Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Higher ed's grudge against MOOCs -- Part 2

Last update: Tuesday 3/20/18
Part 1 of this note registered my strong disagreement with a recent editorial about Coursera's pivot from non-credit certificate programs to fully accredited degree programs. Coursera's certificate courses were MOOCs because they were inexpensive, whereas the courses in its degree programs entail tuition and fees comparable to the tuition and fees charged by conventional online degree programs. Therefore I say its degree courses are not MOOCs. 

E. MOOC, shmook, who cares? ...
Well those of us who were excited by the primary goal of the leaders of the "MOOC revolution" care. The defining feature of the MOOC revolution was its commitment to providing opportunities for much larger segments of our society to receive the benefits of a high quality higher education at prices they could afford. It's not just Black American and other underserved minority students who would benefit; millions of working class and middle class White American students have been the largest contributors to the trillion dollar student loan market. Of course, the ideal tuition would be "free" -- which is what the MOOC evangelists preached. But I suspect that most of us who nodded our approval of their sermons during the "Year of the MOOC (2012)" understood that "free" was not to be taken literally.

We anticipated that at some point down the road that the innovative technologies that powered MOOCs, plus the economies of scale that could be realized by enrolling thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands of students in each course, would lower the production costs of MOOCs per student to a level where the tuition and fees for a 12 to 15 credit semester could be measured in hundreds of dollars, instead of the thousands of dollars or tens of thousands charged by conventional programs.

F. A tale of two pivots
In 2012 Sebastian Thrun launched Udacity about six or seven months before Daphne Kohler and Andrew Ng launched Coursera, all three being professors at Stanford University at the time. Both profit-oriented companies were committed to working with universities to develop MOOCs. 

Unfortunately, Thrun soon encountered a few widely publicized setbacks that soured him on partnerships with universities. In 2013 he made a famous "pivot" that shifted the focus of Udacity from partnerships with universities to partnerships with employers who wanted job-oriented certificate programs that could train their employees and/or prospective employees. 

Shortly after Udacity's pivot, it began offering job-oriented certificate programs called "nanodegrees." These programs were packages of related courses that covered the range of professional skills new entrants to various professional specializations were expected to possess. 

The original MOOCs had four characteristics, three of which were referenced in its acronym: "massive" (much larger than traditional enrollments), "open" (no prerequisites, anyone could take them), and "online". However their defining characteristic was that MOOCs should be free, i.e., taken at no cost. As the reader will see from the following summary of the most important features of nanodegrees, Udacity's courses are not MOOCs as originally defined.

  • All of Udacity's nanodegrees and component courses are related to information technology. Links to all of its 24 current nanodegrees can be found ==> HERE
  • Nanodegrees and their component courses are designed in collaboration with Udacity's corporate sponsors who are the leading developers and/or the most prominent users of the tools and applications students learn in nanodegrees programs, e.g., Google, Amazon, IBM, Facebook, Invidia, GitHub, Didi, Samsung, Tableau, AT&T, Hootsuite, and Lyft. Many of these partners hire Udacity's graduates.
  • Online courses are taught by experienced professionals within their fields
  • Nanodegrees are project-oriented. Students are required to take Udacity's self-paced online courses related to their specialization, but they must complete one or more projects by specified deadlines that enable them to bring the knowledge they learned in their courses to bear on realistic problems.
  • The students' projects are assessed by professionals who have extensive experience in their fields 
  • Nanodegrees are not free. Some cost upwards of a thousand dollars. Nevertheless, their courses are still MOOCs in the sense that they are much cheaper, therefore more affordable than comparable courses offered as part of university degree or certificate programs that are based on for-credit courses.
  • "Advanced" nanodegrees are not open to everyone. Their students must have prerequisite knowledge acquired via the successful completion of "Beginner" or "Intermediate" nanodegree programs or demonstrate equivalent knowledge acquired elsewhere.
How has all this worked out for Udacity? By 2015 two years after its pivot, Udacity became a "unicorn" -- which most readers will probably know is Silicon-Valley-speak for new companies whose stock is valued at $1 billion. By contrast, as of Coursera's last round of new investments in June 2017, it was "only" worth $800 million, close but not a unicorn ... :-)

The timing of this last round of investment is instructive coming just a few months after Coursera announced its intentions in March 2017 to have 15 to 20 online degree programs by 2019. In other words, its most recent investors knew that Coursera was pivoting; that's why they gave it more money. Now having skipped to the bottom line, let's back up to try to understand why Coursera would want to pivot.

  • After Udacity shifted its focus to job-oriented training packages, Coursera also packaged some of its MOOCs into certificate programs that were job-oriented in the sense that the knowledge a student acquired would help them get jobs. However, upon completing most of Coursera's certificate programs student will not eligible to receive messages like: "Congratulations, you are now qualified for entry level positions as an XYZ!!!" But such messages would be appropriate for graduates of most of Udacity's nanodegree programs.
  • Coursera introduced projects into a few of its job-oriented programs, most notably in its Data Science program, but students' projects are assessed by other students, not by experienced professionals.
  • Coursera only charges a small subscription fee, currently $49 per month, for students who want to receive verifiable certificates upon successful completion of all the courses in their programs. This fee is evidently too small for Coursera to be able to pay practicing professionals to assess its students' projects. 
  • All of Coursera's certificate programs remain open to anyone interested in taking them; hence none of their programs prepare students for "advanced" jobs.
Readers interested in a detailed comparison of the job-oriented certificate programs sponsored by Udacity, Coursera, edX, and DataCamp might find the note I posted on this blog last year of interest -- "Job-Oriented Online Programs". Caveat: prices, services, and course offerings may have changed since then. 

One of the undeniably positive outcomes of the MOOC revolution thus far has been its success in persuading some of the nation's elite private universities and the flagship campuses of the nation's top tier public universities to offer or even consider offering online courses and online degrees. Hitherto, the academic elite held all forms of online education in utter disdain.
Coursera, more than any other MOOC provider, has been responsible for this change in attitude. So while Udacity developed an extensive network of the nation's top tech firms as partners in its nanodegrees, Coursera built up an equally impressive network of the nation's top universities as partners in its certificate programs. 

Coursera's certificate programs provided opportunities for faculty at the nation's top universities to try their hands at online teaching, something most of them had never considered before. Those who are satisfied with their experience will be more likely to consider offering online degrees ... with Coursera acting as their Online Program Manager (OPM)

So the question, as Hamlet might have framed it, is simple: To pivot or not to pivot? To continue to engage in futile efforts to catch up to Udacity in a game Udacity invented ... or ... to quickly become the best player in a different game? Hopefully all of my readers will know the correct answer to this question. Coursera's investors knew it. It's a no-brainer ... :-)

G. Prolog to Part 3 (forthcoming) -- Coursera's Online Degree Programs 
In the third and final part of this note, I will briefly examine Coursera's ten online degree programs, then identify some short-term losses as well as some far larger long-term gains for all U.S. higher education that might result from Coursera's pivot.

Roy L Beasley, PhD
DLL Editor

Related notes on this blog: