Online Courses @ Elite Campuses: what to avoid when you’re brewin’ up some Kickapoo Joy Juice

MOOC platforms are the new startups.  Literally. We are closing in on a half billion dollars pouring into online education companies like Coursera, Udacity, and edX. Tens of millions of dollars are flying out the door of places like MIT, Stanford and U Penn to produce new instructional materials.

Nobody really knows how it will all turn out, but  these are experiments that need to be given time, space, and dollars to to incubate innovation.  But what exactly does that mean?  And what models are available to institutions that want to try to create such safe spaces for innovation?

When the residents of Al Capp’s mystical, mythical Uncertain Hamlet of Dogpatch needed to brew up a batch of Kickapoo Joy Juice, they did on the edge of town.  It was a smelly, messy process and the factory was better suited to the environs of Skunk Hollow — “worse than the badlands” — than the otherwise proper City of Dogpatch.  By the way, being worse than the badlands is a real black mark because in the Badlands “it’s no good here.”

The vision of Skonkworks, perched on the edge of Skunk Hollow, belching the byproducts of producing exquisite joy juice has been a metaphor for internal innovation ever since.

The approach at Georgia Tech has been to create an internal laboratory to try things out. Other places have tasked educational technology groups, CETLs, or distance education departments.  They are all  Skunkworks.  Just don’t call them internal startups. That is a sure path to failure.

When it comes to skunkworks, there are ideas to try out and ideas to avoid.  A colleague of mine once started a discussion by saying, “Let’s begin by figuring out what the administration will allow us to do.”  What a terrible idea — a rookie error. It defines your design space by all kinds of parameters that have nothing to do with success.

But it is easy to fall into this kind of trap.  There are plenty of examples of “internal startups” that failed in exactly this way.  It’s not just that online courses at elite campuses are brewing their own brand of joy juice.  New developments like MOOCs exist to bend perceptions and blur boundaries, so using traditional perceptions and boundaries to explore MOOC potential doesn’t make a lot of sense.

I want to repost a series of articles I wrote last year about this topic.   I think the lessons apply to academia.

Next:  The Internal Startup

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