Outlier is a good reason why my book will still relevant

One of the challenges of having a book about MOOCs coming out in Fall 2019– More Than a Moment: Contextualizing the Past, Present, and Future of MOOCs is it’s easy to write it all off as being “over.” It’s certainly a fear I had when finishing this book, especially compared to the book on MOOCs I co-edited, Invasion of the MOOCs, which came out  in 2014. That was only a year after there was honest to goodness fear big corporate MOOCs would replace gen ed college courses, and not so long after serious people predicted the end of higher education as we know it. Now that fear has passed, so who cares about MOOCs?

And then something like Outlier comes along. No, it’s not a MOOC, but the similarities are kind of obvious.

As Inside Higher Ed reported in “Online Education Start-Up, Backed by Research University Credit,” yet another Silicon Valley education entrepreneur start-up promises to disrupt higher education with high quality online courses. Here’s a long quote from the beginning of the IHE article:

Aaron Rasmussen, co-founder of MasterClass, whose cinema-quality how-to courses from celebrity experts like Serena Williams, Dustin Hoffman and Margaret Atwood have been taken by many thousands of Americans, has turned his sights to the for-credit market with his new company, Outlier.org.

The company aims to market its courses mostly to would-be community college students and others seeking to transfer into selective universities.

The modest boast on its home page: “The World’s Best Online Education.”

“Why don’t we have a great online university — something we all know and love and see as both amazingly high quality and extremely affordable?” he says in an interview. “That’s what we’re trying to build.”

Rasmussen et al are focusing on two common general education courses, introductions to psychology and calculus. I find the reasoning behind the calculus course emphasis interesting:  a lot of people who need to take calculus fail it– Rasmussen estimates it as a “billion dollar” a year loss in tuition spent. Outlier’s approach is to build a better experience with the kind of classy and high-end video that has made MasterClass a hit.

Rasmussen had a kind of amusing promo video, which I tweeted last week:

Anyway, besides all of the other reasons why I don’t think this is going to work (buy my book in fall 2019 for more details), three other thoughts:

  • The partnership between Outlier and the University of Pittsburgh for a pilot of their calculus class seems remarkably similar to the failed experiment between Udacity and San Jose State in 2013. It’s not clear to me why either Outlier or Pitt thinks this is going to turn out differently.
  • There are many complex reasons why a lot of students fail calculus (or lots of similar classes), but I am very confident in asserting that the production values of the course materials have little to do with it. No one ever said “Jeez, if there had only been more professionally produced videos in my calculus class I would have passed.” Don’t get me wrong– I do think there is value to taking advantage of the affordances of the media in online courses of all sorts, and I write about that in my book. A lot of the early MOOCs I took, studied, and wrote about were (and still are, I might add) just talking head videos and slide shows. But good video is not a substitute for a solid curriculum and an actual human to work with students– particularly those students (like me) who do not get complex math.
  • There is a significant difference between the kind of Masterclass “Edutainment” courses Rasmussen et al have produced and a course like calculus– and since I teach another one of these courses that a lot of college students struggle with and/or love to hate (first year composition and rhetoric), I feel like I know of what I speak.

Masterclass is edutainment, with a strong emphasis on the entertainment part. They have classes in magic with Penn and Teller, acting with Natalie Portman, comedy with Steve Martin, filmmaking form Spike Lee or Ron Howard, writing with Neil Gaiman or Joyce Carol Oates or Aaron Sorkin and many others, cooking from just about every famous celebrity chef you could think of, etc., etc. Those all sound like fun! As an avid home cook, looking through the cooking class offerings even makes me want to sign up for a series of videos from someone like Thomas Keller! Beats the hell out of what’s on FoodTV nowadays.

On the other hand, no one— not even people who are good at it– ever said “I think it’d be a lot of fun to sign up for an online calculus class,” and “famous calculus teacher” is an oxymoron (as is the case with “famous freshman composition teacher” I might add).

And again in terms of the argument I’m trying to make in my book: MOOCs are/were not “new”. They were the continuation of a history of distance education experiments dating back at least 140 or so years. Some element of these experiments (particularly correspondence and online courses) have been incorporated into the mainstream of higher education, and some of these experiments (radio and television courses) have faded away. The innovators behind these approaches– and I include Rasmussen in this group too– all seem to be motived by a sincere desire to extend the opportunity for access to higher education to otherwise disenfranchised students, and simultaneously, by the desire to make a buck.

So hey, maybe Outliers will break this pattern with a better mousetrap. Somehow I doubt it though.

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