A Silicon Valley Perspective on The future of MOOCs—in Academia and Industry

 By Eilif Trondsen, Strategic Business Insights and Silicon Vikings—etrondsen@sbi-i.com

 Since Stanford University has played a major role in the history of MOOCs—Massive Open Online Courses—as Stanford academics and researchers created the Coursera, Udacity and NovoEd, people in Silicon Valley have had a front row seat as the MOCC evolution has taken place in the last five years or so. Stanford was also the first major university to create a high level position of Vice-Provost for Online Learning (with Computer Scientist John Mitchell being appointed to this post in August 2012) and has also explored online learning in the program on Education’s Digital Future (in the Graduate School of Education) and in various other ways. I suspect that Stanford’s Graduate School of Education also has more entrepreneurial students, reflected in the number of edtech companies that these students launch, than Schools of Education in other universities around the US (or the world).

The hype around MOOCs was quite high in the first few years as the popular press jumped on the bandwagon and declared that a MOOC tsunami would wash over schools and higher education institutions and radically change “education as we knew it.” And the Norwegian educators and policy makers who came to Silicon Valley for Science Week at Stanford and UC Berkeley in October 2011 returned to Norway with a new appreciation of MOOCs and online learning, and helped bring about the creation of the Norwegian MOOC Commission. Even though MOOCs have not had the “tsunami impact” that some expected, and is not likely to happen either, in my opinion, the positive overall and longer term impact on education and learning should not be underestimated. And, reflecting back on what I have seen over the last five years, I think that the MOOC phenomenon has been positive in many ways, even though it often generated very difficult and heated debate in many academic circles. Here are some of my own (personal) observations and conclusions on what we have been through and what it means:

 ·        Creating heightened awareness and greater understanding of online learning and the role of technology-enabled learning. Before MOOCs hit the news headlines, most people had little, if any, awareness and understanding of the actual and potential role of online learning, either in schools, higher education, informal (personal) learning, or in corporate learning and training. Today, we have a much higher level of understanding, and a rich dialog has evolved over the last 4-5 years, with many insightful articles (including in the Chronicle of Higher Education, but also in the more “popular press” that now has more frequent articles on online learning).

 ·        Top management of universities, schools and industry has been forced to engage in the online learning dialog. Before the MOOC phenomenon struck, most leaders in either schools or in higher education had very little involvement in anything dealing with online learning. In most cases they were not interested, in part because it was seen as relatively marginal in the big scheme of things, and these issues could therefore be delegated to the IT staff and others. Today, things are different and senior management at most academic institutions are now more engaged in the dialog about what the role of online learning should be and in shaping the longer term strategic initiatives involving online learning more generally, and MOOCs, in particular. And in a presentation given to the American Council on Education on March 15, Stanford University president Hennessy included comments about the future role of online learning and MOOCs in his presentation.

 ·        MOOCs have spurred greater examination of MOOC-like models and options of how to leverage technology. Today, it is well understood by most people in the learning field that MOOCs may take many different forms, and many may not really be that “massive” but still have “MOOC-like” features and involve large number of learners. And today there is more experimentation than ever in American universities when it comes to what these online courses should/could look like and how they should ideally be created and used, often as part of a “hybrid” model, where part of a course is online and part is in a more traditional classroom where the focus is on more “hands-on” work and “high touch” interaction can learner engagement.

 ·        Beyond Academia, to Industry Applications. Despite predictions to the contrary—especially by some of the leading lights on the MOOC front—MOOC-like courses seem to be gaining interest in the corporate world. In a Google Hang Out session I attended in February, 2013, that included George Siemens, Dave Cormier, and Steven Downs, among others, the consensus was that MOOCs and similar courses would find little if any interest in corporate environments. My long-time friend, Jay Cross, who organized and moderated the session, took issue with this conclusion, and I felt the same way, and I think Jay and I had reason to be more optimistic about what the potential role could be of MOOCs or MOOC-like courses, especially for large companies with highly distributed or geographically dispersed employees. In a future article I plan to write, I will examine the topic of “Learning@Work” and include a deeper assessment of what selected companies have done and are doing on this front.

 So, what does the future hold and what will it mean for all of us? Again, since I tend to be a “half-full” rather than a “half-empty” kind of guy, here are a few of the things I expect to see, from my “sunny California point of view”:

 ·        More and better options. MOOC platforms and other learning environments—including LMSs that are now incorporating MOOC-like options—are evolving and adding functionality and the result will be more satisfying learning experiences. And we will continue to see new platforms, such as what my friend Sam Herring, President of Intrepid Learning, and his team built for a MOOC-like offering for a new Microsoft program (hopefully, more on this in a future article)

·        More flexibility and learner focus. The combination of more and better content (and content that better meets specific learner needs) and new platforms that have greater functionality (and more ways to interact and communicate, perhaps via twitter-like functions, for instance) will make the learning process a richer experience and should improve learning outcomes.

·        Greater variety of courses. EdX, Coursera, FutureLearn (of Open University in UK), Udacity, NovoEd and others will continue to build and expand their course offerings, and this will also likely include geographical expansion to cover parts of the world that is not now covered very well. Some courses will be very sophisticated, including rich simulations, but these will remain expensive to build (at least in the near term) so will be limited to certain topics and fields and to providers with big budgets.

·        Higher quality of courses. The developments listed above should all contribute to raising the quality of the courses, but the course building teams—including a variety of media experts, pedagogical experts, content experts, etc—will also be gaining experience and see what others have done, and competition will improve quality. In the Microsoft courses that I referred to above, Intrepid Learning co-created learning experiences in collaboration with INSEAD content experts and Microsoft domain experts, and this will likely become a common way of proceeding.

·        Beyond courses. People learn in many different ways, something Jay Cross and others have evangelized about for years. Courses should be only a small part of one’s overall learning experiences, especially today when learning options—in form of different types of content and formats and ways of interacting with content, including over the web or via mobile devices that may or may not be connected to the Web—continue to explode.

·        More engagement options. It is generally accepted that learning outcomes improve when learners are more deeply engaged in the learning experience, and this can be achieved in many different ways: Use of different forms of (animated) media; use of storytelling that learners can “connect” with; personalize the learning experience in some ways (including creating learner-focused contexts); use of game structures and processes or gamification elements to get learners more involved with the story or content, for example.

This brief article of course has only scratched the surface of what we could see in the future and what technology changes might mean for the future of learning. I have said nothing, for instance, about what we might see in the areas of virtual worlds, immersive learning and virtual reality. One thing is certain: Billions of dollars are now invested in these areas and a growing number of companies (including Facebook, Samsung, and Microsoft, to mention just a few large ones) have decided to play a more active role on this front, and even if their primary focus is on entertainment, I am certain that education and learning will benefit in many ways from what will be developed and learned as new entertainment solutions are developed.