Are MOOC Startups Evil?

Posted on January 6, 2013 by

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Some folks attribute less than altruistic motives to startup companies providing Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs).

My colleague, Ian Bogost suspects that MOOC providers aren’t really interested in learning. In a recent blog he says:

MOOC providers don’t actually care about education anyway. They’re merely using education as a cover story, as the latest “industry ripe for disruption.” Just as Google hasn’t necessarily provided a better version of journalism but simply a more centralized, leveraged, and privately beneficial one, so Coursera won’t necessarily do so for education either. In fact, success for MOOCs doesn’t require better education. All it requires is fungibility.

I don’t mean to pick on Ian (even though he seems to like it). There are certainly many others who hold this view as well.

Yes, of course for-profit companies seek profit.  And Ian’s point about the alignment between goals for education and VC is an important one.

But I think folks are attributing a bit too much evil to capitalism.  Claiming “MOOC providers don’t actually care about education anyway” is a bit like saying the iPhone creators don’t care about communication, or that movie producers don’t care about narrative.  None of these for-profit activities will succeed unless they provide value to their customers.

Let me point out another for-profit company in this space that a lot of us use: piazza.com (a course-based discussion forum provider).  I find their service extremely valuable to my pedagogy.  I also know that a lot of my anti-MOOC colleagues use them.  They’re a for profit and they care a lot about how learning works.  But they’re below the radar in this debate because they’re not apparently trying to tell us how to teach (I guess). And then there’s the inconvenient fact that one of the “big three” in the MOOC provider space is EdX, a not for profit.

Udacity, Coursera and piazza will only “exit” if they generate revenue (or show strong promise for revenue a la instagram).  And to do that they’ll have to deliver value to their customers.

I think what disturbs the traditional educational establishment is the question of who are the customers?  Certainly these providers’ motives are going to be aligned with their customers, and traditional educators are not their customers.  The students are of course.

I trust that the market is going to find a way to deliver a fantastic educational product valued by students.  And I believe that can only happen if the providers care how learning works.

The final product Udacity et al deliver is also going to be a lot different from the traditional university experience in the same way that an iPhone differs from your office phone.  But I believe both products will continue to exist for a long time.

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