October 13, 2014

Toward a new public higher education system

My previous post was quite harsh about the way the French government addresses the MOOC phenomenon. I would like now to be more constructive (and also to demonstrate that I am not only a moaner). So, basically, what would I do if I was French ministry of Higher Education! In short:
  • I'd shut down FUN. To be competitive, such project requires investment an order of magnitude greater than the planned fundings. When the objective is to attract tens thousands of students, there is no room for small players. 
  • I'd stop fundings through call for proposals. These calls grant people who know how to write proposals and who, in the best case, release results years later. Moreover, and most importantly, these calls do not give the sense of responsibility to university managers. French higher education institutions have to learn how to promote their best professors and to make them "MOOC-able" instead of begging to the government as if "make a MOOC" was a right.
  • I'd massively invest on French-friendly start-ups. The focus should be on three main domains where the position of France is today weak: an European-scale portal, tools for scalable learning, online student evaluation. The investment can be leaded by a structure such as BPI France.
In the following, I give my personal analysis of the context. I first decompose the traditional functions of a higher education institution, and analyze the challenges.
  • Define the topic of the courses. In France, the institutions conceive curriculum, which are then checked by academic accrediting agencies like ABET in US, or CTI and AERES in France. Shortly put, the curriculums target young people (named students) and aim at developing their employability. Several courses form a consistent curriculum. As for the MOOCs, students are mainly workers, with a large diversity of motivations. The course is a unit, which should be independent. The topics are focused. It is thus quite different, but not fundamentally challenging.
  • Select the students. This is the main asset of the Grandes Ecoles. However, MOOC are (expectedly) scalable, so you can teach an unlimited number of students. The question is no more to filter the best students before the course. The aim now is to have the right audience for the course: as many students as possible, with a high motivation for the topic and the right background. As said in my previous post, portals like Coursera are far better than any French higher education institution. 
  • Build the course. Every MOOC creators agree that building a scalable online course is quite different from a traditional course for a small, on-site, population. MOOCs require new categories of workers. But the role of the teacher is still prominent. So far, the teachers have worked in traditional higher education institutions.
  • Deliver the course. A building full of classrooms is useless. What is needed is a great, scalable, full-featured learning management tool. Moreover, you need a competitive team of developers to implement online exercices which have an added value and increase the student experience. Here, again, I don't think that any traditional french higher education institution can compete in providing such tool. Only a team of excellent super-committed software developers can do it.
  • Assist students during their learning experience. The challenge of MOOCs is to provide the same kind of assistance as for a traditional course with one professor and a dozen of students, although the number of students is in the order of thousands. The power of community is the lever.
  • Evaluate the students. When students are spread all over the world, it is impossible to organize exams the usual way. Companies like ProctorU have developed offers, where either exam rooms are available anywhere in the planet, or specific, secured, online tools allow anybody to be monitored as if she was on-site.
In the traditional model, all these functions are fulfilled by higher education institutions. In the new model related to MOOC, I foresee that traditional institutions will be outperformed by start-ups on a subset of functions: create a portal to attract students, develop a scalable learning platform, and evaluate students worldwide. These functions require strong skills in software development, in empowering a community of open-source developers, in promotional activities and marketing, in worldwide staff management, in agile development, in reliable online infrastructure, in website design. My claim is that neither universities nor public structures have any of the above skills.

Instead, I suggest to give a special mission to BPI France to make sure that funding goes to the most brilliant European start-ups related to education, in particular on the aforementioned functions (attract students worldwide, develop scalable learning platforms, evaluate students). By investing on European SMEs, the emergence of a champion is possible. And if the public force is one of the main investors, it may also ensure some of the "public missions" (e.g. almost free access to knowledge). Examples of such brilliant European start-ups include OpenClassroomIversity and FutureLearn.

On their side, the traditional French higher education institutions have to evolve. I like the analogy between MOOC and scientific books. Not all professors write books. Not all institutions ask their teaching staff to write books. Excellent professors (experts in some area, extremely brilliant as teachers) attract editors because the books they may write can become a success. It is thus up to the institutions to decide whether they should promote their excellent professors so that they may be detected by editors. Being "MOOC-able" is now a criteria for hiring professors in EPFL according to its director. This is the kind of shift French institutions have also to embrace.

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