The Problem with xMOOC Business Model

Few of the media outlets or people who cover MOOCs care to distinguish between an xMOOC and a cMOOC. That’s sad, because the real value for a MOOC is the connections and the learning that comes from collaboration. xMOOCs get all the press because they are backed by rock-star professors or VC funding which obscures the fact that their business model is sh*t.

Let’s consider one of the trendy MOOC consortia – like EdX – for a moment. First, EdX, which  is a partnership between mostly prestigious universities and colleges (and also UT which is not prestigious – GO TECH!). Seriously, good schools in this consortia. Quality is not the problem. First problem. Who is paying for faculty to teach these courses? Well, the schools are. They underwrite their faculty involvement because it’s trendy. Not because it’s a sustainable or scalable revenue model. So now the kid in the physical class with a Grad Student Teaching Assistant (TA) is underwriting the rock-star professor to offer a MOOC. That’s a minor business model issue. What about getting a degree?

None of these schools is willing to give an actual degree for these courses. The key to a prestigious degree is exclusivity. Do you really think MIT wants graduates who took a bunch of MOOCs to walk around as an MIT alum? Hardly. Sure, MIT discovered some brilliant teenager in a third-world country and now they are connected. But that’s the exception, not the rule. Without a degree these courses are great for individual learning but not much help to the under-educated masses without a degree. Well, if you can’t get a degree, at least you can get a top-level professor to teach you. Wait, are you really ready for a top level teacher?

Are 5,000 people in a class really going to learn differently because it’s a Harvard professor? I’m not saying that rock-star professors can’t teach. But Nobel laureates don’t get Nobel prizes for teaching. They get such accolades for research. So if a brilliant Ivy League researcher teaches a class is she better than some Middle of Somewhere State University professor? Maybe not. Maybe people at small, unheralded teaching schools, or [blasphemy] a community college might actually have a better grasp of how to teach a subject. Certainly, the students who sit in Ivy League classes are often ready for high level learning, but that’s probably only a small number of the thousands in a MOOC. Maybe the teacher who knows how to make a subject relatable and interesting are the best for MOOCs. In fact, cMOOCs claim it’s not about the teacher at all. It’s about the connections that students make to other students in the process of fully exploring the topic.

As someone who researches innovation I love the idea that MOOCs are experimental and many variations are underway. But some current MOOCs structures just don’t make sense for a pedagogical model. Let’s recap. xMOOCs offer an inferior pedagogy – like a faculty ratio of 20k to 1; prestigious faculty who might not even be good teachers are underwritten by traditional students and endowments that are not scalable; and no degree from Harvard at the end of it all. Do you see the problems with xMOOC companies?

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