Pearson Giving Up On “Books” (perhaps in favor of MOOCs); Training Within and Without Universities

This is a “two-fer” post– at least it’s two different but related topics.

First, Pearson announced this week that they are abandoning publishing print textbooks and are moving toward digitally delivered materials. Here’s the Inside Higher Ed article on it. A lot of the comments on this article (I made a couple comments myself) are about how print books are “better” than digital ones, and also how Pearson’s goal is to undercut the used book market since in the U.S. publishers (and authors) don’t make any money from used books. Matt “Dean Dad” Reed has some good observations here, and I think Bryan Alexander’s tweets on this are also pretty accurate. I’ll add two other observations.

I think this is a sign that Pearson is circling the drain, and it reminds me of what happened in the world of big box bookstores. Borders is the poster child for this, and about 10 years ago, it was in the news locally because Ann Arbor is where they started and where they had their headquarters. They expanded like crazy, which (along with Barnes and Noble) drove a ton of independent bookstores out of business before they went out of business themselves. Obviously, Amazon was mostly responsible for Borders’ demise, but I’d also argue they grew too big/too fast, they were terribly managed, and they forgot what business they were in. Back in 2008, I blogged here about going to a goofy new “concept store” in Ann Arbor and I noted how most of the store seemed to be devoted to selling mainly book-related gadgets and doo-dads and to run a coffee shop. It felt like a desperate move to do something because they were no longer making money at the main thing they did for decades, which was sell books.

Sound familiar?

Now, I know Pearson et al will argue “no no, we are in the education business, we are in the knowledge distribution business” or some such thing. Joshua Kim has a commentary where he argues Pearson has made the right move and knows exactly what they’re doing. I just don’t think that’s true. It wasn’t true for Borders, and to mix my metaphors/analogies here a bit, it wasn’t true for a lot of newspapers including (and also local!) The Ann Arbor News which tried to briefly survive online. Plus Pearson is going to have to step up the quality of its digital offerings a lot to make it worthwhile.

One related silver lining is perhaps this is the beginning of the end for Pearson (and the other remaining big textbook publishers) and it will lead us into a new era of small textbook publishers or other custom published enterprises. Border’s collapse helped usher in the ongoing comeback of independent bookstores, and I can see something like that happening with textbooks too. (Fun fact/tangent: the award-winning Ann Arbor bookstore Literati opened about 18 or so months after Borders went under, and the shelves in that store came from the liquidation sale of fixtures and stuff from what was Borders).

Second and more relevant for my purposes here, Pearson might be trying to get into something akin to the MOOC business– or at least what has come after the original “MOOC Moment.” After all, MOOCs have always been quite similar to textbooks. I am far from the only person who has observed this, and I wrote about it in more detail in my chapter in Invasion of the MOOCs and in other places in More Than a Moment. Both MOOCs and textbooks are a lot of content on a topic written and assembled by a (reasonably) well-known expert in the field– of course, with a team of collaborators and editors behind them.

MOOCs failed as an alternative or competitor to traditional higher education in part because content scales but education doesn’t. However, the content of a MOOC-like textbook paired up with instructors in normal sized classes might be great. I can imagine how a textbook MOOC could be easily updated and also serve as a course portal hosting stuff like discussion boards, peer review spaces, and tests– or more likely, as a plugin/addition to an existing portal. I can also imagine ways in which the MOOC could be set up primarily for a single course or for a whole “program” (I’m thinking here of something analogous to a common textbook across many sections of first year writing), or even across different institutions.

But doing all this would cost money and I doubt Pearson (or any of the other big publishers) is nimble or digitally savvy enough to do this. I think the more likely scenario is Pearson will just serve up PDFs and/or the same crappy digital stuff they have now.

PS/Update on July 30: from IHE, “Publishers’ Pending Merger Faces Growing Opposition,” which is about efforts to stop the merger of the two other last big publishers standing in the textbook business, Cengage and McGraw Hill.

Shifting to topic #2 for this post: training within and without universities.

This came up in two slightly different ways recently. First there was another “Dean Dad” commentary, “‘White-Labeling,'” where Reed complained about the practice of traditional postsecondary institutions offering non-credit and extension courses in partnership with a third party.  Trace Urdan (who is an education industry analyst type) has a good Twitter thread where he responds to this, but basically, Reed is complaining about universities working with companies like Trilogy, which (as far as I can tell) mostly offer programs in partnership with universities that are technology bootcamps– that is, take this workshop/”course” and learn about coding, learn about data analytics, etc.

