Understanding the MOOC moment

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

I want to thank Eugene for allowing me to spend a little time here. Next Monday, I am launching a new free online course, Internet Giants: The Law and Economics of Media Platforms. In it, we will wrestle with questions relating to Microsoft, Google, Apple, Amazon and the other great companies that define the online platforms we spend so much time with. These companies are involved in important antitrust, copyright and patent cases, both in the United States and Europe, but around the world generally.

We will also consider recent developments in net neutrality and in the regulation of platforms relating to music, video and e-books. These are great topics, and I feel very lucky to have a chance to think about them.

But my plan here is to focus not on the content of my particular course but instead on the MOOC phenomenon more generally. I will also discuss what is involved in launching a MOOC and then will report back over the next couple of months as I see day-to-day life in MOOCland.

Let me back up a little. I have been running a little test over the past three months. When asked what I have been spending my time on, I say quickly, "I have been shooting a MOOC." That usually gets a blank stare and the occasional question. In truth, as an academic, I am pretty comfortable with both blank stares and questions. The question is usually something along the lines of whether a MOOC is a cousin to a moose, and exactly what do you use to hunt them?

A MOOC is a massive open online course, and it is probably fair to say that there has been a MOOC bubble in universities across the globe over the past three years. We have seen substantial entry into the platforms or infrastructure piece of the market and also by many universities producing courses for those platforms. Venture capitalists have poured in substantial amounts of money into the space, with Coursera having taken in $85 million and Udemy another $65 million last month.

But it is not just the venture capitalists who see opportunities here: Harvard and MIT reportedly ponied up $60 million to launch edx.org in May 2012. Certainly, by the standards of teaching experiments in universities—where having four or five different color markers to write on a whiteboard is seen as being at the educational edge—these are enormous amounts of money.

Why? What is going on here? On the venture capital side, the idea is that the university is ready to be—in the word that Clayton Christensen has given us (inflicted on us?)—disrupted. The idea is that an external change to a field makes possible a reorganization of a perhaps long-standing set of institutional arrangements. Think, say, physical distribution of music and newspapers.

What might that mean for education, especially education at colleges and universities? The point might be that I don't scale very well. That isn't another coded hunting and fishing reference, but instead the idea that I can teach only so many students each year at the University of Chicago Law School. Our largest classroom holds only 118 students. I had a waiting list of 38 students for my winter Antitrust class—we really like to think about antitrust at the University of Chicago—but the room holds what the room holds. All that makes education expensive—I say that as a writer of college tuition checks—and intensely local.

And maybe that is a really good thing, but we should find out. When Harvard and MIT announced edx, they promised a revolution in education. I take it the idea was to explore what scales and what doesn't and also to make a version of great classes available to individuals who can never set foot in a Cambridge or a Hyde Park.

If you ask me what I have done in constructing my online course, I will say that I have built a video textbook. Read that phrase carefully and then think about it for a second, for it is a very odd phrase in many ways. Most textbooks are just that: text books. Indeed, we could just call them books, but a textbook is understood to be a book used to learn a subject, typically read while taking a class in which the textbook is used as one of the resources to teach the material.

A video textbook—videobook?—is in that sense very much like an ordinary textbook. You could try to learn a subject by just buying the textbook and never going to the corresponding class. And, alas, some students attending residential schools do exactly that (please go to class, and if going to class isn't sufficiently worthwhile, insist on better teaching). If you have taken one or more classes with an in-person teacher or professor, you will have, I hope, a good sense of the educational gap between just reading a textbook and going to a successful engaged class in which the material in the textbook is considered, dissected and debated.

I don't think that I can re-create an in-person classroom experience online, but I also think that there should be room for a broader set of educational opportunities. The hope for me at least is that my online course will engage students who will never go to law school or who will never take an in-person class in which they have the chance to wrestle with the material. Or to reach students who have already been to law school but who now want to turn to thinking about new material and understandably can't go to law school a second time (not that this wouldn't be great fun to do!).

Now you know a little bit about MOOCs, but you don't know much about shooting MOOCs or MOOC production more generally. I will turn to all of that in the next post.