Moocs and the Bottom of the Pyramid

Moocs, Massive Open Online Courses, are provided for free to large amount of participants. Tuition and assessment are peer based. They are not really Open Educational Resources as they are only offered in certain periods and the materials are not available for (re)use in different educational situations.

As a economist, I realize that what irritates me is the way these courses are labeled massive by those who offer them. A course becomes massive because a lot of people participate in the open version, not because the teacher decides to offer a massive course as Steve Downs says in the introduction to the Change Mooc. Some course have a proven track record, Artificial Intelligence of Stanford has been a success, so have the courses of George Siemens and Stephan Downes on Higher Education. Perhaps other open online courses have been less successful (in numbers of students), but also less prominent in the publicity. Of course, Moocs and other online courses will be criticized for offering a Tata Nano versus the classroom BMW (Amanda Ripley in Time US).

George Siemens’ interview on MOOCs and Open Education by Andreia Inamorato

The free offering of courses from outstanding universities as MIT, Stanford and others make good quality education available in places where otherwise no education would be accessible. Furthermore, the massive character of these courses open the possibility of applying a “Bottom of the Pyramid” kind of financing for education.

One of the more interesting business models of Moocs is the supply of a paid-for degree course, together with a free non-degree version without expert tuition. Adding to this the possibility of asking a small fee for a certificate stating that the person has participated in the program, and the possibility to sell the program to third parties, these opportunities broaden the global participation, educating the bottom of the pyramid. For example, Sui Fai John Mak shows on his blog a figure consisting of three kind of markets he expects to emerge from the present Moocs (see below).

Yet another way the philosophy of the Moocs can be combined with the philosophy of Prahalad is by asking yourself what kind of education these people need. Is it possible to rework online distance courses in such a way that institutes in the neighborhood can build programs around these ODL’s so students can take formal assignments and get formal degrees. The combination in thinking about delivering to the point courses at affordable fee, compensating the costs through the amount of students and working together with local organizations for the formal recognition of the degree.

Of course such a development has the danger of unification of education in it, the McDonaldization; “MOOC’s may provide access to a world-class education, but the product is prepackaged and standardized. And, because it is readily available, it risks diminishing both the diversification of the higher-education sector and the advancement of globally engaged students and institutions”. If Moocs become the baseline in education in developing countries, the content of education will become the same everywhere.

When there are a large amount of people interested in participating in these kind of courses, the development costs per student will be very low, whereas other institutions can use the course to offer a degree based on the Mooc, tutoring and local assessment. Again, this makes education available for people who cannot afford regular education. Another observation of Amanda Ripley, based on her experiences in Pakistan was that “ at this stage, most MOOCs work well for students who are self-motivated and already fairly well educated. Worldwide, the poorest students still don’t have the background (or the Internet bandwidth) to participate in a major way” . In the TimesHangout, Amanda Ripley remarks that it are only the higher income students in developing countries can afford to participate in Moocs.

Concluding, in themselves Moocs will not solve the differences in education level around the world. There are too much problems concerning these online courses, associated with the low success rates of students, the lack of formal degrees. But also problems with the potential participants, as a lack of money for broadband internet and other income related problems and institutional problems, for example when Pakistan closed down YouTube blocking an anti-Muslim movie, they also blocked the access of 217 students to the massive, open online physics course (again according to Ripley).

However, I think that Moocs and other ODL-courses can be instrumental in providing education in places where otherwise no good quality education is available (whether in developing or developed countries). If it will be a success depends on the conditions which will be created locally. If other institutions adopt the Moocs, if governments are supportive of these kind of educational materials it is possible that this kind of education can provide a stimulus to better education. On the side of the Moocs, they could be made available around the year as open educational resources instead of just an additional outlet for existing education.


Journalism and the Age of Free Information

I wanted to write a blog on the international effects of the golden open access by the UK government. However, I got caught in an interesting discussion between a Dutch journalist and a website owner and chief editor on the way the website uses information and articles written by the journalist. The website called ( uses amateur writers, paid writers and secondary sources to fill its website with local news.

The Dutch journalist accuses the website owner of stealing his articles by reproducing them at his own website and of robbing him of his means of living. In his own words: the reader has the choice to pay about 300 Euro to read a newspaper or read the same items onscreen for free? The owner/editor has two answers to this. Firstly, he states that they “facilitate peoples hobbies, providing a place to publish their writings”. Secondly, he states that some journalist find a paid job working for his website. 

I think both of the discussants miss the point. The emergence of internet allows people to publish their opinion on everything, everywhere, for everyone to read and react. This can be on their hobbies (cats seem to be especially interesting at least at Facebook) but also a review of the local football club or starting a discussion on books they have read. Some will chose Facebook, WordPress or another personalized website; others will join a existing website as It is even allowed to add external links to your own website, as does, linking to available internet contributions of newspapers and other news agencies. When the text of the internet item is reproduced and the source is only given in small print at the end of the item, it becomes less clear if this is still allowed.

