Monday, September 30, 2013

The MOOC is dead, long live the SPOC!

Sean Coughlan, writing for @BBC_Business, tells us that Harvard plans to boldly go with 'Spocs', and that Prof Robert Lue, chair of Harvard's on-line experiments, says that we are already "post-Mooc". Enter the SPOC - small private online courses. These are free on-line courses, but access is restricted to much smaller numbers, "tens or hundreds, rather than tens of thousands".

Leonard Nimoy William Shatner Star Trek 1968
It's education Jim, but not as we know it.
Image source:  [Public Domain] Wikimedia Commons.
The success of MOOCs, measured in the thousands of people who have signed up for them, can be a problem. As Coughlan writes about Harvard "more people have signed up for Moocs in a single year than have attended the university in its entire 377-year history". Teaching, assessing, and accrediting such numbers is a huge challenge. With a SPOC there is the opportunity to target education a bit better, plus reduce the challenge of teaching, assessing, and accrediting students. Colleges such as Harvard are now experimenting with this new type of education as online learning is now moving beyond trying to replicate classroom courses and is trying to produce something that is more flexible and more effective. I like this idea as it fits neatly into the gap between classroom and open on-line education.

Can charging a small fee for a SPOC be far away? I'm sure that if Harvard charged $100 a head for a course that has just 500 students, I'm certain that it would be filled and that the $50,000 earned by Harvard would be put to good use. The likes of Udemy and Lynda are charging small fees for courses in what seems to be a very successful model. One things for sure, we all need to be ready "to boldly go" where education has never been before!


  1. Though the innovation of the SPOC may improve the 'success' of the enterprise and better deliver an 'education' with a greater degree of control and precision, from Harvard's perspective, reintroducing the fees and the cost adds a caveat of exclusivity back into the system. The rhetoric from MOOCs that had emerged was that of a democratisation of education, the abrogation of barriers to self-betterment regardless of income or social standing. That was the real achievement of the MOOC—the transcendence of educational exclusivity.

    It seems with this move, the Ivy Leagues and others may again move towards that, albeit with a much lower threshold. A market must remain though for free education providers, it remains to be seen how 'open' Coursera and Udacity shall remain, despite noble beginnings. The only one that shows any signs of sustainable model-based free learning is based in the Republic of Ireland. With ad hosting they are generating a sustainable income while maintaining certificate and diploma courseware from the Open University and elsewhere completely free of charge. Hopefully we'll see more from them as education commodifies itself once more.

    1. Hi Mark - many thanks for your comment, I agree that introducing fees would add a "caveat of exclusivity back into the system". My fellow Irish folks at Alison have been successful for quite some time, and prove that it is possible to sustain a business model without fees. I wonder though, how successful others, like the Khan Academy, would be without huge donations from Bill Gates?