Where is MOOC heading next?

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) like the ones offered on Courera, edX, and Udacity are all the rage these days, and rightly so. In my opinion, MOOC is the most important innovation since the dawn of the internet age. For the first time ever, we can distribute quality Ivy League education content to everyone with a desire to learn..for free. What’s more amazing is that unlike other industries where incumbents are generally fighting against disruptive changes, the elite education institutions (i.e. Harvard, MIT, Stanford etc.) are actually leading the movement.

However, don’t mistaken MOOC as a platform that simply allows millions of people to watch lecture videos online. This is merely the first step, the first hour of the first day in God’s work. To get a glimpse of how technology can fundamentally change the way we learn, watch Conrad Wolfram’s TED talk here.

However, before MOOC gets there, there are still massive problems to solve. Currently, their immediate focus is on refining their core infrastructure. For example, how do we streamline the course production process to help reduce its launch time? How can grading be done effectively for assignments that doesn’t have a clear answer?  How do we reach people in China when Youtube is blocked by the government? These are the problems that aren’t sexy to solve, but are mission critical elements that will make or break the user experience.

Beyond those, there are 2 other challenges I’m particularly interested in are:

  • How can MOOCs compensate for the lack of student-teacher interaction that is so important for student engagement and learning?
  • How can we provide credibility to MOOCs?

What can be done?

A marketplace for tutors specifically targeting MOOC courses

A big part of learning comes from 2-way dialogues  between the teachers and students in a real world classroom. The critiques will say that MOOCs are just information transfer instruments and cannot actually provide the environment necessary to enable those valuable interactions. They would argue that those meaningful interactions doesn’t scale beyond the typical 20:1 student-teacher ratio in a classroom.

I absolutely agree those interactions are important. When I look back at my own education, the best classes most often had charming and funny teachers who engaged in conversations with the students. I also agree that this is an area MOOCs are currently lacking. However, I don’t believe it’s an impossible problem to solve. In the near future, I think a support ecosystem of tutors and mentors will emerge around each MOOC platform. We are already seeing informal networks being formed through local Meetup groups. I think over the next 12-18 months, a more formal channel to seek personalized help will emerge. It will match up students with specific questions to qualified tutors who are available for a one-on-one session over the web, ideally on demand and in real-time. Hey…this sounds like the Uber equivalent of tutoring :p

Real world problems will be used as proxies to evaluate students’ mastery

A big part of the value proposition for students going to Ivy League schools is the exposure to networks and opportunities that doesn’t exist elsewhere. Coming out of those schools will give you instant credibility with the people you meet and employers you want to work for. Similarly, the reason top firms like to recruit students out of these elite schools is because they offer the highest concentration of overachieving young talent, taught by the most knowledgeable professors in their field. But all that changes as MOOC proliferate through the masses, and “Ivy League” education content becomes a commodity accessible by everyone. Would the “traditional” Ivy League education still hold as much weight as before?

Employers now have no idea how to evaluate students with a MOOC certificate. Are they effectively the same as their real-world equivalents? Does the test score even matter when predicting a candidate’s likelihood of success at a company?

Currently, MOOCs are taking the position that the online courses are not the same as its real world equivalent at the partner university and cannot be substituted for credit. Over time, I think we will start seeing university offer credits to students taking these online courses. On that end, I think MOOCs need to put in more effort to validate its credibility as an legitimate substitute for classroom education. To do that, there needs to be a better way to evaluate the students beyond just their test scores. Many tech-savvy employers are now looking at Github to recruit developers based on the code they shared. Kaggle is an online marketplace where aspiring data scientists can make a name for themselves by helping companies solve real world data problems. I think in the future, MOOCs will implement similar mechanisms through its partner schools that gives specific, well-defined real world problems to their course students. For example, I recently took the Introduction to Data Science course on Coursera. I then went onto Kaggle and tried my best to design an algorithm that predicts an employee’s document access level based on his/her role at Amazon. I can tell you with confidence that the result from designing that algorithm will tell people far more about my capability as a data scientist than any test score ever will. Granted,  the logistics around the implementation will vary from hard to near impossible  for some courses. But I think for subjects related to math, computer science, and engineering, these initiatives will be implemented sooner rather than later.

Despite all that I just wrote, honestly, I really don’t knows…I don’t think anyone does.

As with any new technology, MOOC is going to take a few iterations to find the right product offering and business model. Chances are, MOOC is going to evolve in ways  no one currently anticipates. I just know I’m super excited about what’s to come


One thought on “Where is MOOC heading next?

  1. This is awesome piece — though from almost 3 years ago. I am taking a Coursera Data Science Specialization now and feeling the same way! (classes with most teacher/community mentor and student interaction are the best)

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