MOOCs mania: a speculative bubble?

results of a survey by the french Ministry of Education

Results of a survey (Les usages pédagogiques du numérique) by the French Ministry of Education

A few days ago, I participated in a workshop at the DLD Festival in Tel Aviv about the “business model of online education” at the invitation of the World Economic Forum. The same day, the French Ministry of Education released the results of a survey that showed that only 5% of French students and less than 20% of their teachers knew precisely what it was about.

How can you think of a business model for MOOCs when your potential users don’t know what they are about?

In the book Mania, Panics, and Crashes — which I translated and first published into French back in 1993 — the American economist Charles Kindleberger  wrote that economic history is replete with manias of all kind: canal manias, railroad manias, joint stock company manias, real estate manias, and stock price manias. Are we facing a MOOCs mania, another speculative bubble that sooner or later will come to an end? It seems like all higher education actors and policymakers have decided to join in a race to create as many MOOCs as possible and register as many students as possible without always questioning the relevance of contents, the understanding of students or the soundness of the economic model.

Some predict the end of universities, overwhelmed by huge debts and financing problems, challenged by high unemployment rates for the youth they graduate and questioned by companies that don’t find the skills they need on the job market. We are so desperate to boost innovation and growth that we are ready to trust — almost with no data — the MOOCs model, even if we have no precise idea of how our investment will be recouped and if our target remains mostly ignorant of the MOOCs’ virtues.

There is something missing: ASPIRATION. For more than a thousand years, university has been at the core of people’s aspirations. Going to university was seen for students and their families as a symbol of perseverance and courage, a sign of sacrifice, a guarantee of a bright future. Just have a look at the stories of the first-generation students at MIT to be convinced that aspiration is still meaningful.

So what is aspirational in a MOOC? The opportunity to learn for free is not enough. It is not only a question of certification but a question of social recognition. What is at stake for the moment is not the business model of MOOCs but their social relevance. Going for higher education is more than an individual commitment to learn. It is part of a collective aspiration to achieve a better position in life, seize new opportunities and give back to society at least what one received. It is highly emotional – not only rational. But what is the emotional dimension of MOOCs?

If universities manage to escape the dilemma that has been imposed on them — go online or die — they will still be in time to realise they have much to say about aspiration and that they still can be the promoter of a new social model for learning, including MOOCs. They can be the promoters of a global vision that is missing today.

This social model will then eventually lead to a sound business model.

For those who are willing to contribute further to the debate, join the European MOOCs Stakeholders Summit.

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