leaving us as the fry-cooks of the freeze-dried meals we’re about to ship America.  I think you’re familiar enough with my thinking to know why I think the ultimate result of this, if followed to its logical conclusion, is a profoundly bifurcated education system, something akin to the GED policy disaster this country still has not recovered from.

Maybe we disgree on that. All well and good — but I’d just add that I don’t see myself as pushing back, but as pushing forward. What I want is not a world where edX or Coursera does not exist, but a world where institutions will make it a stipulation of working with edX that their material must be shared freely (or maybe just do the work of sharing it — it may not be an edX issue at all). That may be oppositional to MOOC platforms, but I think it is certainly pushing forward.

I’ll also say that my own efforts have been relentlessly forward looking. I co-created a Psychology MOOC that launched this week on Canvas Network — everything in that MOOC is under either CC-BY or CC-BY-NC. We’re not just talking about what the model is — we went and built it. We managed to do that as a bottom-of-heap state college with no additional resources or funding. With a professor who didn’t even get a stipend. And we convinced a College President that had just seen his state funding cut by 45% to give it away for free. The whole thing. We can export the course for you into IMS-CC, you can import and run your own class tomorrow with it.

Now if the Coursera and Udacity schools were producing THAT, it would change the world, almost overnight. You know this — it’s the power of open.

Surely if Keene State can build a Psych MOOC out of nothing and give it away for free we can expect better from the elite colleges than we’re getting? I know there are people in those institutions who get it. I worked with them at OCWC, I’ve met them at conferences. I’m good friends with many of them, and consider them intelligent allies.

If you know the round-about argument I have to make to get those institutions to embrace real change, I’ll make it. Until then, forward to me means plowing past them to other visions and pointing out the difference.

The Adult Education Market is Imploding

Fascinating report out on recent enrollment trends from creepily-named National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Could be the subject of twenty different posts, so much in it is riveting. This is my takeaway, though, because it is so dramatic:


Yes, we’re at Peak Demo, but removing the for-profits from the equation (imploding for different reasons) the main implosion we’re seeing here is in adult education. Better economy, perhaps. Possible also a cost-sensitive demographic responding to recent hikes. Happy to hear any theories.

BTW — blog this, people! Grab the report, find your own story in it and BLOG. I’m kind of sick of this lazy society we’ve fallen into where a report like this comes out and everybody dedicates less than 140 characters to it. BLOG, dammit! That’s how we see the stories in these things that hide from us, when we get a diversity of voices….

Downes on the “Wrapped MOOC”

Finally read this detailed rumination by Stephen Downes on the question of MOOCs and quality — what would it mean to call a traditional cMOOC “good” as opposed to “bad”, especially in an environment where individual purpose for engaging in the MOOC is going to vary. Contains an important distinction that I’m still thinking about — the difference between evaluation the design of a tool vs. the use of a tool.

I wanted to just highlight this section, though, from the introductory definition of a MOOC. Downes discusses wrapped MOOCs:

Online – I mentioned above the phenomenon of ‘wrapped’ MOOCs, which postulate the use of a MOOC within the context of a traditional location-based course; the material offered by the MOOC is hence ‘wrapped’ with the trappings of a more traditional education. This is the sort of approach to MOOCs which treats them more as modern-day textbooks, rather than as courses in and of themselves. But insofar as these wrapped MOOCs are courses, they are no longer online, and insofar as they are online, they are no longer courses. So whatever a ‘wrapped MOOC’ is, it is not a MOOC. It is (at best) a set of resources misleadingly identified as a ‘MOOC’ and then offered (or more typically, sold) as a means to supplement traditional courses. For a MOOC to be ‘online’ entails that (and I’ll be careful with my wording here) no required element of the course is required to take place at any particular physical location.

The ‘wrapped MOOCs’ are not MOOCs because you cannot attend a wrapped MOOC without attending the in-person course; there will be aspects of the MOOC that are reserved specifically for the people who have (typically) paid tuition and are resident at some college or university, and are physically located at the appropriate campus at the appropriate time. Just as being online is what makes it possible for these courses to be both massive and open, being located at a specific place makes the course small and closed.

This is pretty key, and at the risk of annoying people with repetition, it’s why MOOCs used in the context of flipped classroom practice are being used as Open Educational Resources, not open courses (It’s also part of the reason we started using the term distributed flip to cover this model — it’s not really a MOOC).

That said, I’d like to throw my own design/use wrench into the works: Say we have a group of people studying the Chemistry of Anti-depressants using this sort of OER. A class, perhaps. Or a adult interest group. Or a set of parents concerned with over-medication of children. And we have a bunch of individuals using the same OER. At the same time. Etc, etc. Within the groups there are unified reasons for engaging with the distributed flip. But among the groups, goals vary.

Now, I don’t know how much these groups would talk to each other. The examples we’ve looked at have pretty low group cross-chatter. But suppose we were just stellar moderators and we got the groups to talk a bit back and forth, even if they largely preferred to have more internal conversations.

This looks like an open course (or at least an open something) to me. Having groups engage with it does not really make the experience of the core course “closed”. It means that the elements that are local are inaccessible, sure, but so are the books that you might read on your own to supplement the materials of the MOOC. So are the conversations you have with other people about the MOOC. Again, the local experience is closed, but as much as people in that local experience engage with the broader community, the internet-based course/thing they are engaging with is open, no matter what you want to call that thing.

The Bigger Picture is Corporate-Built Online Delivered Through Traditional F2F Institutions

While the SJSU situation keeps on boiling, it’s worth pulling back the camera a bit and seeing the larger scene. This comes out of the history section of a run-of-the-mill press release Pearson released today:

California’s state university system, the nation’s largest four-year university system, partnered with Pearson in 2012 to launch Cal State Online, a fully online program designed to increase access to higher education. Cal State Online launched in January 2013 with a select number of undergraduate and professional master’s programs, now being offered by some of the institution’s 23 campuses.

I don’t really have any Death Star rhetoric here. Pearson is doing the business they have always been doing, they don’t pretend to be anything else. They are frankly more data-driven than Coursera, more transparent about impact, and staffed by people with a deeper knowledge of pedagogy and far more experience building courses. They are also, like Coursera, horribly closed.

The interesting thing to me here that the “Coursera takes over SJSU” announcement about a single course created the backlash of the month, whereas the partnership with Pearson to co-build full programs has slid by undetected.

Schools are going to have to build online resources with someone. It could be CourdacityX, it could be Pearson, or it could be with each other. The online resources are coming. It’s really just a matter of choosing how we want to build them.