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Will MOOC Technology Break the Education Cartel?

Jonathan Nalder

Part 1. The obligatory history lesson:

It happened to the record industry first. While popular music had long been available on radio, it could be argued that a true music industry as we know it today didn’t arise until the 50‘s and 60‘s when distributable media and players became widely available. To summarize – you bought your music on record, then on 8-track, then on cassette, and then on CD once again. Sounds very much like a ‘cartel’, or “association of suppliers with the purpose of maintaining prices at a high level and restricting competition”. Record companies (not artists generally) held the content and the means of distributing it to us the passive consumer.

But that’s where technology turned. CD drives in computers plus early sharing software like Napster meant that instead of getting good at mashing the pause button on your stereo so recording to cassette stopped before the adds kicked in, you could rip a whole CD to MP3 in minutes and upload it for anyone who was also connected to the net. You could also bypass the record stores entirely by downloading songs, for free. It meant you didn’t have to buy your music a fourth time in some other format – you now controlled the file. No it wasn’t legal, but it was what the people wanted.

Fast forward to 2013 and we can choose to buy tracks one at time instead of ten at a time. NOW we have Pandora, and Spotify and Rdio et al. Now Music gets pushed to me. Now I tap a thumbs up button and more great tunes keep rolling in, for free if I put up with the Pandora Ads like four times an hour.

Imagine if the streaming music app Pandora was the education system. How would that change things?

The ‘cartel’ has been broken, or at least radically forced to change its ways. Dropping DRM restrictions on music files for instance means we the customer can choose when, where and how we want to store and play our music. Funny then that last year was the first time in a decade that the music industry saw an uptick in profits – after finally signing licenses for online services that are very similar to Napster.

Now get ready to lose your job – so says Jon Evans in a recent article at TechCrunch. His argument is that nearly all industries are facing a similar shakeup as the digital revolution enters a new stage and the stuff of the world moves into silicon. He quotes Chris Dixon’s remarkable idea that just as in the previous four technological revolutions, we are at the stage where new tech is replacing traditional jobs before new digital industries that will appear have had a chance to create new ones.

For example, as information has moved online, print newspapers are failing faster than they can hit on a successful digital strategy. Indeed, Wired reported nearly a year ago that some sports journalism jobs have already been taken by software that in part takes advantage of the proliferation of easily accessible data.

Part 2. The MOOC did it: What it all means for Education

“Education is the cartel that technology is going to break next” Heppell, 2011

“Higher education is just on the edge of the crevasse … I think even five years from now these enterprises are going to be in real trouble” Clay Christensen, 2013

So what about the education system? I mean its truly one of the only things that everybody has in common. In many countries its 5 days a week for up to 12-18 years!  Its a system where what you will learn (the content) and how you will learn it (the curriculum) is highly regulated and centrally controlled, with the user/learner having very little say in either. Its also traditionally been an industry slow to adopt new technology. The US Department of Commerce found in 2003 that Education was actually the least IT intensive of 55 major industries (Dumagan, Gill, Ingram 2003). This may be due to an in-built caution when it comes to something as important as education, or it could be a lack of funding or access, particularly in the developing world.

There are some positive signs however that progress has been made in the last ten years. It was in February of this year that TechCrunch declared that ‘Massively Open Online Courses’ (MOOCs) were replacing physical colleges at a ‘crazy fast pace’, citing examples like the 125 million people who had signed up to MITs Open Courseware project, and the fact that some colleges are now offering courses that require no class time at all. Talk about giving the people what they want. It’s been compared to the introduction of self-serve in grocery stores in the 70’s and 80’s whereby a digitally-accessible education sees people picking and choosing their own learning rather than waiting for a ‘grocer’ to assemble it for them.

Increased learning options

So where once you chose one college or university and hoped that each semester there would be an interesting subject available to you, the availability of MOOCs means that anyone with an internet connection can choose a course from the world’s top universities such as MIT and Harvard, often for free.

