You may have seen this week’s announcement from Instructure of their new Canvas Network to support MOOCs and other open courses. Blackboard has already been dipping its toe in this water, having had Curtiss Bonk run a MOOC on CourseSites. I also find it significant that Blackboard (somewhat awkwardly) made an attempt to remind the market of this fact on the same day as Instructure’s announcement. I predict that “MOOC” will reach the same level of hype at this year’s EDUCAUSE conference that “open” did last year.
But hype aside, it’s worth asking what it means for the traditional LMS players to be marketing themselves as platforms for MOOCs and other open courses.
What Instructure Announced
Let’s start with the basics. As far as I can tell from a brief conversation with the Instructure folks as well as various articles that have already been published on the announcement, the initial release of the Canvas Network doesn’t bring a lot of new functionality. It was already possible to publish courses on Canvas that didn’t require a login to see. The main new capability seems to be the catalog that allows courses to be discovered across institutions. Blackboard’s CourseSites provides this functionality today, and Moodle supports the creation of a kind of catalog through federating different Moodle installations in what they call a community hub:
We can talk about the quality of these implementations relative to each other, but this is a general trend in the LMS world. And let’s be clear: This is not, in and of itself, about improving the quality of open course pedagogy or experience. It is about improving open course discoverability.
More interesting than the new features are the comments made by Instructure management. First, Instructure Co-Founder Brian Whitmer said to both me and ZDNet’s Christopher Dawson that this isn’t just about MOOCs. It’s about open education in general. He stressed in his conversation to me that we don’t really know what MOOCs are good for yet, and it is therefore important to empower schools to experiment. If you think about it from that perspective, then making courses more discoverable is a reasonable place to start. CEO Josh Coates echoed this sentiment in his conversation with Campus Technology, along with an interesting follow-on bit:
“MOOCs are a part of education,” rather than the be-all and end-all of education. And he characterized the service as an “alternative platform that isn’t only for the elite schools. We’re opening up a platform for everyone else” and, he said, providing support for “dozen to tens of thousands of students.”
This is clearly a slam on MOOC providers—and now competitors—Coursera and edX.1 Further, in some vintage Coates trash talk, he tells Audrey Watters that “We don’t have to make up some weird business model.” This is an interesting (and savvy) set of messages to Instructure’s customers and prospects. First, you non-”elite” schools do not need to feel threatened by or shut out of the MOOC mania. Instructure has your back. Second, MOOCs may not be the big answer anyway, so don’t get too worried about that. Instructure will support you no matter what the next flavor of the day turns out to be. And third, don’t you feel just a little icky about that Coursera contract and all the sketchy ways they’re trying to come up with to make money off your students?
How Disruptive Is Your Innovation?
From a business perspective, Instructure is pushing for open education and MOOCs to be sustaining innovations rather than disruptive ones. The company makes its money off of institutional sales to schools. It is looking to bolster its business model by enabling those schools to use open courses as marketing tools. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it represents the status quo and stands in contrast to the more ”disruptive” visions for the role of the MOOC. I’m going to leave aside a comparison to cMOOCs, which have been done well elsewhere. Instead, I want to focus on the differences among the xMOOC strands. Note, for example, the breathless language in the TechCrunch article about Udacity’s latest round of funding:
In Udacity’s case, they’re disrupting the idea that access to higher education is something which can only be found through the traditional university system. Says Levine of startup, it’s “a team and company that we’re absolutely convinced will change the world.”
The “Levine” quoted here is none other than Peter Levine, General Partner of Andreessen Horowitz and investor in Udacity. In his blog post entitled, “Software Eats Education: An Audacious Undertaking,” he writes:
I also recognize that education methods have not fundamentally changed in hundreds—possibly even thousands—of years. The core learning structure has always been and remains one teacher and a limited number of students. This structure reduces learning opportunities for much of the world’s population (even in first-world countries) and limits the impact of the best educators to no more than a few dozen lucky individuals a year.
But it doesn’t have to continue like this. From a business perspective, this is a supply and demand problem in that the demand for quality education is not being met by an adequate supply of learning opportunities. From a technology perspective, this is a problem that can now be solved with software. From a societal perspective, there should be alarm bells going off for everyone that this is an issue that requires our boldest ideas and brightest minds.
And that’s why we’re so excited to announce our investment in Udacity, a team and company that we’re absolutely convinced will change the world. We believe the next big disruptive trend in software will focus on education and we feel that this is the team that will lead the way.
Let’s start with what Udacity does. By leveraging the economics of the Internet, Udacity aims to democratize education by delivering world-class coursework to hundreds of thousands of students everywhere. There’s no doubt that online learning will radically shift the economics of education. Udacity has the magic formula because they are combining their platform with their content to make learning highly interactive, targeted and instantly available to students around the world.
Levine believes that software will “eat” education. He leaves unsaid who will be disrupted, but it’s pretty clearly traditional schools (and probably textbook publishers as well). Notice the last sentence of the quote. The key, in his mind, is the combination of the platform with the content. This is in direct contrast to Instructure’s (or Coursera’s) take on open education being another vehicle for traditional institutions and MOOC-enabling startups really just providing platforms. It is possible for both of these visions to come true at the same time. Udacity may thrive in the same world where traditional universities offer MOOCs. There are lots of niches to be filled and lots of demand that is as yet unmet. But these two models are definitely in competition with each other.
(By the way, for a good read on this whole “disruption is inherently good” craze, be sure to read Pando Daily’s take-down of Uber and follow-up piece. I’m a fan of Clayton Christensen, but there’s a big difference between saying “gravity exists, so let’s make sure we understand it” and “gravity is awesome, so let’s push more things off cliffs.”)
What’s Missing From All of This
In my view, there are two elements that are still missing from both of these visions. The first is a sustainability model. The MOOC-as-platform idea (which was also espoused by Union Square Ventures partner Fred Wilson in his interview with David Wiley, even as he weirdly asserted simultaneously that these innovations should disrupt schools) seems to assume that schools will know how to bring open education courses online and make them work from mission and funding perspectives. What are these things for? How do they align with university missions? How will they be paid for? We are seeing a gold rush right now, and we know how gold rushes tend to end. (Remember Fathom, anybody?) As Instructure correctly points out, there are many different flavors of open education. In order for schools to take on online education in general and open ed in particular in a valuable and sustainable way, they need to have a clear understanding of why they are doing it and how different approaches align (or don’t) with the school’s mission and strategic goals. In this regard, if you haven’t read Phil Hill’s recent EDUCAUSE article yet, you should. He does a great job of beginning to lay out the landscape.
Second, the biggest missing piece from both models is…you know…teaching. While the cMOOCs are doing some interesting experimentation in pedagogy, I see little innovation in either course design or platform affordances in the xMOOCs. Udacity’s big invention was multiple-choice quizzes built into videos. Coursera has messed around with peer review, but because they don’t actually work with faculty on course designs, it’s not clear that it’s being used effectively by anyone. For starters, designing effective rubrics is hard. If that step isn’t done right, then peer review falls down. Overall, while the xMOOCs may make noises about disruptive innovation, from a pedagogical perspective, they don’t fundamentally change the lecture-and-quiz model of the traditional classroom. And if we know that model doesn’t work particularly well for a class of 150 students, what makes us think it will work better for a class of 15,000?
- As a side note, could somebody please provide me with the proper capitalization in “EdX”? They don’t seem to be entirely consistent. [↩]