Wednesday, 4 June 2014

MOOCs ado about nothing?

I've blogged before about MOOCs and whether they are the approach which will disrupt the traditional university business model. An article on the BBC website which I saw today adds an angle to the discussion.

First of all, what do I mean by disrupting the traditional business model? It’s like what Apple did to the market for CDs – they took a bundle of different technologies (mp3 players; the internet) and by selling iPods and setting up iTunes changed the whole business of selling music. Goodnight record shops. Ben Hammersley writes about this in his (very excellent) book, 64 things you need to know Now for Then. His argument (it kind of grows out of the different chapters in the book, rather than being explicitly stated) is that disruption via digital technology to an existing business model is inevitable – a question of when not whether.

At the moment MOOCs don’t seem like the disruptive model – there are real questions about non-completion rates, certification and standards on the one hand, and how to make it pay on the other (but see also my blog post about this, and the University of the People idea). And this is where the BBC story comes in.

Sean Coughlan reported in April about learning centres for people studying MOOCs. Basically, these are organised and facilitated sessions (classes, if you like) for people following a particular MOOC in a given locale, to meet together help them study. The article reported that there’s a much lower drop-out rate for students who attend a learning hub. And also, interestingly, that the classes become something else:

"When students are gathered for their Mooc classes it becomes a focus for other spin-offs, such as firms wanting to recruit staff or to get students involved in developing commercial projects."

This gives more options for ‘monetizing’ (to use the business jargon) the education process via MOOCs – if innovative companies or recruiters can find a way to gain economic value from a learning centre, they might pay, leading to more learning centres, more people gaining educational value from MOOCs, and possibly MOOCs becoming a realistic alternative to registering as a fee paying student at a university. It probably won’t mean the end of the motivation to go to a campus university for UK students (if that were the case the Open University would have taken everything over years ago) but it might tip the balance for some international students. And that would nibble away at a really important part of the business model for many UK universities.

Just a straw in the wind. For now.

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