During the early 1870s, the American industrialist Andrew Carnegie championed something called the Bessemer process, a new way of making steel that was only about fifteen years old at that time. As a result he could make more steel at a cheaper price than any of his competitors. He then took the profits from his initial success and plowed it back into the business, investing in other cutting-edge technologies and buying out his rivals who didn’t fall out of the market naturally. By the early 1890s, he was the owner of the largest steel company in the world. I’d argue that the principle that made this story possible is the first-mover advantage.
That’s not a statement about making steel, which of course had been going on for centuries before Carnegie came along, but with respect to the Bessemer process. Building steel plants was expensive, but Carnegie (who actually made his initial money working for the Pennsylvania Railroad), had the money to invest in pricey new technologies while his competitors didn’t. His steel was cheaper, more abundant and actually of higher quality than the other steel available on the market at that time. No wonder he got so rich.
Mark Zuckerberg’s wealth is much harder to explain. I know there were other social networks before Facebook, but I’m not exactly sure what made Facebook the one network that people absolutely had to join. Certainly, at some point it reached a certain critical mass of people that newbies came to believe that they’d be missing out if they weren’t on it. Unfortunately, to me the ultimate problem with Facebook is that it actually impedes meaningful interactions with your friends rather than helps it by doing crazy stuff like conducting experiments upon you without your knowledge. That’s why I collected the e-mails of all my friends that I didn’t have already and got out. Facebook has shot whatever first-mover advantage it had to Hell.
As anybody who’s studied MOOCs in the slightest can tell you, the Stanford Computer Science department did not invent them – those nice Canadians did. However, it was those Stanford people who first decided to treat MOOCs as a market rather than as an educational opportunity. I can’t remember which came first, Coursera or Udacity, but there’s no question that Coursera at the very least has gone to great lengths to take advantage of its opportunity to be an early mover, putting MOOCs up regardless of quality – essentially beta testing them in front of tens of thousands of people – because they care more about quantities of students than they do about the quality of the educational experience they were providing.
Think I’m being unfair? Sebastian “lousy product” Thrun essentially admitted this to Fast Company last year. With respect to Coursera, do you remember the Google Document that brought down that online learning MOOC? The superprofessor who quit his MOOC in the middle of the course? How about the “no right answers” guy? These were not, as the MOOC Messiah Squad always like to put it, “the best of the best.” The people running these MOOCs were the worst of the best of the best, which actually turns out to be pretty darn bad in some cases. Well, I hate to judge a situation solely through its news coverage, but it looks like we have a new entrant in this particular Hall of Shame. From the Chronicle:
A massive open online course on making sense of massive open online courses caused massive confusion when the course content was suddenly deleted and the professor started writing cryptic things on Twitter. The MOOC, called “Teaching Goes Massive: New Skills Required,” was taught by Paul-Olivier Dehaye, a lecturer at the University of Zurich. Offered through Coursera, the course had been conceived of as a meta-MOOC designed to help disoriented educators find their feet in the online landscape. The course “grew out of the author’s experiences as an early adopter and advocate of newer technologies (such as Coursera) for online teaching,” according to a description on Coursera’s website. So far, the course has produced chaos rather than clarity. All the videos, forums, and other course materials mysteriously vanished from the website last week. As students in the course grappled with the bizarre turn of events, Mr. Dehaye offered only vague, inscrutable tweets.
And here’s some of the IHE coverage, which begins to explain the reasons for this weirdness:
“[Dehaye] appears to be conducting a social media/MOOC experiment in the most unethical manner,” the student said in a post that is currently the most viewed on the forum. “In my opinion his behavior is discrediting the University of Zurich, as well as Coursera.”
As the mystery captivated the post-holiday weekend crowd on Twitter, more details about the potential experiment were unearthed. Kate Bowles, a senior lecturer at the University of Wollongong, found Dehaye’s name attached to a 2003 paper in which the authors calculated how 100 people could escape from imprisonment when their only means of communication was a lightbulb.
Bowles also found what appeared to be Dehaye’s contributions to the community blog MetaFilter.
“I would be interested to hear people’s opinions on the idea of using voluntariat work in MOOCs to further research (in mathematics, particularly),” Dehaye wrote in one post. “Would this be exploitative? What would be good reward systems? Fame, scientific paper, internship?” He later shared his plans to teach the MOOC, and in response to a thread about the Facebook experiment, wrote “it is hard to pass the message on [C]oursera that emotions are important in teaching but that expressing those emotions can lead to data collection.”
Picking on the superprofessor here seems very, very easy, so I’d rather wonder what responsibility Coursera has for this disaster. I’m sure they’d tell you that picking instructors is the job of their partner universities, but Coursera still has to approve the courses. What standards do they use to decide who really is the best of the best? Judging from the failures I’ve listed in this post, not too many.
Coursera, in its search to attract eyeballs, has forgotten that education is not like steel – or at least steel rail.* Quality matters. Frankly, I’d take any adjunct professor with ten years experience and put them in front of 50,000 people before I’d do so with any star in their field. After all, adjuncts devote practically all their professional time to providing a better educational experience, in fact their continued employment often depends upon it. Many (but certainly not all) professors at elite universities are too busy doing their own research to care about what’s happening in their own classes. Commercial MOOCs are simply the logical extension of that kind of negligence.
Professors who really care about the quality of education don’t give a damn about the first mover advantage. They’d rather do their jobs well than become famous or conduct massive social experiments on their students without their consent, which probably means that they’d never in a million years work for Coursera.
* The quality of steel actually did matter for later steel products like structural steel for building skyscrapers and armor plate for battleships. I’m just talking about the 1870s here.
Update: I wrote this post so early this morning that I forgot two really important entries into the Coursera Hall of Shame: 1) What I like to think of as the MOOC Forum Circus incident and 2) the truly terrible UC-Santa Cruz MOOC that Jon Wiener described in this article. And just in case you don’t read Wired Campus (and you should), here’s Steve Kolowich’s truly weird update on the story behind the truly terrible MOOC at hand.