Milo and I have already discussed sources of disruption in this blog (see for instance Milo’s Start with Geostrategy, or call it Tactics), and we’ve particularly discussed the role of technology as a source of disruption. But it is one thing is to describe disruption, and another to experience it. In that context, I created and ran a MOOC (an online course) on entrepreneurship last November, and thought I’d share the results of this effort for two reasons. First, because MOOCs are poised to disrupt education and second, because there’s been some controversy about them. So let’s go through my experience and see what it tells us.
If you have been living on Mars for the last few years, MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course. They have been around since about 2011, but they really took off in 2012 with the likes of Coursera, Udacity and edX. In many cases, however, they seem to have run into difficulties. Several high-profile failures, have prompted skeptics to underline their limitations and write them off. Are they doomed? Are they the future? Nobody knows.
Because there is so much uncertainty, I thought the best way to make sense of MOOCs would be to create one, so I did. I created a MOOC on entrepreneurship with my school, EMLYON Business School. It’s a six-week introductory course based on effectuation, a particular approach to entrepreneurship that is gaining popularity.
A 29% completion rate
The course was in French, and 9,200 participants registered before we closed the registration in the second week. Participants came from all over the world: France of course, but also Canada and especially Africa. Of these, 2,700 participants finished the course and 2,500 obtained the certification. While the absolute number of registrations is not ‘massive’, that gives us a 29% completion rate and a 27% certification rate, far higher than what is observed with other MOOCs one reads about. So a MOOC doesn’t have to be too massive to be successful (though after one MOOC, I have taught more students online in this single course than I have in all my traditional lectures combined).
What can explain such a result? Mostly it was the social dimension we gave to the course, which motivated participants to continue despite the workload (many of them had a daytime job and a family, and this was the end of the year). This social dimension was achieved in several ways:
- First, we ensured a continued presence of the teaching team (ie myself, a teaching assistant and two community managers) on the forums. In total, this gave more than 4,500 forum contributions by participants and the teaching team, a very lively experience indeed. We also grew an active Facebook group to 1,300 participants by the end of the course, and a LinkedIn group with more than 600 members.
- Second, we ensured that participants could work on real cases and interact with each other. For this, we asked participants who already had a startup project to present it in a dedicated area and solicit comments from other course participants. We called it ‘the lab’, and it had close to 200 such projects. In fact, discussions on forums related to the lab took a life of their own. Interestingly, the lab wasn’t really planned. It came about only a few days before launch as a side idea, and it was initially meant to feature only a few projects. It took off unexpectedly. Hence, another lesson is that a MOOC is a living thing, and the team must be prepared to react to unexpected successes or failures of particular aspects.
- Third, we asked participants to grade each other for the main homework, which was also based on a real case of a startup having some issues that they had to discuss. We were initially apprehensive about this grading approach, but eventually it worked well: very few were left without peer grade (about 50 out of 2,700) and almost no complaints were registered. Interestingly, many participants commented later that although they initially viewed peer-grading as a constraint, most ended up enjoying it as they felt that grading enhances learning.
So what else did we learn? A few things:
People want to learn. With more than 9,000 registered and nearly 3,000 of them went through, this MOOC has shown that the desire to learn is there. The success of MOOCs all over the world is also evidence of that. Most participants are people that the traditional teaching institutions do not serve well: workers, foreigners, in our case entrepreneurs. These are what Clayton Christensen calls in disruption literature the ‘non-consumers’. In other words, MOOCs don’t so much cannibalize existing schools as target non-consumers who couldn’t get education otherwise.
In addition, MOOCs democratize learning: what is striking in the population of participants is the diversity of origins: 63 countries were represented, participants aged between 16 and 78, 30 % were women, and people ranged from self-taught to engineers and doctors, and all types of professions. After the French (74%) , we had participants from Ivory Coast, Morocco, Cameroon, Tunisia, Algeria, Senegal, Burkina Faso and French Canada (Quebec).
Furthermore, MOOCs are effective: Skeptics cannot accept that one can learn with a MOOC, but my results show that it works. Many participants testified that the MOOC had taught them useful things that would have a real impact in their professional lives. This is particularly interesting insofar as this MOOC was conceived as a general introduction to principles rather than to provide tools one could use immediately. A traditional argument is that nothing can be as good as classroom interaction to learn, but this is not true. With simple videos but with a lot of online interaction, good learning takes place. It might not be perfect, but which classroom is? It is cheap, convenient, and it does work. It provides value.
MOOCs are social: It is often envisioned that a MOOC is a series of videos from a teacher that commuters look at distractedly on their way to do other things. This is far from true. Of course, videos are a necessary starting point but what this experience reinforced is that the MOOC can be a highly social activity, with the forums that went on form day one, where participants discussed topics of the course. Some participants naturally emerged as experts and actively participated in the discussions by providing answers, which enabled the teaching team to take a back seat from time to time and intervene only when necessary. This showed in many circumstances that collective intelligence may be greater than that of the teacher, however expert he or she may be. Towards the end, some participants even suggested to organize real meetings in different cities, and five such meetings took place creating new in-person relationships.
Related to the previous point, a MOOC cannot be a low-cost, degraded version of traditional teaching based solely on a series of videos with a quizz. This will repel participants and they will drop out. A MOOC requires significant investment not so much in technology (ours was a video plus pretty simple animations on a good Canvas platform), but in time by the teaching team. It must be quality work, and the team must be motivated by the fun of teaching and the fun of interacting with the participants.
This last point is important. Schools investing in MOOCs should know that quickies won’t succeed. The important investment in teaching and monitoring time means that not all faculty, to say the least, will be motivated. Top faculty, often recruited on their ability to publish, won’t be motivated, they won’t even be necessary. Good teaching assistants will be more valuable. As a result, one might wonder if MOOCs are a good play for established schools. It might be that the space is open for a new type of institution, what existing schools have ceased to be, i.e. institutions motivated by teaching. Based on Christensen’s research, we can expect that future MOOC players may be new entrants rather than the incumbent schools who might not go beyond the motion of having a MOOC or two to ‘tick the box’ and move on. Institutions like the UK’s Open University, however, might be better adapted than many traditional schools to take advantage of the MOOC challenge.
In any case, based on this experience, I am more convinced than ever of the importance of this mode of teaching in the future. They are in the Precambrian stage of their development. No one knows exactly how they will evolve or what they will look like in, say, ten years. They might even – hopefully! – have another name. What the skeptics fail to understand is that disruptive technologies and methods rarely succeed immediately. There are setbacks, which are usually widely publicized. But disruption is a process that unfolds over long periods. With MOOCs, the technology is in place. We now know it works, and we are beginning to have a good idea of what else works and what doesn’t. How MOOC differ from classroom experience (and how it might combine with them) is also becoming clear. Gradually MOOCs will become better. Those made on the cheap will disappear, and new players will emerge. Brace yourselves for the disruption.
The MOOC was created using the Canvas platform. Read an interesting article here from the American Interest: Winds of Change Still Blowing Through Groves of Academe.
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