Friday, May 04, 2012

3 Thoughts on a Organizational Model for edX

I saw the edX announcement and was really impressed. 

It seems the trendy thing to talk about in entrepreneurship & education is how to disrupt higher ed. For example:
Peter Thiel "Higher Education is a Bubble".
YCombinator "Things We'd like to fund: Online learning"
Minerva and Larry Summers "$25M from Benchmark, Can Minerva Build An Online Ivy?"

So what role do MIT and Harvard play? They are the incumbent "firms", and they need to be part of the disruption or be disrupted themselves by newer firms, or other incumbents (like Duke, where I work).

What are some of the assets they have?
- Brand recognition
- Faculty (and the infrastructure to attract and develop high quality faculty)
- Students (and the infrastructure to attract high quality students)
- Infrastructure to support learning
- Learnings from MIT Open Courseware and MITX (120,000 signed up for their first pilot course on Circuits)
- $60M
and the list goes on...

It seems to me that edX has a really good start. 

edX also strikes me as having the right mission. Harvard Provost Alan Garber said it was "dedicated to improving learning throughout the world". 

And edX seems to have the right posture towards working with other universities. Susan Hockfield said "Harvard & MIT welcome educational institutions to this open source platform, and to help us improve it...fasten your seatbelts".

So, I wonder, what is the right organizational model for edX to engage Duke and other universities?

Not knowing anything about the specific inner workings of edX (or MIT Open Courseware), here are a few thoughts.

1) "Be a network, not a heirarchy"
I recently heard a talk by Brad Feld (who happens to be an MIT alum) and in talking about entrepreneurial communities he said "Be a network, not a heirarchy".

If I overlay this concept onto edX, it strikes me as relevant. 

How is it relevant?  One example, Metcalfe's law:  "A network increases in proportion to the square of the number of nodes in the network".  I think part of the power of edX will come from the number of contributors (nodes). edX President Anant Agarwal said something that makes me think he'd agree: "At the end of the day, the more online educators we have, the better off the whole world is."  I think he was speaking about both edX and non-edX educators, but the statement may also be in support of edX educators itself.

It'd be easy to fall into heirarchy. "Oh, that professor teaches at [prestigious institution] they should have editorial control".  But I think that leaves out the ability for great contributors from lesser-known institutions to contribute (or at least reduces their incentives). 

It reminds me of that chapter from Malcom Gladwell's book Outliers called "The Trouble with Geniuses", where the an analysis of Nobel prize winners showed that they didn't all come from prestigious institutions.  It also reminds me of Ed Weiland's prediction of Jeremy Lin.  Ed Weiland drives for FedEx.  But he seems to have a good mind for stats.  

We want to give incentives to the Ed Weiland's of the teaching world. 

My hunch is that edX should encourage as many nodes "faculty/instructors" as possible to contribute, and structure incentives and heirarchy (or lack of) to optimize their participation.

- Add someone to the board that is an expert at network design, and can overlay those concepts.  What principle of network design should we be thinking of?
- Add faculty members who understand both the value of faculty heirarchies, but are willing to think heretical thoughts about how those work across organizations.

2) Use best practices from Wikipedia
Related to "Be a network, not a heirarchy" is "How best do you utilize the strength of the network to produce great content?"

I assume there are multiple ways to utilize a network effectively, but it strikes me that Wikipedia has figured out how to meld these together to produce, on average, great content.

I'd be curious to know if Open Courseware (or other models) have figured out how to combine sources into one understandable (and hopefully great) course.
For example, can you take Feynman's lectures on physics and add those as an input on current lectures on physics? 

- Add someone to the board from Wikipedia with expertise on how conflicts are resolved between multiple authors.

3) Use best practices from YouTube
One thing Wikipedia doesn't address (to my knowledge) is "How do you have Wikipedia style contributions (combine multiple video authors/sources) in one video?"

I'm not sure that YouTube itself knows how this works, but certainly people seem to use YouTube as the medium for combining multiple authors/sources into one video.

I don't know the research into video learning, but my hunch is that video learning is a powerful method for people to learn.  Probably superior to text-only in many ways.

How do you allow multiple video authors to combine their efforts into one, understandable, well-made video?

Combining sources: If we had video of Feynman, could we combine that with video of Einstein.  (The recent Tupac hologram at Coachella makes this seem like a possibility).

Combining authors: If we had Michael Bay, Bryan Singer, and Peter Jackson decide they want to author one video, how do they work together?  What if Steven Spielberg wants to add in something later, how can we make the video "ever-editable"?  

- Add someone that has figured out the way to combine multiple authors/sources, and do be able to continue to edit it over a long timeframe (multiple years).

In conclusion, I'm pretty excited about edX, and the general progression of online education (or just education in general).  I think the ultimate goal is for anyone, anywhere, to be able to learn anything, for free. Or to put it slightly differently "lifelong personalized education".

---Some additional thoughts

Will edX win? 
It's unclear to me if edX will figure out the right formula for making this work, but they are probably one of the frontrunners (if not the frontrunner) based on their assets and their objectives. 

