Experience Without Humility Is Not Very Helpful At All

Phil Hill has a great analysis of the NYT interview with Richard Levin, the new CEO of Coursera. And core to that analysis is a point I’ve made before — that Ivy League institutions *do* have experience in online education, but they are so committed to covering up their failure in those efforts that they can’t learn from those mistakes. This is in contradistinction to public, tuition-supported efforts where rewriting narratives can only take you so far. After all, most institutions only have so much money you can throw down a hole and light on fire.

Here’s a piece of the NYT conversation cited by Phil:

Q. Yale has not exactly been a mass institution.

A. No, but we were early in the on-line arena, with a venture back in 2000 called All-Learn.

Q. How much did you lose, and why didn’t that spoil this for you?

A. It was too early. Bandwidth wasn’t adequate to support the video. But we gained a lot of experience of how to create courses, and then we used it starting in 2007 to create very high quality videos, now supported by adequate bandwidth in many parts of the world, with the Open Yale courses. We’ve released over 40 of them, and they gained a wide audience.

As Phil points out, bandwidth really wasn’t an issue for the demographic they were looking at with All-Learn.


All-Learn folded in 2006, when broadband was at a meager 20% adoption. Today, it’s different, supposedly. It’s at 28%. Are we to really believe that somewhere in that 8% of the population is the difference between success and failure?

Levin goes on to say they gathered a lot of experience on how to create courses, and cites Open Yale Courses as an example of that. Now the courses at OYC are interesting, and I’ve used portions of the Introductory Psychology course in my own work, as well as the Kelly Brownell course on obesity. But the price tag for those forty courses, as far as I know, was $4 million dollars of Hewlett money. And the videos are basically recordings of class lectures. Four million dollars for forty filmed courses, or, if you prefer, $100,000 a course for video lectures.

Hewlett, of course, didn’t grant Yale that money for *just* 40 courses. As anyone who has ever applied for an OER grant knows, the big question one has to answer is “How will you make this effort sustainable after the money is gone?” Levin and others apparently had an answer for that, and that answer was apparently wrong. And what the reporter is asking now is how Coursera’s sustainability path (which looks at this point to be somewhat similar to both OYC and AllLearn) is different. And the answer Levin gives is “bandwidth”. In other words, the plan was great, it was the world that was imperfect. But this time it will work for sure.

If I was an investor in Coursera and I heard that answer, I’d panic. And if I was a grant manager at Hewlett, I’d cry. It’s not Groundhog Day, it’s worse. It’s Memento, where the lead character is doomed to repeat his past because he cannot come to terms with what he has done.

It’s worth noting that there *are* newer models out there for Open Education which are learning from the past instead of repeating it. At WSU Vancouver, for example, we’re working with Lumen Learning on a math initiative. Lumen has an interesting model, which they refer to as Red Hat for OER (or, allternately, “filling the gap between DIY and WTF“). In this model Lumen iteratively improves and maintains a set of OER for free, and makes money off of consulting with colleges on adoption and integration of that OER into the curriculum.

If you ask its founders David Wiley and Kim Thanos why this time Open Education will be different, they’ll certainly mention that the world has changed since the first open textbooks. We have higher quality books, more printing options, broader adoption of devices to run those books on. And the growth pattern is different. There’s a more or less continuing growth of OER use from the late 90s forward, not the boom and bust of Ivy League Online initiatives.

But I think they’d also be quite happy to tell you how their views of what the OER movement needs have changed over the past years. In fact, here’s David doing just that in a recent blog post:

 But, in their own way, each of these efforts [were] underpinned by an “if we build it they will come” philosophy. If we just make the content sufficiently high quality, if we just make it easy enough to find, if we just make it easy enough to remix, faculty will adopt OER in their classrooms. Don’t get me wrong – there are some faculty who have the necessary time, prerequisite skills, and hacker ethic to do it themselves (I would like to believe that I’m one of them). But people with this particular configuration of opportunity, means, and motive are the overwhelming minority of higher education faculty. By the end of 2012 it had become clear that if OER adoption was ever going to happen at any scale, someone needed to get on a plane, go to campus, and train people. So that’s what the Lumen team did in 2012.

If you ask David and Kim what they have learned in the past decade, they are not going to say “bandwidth”. They are going to say something along the lines of “We radically underestimated the amount of time and expertise required to integrate OER into curriculum.” and explain how their recent efforts address that issue.

That’s what’s supposed to happen. That’s how you move forward. That’s what you pay people for — not for the experience they have, but for the knowledge they’ve brought away from that experience. It’s true that Levin brings a wealth of experience to the table. But for the life of me I can’t see what he’s gained from it.



3 thoughts on “Experience Without Humility Is Not Very Helpful At All

  1. On Campus as time, or on campus as shock doctrine? Wondering how long the window for course design / refinement is and the likelihood of people in that window using / knowing / finding OER.

    Really small, and I wonder how much of a sweet spot there is (does visiting schools scale?)

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