Regina Saphier: What “The Digital Skeptic” forgot to mention

Regina Saphier: What “The Digital Skeptic” forgot to mention

He says among other things (in his article “The Digital Skeptic: Online Education Fails Economics“): “Like other hip, free Web brands, the service has passionate advocates. “Coursera is the change I have been waiting for in online higher education for 10 years,” a Columbia University grad named Regina Saphier, who blogs about the service, told me in an email.“… Well, he asked me for my opinion, and believe me, this was only a small part of my elaborate response to his questions. In my opinion, it is NOT true that Online Education Fails Economics… It is the other way round… Old School Economics Fails Online Education… You just cannot measure a twenty first century, innovative online educational business (a social entrepreneurship company) made of the finest material with a twentieth century economics based mindset.

Here is what I really wrote in my e-mail to journalist Jonathan Blum:

“I believe Coursera is the change I have been waiting for in online higher education for 10 years since I graduated from Teachers College, Columbia University. In graduate school I opted for interdisciplinary studies in education and got a masters from TC in 2002, and later created a nonprofit organization (lobbying, community building, PR, grant writing, interviews, I did all sorts of things while directing my NGO). Lately, I am an observer and a writer.

Since I graduated from TC, I missed that kind of learning, the quality, the special insight, the specific challenges. When TED appeared I was really happy to follow the conferences live, and I felt that blogging about those events would be even more meaningful. And right during a TED conference a few months ago Daphne Koller spoke the words I was looking for: quality online higher education for all on a massive, global scale, and: for free. You know the feeling when you are waiting for something and suddenly it is there, even better?

Truth is, I never expected it to be free, but also never expected peer reviews. I am skeptical about the peer grading process. I registered for many Coursera courses to see how the platform works (some of those only start in 2013). I ended up completing the fun Gamification course with professor Werbach and received the statement of accomplishment. One fine mind, excellent teaching skills, and lots of enthusiasm. Not only was his course enjoyable, but it was also challenging and useful. He used the opportunity brilliantly. So did thousands of diligent students in his course (8280 people received the statement of accomplishment). Wow, suddenly I completed a Wharton Gamification course via Coursera. No need to apply to the university. No need to request a visa. No need to move to the other side of the ocean again. No bureaucracy. Just the learning. Fine experience indeed, and the opportunity to start another blog, this time about Coursera. (Not all courses were as well delivered, but even those can become successful in the future.) The experience felt historic, because of my expectations and due to my professional background in education research. For others it might just be another course platform online.

I did it out of professional curiosity (I graduated from a top education research institution, so of course I am curious about innovation in education). There are more such players on the horizon, like Udacity and EdX, or the new Leuphana Digital School in Germany. (I have an international view, therefore I say University of Phoenix and Kaplan are not even close. Not attractive on any level to me in the EU.) Coursera has an exceptional reach and scale (compared to the other MOOC players), plus amazing flexibility for more online learning innovation. A meaningfully disruptive approach in the making. And any top university, or any top department of less exceptional universities are just wrong not to join and see what happens.

If you are the director of admissions at a major school (which is an educational business), imagine the quality of your on campus students in the future when you can select applicants from Coursera, finding people who already completed some of your courses online for free with excellent results. If you are the president of a top university imagine the free PR your best professors (and so your university) get when their Coursera courses do well! You better make sure they are up to the special challenges of online education. You want them to succeed, because thousands of students will be watching almost at the same time globally. I am truly skeptical about the innovative capacities of top schools that are not joining Coursera. Face the future of education. The sooner the better. I am definitely not worried about Coursera. I think it is a wonderful thing (especially because of my social entrepreneurial background and with a history in ethical business studies, I value the like minded fellows in that organization). I am very interested in how their new career platform can serve the Coursera alumni.

Andrew Ng

Andrew Ng of Coursera (Photo credit: Dawn Endico)

Elitism as we know it is dying, finally. Elitism should mean that you are so privileged that you can not afford to be selfish if you want to look good professionally. If we want real development in medicine for example, you must be looking for the best all over the world. Coursera can give you that if you can give people what you have via Coursera. Coursera can give you the best possible people if you are able to give your best to people via Coursera for free. Win-win-win.