However, as the news agencies themselves put the items online, the journalist is wrong in perceiving this as a danger to his occupation. In general, news gatherers should rethink their role in society. In this they could be helped by the vision of the website owner/editor: describing simple facts and events as they appear is too simple to justify the payment of hundreds of euro’s for a newspaper. In the present society, information is, or becomes fast, free.

To deny the view that journalism is no more than reporting events, requires an alternative vision. Question is what a professional reporter adds to the plain description of the events? Taking the Business Canvas approach, it is important to determine who is the customer, what are the core resources and activities, the essential partnerships of the (freelance) reporter?

Not being a journalist myself, it is complex to answer these questions. Assuming that (world and local) events will be known through social media and free websites, the journalist could provide a context to the isolated event. Either by investigating journalism, using strategic partnerships, describing the unknown background or hidden agendas, or placing the single event in time; deterministic or unique.See for example the different models of Jeff Jarvis on sustainable journalism.

In this sense the journalist plays the role of the teacher as described in my former blog about data, information and knowledge. The journalist helps the reader to make sense of events which isolated may look insignificant or too important. Furthermore, the journalist can act as the memory of the readers, confronting politicians with former promises, acknowledging series of events leading up to this particular happening. Journalists have to become an authority, building a reputation of integrity, expertise and sensitivity to the news. Question is if every of the present day journalists can play this role of investigating reporter?

Lastly, the view of the website owner/editor reflects a post-modern approach to expertise. This approach denies the importance of experts as journalists, teachers and GP’s.  As all information is freely available on the internet, we can all make our own newspaper, become self-learners and diagnose health problems. This ignores the fact that experts have the competences to translate information and data into knowledge. A website with local facts and figures will certainly attract enough visitors to make a business model based on advertising worthwhile. It also ignores objectivity, the mentioned events can be brought to the attention of the website by enthusiastic amateurs, participators, and public but also by the organizers of an event.

Open and free access to data and information will force several types of industry to discuss their core activities. The owner/ editor of the website thinks that his core competence lies in the use of amateur journalists, because -1- they have a deeper knowledge of the local situation; -2- they are less expensive than professionals. Question is if he adds so much to the open information he copies that his website generates enough traffic to attract advertisers (his earning model in my view).

Journalists, teachers and even GP’s have to deal with the flow of free information (open resources). This may not be new (free magazines, learning on the workplace or medical columns in magazines) but the size and speed makes the supply of information different from these older examples.

Yet, it is here to stay…………………………………………….

Data – Information – Knowledge Or the future of universities

Discussing the possibilities of OER with some visiting colleagues of UNISA, we started to speculate on the threats and opportunities of universities, given the rise in Moocs and OER. For example, Popenici writes: ”Many universities slowly implode nowadays without even knowing it. Going ahead in denial with a lethal combination of old models and practices, decrepit ideas, illusory solutions and their self-confirming coteries, many universities are still playing around a stubborn refusal to change”.

Being all business economists of a kind, the question asked was what the unique offering of universities in the educational spectrum is.

If all information is freely available whether on websites, blogs or wiki’s of individuals, or of educational institutions, could learners not learn by browsing? If all important higher educational institutes provide free education through open educational resources or massive online open courses, why pay some institution to provide the same or even worse education? Some even argue that universities like Stanford and MIT damage their traditional business model by providing Moocs.

So providing data and information is not anymore the prerogative of the universities, although academic research will add to the available knowledge. However, private and semi-public research institutes also do research even when the results are less publicly available. So again, what are the unique offering, the competitive advantage of universities compared to the other suppliers of education, data and information?

One of the answers is that universities, next to research, are best equipped to help the students to process the data and the information which are freely available into knowledge. This can be done by providing a context which gives a meaning to all loosely connected data, or stimulate the student to look for such context themselves. Roughly speaking is education the capability to transfer data into knowledge, which can be translated into actions.

The second activity in which most universities are unique, either through regulations or because of their capabilities, is the possibility to take formal assessments leading to a formal certificate or degree. Most employers still see the formal degree as the proof of competences of the potential employee. This means that the majority of adolescent students and more than one third of adult long life learners see the formal degree as the main object of studying.

Another activity, which I think is unjustly ignored, is the validation of data. In the traditional definitions, data, information and knowledge are distinguished by the level of abstraction being considered (source of the next part is Wikipedia). Data is the lowest level of abstraction, information is the next level, and finally, knowledge is the highest level among all three. Data on its own carries no meaning. For data to become information, it must be interpreted and take on a meaning. Information as a concept bears a diversity of meanings, from everyday usage to technical settings. It is people who collect data and impose patterns on it. The interpretation of the patterns as true and reoccurring, basing your behavior on these patterns can be described as knowledge (not going into the discussion when knowledge becomes wisdom).

So although undoubtedly much data is available, both the traditional degree framework and the fact that people have to make an assessment if the information provided is valid, there will always be a place for educational institutes.

