Archive for May, 2013

May 23 2013

The Well Worn high-wire: Balancing Pedagogy and Revenue

There is an insightful article at Hybrid Pedagogy by Sean Michael Morris: A Manifesto for Community Colleges, Lifelong Learning, and Autodidacts.

Morris alludes to, but doesn’t examine, the calculation that colleges and universities make regarding revenue and cost. MOOCs must be worrying to institutions for their disruptive effects. At the same time, however, there is a hopeful belief that an untapped revenue stream lies hidden and unrealized. Incidentally, I would love to know how the MOOC vendors are pitching to universities. About fifteen years ago, I worked at a start-up. The ridiculous elevator pitch that I heard was along the lines of ‘The space we’re targeting is a $200B per year industry. We’ll create B2B exchange. If we can get just 1% of that…’ It was this type of fallacy-math that caused such enormous pain and regret. I suspect that it is fallacy-math all over again in these meetings: ‘You’ll have 12,000 students in the MOOC. If just 1% of those pay for credentials or enroll in degree programs…’

In Morris’ article, he states:

“The paroxysmal growth of MOOCs overlooks pedagogy in favor of credentialing.”

Yes. But isn’t that the true source of tension for every education provider? What pedagogical best practices necessarily fall victim to the bottom line? Surely, credentials are where the revenue lies within the MOOC ecosystem. In a recent Huffington Post survey, 71.8% of respondents indicated that MOOCs could be appropriate for continuing education courses. This is a clear indication of where universities see their opportunity (and where the vendors are no doubt employing some interesting math and RIO propositions). Taking just one example, Harvard’s revenue from continuing education and executive programs in 2012 was over $281M, up 8% from the previous year. (That is, incidentally, more revenue than from their undergraduate programs.) Another 52.4% said that MOOCs could be used for technical training, also providing some notion of where the perceived opportunity lies. There are surely teachers participating in MOOCs who do so with noble intent: those who teach with a passion born of a joy of imparting knowledge, or an idealized view of the role of education in society. With the stakes in the billions, however, there are also those who make choices based not on the needs of learners, but on revenue interests. This particular high-wire is well worn in the world of software training.

What is the role of the corporate education department? Should they be tasked with enabling users? Or should they be tasked with revenue and margin targets?

The space that was once solely the domain of the training department is eroding. There have always been internal competitors to the training department’s mission:

  • Marketing departments drive leads through education campaigns. “He who has a thing to sell and goes and whispers in a well is not as apt to get the dollars as he who climbs a tree and hollers.” Though professional marketers may not refer to their activities in language familiar to educators,  there are direct analogs for almost every part of a marketing campaign to an educational one, from audience/market analysis to their measures of success. The norm is for Marketing departments to push content, but there exists a real need to also create content that customers and potential customers can readily find.
  • Technical Publications, with Technical Support, is part of the three-legged stool upon which customers rely for their knowledge and understanding of a product. In many organizations, Tech Pubs and Training are not separate entities. Furthermore, much of the content is often shared between the two functions. It is typically when an organization reaches the point where training revenue opportunities can be realized that the functions are divorced.
  • Technical Support is the final organizational ‘pull’ content provider, and often the most personal, most specialized, and consequently, most expensive.
  • External Sources include the myriad sources of content that arise (mostly organically) outside an organization. ‘There is nothing more dangerous than the inspired amateur. ‘ Examples include blogs, wikis, YouTube videos, presentations at user group meeting and conferences, and the vast array of channels that have yet to be discovered.

Despite these other creators, traditionally the bulk of what would be called ‘training content’ has come from Training departments:

This mix is shifting radically, for a host of reasons:

  • The availability and ease-of-adoption of tools to rapidly create content objects that looks very much like traditional training content has inspired all of these audiences to create content in the service of adding additional value, creating leads, or driving down costs. One needs only look at the shift from expert tools such as Macromedia (now Adobe) Authorware to straightforward tools such as Adobe Presenter, Adobe Captivate, or Articulate Presenter to see examples of this trend.
  • 80% of the purchase decision for a product is made before engaging with a sales person. Marketing departments have an interest in providing richer technical content sooner in the sales cycle.
  • Support departments are expanding knowledge bases and actively deploying gamification methods to inspire users to help other users and further drive down support incidents and costs.