Also in the news at the same time (and kind of related) is the efforts by Amazon and Google to train their own workers, bypassing traditional universities, for-profit schools, and other options like LinkedIn Learning and all the various “mini-degrees” and certificates being offered by companies that used to be in the MOOC business. Here’s the news story from IHE, “Employers as Educators,” and here’s an article that includes several education pundits sharing their thoughts.  Amazon is going to spend $700 million to train its employees, and in doing so they are turning away from traditional postsecondary education. It’s not completely new and Amazon isn’t alone; as that first article says, “Other major tech corporations have joined Amazon in creating their own postsecondary pathways, perhaps most notably Google and IBM. For example, Google last year created a subsidized online IT support certificate program, which has enrolled 75,000 students.”

It’ll be interesting to see where this goes.

I mostly agree with Urdan that it’s not a bad idea for universities to team up with for-profit companies in the training business to offer these kinds of things as part of extension programs– as long as there is proper oversight. The problem is “proper oversight” too often doesn’t happen, which is kind of what has arguably happened in some cases with Online Program Management arrangements. In the last chapter of More Than a Moment, I write about the fuzzy line between the non-profit institution EMU and the for-profit OPM we’re working with, Academic Partnerships.

But there are two other things interesting about this relative to MOOCs. First off (and this is also something I discuss in the book), it’s not exactly a new thing for universities to offer “extension” courses that are a lot closer to “training” than “education,” and also for the definition of what counts as training and what counts as education to be debatable. A lot of the correspondence courses offered by traditional universities at the beginning of the 20th century were not for college credit or part of the regular college curriculum. In fact, one of the main complaints Abraham Flexner had about higher education in the US in his 1930 book Universities American English German was that institutions like the University of Chicago and Columbia University (then College) were debasing themselves by sponsoring correspondence courses in “non-academic” areas like “principles of advertising,” “newspaper practice,” and “business writing.” What is old is new again.

Perhaps more interesting– or potentially alarming– is the moves by companies like Amazon and Google to bypass higher education altogether. One of the (many) reasons why MOOCs failed as a replacement or competitor to conventional universities and colleges was because MOOC credentials and courses did not have value in the same way that a degree or certification from an accredited postsecondary institution has value. In other words, if Amazon or Google or IBM wanted to fill a position that required a college degree, a MOOC degree was simply not going to cut it.

Now, I think a traditional college degree is going to continue to trump an internally offered and sponsored training program for the foreseeable future, and the impression I get is most of the training Amazon, Google, IBM, and the like are doing is going to be to help current employees increase their skill sets and to cope with increased automation. I think we’re talking mostly about workers who probably didn’t need a college degree in the first place, and/or workers who are doing stuff like customer service, logistical work, fulfilling customer orders, etc. But what’s to stop one of these behemoth companies from taking this to the next logical level? I mean, if Google gets their internal training/education programs humming along well, it seems to me they could recruit promising high school students or college underclassmen, enroll them in their own Google training programs, and then bring them onboard. And if Google or Amazon do something like that and it works out, how long will it take for others to follow suit?

One of the things people used to say about MOOCs during the early, crazy, and overly-hyped days was MOOCs were a speeding train universities needed to jump on to avoid being run over. That turned out to be a false alarm. But if this trend of “we’ll just train our own workers, thanks a lot” trend catches on, well, that could be another train.

Again, some links about MOOCs, OPMs, and Online Ed

Here are a few more links that I’ve been collecting about stuff related to More Than a Moment for white a while now:

  • “Online folly deprives regional campuses,” which is an op-ed (from a newspaper in Fort Wayne, Indiana) about the negative impact of Purdue Global on the rest of the Purdue system of regional universities.
  • “Insourcing or Outsourcing Online Education,” which is essentially a list of links (not unlike this one). It includes a link to my post about Kevin Carey’s HuffPo article (and our Twitter discussion).
  • “MOOC Platforms’ New Model Draws Big Bet from Investors.” This IHE article is another good example as to why (IMHO) the basic point I’m trying to make in More Than A Moment is correct: MOOCs aren’t “dead,” but they’ve moved on to different markets and different models.
  • “Doing It Yourself: The ‘Internal OPM’ Model” from IHE. This article is interesting to me in part because of the basic point it’s trying to make (a number of examples of universities who decided to skip the commercial OPM to do it themselves), but also this quote: “According to Howard Lurie, principal analyst of online and continuing education at Eduventures, online program management companies have contracted with roughly 18 percent of possible two- and four-year higher education institutions, which leaves quite a few looking at going online by other means.” And it also suggests to me that a lot of universities– almost 20% of them– are working with OPMs right now.
  • “Competition for Employer Tuition Benefits,” from IHE. I’m not entirely sure I get this, but it seems like this might be a spin-off of programs that Arizona State University had with Starbucks and (maybe?) their Global Freshman Academy. FWIW, I started (and stopped) a GFA Algebra class and I write about it in the book.
  • “Online Is (Increasingly) Local” from IHE. I guess it’s worthwhile to bring this up because of the amount of press places like Southern New Hampshire, Liberty, ASU, Purdue Global, and other “mega-universities” (this from a Bryan Alexander blog post), but I think it’s been true for basically forever that most college students who take online courses and/or programs are enrolled at traditional universities. Again, this is something I write about in the book and how the first wave of online courses/programs in the 1990s turned out to be more of a local phenomenon too.

