THE STARTING POINT
The answer to this question usually focuses on whether MOOC providers have sustainable business models. While I believe a viable business model is definitely key to the existence of MOOCs, I believe it provides only a partial answer to the question at hand. The second part of the answer lies in understanding the core value proposition offered by MOOCs. The search for a viable business model has produced promising options which have already been adopted by the leading providers in the MOOC industry. These options fall under one of the following two categories:
- Charging interested students for additional services (e.g. certification, a model adopted by Edx, Coursera and Udacity),
- Charging a third party for add-on services (e.g. recruitment agency for accessing top achievers in particular courses)
A more comprehensive list of business models considered by Edx, Coursera and Udacity include options such as freemium, certification, employee recruitment, extra tuition fees, etc. One thing I’d add to this list is personal branding as a way of monetizing from offering MOOCs. In short, the idea is that the teacher or institution that offer a MOOC receive considerable marketing and outreach that can be translated in dollars for their other paid offerings (e.g. offline courses, talks, consultancy work, etc.).
While all these options are still in the testing phases (more or less), we can safely concluded that MOOC providers might not be overly concerned with how they can sustain their businesses, or at least not as much as they might be with how to grow them and make them more mainstream, which leads us to the second part of the answer to the question at hand.
The rest of the answer to whether MOOCs can replace the traditional university, I believe, lies in understanding the real value proposition of a MOOC which in my opinion is in its ability to reach a certain type of students who don’t have access to this level of quality learning (i.e. the have nots). To those students (unlike the ones who can – after all – access the same/similar type courses somehow somewhere – i.e. the haves) a MOOC is an answer to a need rather than a mere option.
THE SANKALP EXAMPLE
It’s important to note here that by ‘have nots’ I don’t necessarily mean ‘the poor’ (although I wouldn’t execlude them either) but rather those who value the kind of learning offered in a particular MOOC, yet can’t access it in any other way. A great example of what I mean is Sankalp, a 17-year-old from India and an inspiring serial MOOCer. In his guest post on Coursera’s blog, Sankalp says:
If MOOCs didn’t existed, I would have never ever got a chance to interact with great professors like Dr. Ghrist and Dr. Devlin.
Despite the fact that Sankalp is actually from a middle class family and that he could obviously afford to be online for hours to study for his numerous courses (which means he’s a bit more fortunate than perhaps the majority of the have nots) Sankalp previously didn’t have access to the kind of education he aspires to have. What MOOCs offer Sankalp is a channel to receive that kind of quality education. Using MOOCs for Sankalp was not an option it was the only way he could access the level of world class learning he’s now enjoying.
Understanding this value proposition helps us appreciate that the need experienced by the have nots for better education is real and will continue to seek fulfillment. However, currently MOOCs can only reach the segments of the have nots that can access the internet. I would venture to say that these are not the largest segments of the have nots. The tipping point will be when new innovative channels of delivery (other than personal computers with home internet connections) are built to carry that value proposition to the vast majority of the have-nots who do not own personal computers, let alone access the internet from home. Those channels should be based locally and build strong credibility (or better yet partnerships) with local employers in ways that tightly link these local course offerings to the local market needs. This, in my opinion is the missing link to taking MOOCs mainstream and thus make them a real disruption to the traditional university.
THE MISSING LINK
In his post, Sankalp also teaches us that the concept of MOOCs is a culture and a lifestyle and by doing so he also points us to where the missing link might be found. Sankalp has formed a group including himself and some of his friends and they’re now working on producing their own educational videos – the karma goes around. They’re even trying innovative teaching ideas such as the ‘flipped classroom’ which Sankalp believes could be a good solution to the shortage of primary-level teachers in India.
Sankalp’s mini-MOOC experiment is targeted at solving a real local problem (i.e. helping local students with their study and apparently potentially solving the teacher shortage issue as well). By doing so, Sankalp gives a very good reason and a clear direction for his local community to understand, value, adopt and support the new innovation (i.e. MOOCs), and that’s when the real disruption happens. The Sankalp experiment has many of the ingredients needed to build that channel that can carry the value proposition offered by MOOCs to local communities while building trust and credibility with local stake holders (including businesses) which makes this experiment an important landmark in our search for an answer to how MOOCs might disrupt the university model. I believe such local innovative efforts are the key to taking MOOCs mainstream as they localize MOOCs and in doing so, they establish microeconomic roots for this innovation, a characteristic which Clayton Christensen deems key for any disruptive innovation to be successful.
So could MOOCs displace the traditional university? Well, the ‘yes’ scenario is differently possible while perhaps the ‘no’ scenario is unlikely. As more and more Sankalps are ‘MOOCified’ and as they go on to MOOCify others in their own community, we will then start to see MOOCs turning into mainstream educational offerings. By the day a Sankalp becomes the CEO of some big US firm (would you hire him? I certainly would), an entrepreneur or a college professor, MOOCs will likely be acceptable alternatives to university degrees. It’s only then that MOOCs could tumble the traditional university.
Currently Sankalp is experimenting with the ‘flipped classroom’ technique which requires participating students to have home (or otherwise independent) internet access to review course material prior to coming class which might be a challenge for the majority of the have nots, but once he and his fellow young innovators figure out a way to reach those who don’t have internet at home (which I’m sure they will), they’ll be well on their way to bring down the traditional university business model. As Clayton Christensen says:
There truly seem to be microeconomic roots to the … macroeconomic malaise