What is the role of another university in edX?  
My hunch is that universities should embrace edX.  That, or they may risk getting left behind. Maybe not in the next five years, but probably left behind in the next 20-50 years. 

What is the role of a "residential university" once edX (or similar) has succeeded?
Susan Hockfield had a great quote "Online education is not an enemy of residential education, but rather a profoundly liberating and inspiring ally."  It strikes me as the kind of quote that is the tip of the iceberg.  I'd be really interested to know more about any data she has that supports this statement.  It'd be fun to look at.

Let's say she is correct.  Then what does a residential university look like once edX has succeeded (defining success as having a great online course in a majority of topics covered in universities; where the "average student" can watch the course, comprehend the information, and be able to apply it now and hopefully 5-10 years from now; most likely contributed to by multiple authors from multiple universities).

Or put into terms of Duke University, why will students come to Duke?  Why not just stay at home, do all your learning online, and graduate that way?

This is a big, and probably scary, question for most universities. 

I'm not sure.  There is value created by universities outside of academic learning. Is it enough to justify the cost?

For example, non-academic value includes:
1) Being with peers your age, and developing those intellectual relationships (hard to find comparable physicists in your town that are your age, but easier to find a bunch at a university)
  a) Caveat is that you do see some schools taking a "short residential, longer non-residential approach" like "let's spend two weeks together in London and six weeks doing online coursework".  Example is Fuqua's Cross-Continent MBA program.

2) Being able to tap into the alumni network (there are great physicists who have graduated from here, and you can get in touch with them a little more easily)
  a) Caveat is that, if you have something great to offer, being an alumni or not may not make a difference. (The converse is true if you don't have something great to offer)

3) Lifelong learning (You see this with universities offering lectures for alumni with their faculty.  This seems to be threatened as edX develops.  Although informal "chat" or small group discussions seems to continue to be something a university can offer)
  a) Caveat is that, from the perspective of the faculty, they probably just want to have the most intellectually stimulating audience.  So Richard Feynman might not want to talk to a small group of 10 physics newbies who happen to have gone to MIT (his alma mater), but rather would want to talk to 10 physics masters (regardless of school, like a Solvay Conference).

4) Experiences from being on campus (student clubs, events, sports, dating scene)
Youth may be wasted on the young (George Bernard Shaw), but I think those who have undergraduate residential experiences probably waste it in more memorable ways. 
  a) Caveat is that, for $50,000 a year, an undergraduate could probably do pretty well creating memorable experiences that aren't tied to one location.  For example, the Summit Series

Not that the above items are "enough" to justify the cost, but I think those are some of the areas to consider when thinking of justifying the costs of a university separate from the academic learning. 

More thinking will have to be put into this, but my hunch is that Universities will have to think of themselves differently.  They are "destinations" yes, but I think they will need to amp up their value beyond just the destination.  This is done, to some extent, by the Alumni Associations, but I think the scope, depth, and expertise of those groups will probably be expanded.  So it's not just that you are joining the Alumni Association and participate occasionally, but that there is constant value being provided by those Alumni Associations.  So that once you are a part of the university, it provides you a ton of value throughout your life.  

And what about the career center portion of universities?
At least for business schools, this is a big part of the value.  MBA students regularly get jobs at great companies like Apple, McKinsey, Goldman Sachs, Proctor & Gamble, etc... and I think there is a good argument that this is enabled by being a part of the program.

Is the career portion of universities something which is residential-dependent?  Probably not, but how does a company come "on-campus" as most of this recruiting is done, to meet with students.  There are some economies of scale from the current model.  Can this be replaced by a completely virtual model?  Possibly.  With advances in telepresence (like Cisco) the barriers for simulating face-to-face interactions are declining.

My hunch is that edX should do it's best to forego any sort of monetization, at least in the early stages. I think the mission is so big "education for all, anywhere" that it should be something that can be funded by donors.   Also, MIT and Harvard have huge endowments -- if they aren't willing to take a risk and go for the "no monetization" strategy, then not sure who will.

Wikipedia, as I understand it, has a "no monetization" strategy.  Do they struggle financially?  Yes.  But are they doing something amazing we are (mostly) all behind?  I think so.

edX should, in my opinion, dream big.  Really big.  Free education for all, anywhere in the world.

Maybe at some point monetization gets figured out.  Ads like Facebook/Google?   I could live with that. (Note to wikipedia, I could also live with that for you).  Or some sort of micropayment based on how many pages you used (like a penny a page) that is only for geographies where people can afford it?  Maybe.

But I want to believe, I think many of us want to believe, that MIT and Harvard can be tremendous "forces for good" and that monetization, while it might be important at some point, isn't important right now.

What about those who would argue that "unless it's sustainable, it's not going to be a success?"  I tend to agree with that.  However, I would challenge edX to try out every other option (begging for money/endowment, grants, whatever) before pursuing the monetization strategy, particularly if that monetization somehow raises a barrier for people to learn.  Let's have learning be first, and monetization be after that.

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