Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Amherst College says "no" to edX, but how about Google MOOCs?

The Amherst College faculty voted 70 to 36 with five abstentions against joining edX, MIT's MOOC consortium, but they did not dismiss the idea of MOOCs. They passed a motion proposing that Amherst explore online teaching technology outside the context of the major MOOC groups.

The major MOOC platforms in the US -- edX, Udacity and Coursera -- are trying to build their brands by offering courses from "elite" universities. Most faculty senates will not have to consider the question of partnering with these organizations because they will not be invited in.

Furthermore, few universities have Amherst's $1.64 billion endowment, -- they could not afford edX even if they were invited to become a partner. EdX charges $250,000 to initiate a course and $50,000 each additional time the course is offered. They also take a cut of any revenue the course generates.

Does that mean that all but rich, elite universities are shut out of the MOOC game?

No.

A university can develop and experiment with MOOCs or using a MOOC platform for smaller online classes or to supplement or flip face-to-face classes using open source software. Stanford and edX have combined their MOOC platform software in an open source project and Google also has an open source MOOC platform, Course Builder.

Amherst, or any other university, can explore online teaching by becoming familiar with these open source programs and providing a MOOC platform for use by their faculty. Many professors would ignore the resource, but others would begin using it. The university would gain experience with MOOCs and the way a MOOC platform can be used in a smaller class.

Even better, a university or university system could host a MOOC platform and offer accounts to faculty on multiple campuses. From there it is a small step to a public MOOC platform.

But, a public MOOC service would involve significant expense for servers, bandwidth and staff. How might it be funded? One could argue that such a platform should be funded by government as part of its education mission. Failing that, the usual advertising-based or "freemium" business models might support an open MOOC service.

How about Google? Google is fond of "moonshots" like self-driving cars, and any Internet use benefits their advertising business. For example, they may (or may not) be planning to expand their Google Fiber project and become nationwide Internet service providers. If the ISP venture broke even, Google would still make money by increasing the good-will value of their brand, improving their advertising quality and increasing advertising revenue.

Does that apply to MOOCs as well? Google has their own MOOC software, which they have field tested in running their own MOOC. They also have experience running very large services like Gmail and Google Docs, which are free for individuals and generate revenue from organizations.

How about adding Google MOOCs to the list?

Blaise Pascal argued that a rational person should believe in God because the cost of not doing so and being wrong was infinite while the cost of doing so and being wrong was small. The same goes for MOOCs. If MOOCs are the Next Big Thing, Amherst will be ready. If not, they will not have lost much. They may not even have to invest in their own MOOC platform -- their faculty might just open free accounts at Google MOOCs.  Think of it as YouTube for classes.

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Update 5/1/2013

Inside Higher Ed ran an article on the edX discussion within the Amherst faculty (http://bit.ly/10s3Z4R).  It gives the pros and cons as seen by a number of faculty members.  It's based on an internal Amherst report that is not publicly available.  Also has quite a few comments.