The Harvard “MOOCs for Alumni” Thing Parties Like It’s 1999

From the Chronicle:

Beginning in March, HarvardX for Alumni will offer versions of seven Harvard MOOCs exclusively to graduates of the university. The courses will not be full-length MOOCs but “segments” that include some new material developed specially for graduates, according to Michael Rutter, a spokesman. Some professors might even travel to talk about the material at Harvard Clubs in different cities, Mr. Rutter said.

Is Harvard onto something? Efforts to integrate MOOCs into higher education’s credentialing system have stalled, and studies suggest that MOOCs tend to attract people who already have college degrees. So alumni relations and fund raising are areas where universities might find value in MOOCs.

Neat, huh? Original out-of-the-box thinking. Oh wait, there’s another press release here….

Oxford, Princeton, Stanford, Yale to invest $12 million in Distance Learning Venture; Herbert Allison to head effort

Oxford, Princeton, Stanford and Yale universities announced today that they would each provide $3 million to launch their “distance learning” venture to provide on-line courses in the arts and sciences to their combined 500,000 alumni.

Herbert M. Allison Jr., former president of Merrill Lynch & Co., Inc., will serve as president and chief executive officer of the non-profit University Alliance for Life-Long Learning.

The Alliance will offer non-credit courses to the alumni, taking advantage of emerging technologies to give the graduates convenient access to their schools’ extraordinary resources.

The date? September 28th, 2000. Fourteen years ago. 

Back then, the dramatic move prompted MIT to consider duplicating the effort. Later that year, MIT moves forward with the design of Knowledge Updates@MIT based partially on this “POSY” (Princeton, Oxford, Stanford, Yale) alliance. In fact the report McKinsey produces for MIT proposes the same program design we’re seeing in the news today, right down to the combination of face-to-face and online elements. They almost go forward with it,  but find that the models show that an alumni-only play would not be financially sustainable.

Of course, we know the how the MIT story went. After looking at the Alumni/Lifelong learning option, they decided the best route would be to just open up their materials to everyone. Shortly after that Princeton had a similar change of heart. From November 19, 2001:

Princeton decides not to continue in the Alliance for Life-Long Learning

Princeton University, one of the founding members of the University Alliance for Life-Long Learning, has decided not to continue as a member of the alliance beyond the current first phase of the organization’s development.

“Our work with the alliance in putting some of our courses online has been a helpful experience,” said Amy Gutmann, Princeton’s provost and one of its representatives on the alliance board of directors. “We wish the alliance much success as it continues to evolve, and we will maintain our initial courses online with the alliance. At the same time, we have decided to proceed in a way that provides broad access to electronic learning materials and courseware on a non-proprietary basis. We will pursue this course under the leadership of our new vice president for information technology, Betty Leydon.”

The people who stayed n the Alliance? They had a change of heart too. From September 2002:

Learning alliance to grow

AllLearn, the three schools’ nonprofit distance learning alliance formerly known as the University Alliance for Lifelong Learning, originally offered classes only to alumni and other affiliates of the three schools. But now the online venture is expanding to include other potential students.

“We are doing this in a targeted way,” Allison said. “We are going to be contacting interest groups that may have interest in particular course offerings.”

Levin said he feels confident that the program, which was launched in 2000, is making progress and has avoided pitfalls similar other distance learning ventures have faced.

But even that didn’t work. By June 2006, it was all over:

What Went Wrong with AllLearn?

AllLearn was backed by the prestige of its partner institutions, but the company might have been hard-pressed to “sell” the value of the non-credit courses rather than a degree with the “elite university” seal…AllLearn’s failure to move beyond the “edutainment” market appears to have been the main reason behind its demise. Until now, Oxford, Yale, and Stanford have kept quiet about the collapse of their joint e-learning venture, with next to no news coverage on AllLearn’s demise.

So we are faced with the endless circle of life of the digital learning initiative:

  1. Someone says — hey we should make money on this. But they can’t make money on it, because people generally want credit for the hundreds of hours they spend on a class.
  2. So someone says — well, what if we did it just for alumni, where we wouldn’t have to give credit? But that doesn’t work out either. Because math.
  3. Someone then says, you know, since we can’t make money on this, we should just give it away free, for the public good. There is a brief period of sanity! People love the free stuff.
  4. The open stuff starts to have impact. The institution buries the evidence of the failed for-profit venture and hides the bodies, proclaiming success of open initiative.
  5. A year later someone comes along and says “Look how interested people are in this free stuff! We should make money on this!”
  6. Repeat.

When I do my crabby Grandpa Simpson thing and tell the young ‘uns that we’ve been through this all before, they often think I’m being metaphorical, or constructing an analogy. But I’m not. We have been here before in as exact a fashion as one can be at a place in history again without violating fundamental laws of physics. Stanford hadn’t even finished shredding the AllLearn stationery when their faculty started the whole process again.

I don’t want to descend into cynicism here, and say that nothing ever changes. Because part of that cycle — the OER center of it — really does work. And that’s where we *always* end up after the alumni site “idea”, after we realize that it’s pretty hard to make a living selling digital content on the internet to *anybody*. Harvard is on track to arrive at that point in about 18 months. And that’s cool. Each time we pass through that stage we move a bit further forward, and if Groundhog Day develops one character trait above all others, it’s bemused patience. I can wait!

But if everyone else could read up on the history, we’d get there much, much faster.

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