Reblogged from LouisMMCoiffait

Reblogged from  LouisMMCoiffait

Interesting facts about trends in education



(This blog was originally posted through my day-job in May 2012 but I am re-posting it here as background to the #CFHE12 MOOC course)

Now and again it can be useful to lift your gaze from the latest news story, burning policy issue or regulatory change that is occupying your attention. If you set your focus to the widest possible angle, then you will start to see some of the bigger and longer-term changes to higher education take shape. In my opinion, there are five big factors changing the way we ought to think about HE: demography, globalisation, technology, sustainability and funding. These represent a complex and overlapping cluster of issues with the potential to have huge positive or negative impact on higher education. When considering them it is worth remembering that higher education is always both a product and a source of such change.

1. Shifts in demography and…

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Is strategy back?

You may not be interested in strategy, but strategy is interested in you.

Attributed to Leon Trotsky

Strategy in real life has never been far away, however in academics it seemed to be a period in time that strategic thinking was out of fashion. Or as a former dean of our faculty said: Strategy is about everything, so it has to say something about everything. Strategy became an adjective, in the sense of strategic human resources, strategic management or strategic operational decision-making. Since the introduction of the business model, the business canvas and open innovation, strategy has again become a serious topic. Comparing the different approaches in strategy, you can see a common point. All modern approaches put the customer central, moving to a more service oriented theory of the customer (the so-called Service Dominant Logic). On the input side of the business model, there is a certain distinction between approaches. For example, the Osterwalder canvas lists cooperation as one of the fields of importance in determining your business model; the Prahalad approach and Open Innovation of Chesbrough and van Haverbeke are even more explicit in setting cooperation as one of the essential competences to develop unique competitive advantages. As Prahalad put it in “The Age of Innovation”, it is not ownership of resources, but access to resources even if they are owned by other firms.

In another context I have shown that this is the reason why open innovation is counted as part of the so-called Open Movement. The Open Movement consists of Open Source, the development and implementation of free software by a massive group of volunteers; Open Access, the movement against expensive publishers and for opening up all kind of resources; Open Education, a mix of different kind of educational resources for teachers and learners, total free courses and programs provided by volunteers but also by top universities and Open Innovation, the realization that collaboration of firms is necessary if innovation has to be successful in the present complex world. These initiatives range from a completely free towards a copyright protected exchange of ideas. As Open Business Models are a part of the Open Movement, the success of open activities requires new business models. For example, it is now possible to use your computer with a free Linux Operating System, using FreeOffice, (replacing Microsoft Office) and other kinds of free software, including web development software as Moodle. This calls for new business models on the part of commercial software: what are the features people are prepared to pay money for, as there is a free alternative? Open Access caused a major discussion between the UK government, academics and the publishers. .The UK government has taken the decision that work, paid for by the British taxpayer will be free available online for universities, companies and individuals, to use for any purpose, wherever they are in the world (The Guardian, 15 July 2012 ). To make this possible, the government changes the business model of scientific publishers from being paid by the subscribers of their journals to making the authors pay an ‘Article Processing Charge’ (APC) around £2,000 per article. This APC is financed by the research funds of universities and research institutions (the so-called Golden approach, commission Finch; contrasting the Green approach). Open Access will change the business models in publishing, but possible also in other artistic business as movies, music ect. Open Education is about individuals and organizations offering different kinds of education and educational resources. Sometimes for free, sometimes for a small fee. New technological developments allow a larger access, a broader participation in education. Partly this will make good education available in places where it was not available before, Secondly; it sets the standard for other teachers as students can compare the free course with the courses at their university. However, it can also influence the business model of traditional and distance teaching universities. What do these institutions offer to make up for the fees as compared to the free courses? Of course, Open Innovation is less about getting things for free but more about the must to cooperate, opening up a traditional very closed activity. Surely, research and development departments were heavily guarded places, whereas now, openness and interaction are propagated in by the open innovation and open business model approaches, Yet, there are still approaches which stress the importance of the closed enterprise. For example the blue ocean – red ocean approach of Kim and Mauborgne assumes that the firm has to move towards a position of relative loneliness, to survive. In these approaches strategic decisions have to do with the distinction between the firm and its competitors. If the resources you use are available for everyone, there is no distinguishing competitive advantage!

The more co-creation and non-price factors determine the competitive position of an organization, the more important collaboration with other firms. The more price competition determines the success and survival of the organization, the more important specific individual competences become. Strategy is about recognizing your own position in relation with the outside world, the industrial relationships, the customers, competitors and others. Copying the behavior of others will not lead to an unique position, collaboration can result in a competitive advantage when combined with special internal competences. The same applies for the motto attributed to Leon Trotsky at the beginning of this blog. Searching the internet, this quote can be found at hundreds of websites. However, at the more serious websites pointing towards publications in which the quotes can be found, this quote is not found; the only quote looking like it is: “You may not be interested in the dialectic, but the dialectic is interested in you”.

Copying the “free content” provided at many websites might not always be the best policy to get the best results 😎