MOOC Redux

The MOOCs did not save the world or changed Higher Ed, as promised. But Coursera's new round of funding point to a redefinition of sorts for MOOCs, and perhaps a firmer founding. It seems Coursera has found a new strategy in Professional Development, as did Udacity with their nano-degrees earlier. Instead of changing the Higher Education and emerging as replacements of college, Coursera, along with its partner colleges, have become an attractive place for people who already have degree level education and want to keep developing their knowledge and skills.

This is a new perspective in the Education Innovation conversation. The initial investor interests, which picked up around 2011, were driven by some sort of apocalyptic death-of-the-college thinking. Looking back, the trigger for this may have been the Great Recession, which brought out the middle class employment crisis in sharp relief, and made the US student debt look dangerous. However, in many a sense, that moment has now passed. While the spotlight shown on student loans crisis has been useful - the linkage of rising fees and student loans has now been acknowledged - the economic crisis reaffirmed the graduate premium (only if by the way of decline of non-graduate pay) and increasing use of technology at work made Higher Education equivalent to what High School was several generations ago, a bare minimum requirement. College enrolments have risen globally, particularly in the expanding middle class economies such as India, China, Nigeria and South Africa, and, instead of the apocalyptic ending, college has achieved a new high. 

This does not mean that we have solved all the issues with Higher Education. Far from it - and the expanding interest in Higher Education has only brought out a range of issues that need to be solved. While they may have been the same issues that prompted our end-of-college prophesying, of Access and Efficiency, our understanding of them has changed significantly within a few short years. It is worth looking at these to understand the new strategy that Coursera has adapted to.

Access to Higher Education, and the related issue of cost, is an important issue not because the college is dying, but because it is becoming indispensable. Across developed and developing economies, the demand for college education has expanded rapidly. Developed countries, with their aging population and higher levels of Higher Ed access, have stopped public investment in institution building, but developing countries rapidly expanded its public infrastructure. India, for example, opened up several new Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), once exclusive institutions, along with a host of publicly funded institutions for medical, science and legal education institutions. At the same time, it has allowed private investment in Higher Education in an unprecedented scale, opening, at least for the period between 2006 and 2012, 5 new colleges every day. A similar trend is noticeable across the developing world, except perhaps Sub-Saharan Africa, where the lack of investment, and other issues such as security and stability, has limited the expansion of college seats.

This unprecedented expansion, particularly in the developing world, somewhat negated the investor assumptions that the expanding demand for Higher Education can only be accommodated through Online Education, which was one of the key assumptions behind ventures such as Coursera. The expansion of Higher Ed system across the developing world has somewhat blunted the issue of rising costs, as experienced in the US. Rather, other, deeper, issues related to Access to Higher Education have come to the foreground, such as the Rural/ Urban divide, the language issues, gender issues etc. The original, simplistic, view of expanding access - making Higher Education available online and driving down costs - has now had to accommodate far more complex issues such as how to deal with language barriers, social stereotypes and geographical variation. 

Efficiency issues, always in contention, have also come to the fore. The original question - could Higher Ed be good enough when expanded - quickly morphed into something bigger, as the years of uninterrupted prosperity and expanding employment looked truly over, and the prospect of technological unemployment really real. The neat boundaries between Higher Education and Vocational Training, and Higher Education and Lifelong Learning, the structures around which much of the sector was organised - and investors made their bets - started falling apart. Instead, a mega-sector of learning started emerging, with a variety of providers complementing each other. The zero-sum view of college being replaced by some other kind of college looked stillborn, and rather the prospect of a endless zone of learning, built around collaboration of various kinds of educators and employers, became real. The old question whether education should lead to a job or status or marriage has been made somewhat redundant in the context of this emergent ecosystem and continuous pursuit of relevance in this more complex, globalising and technological world. The concept of College, designed to be a simple, time-bound, end-to-end solution for social position and career, had to transform with the changes in the middle class life - and become somewhat continuous, like the membership in a professional community that made continuous demands of upgrade and advancement. The question of efficiency, in this new context, became less of a defined outcome, and more of connecting and keeping pace. 

The original promise of MOOCs, changing college by making courses from the best universities available to everyone, was attractive but dated. Technology alone was not going to solve the problem of access, but rather, opened up the new, more complex, issues related to it. Efficiency in Higher Education, a question of outcome at conception, became one of belonging, once the changing nature of learning became apparent. Coursera, in its belated avatar, seems to have found its mojo within this new context, becoming a tool for learning communities and continuous advancement, a complement to the brick-and-mortar institutions who are better placed to solve the access problems and an option for college-educated to become forever-learning. In this form, it may indeed have greater chance of success.


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