Sugata Mitra‘s Hole in the Wall experiments show that people learn no matter where they are if you let them. The lowest level in terms of quality of human learning went up the very second when Coursera was launched. Why would you learn from bad professors when you can learn from top professors? And if you are not the best professor, use the Coursera courses in your classes and grow as a teacher. Even a community college can offer Coursera courses, just build the partnership. And let me skip the next 100 chapters about how teachers should often get out of the way… and just let people learn… alone, or in groups, online or in classes… let them make the choices, because personal learning styles, stages, speed of learning, opportunities, needs and goals are different. While professors have the opportunity to give their best to the most possible people online via Coursera, at the same time they are marvelously unable to get in your way. And for some reason the process can still feel personal and fulfilling. In a way, Coursera is an ideal and global (Ivy League) Hole in the (Virtual Ivory Tower) Wall Experiment.”

So. This was what I really wrote when Jonathan Blum asked for my opinion a few weeks ago. Of course he never notified me that my name and words were misused in such a way… He had a negative agenda and used my words in a simplistic and out of context manner. In his article he is trying to portray Coursera negatively in order to be able to remain the skeptic he is and tell investors to forget about Coursera.

Luckily not every investor has a short sighted monetary interest. Many investors understand now that education on a global scale is an investment into the future, where the problem is not simply a matter of employment and profits, it is also about developing the best minds on a global scale. You can think in a simple way and say, I want every talented American to have a job, or you can think: I want to find and educate the best minds no matter where they are. And for that you need Coursera. Imagine this: you can invest in an OK doctor who might save your mother, or you can invest in the top mind among all living people to most definitely save your mother from an illness. How would you rather invest your money? I say: Invest in Coursera and you invest in the best possible minds all over the world. You might not become richer financially, but you might have a better future. Your return on your socially responsible investment might not be coming out of Coursera as a social enterprise… it might be that you would not need to spend as much on medical bills, because of a new technology in the future created by a Coursera graduate (perhaps someone who would otherwise not be able to pay for the education that reaches the person for free if you do think well about your investment).

I am a Digital Optimist in many ways. Coursera’s goal is to make their model (in the making) work in whatever innovative way… For them it is not about the big profit in the first place, it is rather about confidently being able to finance their creative and useful operations and become profitable in the long run. I am a passionate advocate of Coursera because there is a humanistic idealistic vision behind the initiative and I am able to see that. Top material for students for free, global PR for schools and professors, plus a career layer for employment (several possible sources of revenue for Coursera). Once all participants understand the goals, the structure, the model and the context: this process could and would generate financial profits. The question is (from an investor’s point of view): Should this profit be money only that you get in your bank account, or could it be some other, new type of profit too, expressed in some other quantitative or qualitative way that benefits your social image, your career, your community, your network? We just have to invent the new economics to fit these new kinds of businesses that have a new kind of spirit.

PS: Coursera has its limitations now, but it is still early days… when cooperations between Coursera partner universities grow more complex, even the serious supervisory lab resources and experimentation requirements might get covered… the cost of these is different in different countries and at different universities… so for example combining a Coursera course with a less famous university’s on campus resources might open up new opportunities for people… all over the world. This way resources could be used more effectively and some lower standard establishments might improve in unexpected ways.

Update (September 14, 2013): Two days ago the Coursera team announced on their official blog that their only 9 months old Signature Track service provided 1 million dollars in revenue already. If you consider how young Coursera is, how little this new service (Verified Certificate) was promoted, plus considering their global reach and constantly expanding course offerings (university partnerships), I am sure my above described digital optimism was completely realistic. I still see Coursera as the brightest star on the MOOC sky.  

Update (November 2013):

More blogs by Regina Saphier:

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6 Responses to “Regina Saphier: What “The Digital Skeptic” forgot to mention”
  1. Super-helpful point of view, especially your points about using Coursera and its counterparts as audition opportunities for future students, and the need to come up with new business models/new economics that aren’t only about traditional revenue. Thanks. Teachers College of Columbia Univ. alumna, MA, Organization & Leadership with a specialization in Adult Learning and Leadership, 2012

    • Regina says:

      Thank you Sarah for your positive feedback! I see you are in my group (Teachers College Columbia University Global Alumni Group) on LinkedIn. It is so nice to know that there are like-minded people out there who understand what I am talking about! 🙂 Please, do share my link so that more people start thinking about these issues. Thank you!

  2. Regina says:

    Thank you for the mention. Regina Saphier is the correct spelling… So, should I call my idea University MOOC-plication™ or MOO-pplication™? 🙂

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