October 8, 2014

The misconceptions behind the French FUN-MOOC portal

It is frequent that bloggers start their controversial posts with a disclaimer about how their personal opinion is not necessarily endorsed by their employers. In the case of this post, it is one step further: I am afraid that my opinion is the opposite of my employers' one.

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.

4 comments:

  1. Je l'ai twitté, mais je me demande si tu ne jettes pas le bébé avec l'eau du bain... le "tout privé" n'est pas forcément miraculeux non plus.. d'autant que pour faire de l'argent avec les MOOC c'est pas facile, alors qu'aux US où le choix est fait de faire payer cher l'accès aux études supérieures, les MOOC sont en recul.

    Pour moi
    1/ un MOOC permet de créer beaucoup de valeur (j'ai tenté un calcul http://goo.gl/IDRKfD)
    2/ soit on veut rentabiliser l'accès à la formation comme aux US et on dérive vers des SPOC, soit on reste dans le modèle européen qui vise l'accès à tous, ... et alors c'est bien pratique d'avoir le soutien de l'état pour pérenniser un modèle ouvert.

    Par exemple, Toutes les universités allemandes sont désormais gratuites http://goo.gl/Ubc0fi

    d'un autre coté, la question qu'il faut entendre, c'est que FUN en tant que plateforme ne marche pas assez bien. Là le débat mérite d'être ouvert

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    1. Au sujet des business models, je crois que nous sommes au tout début de l'histoire. Les SPOCs sont une forme assez frustre de business models, mais il y en a bien d'autres.

      Mais la question est effectivement plutôt le fonctionnement de FUN. Je n'ai rien contre des groupements d'universités publics. Mais il faut que cela soit efficace, cohérent et que cela permette à l'ensemble du monde de l'enseignement supérieur de découvrir des nouveaux business models.

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  2. Gwendal, you got (quite) a few facts wrong in your post.
    The FUN platform was shut down for an upgrade for about 8 hours on October 1st. If you saw a site that was down for 2 days, it was not ours (there are a few unauthorized clones out there). Yes from an internet standpoint 8h is still an eternity. We are fully aware of that and tried very hard to reduce that time but at some point we are dependent on our hosting provider (a public organization) and their working hours. Most of our users were very understanding.

    I like to think the team in place knows a bit about Internet and software. I worked in the Silicon Valley for several years as a web software engineer during the dot-com bubble, have founded a couple of startups in Paris upon return, and have seen many disaster projects. And FUN is not one of them. In fact it is quite successful by many standards. We have many users, lots of content, we executed superfast with the few resources we had and now lots of other countries approach us to learn how to do this for their universities.

    We did run into several operational issues (and are still running into some today) but no more than those encountered by an innovative start-up exploring a new territory while providing support to a fast growing userbase. Did I mention we were quite small? Our technical team is composed of a few extremely talented seasoned engineers. It took a while to assemble that team since I joined FUN as CTO in January 2014 and we're still struggling to find qualified engineers. Re: INRIA's involvement + SSII and fork, these days are behind us. In fact the upgrade from October 1st reflects our latest efforts to be back on track with OpenEdx mainstream. Can't blame INRIA for forking as their options and time were limited, but believe it or not they know how to build software in a pragmatic way too.

    Our vision is that everybody should be able to contribute to our software platform and especially members of higher education organizations like yours. We are convinced that open source is the way to go but did not want to create a piece of software from scratch or clone some old stuff. We want a modern platform on which to build innovative tools and features and it turns out OpenEdx can provide an adequate foundation for that.
    As far as I know OpenClassrooms is doing quite well (in fact their team is twice as big as FUN's) and if anything FUN created lots of attention for them (ask Pierre). We at FUN have a lot of respect for its founders and reached out to them as we did to many start-ups in the area. FUN cannot innovate alone and we need a private ecosystem around us. I haven't met Unow personally but we need more guys like them too. Even if they don't share some of our technical decisions or even product vision a debate is always healthy, we don't pretend we know everything, if anything our journey is a humbling one.

    There are still many challenges ahead of us. But I am convinced that the team we have now at FUN can make a big dent in many problems education faces today. We are also helped by the many good souls from the higher education organizations and beyond, who are willing to regroup and contribute to the adventure. How about you come and help us?
    I encourage you to pay us a visit at FUN, you will see your tax money at work. And quite frankly, one investment you can truly be proud of.

    Olivier, FUN CTO

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    1. Thank you very much Olivier for spending some time answering my trollish post :-)

      I am very happy to know that you and your team are energetic and skillful. Bright days ahead! Please don't feel offended by my post, the developers in charge of implementing FUN are definitely not my target.

      However, what you say here kind of reinforces my bad feeling about the managing team of FUN-MOOC.

      - "The technical team is small, you struggle to hire talented people." This (quite negative) status is a typical consequence of a misconception from the top-managers: no, it is not trivial to develop a world-class web portal. You need a strong team of talented engineers, you need to pay them well, you need to offer them the best working conditions. As long as public managers keep on thinking that it is possible to develop online tools by hiring a tiny number of badly-paid or non-permanent software engineers, it will be complicated whatever the skills of the said engineers.

      - "Your predecessors INRIA and CapGemini had to work in a hurry with few options". Hence they had to fork. In fact, it looks like they had to take a disastrous decision because their "orders" were very bad. Should the technical team have the power at the time they had to fork, I would bet they had done differently, hadn't they? Now, you struggle to catch up and you spend a considerable amount of time repairing errors that initially came from non-techie managers.

      - You don't say much about the business models and the marketing of the portal. Is the technical team involved in these aspects too? If not or barely, then again it would show that strategy managers still consider the technical developments as a non-core activity of the project, although for such an online project, you, as the CTO, should be a direct contributor, not to say leader, of the overall strategy.

      Honestly, I don't think the management of FUN will be better in the future. I cannot believe that academic directors from multiple universities (spending a fraction of their time on the project) will be able to:
      - get you the massive funds you'd need to compete at the international scale
      - give you all the powers you'd need to lead the strategy

      I hope I will be wrong. I wish you all the best for the future development. If ever you succeed, my post will be an irrefutable evidence that you have done what nobody believed you would :-)

      PS: the website was also down for a day on Sep 18st.

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