The new mix of content about a product is much more evenly balanced:

Note, however, that with the exception of the Training department, none of these groups are motivated by a P&L. Marketing drives leads and opportunities, but does not drive a profit directly. Support’s aim is to decrease costs. Everyone seeks to employ External Sources to further their particular aims. It could be argued that all of these groups seek to drive down support costs, to educate customers, to enable users. The lines between the functions have begun to blur:


Further exacerbating this is the very real fact that software is becoming easier to use, calling into question the need for formal training. Compare, for example, the training footprint required for a Microsoft Word user compared to a Google Docs user. And user behaviors have changed radically in a short period of time. When is the last time you explored the documentation for a software product, rather than searching for a solution or answer to a question online. We no longer bother to remember what we can find. More often than not, users don’t want ‘training,’ they simply want an answer to a specific question. Once the user has determined that the question can be answered through a search, there is little reason to remember the answer.

In the book Consumption Economics by J.B. Wood, Todd Hewlin, and Thomas Lah, they project a new path for corporate training departments:

“Customer education for most tech companies is a line of business. We sell classroom and online training about our products for a fee. In the world f the Consumption Model, education will often morph into a value proposition delivered through the product and our service teams rather than remain a standalone offer.

Yes, there may still be some amount of basic training that gets sold up front. But let’s fact it, “just in case” training – that is, training every end user and system manager on everyhing they will ever need to know about our product – has never worked.

Our Consumption Model allows us to correct much of that inefficiency by making the product start off simple and unfold in real time as the end users are ready to consume more advanced functionality. We will train them in real time, in small chunks, delivered through the product… We will shift from just-in-case to just-in-time.”

If Training departments can prove that they can drive consumption (additional sales) or lower support costs, then the tension that exists between enabling users and earning revenue dissolves. This will be welcome to those who have committed themselves to the art and craft of creating or delivering training, albeit in a corporate environment. These training professionals understand the needs of the balance sheet, but they want to be like the enlightened professors who deliver the massive online course in Ancient Greek studies. There’s no significant continuing education credential at stake for such a course. The teacher shares his knowledge for the joy of teaching, while the students learn for the joy of discovery. For corporate Training departments, there is a greater degree of practicality – but the passion for teaching is there – and the students reward is as meaningful, for it is manifested in the doing.




May 20 2013

What Training Professionals Can Learn From ‘Hard Core’ MOOC Students

There’s an article today from the Chronicle of Higher Education: What Professors Can Learn From ‘Hard Core’ MOOC Students that has some applicability that expands beyond the banks of academia and provides some guidance for how corporate training should navigate the world of online training.

The author, Jeffrey R. Young, identifies four tips based on interviews with experienced MOOC participants:

  • Clarity and organization are key.
  • Professors are the stars: “When the students talked about the MOOCs they’ve taken, they usually mentioned the professor first. They sometimes couldn’t remember the name of the university offering the course.”
  • Text still matters: “Since the videos aren’t searchable in most MOOCs, students aren’t sure where in the video to look for a given concept they are reviewing.”
  • Passion matters most: That is, the instructor doesn’t have to be photogenic (despite what you might have been led to believe by the ‘hotness’ rating at The instructor needs to be excited.

These tips that Young points out are helpful for those in the corporate training world as well.

Clarity and organization are key

To someone deeply invested in curriculum development, and as someone who feels that the art and science of instructional design don’t receive the attention they deserve, this is music to my ears. Part of the problem with the value of course design falls on those of us in education, and specifically, those of us to are responsible for course design. As an analyst commented recently, we have not done a good job of articulating our value. In the face of tools that enable the rapid creation of content that looks a lot like training, used by people who may or may not have any sense of how adults learn, having the value of well-designed content affirmed is welcome in any context.

