I would like to talk about MOOC, you know, this innovation that may disrupt the higher education. My colleagues and I have been quite active in this area for the past couple of years, with a MOOC open on Spring 2013, and a contribution to two successful MOOCs.
One year ago, the French government decided to be pushy in this area, and thus to build from scratch a website named France Université Numérique (sorry no english translation for the wikipedia page yet), which aims at gathering MOOC in french from French higher education institutions in a free online portal. I summarize below some of the profound, symptomatic, critical misconceptions about what is innovation and Internet that this project demonstrates:
- This public (state-funded) project emerges although some private French start-ups (e.g. OpenClassrooms and Unow) were just kick-starting in the MOOC area. For the set of young entrepreneurs who were trying to gain reputations and to convince universities and Grandes Ecoles to join the MOOC movement, the arrival of such a competitor changed the game. FUN is a de facto incumbent since higher education entities are also funded by government. FUN is a public non-profit action, so it is completely free without need of any business model. These start-up have managed to find their place in a new ecosystem nonetheless, but, in my opinion, FUN-MOOC did not help. When it will be time to cry about the lack of "French Coursera" (like most cry today about the lack of French Google), we shall not forget that the government actually prevents the raise of such a possible French success story by entering the market like a bull in a china shop.
- I am always sad when I realize that our political leaders still consider in 2014 that it is trivial to build a popular 24/7 Internet full-featured portal, and that it is trivial to manage a sophisticated professional online tool such as a massive, social, online course platform. It seems that the numerous failures of the public French websites have been quickly forgotten. FUN-MOOC was, and it is still now, a complete disaster. Typically, the portal has been shut down during two entire days in September 2014 for software upgrades. As can be expected from projects that are managed by people who know very few about the Internet and software, numerous shocking mistakes have been done, e.g. considering INRIA and a so-called SSII as a good team for the development of a software, and forking from the main open source online course platform project although the developer community was vivid and active.
- The branding does not look like an important matter for those who initiated this project. The acronym is FUN (I guess there is a couple of references when you type FUN on google). The full name is French oriented, which is good in France and in some places in Africa, but is bad when you consider any other part of the world. It is hard to know whether it is a consequence, but we have almost no Swiss, nor Quebec students registered in our courses in french. More generally, if one wants to build a popular website, the branding is key. It looks like the government did the same mistake as the creator of lescopainsdavant. When you compete versus Coursera, Udacity and EdX, a FUN name is not a gift.
I was very doubtful about this initiative, and I publicly claimed it. I told some friends that the government would try to shut down FUN-MOOC in less than two years when the MOOC bubble would go down and when our political leaders would realize that FUN-MOOC is expensive and not necessarily good for the economic sector as a whole. Well, I was wrong, it took them only nine months to realize. Unfortunately, we don't have our happy end yet. Indeed, the government asks whether some higher education entities would be happy to maintain FUN-MOOC on behalf of the government. The very sad point about it is that a consortium of various French entities (including Institut Mines-Telecom) is a candidate. Let me continue the misconception list:
- When it is time for innovation in general, a consortium of bureaucratic state-funded education entities is not the right vehicle. Exploring new business models, breaking the rules and embracing disruption are not in the DNA of public French universities, are they?
- A consortium of universities is no better than a government for managing a 24/7 full-featured online portal nor a sophisticated professional online tool. Universities struggle to have decent websites and learning software. I don't see any reason for a success in such a project, whatever the funding.
- The business model is, well, it is complicated, but with high probability it will be to complain that the government is not giving enough money for FUN-MOOC to work properly.
- The management is typical of the crazy French higher education system, with consortium of consortiums of entities that do not like each other, a probable series of rebranding operations just to be sure that everybody gets lost, weird processes where nobody really knows who is in charge of what, especially about critical points like the promotion of the portal and the development of new features, and, most of all, the promises of hours-long meetings.
It seems to me that all the main mistakes that a higher education ministry and a set of public universities can do are being done. Hopefully, some will eventually succeed in stoping this crazy bureaucratic counter-productive process. I failed.