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

I am not above false equivalencies. I know that the “liberal” in “liberal arts” has nothing to do political liberals as in “Don’t vote for that tax-and-spend liberal”. But it is ironic  that virtually all of the negative comments that  Jeff Selingo’s article about giving engineers a chance to innovate in higher education came from my colleagues in the liberal arts and humanities.  That’s also been my experience with Abelard to Apple reviews and comments on this blog. The general form of the rebuke is

Ewww! We don’t want engineers running things.  Engineers are [insert your favorite stereotypical character flaw here]

I imagine that conjured images of pocket-protected geeks, possibly wearing glasses that have been recently repaired with white adhesive tape, making decisions in isolation of every true human emotion are supposed to rise from the printed page:

Engineers indeed have experience and skills solving problems, engineering problems, that is. These are the identical, limited skills that can make them exceptionally poor organizational leaders.  “Turn the crank and out will pop the solution” is good engineering but is not leadership.

Academics are deadly serious about this sort of stuff, and it infects decision-making at all levels of a university. It is a meme that pushes search committees away from candidates with technical credentials, for example.  The conversation that takes place out of earshot ends something like this:

I have to admit that this strategy is efficient .  It lets you separate the good ideas from the bad ideas before even hearing them. What about the pesky counter-examples? “Never mind the success of Silicon Valley.  Engineering leaders and their innovations probably played no role at all.”

There are some on my side of the fence who have a similar reaction to the humanities. I was in a Silicon Valley meeting a few weeks ago when an engineer went nearly apoplectic over the idea that the liberal arts would claim any academic legitimacy: “What do they do that’s useful?” he demanded to know.  “They’re trained circus performers!”

But this kind of reaction is relatively rare — perhaps because so many of us had liberal arts backgrounds before we became engineers. I wish the reverse were true for the humanities and the liberal arts, where it is frequently a badge of honor to proclaim ignorance of technical matters.

Back to my false equivalency. It is not worthy of the  “liberal” in “liberal arts” to pick this kind of fight. It is certainly not worthy of John Kennedy’s famous definition of a “liberal”

Someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions,

On the other hand, false equivalencies abound on the the other side, too.  Here’s my favorite: “The value of the liberal arts is self-evident and, since we are the only ones who know how to teach this stuff, so is the value of our liberal arts curricula self-evident.”  If you think I’m kidding, you might want to watch Stanley Fish defend exactly that position in the video above.

I can understand a certain amount of  defensive wagon-circling when the conversation veers toward value. Especially when a first-rate liberal arts education costs $200,000. I don’t think it’s a smart fight for the humanities faculty to pick.

Join Abelard to Apple author Rich DeMillo and hosts Allen Cardoza and Melody Foxx to discuss the changing landscape in American higher education:  What’s behind rising college tuition?  How should families select colleges?  Will a college degree ever pay for itself?  What does it mean to be a university in a world that’s been flattened by technology and economic interdependence?

Listen live or download  the complete show. here.

I wanted to draw your attention to a new blog from my colleague Aaron Lanterman.  He calls it Edupocalypse Now: Education and Innovation in the End Times and I encourage you to visit it here Aaron’s first post is abouit taking the bullshit out of degree requirements. Here’s a sample of what you can expect:

One summer, I took a class in ancient and modern Japanese culture. Out of the list of courses that would satisfy that particular well-roundedness requirement, I’m not sure why I picked that class in particular. My father won a computer art contest in the early 1980s, and the prize was a family trip to Japan. I have fond memories of that trip; that might have contributed to my decision, but I’m not sure. I recall writing a term paper for the class, but I can’t recall what I wrote about. The professor told some interesting stories about this adventures in Japan, although I can’t remember any of them now. Relatively speaking, I suppose I enjoyed the class. The material was somewhat interesting, and at the time I probably would have defended having to take it as contributing to my “well roundedness.”

But almost two decades later, I realize it was a waste of everyone’s money and time.

It was a waste of my parent’s money. It was a waste of my time. And having spent the last decade as a professor, I now realize it was a waste of the professor’s time.