Professors are the stars

This is also becoming true in the corporate training world. There was a time where instructors or support technicians were nameless, with the added expectation that they were interchangeable. This is changing rapidly. With the meteoric rise of social tools for training, certification, and support, the content experts are being elevated – to the point that customers may seek out individuals. This trend will likely have a variety of interesting consequences: from hiring and retention of employees to increased corporate scrutiny of individual social interactions and individual behavior.

Text still matters

This point illustrates that the need for machine-transcription (or low-cost transcription) services is growing, and will continue to grow with the creation of content. Current price points for transcription are around $1 per minute. This is certainly within reach and an easy ROI can be demonstrated for many corporate courses, assuming that the content is relatively static. Of course, there must also be associated infrastructure, either at the LMS or LCMS level to support the search and provide the relevant content.

Passion matters most

Self-explanatory and relevant no matter the instructional context. Moreover, there’s a missing element to the list that likely belongs here: credibility. When I teach train-the-trainer courses, the first lesson is about establishing and then maintaining credibility. I suspect that the passion and credibility are intertwined. Teachers who are truly passionate about their materials tend to know their materials well, because they are, after all, passionate about them.



May 20 2013

Georgia Tech’s CS Degree and the MOOC End Game

Last week, Georgia Tech Announced that they will provide a Massive Online Master’s Degree in Computer Science by partnering with MOOC provider, Udacity. Computer Science (CS) is an obvious choice for a Massive Open Online Course. (I assume that the rationale for the master’s rather than a bachelor’s is that there is a level of specialization in the graduate program that isn’t shared in the undergraduate one. That is, you don’t need to worry about those pesky general education requirements – and count on other departments playing along with your MOOC strategy – if you simply eliminate the need for them.) The program is going to be watched very closely, both inside and outside academia. Not only does Computer Science fit into the MOOC scheme particularly well, the choice of this area of study raises several questions:

  • If a student is successful in the program, what is the qualitative difference between a Georgia Tech degree and a Udacity certificate of mastery?
  • Employers (read: those in the ‘real’ world) care more about the ability to apply knowledge than the existence of knowledge. This points to the promise and potential of MOOCs, but also the clear threat that they hold to traditional academic institutions. I don’t know the specifics of Georgia Tech’s CS program, except that it is highly ranked and, like other Georgia Tech programs, is well-regarded. I would expect that they would have a focus on ‘real-world’ applicability. How will Georgia Tech’s measures of mastery compare with those of Udacity, particularly as they relate to skills that employers covet? Or will they be identical?
  • Long term, how will Georgia Tech’s traditional CS degree participants compare with those attending through the MOOC? How will they compare with those who hold Udacity certificates? I will be very interested in seeing this analysis in a few years.

Admittedly, these questions generally relate to a fundamental premise; college – what is it good for? Or, alternately why do employers require a bachelor’s degree?

  • Skill and Knowledge acquisition. College provides the foundation for mastering complex skills (medicine, law, computer science) and hones analytic abilities (mathematics, philosophy, political science). These are not clean distinctions. Solving a differential equation requires both knowledge and some skill. Similarly, writing a program to solve the differential equation also requires both. As mentioned above, however, I would expect the greater emphasis for CS majors to fall toward the application of the knowledge – i.e. demonstration of skill.
  • Networking and personal brand. Most relevant to business schools or institutions with a strong brand, there can be significant value depending on the industry (or the established relationships).
  • Exploration and direction. College can provide the opportunity to discover where one’s interests or talents lie. Obviously, this is directly related to vocational choices on the part of the job seeker, but the fact that you changed majors when you discovered that you hated organic chemistry doesn’t matter to an employer looking for an application developer or QA engineer. This is another interesting element of Georgia Tech’s MOOC experiment. For most students enrolling in Georgia Tech’s graduate-level CS program it is safe to assume that students already know that they want to learn about computer science. For those coming to the program through Udacity and the MOOC, however, there could be a significant level of exploration. This is certainly the experience of other MOOCs where the majority of participants decide that the course (either format or content) aren’t right for them and dropout rates exceed 90 percent. An even higher rate of participant loss should be expected with Georgia Tech’s program (at least on the Udacity side).
  • Demonstration of persistence. A co-worker of mine summed it up nicely: “We require a college degree because it shows that you’re willing to do something that you don’t really want to do. And that’s what we look for when we hire an employee.” If you hold a degree, it demonstrates that you were not only able to navigate the often labyrinthine bureaucracy of an institution of higher learning, but more importantly, were willing to attend the classes, do the homework, write the papers, and study for the tests. You were able to successfully complete assignments from a variety of managerial analogues (professors) and deal with schedules and deadlines. Higher education is a ‘do it to yourself’ process. Initiative and being a ‘self-starter’ are implied when listing a bachelor’s degree on a resume.

