Are MOOCs Higher Education’s Napster moment?
Today I attended Universities UK’s conference (#openandonline) on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) in London, which included excellent high-level talks from Martin Bean and Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts as well as some very good practical talks.
One question that came up several times during the day was this: “Are MOOCs HE’s Napster Moment?” A ‘Napster moment’ is when a new, online and often free technology enters a marketplace and disrupts it, as file-sharing service Napster did to music at the turn of the century. It revolutionised the way we think about, buy and share music and paved the way for – among others – iTunes.
Are MOOCs really HE’s Napster moment?
I don’t think so.
It makes much more sense to describe them as HE’s Amazon moment. Here’s how the Amazon platform has changed the book market, and the effect it has had on publishers (for which read universities):
1) One platform is dominant globally. Users know they can find almost whatever product they like there. They seldom visit publishers to buy direct. Will most university courses be bought this way in 10 years’ time? I think it likely.
2) There is an explosion in product breadth. In 2003, 300k books were registered for an ISBN. In 2012 there were over 15m. These books are now in many types of format, and of course there is a wide range of quality. For HE think of this as an explosion in types of offering, from a free MOOC, through a short certified course to 3-year residential degree (see November’s blog for more)
3) Margins are driven down. In publishing this has been caused by a combination of factors, not least Amazon’s sharp negotiating. Many publishers and books shops have gone bust as a result. Others, with different models, have entered the market. The analogy for HE is pretty clear, but I believe universities can avoid bankruptcy by working together and choosing their platforms carefully.
4) Others set the rules. From being the dominant force in the book world, publishers have in a few years found themselves forced to deal with a dominant platform which commands the market, distribution and pricing on a global scale.
5) Things take time to settle. They have not yet settled in the book world. There is disruption still to come. We can only be sure that things have changed forever.
Not all MOOC platforms are bad, but the similarity of universities now (dominant for centuries, with an efficient model of production) to publishers 10 to 15 years ago, is difficult to ignore. The reason the VC funders of Silicon Valley poured $22m into Coursera last year, and £20m into Udacity is precisely because they see this. They are looking for the next big bet, the next platform to dominate a lucrative market on a global scale.
And, as I have observed elsewhere, these numbers are tiny in comparison with the amount of funding sloshing around in the education technology world at the moment. We can only expect the pace of change to quicken and the stakes to increase.