Lessons from the MOOC investment gold rush


Now that we’ve had a few years of investment in MOOCs we can reflect on what this period tells us. I’m not talking about the value of MOOCs themselves, their pedagogy, or technology, but rather what this unprecedented amount of investment from universities and venture capitalists reveals. Rather unsurprisingly, people are now questioning the sustainability of this investment, and whether, you know, it was worth it. So here are my lessons from the MOOC investment bubble for anyone wanting to recreate it for any new venture.

  • There is money around – MOOCs came just after the economic crisis, and yet when it was required, huge investments in actual cash, people, technology and support were found for MOOCs.
  • Don’t go cheap – they won’t respect you. Rather than demonstrating how cheaply you can get away with doing something, it seems the scale of ambition and investment in MOOCs was what appealed to university presidents.
  • Don’t underestimate fear as a factor – although it was couched in social good, student recruitment, innovating pedagogy, etc I would suggest that the single biggest motivating factor for investing in MOOCs was fear – fear of being left behind, fear of looking old fashioned, fear that the hyped revolution may actually happen.
  • Big rhetoric wins – allied with the fear factor was a strong rhetoric around democratising education, disruption (yawn), and revolution. This won out over research, or nuanced accounts.
  • Technology inspires awe – I think many senior people in universities were rather like eager puppies when the sexy technology boys came calling. Some of the contracts signed with these companies for handing over content, rights and labour would never have been agreed without this general sense that the ‘future has come knocking’

That’s, erm, quite a cynical list isn’t it? I still maintain that MOOCs are interesting, but we should have explored them more on our own terms before joining in the gold rush. I hope there is some sober reflection now on the investment that has gone into them.


  • dkernohan

    “Big Rhetoric” is a concept that I have been thinking about for a while. All us “sustaining innovation” people make financial/budgetary arguments – but Seb Thrun waves his wand and talks about disruption. *bang* the future just happened.

  • Jim Groom (@jimgroom)

    Couldn’t agree more with the list, and the fact that we had no time to really experiment around what was possible with MOOCs given how quickly they became part of enterprise solutionism. I think the money part of this list is most interesting because we’ve always built on the cheap, and were continually forced to beg and borrow. Yet, as you note, once MOOCs came around MIT, Harvard and Berkeley found $60 million and still haven’t built a decent platform. The best platform I have seen was at OpenEd 2013 when the folks at UBC were showing off what they had designed in WordPress, something that never saw the light of day for the very reason you state here. These list is important because it really delineates why higher ed is broken and needs to be disrupted 😉

  • Mike Caulfield (@holden)

    Another piece: People respect product, not process. CMOOCs, ds106. Murder, Madness, and Mayhem were all primarily processes and duct tape. This is the best way to build things, but people can’t grok this. For better or worse people want to think they are getting a program or app that has magic powers, and investors love the idea of product.

    We can learn from this. Lumen Learning, for example, has something very much like our duct-taped together WordPress syndication architecture, but they call it the Lumen Learning Platform and call submodules things like Waymaker and investors and granting agencies take a second look. I know it seems stupid, but I’m willing to engage in stupidity for a good cause.

    I’ve been mulling over a question George Siemens asked at dLRN — if research isn’t the lever we have into these discussions, what is? This might be a horribly depressing answer but I think one product has more impact than 1,000 papers. (cf. Course Signals).

  • ghaff

    This is sort of embedded in “disruption (yawn)” but one of the big things that made MOOCs so interesting to investors, schools, and potential learners was the idea that they could deliver education (including at least implicitly certification) at a much lower cost. One of the consequences is that this led MOOCs to replicate features of traditional higher education in many respects. I strongly suspect that if cheap continuing ed for professionals with degrees had been the original stated objective, there would have been a whole lot less interest.

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