Aaron says he was inspired by a few Georgia Tech colleagues but in an email he sent to me this morning he says:

I’ve been reading Roger Schank’s blog. I think I am becoming radicalized. After reading his posts I want to run around screaming “RAAAAAAAR! RAAAAAAAAAAAR!” I should probably channel that into something more constructive.

I have great respect for Roger Schank’s ability to create a new generation of radicals, so I suspect this is Aaron’s real inspiration.

I am now showing EN’s RSS feed on the right hand  column, and I hope you visit the site often and even say RAAAAAR! once in awhile.

Rich DeMillo spoke at the American University Library Digital Futures Forum last week  The subject was the transformational power of media and how digital literacy is changing higher education.  Rich’s talk focused on the speed with which incumbents can be swept aside in the face of social, economic and political changes: traditional universities have been slow to recognize that change.  Rich used Massive Open Online Courses as a metaphor for mentoring and peer-to-peer learning when online technologies are used intelligently.  His conclusion?  There is actually nothing very radical about a MOOC, and existing technologies are already being deployed widely.

Watch the video here.

The session concluded with a panel discussion.

  • Laura DeNardis, Associate Professor, School of Communication
  • Jill Klein, Information Technology Executive in Residence, Kogod School of Business
  • Christopher Simpson, Professor of Journalism, School of Communication
  • Moderator: Alex Hodges, Assistant Director for Library Instruction, University Library


The first thing you notice is the chaos.  There is no one in charge. No place to go to find out what to do. There was a time when Apple stores did not have blue-t-shirt greeters at the front door.  You just had to stand there, trying to make sense of the clusters of customers, gawkers, helpers, facilitators, and salesmen.  Everyone  seemed to be either milling around or hustling off someplace with a sense of purpose, while you just stood there wondering what to do next. My first experience with a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) was like that.

I was writing the chapter on open learning in Abelard to Apple when I noticed that a group of Canadian learning technologists and innovators, led by George Siemens, Stephen Downes and David Cormier were organizing a course that was open to the world.  Here is how I described it in Abelard to Apple:

Open-ended college courses are uncommon, but not for any pedagogical reason. There is no theory that dictates how college degree programs should be chopped into courses or how many semesters there should be, except that everything should work out to be just long enough to fit the required number of credits. Many institutions offer “Maymester” terms that fit between spring and summer and last two or three weeks. Advanced material is sometimes taught in small recitation groups and is spread over several semesters because there are as of yet no textbooks in the field and therefore no natural course boundaries. The length of a college course is a number that is chosen arbitrarily, and it varies from place to place.

Attendance is also a loosely defined idea for most college courses. In Europe, where completion of course requirements is determined by final examinations, attendance has no meaning at all, and students feel free to drop in when it suits them. Even in American classrooms, instructors rarely take attendance, and the only evidence that regular attendance affects learning is purely anecdotal.

There is no scientific reason that universities have not organized their curricula around Erdös-style open-ended courses. In 2008, George Siemens, a professor at Athabasca University—the Canadian version of Britain’s Open University—and a research scientist for the Canadian National Research Council named Stephen Downes decided to offer a course on a theory of learning that they call Connectivism and Connective Knowledge, or CCK. CCK is a long tail concept, a pedagogical theory asserting that learning takes place as students discover how to navigate the interconnected networks across which knowledge is distributed. Their course was about CCK and simultaneously used CCK as the primary teaching method. It was offered again in 2009, and eventually attracted several thousand students.

I not only wandered into a MOOC, but I also was handed a blue t-shirt, one of those black id tags on a lanyard, and a mobile phone so that I can connect new arrivals to people who can actually help them. This happened last year when George sent me an email asking whether I was interested in participating in a new MOOC that he was organizing.  This one was about change in higher education. He wanted to call it, appropriately enough, “Change, Education, Learning, and Technology.”  I said, “Sure!”.

Here’s where the Change MOOC lives.  Actually, it lives lots of places.  You can find it here as well. And if you are a member of the Georgia Tech community you can also find it here. There are Twitter feeds that you can find with the hash tag #change11. There is even a virtual study group at  Change11 is just entering its 5th week, and there is already more content than I can track.  I find myself paging though FlipBook late at night just to see what’s up.

