When Pearson’s OpenClass was announced about a year and a half ago, the natural question to ask was whether it would disrupt the LMS market. But that was then and this is now. (Full disclosure: Pearson is a client of MindWires Consulting.) The more interesting question today is where OpenClass stands vis-à-vis the MOOCs. To begin with, it certainly appears that the LMS and MOOC markets may be on a collision course. But beyond that, Pearson is a content provider first and foremost. With both the content and the platform at their disposal, as well as an array of assessment tools, they certainly have all the raw materials to build MOOCs. Is that where OpenClass is going? I recently had a short conversation with Pearson’s SVP of Product, Adrian Sannier, to find out. And the answer appears to be, “Not exactly.”
Even within the xMOOC crowd, there has been a stepping back from talk of disrupting college and more effort to show how MOOCs and traditional colleges can co-exist peacefully. Witness, for example, Sebastian Thrun’s talk about “MOOC 2.0″ including teacher facilitation and the pilot of just such a program between Udacity and SJSU. And Instructure, when announcing its Canvas Network, was very clever in positioning itself as the friend of the university, in contrast to those shifty xMOOC characters. That makes sense for Instructure, given that the university is the company’s natural customer. For Pearson and other textbook companies, their natural customer is the instructor (even though the student pays). So it wasn’t terribly surprising to hear Sannier say, “Teacher-led instruction is the future. But teacher-led instruction powered by much more powerful educational support technology and tools than in the past.” What is more interesting is how he threads the needle: “Somebody will make a math class with 6 million students around the world. But it will be offered locally with teachers at a scale of between 1 to 20 and 1 to 50. Because teachers matter.”
This is where we start getting to some interesting frontiers, in my opinion. Leaving aside the exact teacher/student ratios, it seems likely to me that we will see a proliferation of different models that combine some elements of “massiveness” (or, at least, “scale”) with some elements of a small, possibly local class. Implicit in that mix is a new balance between the pedagogical work done by the course materials, the professor, and the students themselves. But how does the mix work? There is going to be more than one answer to that question, depending on the course subject, goals, and audience, but I’d like to start seeing some models.
Sannier provided some hints about how he sees it working. He talked about the course as a community, although it wasn’t clear to me how much he meant a community of students and how much he meant a community of teachers. Each course would have a range of modules. Teachers could select the modules that they think are best for their students and, presumably customize. He suggested that analytics could “maintain individuality while providing the benefits of scale.” I suppose what he means by that is that analytics can enable adaptivity (of both the content and the teacher) to personalize to the student’s needs while, on the other hand, identify the best elements of the course and provide direction for improvements to the course design by analyzing the patterns in large numbers of students using the courseware.
Another way in which he talks about the benefits of scale is in the course design itself. He said there simply aren’t resources to design cutting-edge digitally enhanced courses at local institutions. But if you amortize the costs over millions of students, you can bring substantial resources to bear even at a reasonable price to students. This is one area in which Pearson has a big leg up on the MOOCs. They are struggling to figure out how to charge any money at all for their products. In contrast, a textbook publisher can bring a $50 product to the market and have it look cheap. That means Pearson can make substantial investments in course development and be fairly confident that they will get a return on their investment.
All of this is very interesting, but still vague. What, exactly, would a course design look like? What kind of resources would it include? Adrian mentioned the specific example of a course called Habitable Worlds, developed by Professor Ariel Anbar of ASU and soon to be brought to the OpenClass platform. I asked for and received permission to talk to Professor Anbar about his course, and will write about that conversation in a future post.