For the remote and distant learners I work with, or those in developing countries where university-level education is not universally accessible, it means something even more – being able to study at all, and world-class courses at that. AfterSchoolAfrica.com has a good summary here if you need a quick overview of the history of MOOCs so far by the way.

Leveraging mobile device penetration rates

The other example of Education defying its ‘slow to adopt’ past has been the rise of mobile devices and the increased access to content they engender. Let’s take one of the best known as a case study – from nowhere in 2010 to outselling all Apple desktops and laptops in schools by mid-2012 by a factor of two, the impact of the iPad in Education has been an immediate one.

Tim Cook reported in October 2012 that over 2500 US schools were already using them. Closer to my home in Australia, the University of Western Sydney announced in December 2012 that 11,000 students will be equipped with iPads, and there are at least five ICT projects that I’m involved with that service remote and Indigenous learners using iPads as the content delivery mechanism.

App culture shock

It has also been the rise of the app-culture that arrived with the iPhone, iPad and Android devices that has disrupted the traditional delivery of content ie. apps like Zite push news about your interests to you for free in a way that apps by traditional Newspaper publications don’t seem to have ever considered. And the aforementioned Pandora (available on the web or even on older devices such as first generation Android phones) does the same for music.

Much of this ‘mobile device as distribution platform for online content’ model that is relevant for higher end devices is relevant for other platforms like that pioneered by World Reader who have used the Kindle eReader to now successfully deploy 441,000 books where there previously were none to over 3000 children in sub-saharan Africa. The project has also used a mobile phone app to deliver books to 500,000 mobile readers.

There is also an element where MOOCs + mobile devices allow the user to create and distribute their own content, whether it be using Udemy.com’s free online course tools, or iBooks Author for the iPad eco-system.

Part 3. The Future with MOOCs

So what will the Education system look like once this phase of massive online courses (content delivery) and smartphone/tablet integration (distribution) stabilises into a ‘deployment’ phase , and will it be lead by educators or entrepreneurs, a tension that apparently was highly obvious at the recent South by Southwest Education event in the US?

If you want my opinion, and lets face it, you’ve read this far, I see that what is emerging will be courses and schools based on interest not just on the luck of the draw method we currently have thats decided by where you live or postcode, ie. where you happen to live. Once flexible and even user-generated learning content embedded in MOOC’s trickles down to a primary school level, and super-capable mobile devices like smartphones and tablets are deployed widely enough to provide ubiquitous access, its really only the process we use to harness them (especially how to keep some strategic face to face time in the mix) that remains to be solved.

As OpenCulture.com has highlighted, MOOC dropout rates are extreme, with some such as a Duke University course run through the Coursera MOOC only seeing 3% of 6000 initial enrollments complete the course. This is the peak of the curve referred to in the EdTechDebate teaser email. Converting enrollments to completions by getting the human interaction element right may be key in justifying the current massive investment in MOOCs once the first phase of excitement abates.

For learners in remote locations or developing countries the promise of increased access to the keys of education must of course also be considered in light of the reality of the internet access needed to make much of it possible. For the present, using SMS (current example here; more info here), or basic mobile phone apps like in the WorldReader exemplar above have been shown to be successful options.

When these aspects are satisfactorily solved then, we are left to ask – Can we actually trust people to choose their own education like they choose toothbrushes, or say, tracks on Pandora? Sugatra Mitra who just won the $1 million dollar TED prize for his ‘school in a wall’ work would say yes. Do yourself a favour and ponder all these questions while watching his presentation here. Does it make you want to tap ‘thumbs up’ to add more like it to your stream of learning content?

Jonathan is a Mobile and Digital Learning Project Officer supporting remote and Indigenous learners in Queensland Australia, as well as an NMC K-12 Ambassador, Apple Distinguished Educator and former OLPC Deployment Support Officer. You can read more of his articles at his Education blog, follow his #EdTech tweets as @jnxyz, offer him a job if you think he can help, or find additional links and bio at jnxyz.net.

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