Who’s taking the course?  It’s really impossible to say because many of the thousands who have registered already never say who they are or participate in the online discussions.  But many hundreds do. They are mainly teachers, and they come from elementary and secondary schools around the world.  There are also a fair number of educational consultants, bloggers, and professors who do research in education and educational technology.  Conversational clusters self-organize. There are fights that crop up among groups that hold differing positions on important issues, and there are a few water balloons that are lobbed between groups.  There are trouble makers, and serious students, casual observers and opinion-makers.

Who’s missing? People who should be getting comfortable with the disruptive forces in higher education. There are almost no university administrators or technology managers.   EDUCAUSE is nowhere to be seen.  There are dozens of websites that devoted to studying and commenting on policy issues, but if they are aware of Change11, they are silent about it.

Is Change11 or MOOC-fication the wave of the future? Probably not.  It’s an experiment.  It is no more likely to be predictive of what the future of higher education will be like than Stanford’s open course on Artificial Intelligence. Like all experiments, success is not the important factor. One thing is certain: higher ed desperately needs innovation and the only way to innovate is to try out a lot of ideas.

I was attracted to the MOOC concept because it illustrated a narrative that I was constructing for my book, but I was drawn into the idea of the course by the Greeters who assured me that the whole point of being there was to navigate  concepts and discussions that were meaningful to me.

So now I find myself greeting new arrivals with: “Hi, I’m Rich. Can I help you find what you need?”

If you are lost already — if you feel like you have jumped into the middle of a conversation — then let me suggest that you click on the video above.

Nothing like a hot button to get a conversation off on the right foot. They are sometimes understandable (poor Moe!). Academic hot buttons are interesting precisely because they are — at some level — irrational. Just mentioning some topics provokes a predictable and outsized reaction. It’s as if context doesn’t matter and facts can be brushed aside. These are not discussions so much as border skirmishes where the very idea needs to be vanquished as soon as it rears its head.

It was inevitable that Abelard to Apple would provoke “Niagara Falls…” moments. Here are my current favorites:

  1. Technology: You only have to say the word and to call down the wrath of purists who want to claim (a) you have lost your mind for wanting to replace teachers with grainy online videos, (b) there is incontrovertible proof that the current — that is to say the millennium old sage on a stage — method of organizing classes around lectures and exams is still the best, (c) accrediting agencies will rain down fire and brimstone at the merest utterance, or (d) you must be on the take from the evil For-Profit institutions. Not much room for discussion here. Never mind that a majority of university presidents now embrace both online instruction and the increasingly sophisticated online tools or the growing body of research that points toward the value of blended approaches.
  2. Business Model: “Student are not customers!” and “We do not make products!” are the enraged cries of some of my academic colleagues. Sometimes things spiral out of control so fast that I don’t have time to say, “Yes, but…” As in “Yes, but universities take money in, spend money, and if what they spend is more than what they take in, they go out of business.” As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, the number of institutions facing insolvency as a result of ignoring business fundamentals is growing at an alarming rate. Student debt is now unsustainable. Public confidence continues on a 20-year downward path. Even if you firmly believe that putting “college” and “business” together in the same sentence is morally indefensible, you still have to make payroll next week.
  3. Homogeneity of university leadership. This one is tougher because I have so many friends who are presidents. “We are not all cut from the same cloth!” and “I say what I say because my institution is [insert positive characteristic here].” is their response. As Clark Kerr pointed out a generation ago it’s not only training and culture that matter here. The inaugural addresses of university presidents are largely interchangeable. Their view of the challenges facing higher education is uniformly out of sync with the general public. For example: a recent Pew poll found that while the majority of Americans feel that a college education is increasingly unaffordable and not doing a good job, nearly 80% of college presidents think they are doing an excellent job.

I’ll keep track of the reactions of my colleagues and let you know what the trends are.

I will have something to say soon about the value of courses in the liberal arts and humanities. I can almost hear it now:

“Slowly I turn, step by step, inch by inch…”