Today’s daily Chronicle focus on MOOCs is on place. Author Scott Carlson writes:
But will campuses and traditional teaching disappear because we now have MOOCs? No, because that defies the human yearning for meaningful places and the real benefits that come with them. We see it in the migration to cities and in walkable neighborhoods. We see it most of all on college campuses.
Place is a brand. Physical intellectual space (a campus), physical space of idea exchange (such as Steven Johnson’s interest in 18th century coffee houses), physical book storage (libraries) all have served as brand markers of a specific type of academic space. I’m also thinking about the issue of the brand when we discuss MOOCs. When Berkeley put its courses online at the cost of almost $5 million to Blackboard, it found its offerings under-enrolled despite the strength of its brand (Berkeley is a well known university). Coursera, on the other hand, has stopped taking clients; they have too many involved universities. They have too many students already enrolled - estimated at 2.5 million. Launched in April of last year, Coursera is not even a year old.
We’re seeing the brand shift from university to something else – in this case , to some extent, Coursera. How, though, did Coursera’s brand value get to be so big in such a short period of time?
Are there, at least, three layers to success when we discuss online learning?
- Small colleges that have done really well already in online eduction whereas large, research universities struggle (i.e., schools like Columbia College in Missouri)
- For profits (though enrollment at Phoenix is down)
- Aggregates of brand name university education (i.e., Coursera – though no profits have been made yet)
And will the third online brand triumph the others? How does the physical space oriented brand compete when it is also contributing to the aggregation brand (there is no Coursera without contributing brand name universities)? We might be confident that physical space will not vanish (it can’t, of course, unless we blow up the world), and the response to the online issue at hand is often that fear. Recall initial concerns that bookstores will never go away (They haven’t) or bricks and mortar stores won’t vanish despite the threat of online shopping (Have you ever been to the mall in mid-December? Those stores still exist). There are thousands of American universities and colleges. They are not going away, though maybe not for Carlson’s reasons.
Brand is playing a role in recent developments. Remix is as well. Those who celebrated the remix as THE essential art form of the late 20th and early 21st century now cringe at how remix may play out in higher education. Coursera is offering the possibility of a remixed educational experience. Imagine, for a minute, a degree offered not by The University of Pennsylvania or The University of Virginia, but by Coursera (an additional, different degree, not a replacement degree). The student who earned the Coursera degree took some courses from Penn and UVA (and many other universities), but did not complete a degree at either. She mixed and remixed courses from all of Coursera’s offerings, paying for credits affiliated with these universities, and earned some kind of remixed Coursera degree. Coursera takes a big piece of the tuition pie; the aggregated and remixed universities share their various negotiated cuts.
Remix, of course, has always meant more that art. What interests me most in this scenario is brand. We already know – via the hundreds of thousands of students who have enrolled at the University of Phoenix and other for profits – that brand does not resonate the same across the educational perspective. Some people have to attend Penn in person. Some don’t care. What percentage of 2.5 million would not care about the brand name recognition of Coursera printed on their degree? The 10 percent figure of completion circulated suggests 250,000. It will take the University of Kentucky, where I teach, 10 years to enroll that many students. It has taken Coursera one year.
Scary? An outrage? A revolution? A utopian future? Probably none of the above. But a possibility, for sure. Brands must be sticky – as some writers argue. Coursera has stuck very quickly, far quicker than mainstream research universities – such as the one who employs me – have. We should be fascinated by such potentiality because beyond its financial consequence, it is a rhetorical problem. “The human yearning for meaningful places” Carlson argues for is a rhetorical issue. Meaningful places are meaningful because of how they are framed, presented, organized, attached to reference points and markers, circulated, etc. In other words, they are meaningful for how they stick (Starbuck’s sticks in the way the cafe sticks, in general, for academics, for instance). In one year, Coursera has become a meaningful place – 2.5 million people are finding some variation of meaning in this space regardless of its actual make-up. There are supposedly 21 million students enrolled in degree granting universities right now – not all of these universities are physical or 100% physical. Still, Coursera has almost 10% of that number. 10% of a market is significant. Craft beer, for all its attention, expansion, and hype, only has 6% of the beer market, and most of that percentage is held by one brewer, Sam Adams. In less than a year, who wouldn’t want their brand to be able to capture almost 10% of a market? Who wouldn’t want that kind of sticky rhetorical meaning?