Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Entrepreneurship (and commercial) activity in education

It's week 3 in #cfhe12 and the topic of the week is Entrepreneurship and commercial activity in education, and I kicked off the week by reading The Evolution of Ed Tech in Silicon Valley and How the Internet is Revolutionizing Education. There are, of course, other readings that I intent on getting to, but these two were the only HTML documents that were easy to sent to Pocket (I did however skim the educational start-ups PDF because I was curious). 

In any case, it was interesting to read about the venture capital process, how it related to EdTech, and how much quicker (and easier) it is to be innovative these days. Now, when I say "be innovative" I don't mean the actual having an idea part, but the ability to execute it. With services like Amazon's cloud services it's easier these days for someone who has an idea, and has some know-how (or access to know-how) to be able to get up and running.  Not that long ago one had to go to the appropriate authorities to buy a server, to put it on a campus network with a dedicated IP, invest in backup and recovery tools, including UPS, and hope that the campus IT folks didn't find out (or pull the plug) on such initiatives.

On my own campus there were stories of "people running servers under their desks," with IT folks saying in a rather disapproving way.  At that point I was younger, more idealistic, and working for IT; thus I too was thinking about it in a disapproving way.  My thought was that they should just contact IT, get the resources they need, and do it officially. This way, they get the right tools to get the job done.  Oh how naive I was :-) Fast forward 10 years later and now I too am trying to avoid the IT department.  Why?  I still like them, they are my friends and colleagues after all, but the organizational culture of a large IT department can be summed up by "batten down the hatches" which ultimately means that entrepreneurial spirits can be crushed.

So, let me go back to this idea of entrepreneurship and commercial activity in Higher Education.  I put commercial activity in parentheses in the title because  I think that starting with the profit motive is a recipe for disaster. One has to fail often in order to find things that work, but the key focus should be on finding things that work, rather than finding things that work enough to sell. I think that educational entrepreneurs need to focus on the teaching and learning aspect of the equation, something that isn't always a commercialized item. The spirit of experimentation and inquiry needs to have, as its master, the improvement of the academe, to get us out of certain old, smelly and moldy situations; not what we can in turn sell.  The cynic in me thinks that we are already selling something - credentialing. You might be able to turn around and capitalize your innovation later (this LMSs and how they grew out of campuses and became their own thing), but that should be a happy by product of what you did to make things better for learners on your school (or consortium).

I think the focus on money and reputation is one of the problems with MOOCs (xMOOCs) today. Sure, I don't think that the people behind coursera and udacity started with this in mind. As a matter of fact I am pretty certain they didn't. But Universities are now looking at the prestigious institutions in Cambridge, MA and want to offer their own MOOCs so that they can get visibility for their programs as well. The problem is that doing something for visibility is the wrong motive for offering free education. Khan, of Khan Academy, didn't think of visibility but the education of the person he was tutoring, and how useful it might be for others.  Notoriety came later as a good by product.

The problem I have with institutions coming into MOOCs the way they are coming is the real danger that it will lead to something like a Dot-Com-Bust. When the bust happened many copycats and "me too"s went away. Maybe they had nothing to offer something to begin with, but in the academic sphere I think every school has something to offer. When little or no money is to be had if and and that bust comes, we might write off Free Open Education, OER, OCW and everything that goes with it as a fad. And, because of a certain gold rush and bust-cycle, it might be that an idea and teaching methodology get's send to the internet dustbin because it didn't pan out in the short time that it was allowed to live and make money (i.e. prove itself).

Thoughts? :-)
blog comments powered by Disqus