The Mother Of All Innovations

by Peter Doyle

The Mother Of All InnovationsWhen one thinks of innovation, thoughts stray to Silicon Valley home to Apple Computer, Google, Intel and many more.  These impressive and innovative companies may not be the most enduring and long lasting innovation from that legendary place. That honor is more likely to be given to MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses.

If you are not one of millions who have signed up to take an online university course at Udacity or Coursera let me give you a bit of history.  In 2011,  a Stanford professor Sebastian Thurn created a free online course on computer science. Over one hundred and forty six thousand people signed up, yes over 146,000 people subscribed. He was so impressed, in January 2012 he started a for profit company Udacity to offer online courses in other topics. Shortly after that another company appeared, Coursera, then Harvard and MIT jumped in on the act and created edX.  Millions have signed up, 90% drop out, but 10% make it all the way through.

Thurn believes that by 2050 there will be only ten bricks and mortar universities left in the world.  The rest will be online.  At the winter soiree in Davos, the rich and well appointed were giddy with the thought of what MOOCs could do for their bloated balance sheets.

For others, it is a depressing thought to think that instead of campus life, wild parties and long summer vacations, future students face long nights at the computer alone. It is even more alarming for university faculty.

Surprisingly, or maybe not after I explain why, Universities are in the midst of MOOC mania. Public Higher Education is in dire financial straits due to declining State spending.  Between 2000 and 2010 tuition rose over 70%. Add to that, in the same period the average earnings for college graduates dropped over 14%.  You get the picture, the whole value proposition for higher education is; get a degree then a well paying job. That is happening less, and students are stuck paying off a massive $1 trillion dollar in debt.   That $1 trillion debt is packaged and traded on stock markets- sounds familiar doesn’t it.  By some terrifying calculations, student debt is larger than mortgage debt and credit card debit combined.  Therefore, Universities are looking for ways to keep education affordable. MOOCs offer that possibility. meets academia and the merchandising makes the head spin.

There is no business plan, nor do they offer accreditation- yet, but when they do colleges and universities are gearing up to be in on the action.  Investors are warming to MOOCs, Coursera has $15 million in funding, Udacity $14 million and Harvard and MIT has put up $30 million for their non-profit offering edX.

The Internet allows American Universities to brand and leverage their greatest resource and sell it around the world. American Universities are the gold standard in higher education.  The temptation is irresistible, but not without some serious risks.

Universities are elitist because they strive for excellence. They are not democratic.  College life is more than showing up for classes and doing assignments.  University is the transition into adulthood, a place where young people meet future business colleagues, lifelong friends, future spouses. A place they can have long discussions late into the night about Existentialism and forget about being debt slaves for the rest of their lives.

Massive Open Online Course are an innovation suited for technical courses, learning Java or php, electronics or mapping, less so for essays on Jane Eyre or colonialism in Africa.  MOOCs will transform education and open the door to learning for millions.  However, lets not forget the purpose of a university education is to teach students critical thinking, so that in life they can discern whether a person is talking rot or not.  Education defines the society we are, the people we want to be, in terms of innovation it doesn’t get any bigger.

If you want to read more about MOOCs the New York Times has a series of informative articles worth a glance:

College of Future Could Be Come One, Come All

Online Certificate Programs at Colleges and Universities Gain Popularity

Beware of the High Cost of ‘Free’ Online Courses

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Peter DoylePeter Doyle is an award winning media marketing, news and documentary producer using rich media to accelerate innovation and commercialization. Check me out at

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