 

 

 

It’s Been a Busy Month in MOOCs & Beyond

In my experience as a professor, April truly is the cruelest month because it’s when everything that’s been lingering from the academic year happens. It’s when all the paperwork and proposals are due, it’s when every event recognizing student and faculty success is held, it’s when the last (and usually most dramatic) department meetings take place, and it is the when graduating students finally get to graduate. So I haven’t posted here lately not because there isn’t a lot of news, but because, well, it’s been busy.

Anyway, a few selective updates:

  • The new book cover is here! I like it– not that I had anything to do with it exactly– but more important from my point of view is it’s another major step in the right direction. Plus it has also pushed me into revising this web site to match the book (and vice-versa too, I suppose).
  • “What Do OPMs Do?” from something called Elearning Inside. It’s a simple enough summary, though it’s interesting to note that it also recaps the saga at EMU with “Academic Partnerships” which I discuss in the closing chapter of the book.
  •  An interview from Inside Higher Ed with David J. Staley about his book Alternative Universities: Speculative Design for Innovation in Higher Education. I’ve only read the interview but it looks like an interesting read. He mentions his fascination with the biographies of some of the innovators in higher education in the U.S., including Abraham Flexner who (among many other things) was critical of a lot of correspondence courses universities were offering in the early part of the 20th century. Staley also has a lot of praise for Western Governors University and Southern New Hampshire.
  • From CHE comes “How UT-Austin’s Bold Plan for Reinvention Went Belly Up.” One of the many things I didn’t touch on at all in More Than a Moment–in fact, I hadn’t heard about this at all until I read about it in this article– is the dramatic rise and fall of an experiment at the University of Texas at Austin called Project 2021. Among other things, the program’s executive director, James Pennebaker, was excited to announce their own version of MOOCs they called a “synchronous massive online course” or SMOC. The parallels at UT-Austin with MOOCs around the world are pretty obvious.
  • “Going Outside to Grow” is an Inside Higher Ed article about the use of OPMs at Michigan State (and also their ambitions to become a more national university, perhaps in the mold of Arizona State?).
  • Last but far from least: in the beginning of April, Kevin Carey published an article at Huffington Post, “The Creeping Capitalist Takeover of Higher Education.”  As has been the case with almost everything I’ve read from Carey, I think he is often correct and he is often wrong. And oddly with this article, he recycles a lot of the magical thinking solutions he proposes in The End of College. Well, I blogged extensively about it here, I ended up arguing with Carey and others about it on Twitter in a few places (here’s an example), and here’s a piece in IHE where a bunch of different distance ed experts weigh in on Carey’s article. It would seem that most of the folks I’m reading/interacting with agree with me on this– though to his credit, Carey’s direct approach (“OPMs are always bad bad bad”) and his vaporware solution of free and giant online courses that somehow aren’t MOOCs probably helps him sell books and get published in places like HuffPo.

MOOC (and related) News From February/early March 2019

I started this second blog focused on my forthcoming MOOC book with the best of intentions, but I’m already falling behind. That and there hasn’t been a ton of news stuff related to the MOOC book lately. But a few updates/bits of news:

“The MOOC pivot” by Justin Reich and José A. Ruipérez-Valiente is a short commentary from Science. It’s behind a firewall, though since EMU subscribes to it, I was able to read it. What’s interesting is this is a statistical analysis of all MOOCs run by edX from October 2012 to May 2018, and the results are more or less consistent with what those of us doing MOOC research on a much smaller scale have found for quite a while now. This study notes that the number of participants in edX MOOCs has declined, but based on the most current research I could do for the book, the number of student/participants in all MOOCs has actually increased. In other words, it would appear that edX in particular is perhaps engaging fewer students.

“Will Clay Christensen Put His Money Where His Mouth Is?” is a humorous little “bet” being presented to noted (and inaccurate) predictor of disruption in higher education, Clay Christensen. The very short version: Christensen has been predicting for years that higher ed is doomed and he has been wrong for years. For example, in his 2011 book The Innovative University, he predicted that half of American nonprofit private colleges would be closed by 2021-2026. So Mark Zupan, president of a tiny non-profit private called Alfred University, published an essay where he made a bet:”If at least half of all traditional universities fail or merge by 2030, then I will give $1 million to Christensen’s institute (provided it is not disrupted before then!). If, however, his prediction fails to materialize by 2030, then Christensen will contribute $1 million toward Alfred University’s endowment.” I assume Christensen has not responded.