If a Udacity certificate can be used as a barometer of mastery in computer science and an indication of an ability to persevere through a multi-year MOOC experience, then I would have no hesitation interviewing someone with a Udacity certificate but no college degree.

The idea of a longer MOOC experience is itself somewhat new. In general, the focus of MOOCs has been centered on the course. There is an entirely new level of content curation required when assembling a collection of related courses into something like a degree program.  Georgia Tech’s experiment is welcome and just a little daring because of what it offers in content scope.

Of course, the truly daring bit isn’t the content. Nor is it offering an online degree program. Or providing for-credit courses with dual enrollment (through the school and through the MOOC provider). Much of this has been done before. Georgia Tech’s willingness to create a program that surely foreshadows the MOOC end game and has the potential to make permanent the crease in traditional education that began as the MOOC wrinkle: that’s the truly daring bit.

May 19 2013

Mastery Learning

Relly Brandman, Course Operations MOOC Pedagogy Specialist at Coursera (who also wins ‘Most Awesome Title of the Week’ honors), has an interesting post at Coursera’s blog titled 5 Tips: Learn more effectively in class with Mastery Learning.

Brandman outlines the benefits of a Mastery Learning approach for participants in Coursera titles. Three things immediately leap out:

  1. There isn’t anything revolutionary here. It does, however, provide insights into how Coursera expects participants to interact with their content (or perhaps, hopes would be more accurate).
  2. Brandman’s post makes it clear that the onus for undertaking a Mastery Learning approach in the context of Coursera is self-directed. That is, it isn’t Coursera mandating this. Rather, they are advocating it. (The post is, after all, a set of tips for using Mastery Learning techniques.)
  3. It was refreshing to see some preliminary metrics on the benefits for students employing a Mastery Learning approach. Unfortunately, Brandman only provided data for a single course, and that data seemed to be a bit of a stretch. Specifically, it is difficult to draw significant conclusions from performance on a test based on previous performance without knowing exactly what’s in each test. It would be informative to have a broader sample of classes and some more robust methods for collecting and analyzing the data. Even better would be to establish an actual control group (as Bloom had in his original study). Admittedly, this isn’t necessarily Coursera’s research to undertake (though, it’s something I would be keen to do if were a MOOC Pedagogy Specialist.)

What I’m most interested in, of course, is how we use technology to move beyond Bloom’s one sigma of Mastery Learning and seek to achieve the two sigmas of individual tutoring. Or, as Bloom asked “… can researchers and teachers devise teaching-learning conditions that will enable the majority of students under group instruction to attain levels of achievement that can, at present, be reached only under good tutoring conditions?” The critical balance for any eLearning delivery, including massive open online courses (MOOCs), will be to determine how we can personalize the learning experience. Student-to-student interaction and communities have an important role to play (this is, of course, a central tenant of a connectivist pedagological approach). Brandman and Coursera’s emphasis on the responsibility of the student becomes even more relevant, whether or not Coursera is taking a connectivist approach to their courses. Ultimately, this is true no matter the learning environment: whether Coursera or otherwise, whether institutional or corporate. The need for students to take responsibility for their own learning, however, amplifies in the online context. You can lead a student to content, but you can’t make them learn.