MOOCs and the 'Slope of Enlightenment'


MOOCs and the 'Slope of Enlightenment'

The first in a four-part series analyzing MOOC market segments

By Jonathan Haber     Mar 18, 2014

MOOCs and the 'Slope of Enlightenment'

When Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) first burst onto the scene in 2011 and 2012, the market for free online classes that were drawing hundreds of thousands of enrollments seemed obvious. Surely young students, encouraged by parents staring down six-figure tuition bills, would jump at the chance to replace the expense and debt associated with residential college with free online classes, many offered by universities these same kids could neither get into nor afford.

But as legendary startup guru Steve Blank puts so well: “no business plan survives first contact with customers.” And in the case of MOOCs, nearly every assumption regarding what might happen with this promising educational technology--from who would take them to how they would be used--turned out to have been wrong.

Falling off the 'Peak of Inflated Expectations'

One of the reasons why MOOCs have rolled over the Gartner Hype Cycle’s 'Peak of Inflated Expectations' (which held firm through Spring 2013) into a 'Trough of Disillusionment' is that a large percentage of journalists, policymakers, legislators and even those developing MOOCs have a common distinct vision associated with the word “college.”

For most of them (actually “us”), college was that (usually positive) experience we enjoyed between the ages of 18-22 when we first lived away from home on a well-groomed campus that catered to our needs, where we were exposed to new ideas and people and free to experiment in a relatively protected environment.

Given this positive association, free courses from the same prestigious schools that many writers, educators and educational activists attended gave those products instant cache. At the same time, this undergraduate experience formed the basis of what MOOCs promised to disrupt (for good or ill). On top of that, most of the people trying to make sense of MOOCs had not taken any courses (or, if they had, not taken enough of them to completion to understand how well they stacked up against equivalent residential courses).

The One Year BA

While I suffered from the bias noted above (having had a positive residential college experience many years ago), I decided to add a student perspective missing from the MOOC conversation through my own experiment within the wider MOOC experiment called Degree of Freedom.

This project involved taking to completion a number of free online courses that would (on paper anyway) add up to the equivalent of a four year degree at a liberal arts college. And, in order to get this perspective into the conversation sooner than later, I decided to attempt to complete all of those courses in a single year (2013).

My "One Year BA" was modeled on the degree requirements I was familiar with from residential schooling with freshman and sophomore “years” (which ran from January-June) requiring the completion of sixteen courses, ten of which had to be distributed across science, social science and humanities subjects. And to satisfy major requirements (my chosen major being philosophy), I had to finish ten courses in the subject before the end of my One Year BA, four of which needed to be at the intermediate and advanced levels.

Climbing the 'Slope of Enlightenment'

While the student-centered experience of someone taking to completion (and taking seriously) over thirty courses informed much of the daily blogging I did for this project, outward facing communication (which included not just a blog, but weekly course reviews and a podcast where I interviewed thought leaders in the MOOC movement) allowed me to explore MOOCs from every possible angle, from an analysis of each component making up a MOOC to the business models MOOC companies were hoping would ensure their survival.

Much of this experience was distilled into a book that will be published later in the year. But for students, teachers, administrators, policymakers, edtech decision makers and entrepreneurs trying to make sense of where we are today as we move up Gartner’s 'Slope of Enlightenment' regarding massive open learning, there are three distinct markets for MOOCs that need to be understood:

  1. Traditional college-age students
  2. Older lifelong learners
  3. Those using MOOCs in non-traditional learning environments (such as Third World classrooms).

Over the next three weeks, I will be analyzing each of these markets in detail.

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