“A University Goes It (Mostly) Alone Online” is about how Southern Methodist University is likely to start moving away from contracting with Online Program Management companies for future online courses and programs. Larenda Mielke, who is the associate provost for continuing education at SMU, says it’s not an issue of the quality of the services these companies provide. It’s about (for lack of a better way of phrasing it) doing the right thing. To quote from the article:

But as the person hired 18 months ago to help SMU develop a more strategic presence in online education, Mielke has concluded that building an in-house unit to create and operate most aspects of online programs aligns better with the university’s mission and interests than does turning over some strategic control — and not insignificant financial sums — to for-profit companies with overlapping but differing goals and motives.

OPMs and their owners have every right to earn profits, Mielke says, but universities like SMU would do better to pour revenues back into their own programs and purposes than to enrich shareholders and executives.

“I look at that and I think, that money comes from tuition,” Mielke said.

It’ll be interesting to see how long this stance stays an outlier.

A bunch of recent news links I have been meaning to post for a while

In a not very particular order, here are some links I’ve come across in the last couple of months (from around mid-December until now) to post that I thought are relevant to MOOCs (and related moments) in the news:

Coding Boot Camps Enter the Ivy League

“Coding Boot Camps” are training programs (usually for profit and not for college credit) being marketed to folks who want to/need to get into learning some computer code. Think of the “English major” who wants to shift into tech with some courses in web development or JavaScript or whatever. “Just as MOOCs have found a way to keep their post-hype relevance — see these offerings from Coursera and edX, for example — boot camps continue to make inroads.”

5 Misconceptions About Online Program Management Providers

A lot of the talk about OPMs– especially from faculty-types who oppose all outsourcing and private/public partnerships– is negative, but Joshua Kim here takes a more nuanced approach. “Is it possible to be a critical and clear-eyed observer of the OPM industry and still believe that an OPM partnership should be on the table as institutions consider new online programs? I think the answer is yes, as I’ve come to believe that (a) the OPM industry is more complicated and nuanced than we often think, and (b) we need to think about OPM partnerships in a different way.”

I agree with most of what he has to talk about here, though I also think my own institution’s leadership is basing our strategy for some online programs and reasons for partnering with an OPM on at least three of these misconceptions. I talk about all of that in some detail in the last chapter of the book.

Purdue’s Online Strategy, Beyond ‘Global’

Kind of a long-ish explainer article that I think captures the idea of what’s going on at Purdue right now, which is probably the most extreme example/experiment of these kinds of public/private partnerships. In the nutshell, instead of contracting with an OPM to provide some support and marketing for non-traditional and online programs, Purdue just bought the for-profit online university Kaplan and is using its resources to offer degree and non-degree programs.

Coursera Targets Health-Care Education Market

Another good example about how one of the original big for-profit MOOC providers has continued to shift its offerings. Interesting enough (at least according to this article), Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller– who had stepped away from direct involvement in the company a while ago– is heavily involved in this effort.

Chinese gov’t recommends online courses to boost MOOC

MOOCs might not be having as big of an impact on the way higher ed works in the US as MOOC entrepreneurs would have liked, but MOOCs are still important in other places of the world.

 

Welcome to the “More Than a Moment” web site– and some recent MOOC/OPM/Online Ed News

I’m proud to announce that my book More Than A Moment: Contextualizing the Past, Present, and Future of Massive Open Online Courses is in production and will be coming out later in 2019 from Utah State University Press and/or University of Colorado Press (I still am not quite sure what the distinction is since they’ve merged). This is a project that has been in the works for almost four years, and I’m obviously excited to see it come out. 

I decided to start a web site/blog specifically connected to the book for two reasons. First, the reality is authors of small and academic books like this one have to be willing and able to do their own marketing efforts via things like this, Facebook, Twitter, etc. And really, I think that’s true for all but the most major of major books published nowadays.

Second and more important, the speed of changes and developments in MOOCs, OPMs, and online pedagogy radically outpace the speed of academic publishing. This is not the first time I’ve experienced this. The book of essays I co-edited, Invasion of the MOOCs, came out in 2014, just after the “MOOC Moment” was about over. Our intention to capture the zeitgeist of the moment of MOOCs just missed it by a couple of months and it became more of a “recent history.” 

Continue reading “Welcome to the “More Than a Moment” web site– and some recent MOOC/OPM/Online Ed News”