Friday, January 31, 2014

The Big 2014 MOOC Re-Boot

The big MOOCPlatforms are undergoing a large scale re-boot at the beginning of this new year. If 2012 was "the year of the MOOC" and 2013 the "Year of the Deflation of MOOC Hype," then 2014 may well be the "Year of MOOC's Second Chance." Here I focus on new efforts at Udacity and Coursera that are designed both to improve the learning experience and generate revenues.


Udacity, which performed its famous "pivot" in mid 2013, and labeled its first efforts a "a lousy product" turned to revenues from corporate training. Since that time, Sebastian Thrun has continued to offer Udacity MOOCs free to the general public, but has emphasized the need - and availability for a price - of auxiliary services including mentoring and tutoring. The new, re-booted Udacity website puts these coaching services front and center:

Learning is a collaborative process, and we're here to provide you with guidance every step of the way. We'll help you select the right class, navigate challenging content, and improve your projects and code.

Given the major emphasis on mentoring and tutoring in my account of online learning in Education 2.0, this is hardly a surprise. Most learners, at least those with little prior academic experience and success, and lacking well developed self-directed learning habits, are unable to get much value from MOOC-based learning unless aided by mentors and tutors.

The mentors help them focus down on why they are learning, and what they need to be learning to move forward with their lives and achieve their aims - and even how to formulate some basic life goals.

The tutors then help them focus down own on how to learn, on how to overcome misunderstandings, on how to motivate themselves to get through those course segments when the learning curve steepens - in addition to how to solve this or that problem or remember how to define this or that concept.

Both are necessary for most learners - not just those from disadvantaged communities. Kids who take to academic work and thrive without some of this hand holding are out-liers. It will be very interesting to see how the new MOOC on "Preparing for Uni" on the FutureLearn" platform will fare. Can we bootstrap MOOC-based Learning through MOOC-Based Learning? Or will we require some personal interventions with real humans?

A question for another post: Can MOOC platforms - or at least the non-profit ones - figure out a way of providing personal mentoring and coaching through some combination of crowd-sourcing and what Clay Shirky calls the Cognitive Surplus. If Yahoo Answers can elicit dozens of answers to each of thousands of questions daily, and Wikipedia can elicit encyclopedia articles, edits and additions on every conceivable topic, and open source enterprises can call out the collective talent of software engineers, then why can't either the MOOC Platforms or some auxiliary enterprise (like all those wonderful add-ons to Twitter) figure out how to source online (or even offline) mentoring and tutoring for MOOC learners?


Coursera's new front-line product is its Specializations Program. The Platform organizes course sequences which collectively build a skill with current workplace demand. The Specializations Page showcases ten of these programs. Coursera and edX - and other MOOC platforms, have already offered course sequences - most dramatically, entire foundation year MBA course sequences from top business schools like Wharton. What is new with the Specializations is (1) the specific skill- with-workplace-demand promise, and (2) the price tag per each course in the sequence. Specialization courses can still be taken for free, but only those enrolled in the signature verification tracks can complete the final projects and get the certificate for the Specialization.

So for now, Coursera, like Udacity, continues to offer its MOOCs in a cost-free version, but pins its hopes for revenue generation on add-ons.

Like all disruptive technologies, MOOCs start with one set of core images and expectations forged by founders, and gravitate to other images and expectations in the inevitable back and forth of 'social construction'. It took the telephone a few decades to become what we have long since been familiar with. Some of the early adopters thought it would be a device for listening to classical music! The MOOCs will settle in, and as always, public uses and private ventures and their revenue streams will be the key determinate of what they ultimately become for us.


  1. It's only natural that it'll take a few iterations to get it right. And then, it follows, that one model will not fit every circumstance and there'll have to be enough flexibility/adaptability to respond to different needs/situations.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Udayan. This seems so much like common sense. The place of all disruptive techs takes a while to determine. Many professors, however, appear to be programmed mechanically to pounce on any negative news and declare that the end of MOOCs is near. Dinosaurs.