Is there an economic model or opportunity today for companies like Google in MOOCs? “Apple’s not done anything since iTunes U, as far as I can tell,” notes Cramer. “Microsoft is struggling to regain its footing as a major tech innovator. My guess is, no, not unless a clear profit opportunity emerges, where none is obvious today.”
“But Google has a hill to climb. Apple has been working in this area for many years, going from strength to strength. Its tools all fit together into a proper ‘ecosystem’ that is well suited to mobile and tablet. However, Google has great assets too. It is a strong engineering company and the MOOC industry still requires quality engineering work to which Google can make a solid contribution. For example, it could re-develop YouTube to work seamlessly with MOOC platforms and the courses on them. Its Course Builder is already a powerful framework to build MOOCs platforms and the ID management processes and spam control and mail exchange can all be taken to higher levels of functionality. The president of edX has compared the site mooc.org to a ‘YouTube for MOOCs.’”
“No doubt Google will also use its strengths in search technologies,” Daniel continues, “to help learners find the right course for them. By mining the data generated by the links that previous learners have made between particular courses and the job market it could ensure that learners choose courses in a more purposeful manner than simply trawling the catalog of offerings. Given the way it created an open ecosystem around Android, making it a formidable presence in [the] mobility sphere, Google could do that with Open edX for the world of online learning. Apple might have to recast its iTunes U to match this competition. There are also rumors that Microsoft is re-engineering its Customer Relations Management platforms to create a core for a MOOC platform.”
Behind the MOOCS—A Battle for Cloud Dominance
The future of education in our connected world is at stake as costs for education and research climb. However, the educational sector isn’t the only interested party. The structure of MOOCs relies on cloud computing and hosting—a major area of contention for future profits. In July 2012, Google offered a MOOC course that attracted more than 150,000 users: “Through this experiment, we learned that Google technologies can help bring education to a global audience. So we packaged up the technology we used to build Power Searching and are providing it as an open source project called Course Builder. We want to make this technology available so that others can experiment with online learning.” Coursera is the only large system working on the Amazon Web Services infrastructure rather than the Google App Engine platform. Udacity also uses the Google cloud apparatus.
In February, Gartner released a market study on cloud computing, predicting that the total market will grow from $76.9 billion in 2010 to $210 billion in 2016. Although the market for MOOCs may be uncertain, the battle for the advertising dollars will directly pit Amazon and Google. Microsoft’s Azure Cloud Services, a distant third place entry, may also be expected to address this market.
The move to support edX was not unexpected for Google. At the press conference announcing the alliance, Anant Agarwal, edX president and MIT professor, noted that “open source was definitely one aspect of it. We both share the mission of building a joint, leading platform for education and we have assembled a great set of leading institutions around the world helping improve that platform.” Agarwal also called the possibilities of this alliance a way to create a “YouTube for MOOCs.”
MOOCS—Clearly a Technology and an Opportunity
“I believe there is an enormous opportunity—and social obligation—to make high quality education accessible to everyone who seeks to learn,” says Thrun. “We at Udacity are excited to work with industry to develop courses that lead directly to employable skills in the field of technology. Who better to define what these skills are than the companies that end up hiring many of those learners? If we can empower every human being to unleash their full potential through new, accessible educational pathways, we will advance humanity and give everyone a fair chance.” The optimism and excitement is clear in the educational community.
“For me,” notes Inge Ignatia de Waard, currently m-learning and MOOC expert at the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Belgium and educational researcher at Athabasca University, “Google’s move towards education does not come as a surprise, as they have been exploring education for a longer period of time.” Beginning with Google’s business focus, efforts in open source and “the Google teacher academy ignited new interest in using open tools for educational purposes. The teachers kept their expert role, and Google offered them additional tools that saved money and time, and opened up more collaborative options for all. This had a global impact, as teachers from around the world sought Google certification through the academy.”
“Partnering up with universities (especially edX type universities) seems to be a logical next step. For what Google did miss was Subject Matter Experts, or teachers in general. Merging edX with Google will no doubt result in optimal learning experience (e.g., mobile optimized courses, seamless learning experience) and it has an enormous potential for Big Data related to learner analytics, as Google has one of the vast analytics opportunities out there. And, although Apple and Microsoft have launched some educational initiatives, it does not even begin to compare with the prior expertise Google has built up,” says de Waard.
“Next year we will hear the term MOOC less often,” Daniel believes. “People will simply talk about online learning for different purposes offered in various guises. The key issue is that students receive credible awards and recognition for their online study. Many current MOOCs are a useful form of informal professional development for already well-educated people, but they cannot really be called ‘higher education’ if they do not lead to the credits, degrees, diplomas or badges that learners seek to obtain.”
“I’d say that I’m generally enthusiastic about anyone investing in online education, because the opportunity is so huge,” notes Princeton mathematics professor Robert Sedgewick, who offered his MOOC on algorithms in 2012 to more than 80,000 students. “Indeed, I’d say that the most disappointing aspect of all the recent attention to the idea is the general lack of investment, particularly by universities. We need research and investment on virtually every aspect of online education, but most institutions are investing crumbs, trying to justify wasted investment on IT bureaucracies, or trying to save money. We need academic leaders, experienced computer scientists, and respected scholars seriously addressing these issues. My opinion is that universities should be investing in this on the scale they are investing in libraries. But we don’t need another bureaucracy. As one of my colleagues put it, the only limit on investment should be enthusiasm of the faculty. My opinion is that an ever-increasing number of faculty will see the opportunity to greatly expand their reach, and the available offerings will be nothing short of amazing in the very near future.”
“I think that online education is doing far more than filling a niche and is likely to have substantial impact on everything that we do,” Sedgewick believes. “For example, it is already the case in every institution that, for dozens of courses that they offer, students have access to a much better free online experience than the traditional course. What are we going to do about that, particularly when the number expands to hundreds of courses in the near future?”