The death of the university will have to wait a bit while Coursera markets to them

Bringing star proffies to the masses wasn’t the pot of gold that Coursera thought it was.  Their millions and millions and bajillions of students, all of whom were simply waiting to listen to the Star Proffies yielded the company $200K in the first quarter of this year.  Among the free content available to Cousera included Michael Sandel and other Harvard stars. One of those stars, Clayton Christensen, gleefullly pronounced that in 15 years, most universities that Aren’t Harvard would be  bankrupt insects crushed under the feet  of the New Educational Model of MOOCs, learning on the job and online.

Has he ever done online training for his job? Does he not know how boring and hideous those are? He needs to take USC’s sexual harassment training class online. It’s truly one of the most fearsomely dull experiences you can have outside of a waiting room at an  autobody shop.

(As his website notes, he’s the World’s Top Management  Thinker.”) Oh boy.

Well, instead, Coursera is going to want those insects to stay around because it recently announced that they are jettisoning their MOOC certification strategy to compete in the learning managment system (LMS) market instead. That’s right: they are taking on Blackboard. From a purely self-interested perspective, that’s awesome, not because I ever really worried about losing my job to the MOOC revolution, but because Blackboard sucks and it well could use some competition.

Higher education strategy associates blogs here:

Coursera has simply never had a coherent plan to generate revenue.  Oh sure, it had a bunch of ideas about how to do it, which were outlined in this leaked MOU with the University of Michigan, but few seem to have panned out.  The only thing we’ve heard from Coursera is that their idea for charging people for certificates of completion netted $220,000 in Q1 of this year.  Given that Coursera’s annual burn rate seems to be in the neighbourhood of $10M (that’s on top of their partners spending $50K/course to place it on the Coursera platform), this is peanuts.  Allegedly, they were going to try to make money on a bunch of other things, like being scouts for businesses on the lookout for bright young talent, but there have been no announcements of revenue from these sources.  Given how the tech news industry works, it’s a safe bet that means the figure is close to zero.

Now it’s entirely possible that one of other big MOOC companies, or a new one, will be able to figure out what Cousera’s management could not, or that their venture capital holders just weren’t patient enough to let them figure out.

But I do have to say: one of the reasons I’ve always wondered about the idea that MOOCs were magic and going to disrupt universities was just the simple problem that people who can not afford university educations may not have tons of disposable income to spend on MOOC products, either, and the reliance on numbers to make the $$$$ may miss the market by a lot because MOOCs are not the first idea that was supposed to be cashing in on the big global numbers that have failed to materialize. Bottom billion, any one? Undoubtedly an important group, but they’ve been devilishly hard to market to.  Scanning through online life course sites and programs…these charge about $100 a week and up to belong to (not kidding).  That’s expensive.

There are lots of people who are likely happy to download and watch lectures by Mike Sandel (he really is quite a good lecturer), but the number of people who want to commit to doing anything even remotely resembling work is much lower, and even lower than that are probably the number of people willing to pay for credit in this way. The number of people walking through the door at universities who are really college-ready strikes me as dwindling. The idea that they can just log in and flourish, even with online peer help, strikes me as silly. (They’ve had peer help all along; why is it magical just because it’s online?)

After months and months of listening to people crow about how I was going to be out of job (since when was that anything other than bad manners, btw?),  I have to say my favorite writing about MOOCs came from New York Times  freelancer A.J. Jacobs with Grading the MOOC university. This is a guy who doesn’t have a dog in the fight. He’s not a blowhard like Christensen reveling in his position in the university status hierarchy and kicking mud at the rest of us non-famous schmucks. He’s also not one of us non-famous schmucks just trying to do our jobs in a hostile world that keeps telling us how useless  we are.  He just took a few classes and wrote about them. Here’s a  sample:

Consider my history study group, which met at a Brooklyn diner. Well, “met” might be a generous verb. I showed up, but no one else did. A few days later, my Twitter study-buddy also blew me off.

and what I’ve always suspected:

But MOOCs provided me with the thrill of relatively painless self-improvement and an easy introduction to heady topics. And just as important, they gave me relief from the guilt of watching “Swamp People.”

I think online content has a great deal to offer, and like Jacobs, I really enjoy watching online lectures and learning new things this way, too, and I”m not hostile to the notion we might be able to share content in new and exciting ways, and it would be wonderful if higher education became more accessible and more affordable.

But I am dubious that a recording of Mike Sandel replaces me entirely, for only a tiny part of my teaching job involves lectures, and I doubt very much that the care, decency, and experience I try to bring to my colleagues and students can be  replaced by a Twitter buddy.  Excuse me if that makes me a self-interested dinosaur unwilling to see the Revolution waiting to fall on poor, non-famous me.