By Richard Garrett, Vice President & Principal Analyst
Earlier this month, Google and EdX announced a partnership to co-develop MOOC.org, to broaden access to EdX’s open source online education platform. But what problem is MOOC.org trying to solve?
Anat Agarwal, President of EdX and professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, positioned the move as enabling “anybody to experiment with courses.” EdX has made online courses available to consumers, and is now making course creation similarly accessible. Google plus open access will mean an accelerated understanding of what works in the online and blended classroom. This is the latest of a string of education initiatives from the Google, viewing the industry ripe for some combination of growth, enhancement and disruption through online technology.
“Finally, the smart people are getting into education.”
One commentator’s summary of the alliance was “finally, the smart people are getting into education.” I read this as a reference to the fragmented, individual faculty-led norm of instructional design and delivery in higher education. Hundreds of disciplines, thousands of schools and millions of faculty means pedagogic excellence appears scattered, inconsistent, and difficult to generalize. Yet I’ve come to believe that this is not because good practice is inherently hard to capture – the literature on the topic is actually quite consistent – but because attempts at greater standardization are quickly stifled as perceived threats to academic freedom.
The combination of EdX – a random band of elite universities experimenting in multiple ways on a new platform – and Google – the world’s dominant online search firm with few genuine rivals – speaks to the ambiguity around MOOC.org. Is the ultimate goal enabling yet more local experimentation (from which higher education clearly does not suffer a shortage), or to really try to advance the consolidation necessary to impact learning quality at scale?
To date, online higher education has generally advanced by disavowing any allegations of standardization, cost reduction or threat to faculty-as-artisan. The result has been lots of local trial-and-error, weak differentiation between schools, and a “product” that does little to tackle the cost, quality and completion challenges that weigh down higher education at large. For-profit universities have shown that rapid growth and scale is possible, but have failed to make the pedagogic case.
Scaling pedagogic innovation
If it’s not careful, MOOC.org could end up in the same messy compromise between innovation and acceptance. If the consumers most in need of education innovation are the mass of under-prepared high school graduates or working adults, the students least familiar to schools involved in EdX, having EdX take the lead seems wrongheaded. Equally, EdX schools are not in the business of disrupting themselves, and are least open to and least in need of pedagogic reform. Google seems keen to partner with the likes of EdX but has not made any obvious alliances with non-traditional schools.
In the final analysis, is it possible to truly scale pedagogic innovation without truly consolidated institutions? Early results from MOOCs and adaptive learning software point to the efficacy of small group, in-person, instructor-facilitated classes “wrapped around” the technology, and question the value of standalone online learning. Try scaling that. Learning more about what works in online learning is one thing. Where we really need the “smart people” is figuring out rational implementation.