The Course of Coursera (?)

Do MOOC’s genuinely threaten higher education? There is this apocalyptic viewpoint, or this Sloan piece. These argue that the educational darwinism introduced by MOOC’s, where the best teachers have infinite reach, will destroy the volume and diversity of ‘face-to-face’ education. And this action by Duneier gives pause because he taught a highly regarded course on Coursera before disengaging from the MOOC world.

As someone who’s taken more than a few Coursera courses for ‘edutainment’, I have an opinion .. but let’s take the Darwinism argument as plausible for the moment. Are MOOC’s really aiming at the same ‘customer base’ as traditional universities? The recent survey (and some of my  screenshots thereof) conducted by Coursera provide a (albeit bounded to Coursera alone, but nevertheless 80k students in size) data point.

How Big can MOOC’s Get? If you’re in the education business, and worried that the already significant MOOC phenomenon can get substantially bigger – the poll below gives you cause for concern. Depending on how ‘sticky’ consumer-to-consumer recommendations are, your concern could be more or less.


Do people come to MOOC’s for certification? This one’s a bit of a puzzler. The feedback in the middle suggests that folk come to Coursera primary for learning, and not certification. The other two indicate that certification (and the ability to post certificates to LinkedIn) are a big factor. I believe the former answer to be a head fake caused by a question that made users choose between learning and certification, when they really want both.


Are MOOC’s a target for full-time students? Not so much. People are clearly serious about their learning, and have a strong desire for assisted learning (tutors etc), but their time investment suggests that Coursera is mostly used for ‘one course at a time’ style part-time learning. It is not obvious that Courserans go for deep courses that require 10+ hours of work per week, or a course schedule that is 20+ hours a week.


Will MOOC Learning Communities threaten Classrooms? No. Nyet. Nein. Nanka. MOOC’ers place a very low value on social learning or relationship building that comes in a classroom environment. The focus is squarely on fulfilling one’s own learning goals, with discussion boards as a tool. Several courses have tried to ‘gamify’ discussion boards by making participation a part of the grade. Does this make people more social and involved in the learning community (and therefore more classroom like)? Time will tell, but for now MOOC learning is a solitary endeavor.

CommunityNet-net, my take is that MOOC learners are not the ‘bread-and-butter’ customers of universities – full-time learners in the prime of their teens, with college degrees as the goal. One could see Coursera leading to ‘credit shaving’ where it replaces community colleges as a cheap means to get the ‘easy credits’ (say Physics 101).

However, universities with night school revenue, for-fee educational outreach programs, or executive education (sans boondoggles) have cause for concern. I can attest to being in the private sector warms to MOOC’s camp in terms of using Coursera as cheap and effective on-the-job training for my team. For schools that rely on these revenue streams, they are ripe for the taking.

Second Screen Ads : Is Native the Future?

As the Second Screen has moved from learning to monetization, the topic of 2nd Screen Ads comes up more frequently both in the crystal balling and the concrete. In theory, Second Screen Ads could be seen as Mobile Ads redux (eyeballs, impressions, problem solved!), but in practice not quite so. Second screen doesn’t have the eyeball volume (as I chronicled here and here) to adopt a monetization model based purely on volume of impressions. Nor does it have a rich location vocabulary of mobile apps (unless you consider ‘left side of couch’ and ‘right side of couch’ as separately interesting ad buys). However TV Context is a weapon second screens do have, and a variety of programmers are following the tri-part formula of – a) build proprietary app to ‘own’ your TV context, b) use the simplest possible Ad real-estate (i.e. clickable banner) as a window to monetize this context, and c) recycle your traditional ad inventory to fill this real estate.

The problem with this seemingly pragmatic strategy (i.e. use familiar Ad User Experience and existing inventory in new market) is that it is as effective as bringing a Ukelele to a Symphony. Current web Ad formats are designed for (visually) simple & targeted experiences. This is fundamentally at odds with Second Screen experiences that are and will remain complex visual experiences for two reasons :

  • Today – Complexity as Organizational Reality. 2nd Screen Apps are rife, 2nd Screen strategies not so much. What I mean is that most media organizations are putting out 2nd screen Apps so as to not be left behind. Few have really thought out what it means in terms of storytelling. Consequently, Apps by RFP are the vogue (a big dollop of lurid show imagery, a generous side dish of Twitter feeds, and 3 dashes of Trivia please). The App development shops love it (complexity = development and maintenance revenue)  the media houses are OK with it (have 2nd Screen Initiative?, check), and the users .. umm, on the fence.
  • Tomorrow – Complexity as Visual Throughput. There will be a point where 2nd Screen is burned into every show producer’s vernacular and emerges as an organic part of storytelling. This in turn might obviate the visual complexity that comes from indecision that afflicts today’s Apps. But it is my conjecture that visual complexity will persist because of the ephemeral nature of secondary screen attention. If you want a ‘unit of storytelling’ in the 30 seconds that someone looks away from the TV screen because he is bored by a particularly pompous Bryant Gumbel, or the ad nauseum replay of the Progressive Insurance commercial, then rich visual is the best way to engage with velocity, purpose and enchantment.

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If complexity of experience is an invariant for 2nd screens, then Ad formats developed for quick 2.9 word searches may be insufficient. The ability to visually cancel out a banner is easy, in a panoply of visual activity. And for those that don’t visually cancel it out, the Ad is visually and contextually incongruous.

It would seem like the solution is for Ad Units and Second Screen storytelling to be simultaneously co-invented, so that the Brands aren’t intrusive and foreign messages in high velocity storytelling. The success of inline Twitter Ads and the Bluefin extension (a thinly veiled analog to retargeting!) has certainly prompted a surge of interest in Native Advertising, which is closely related to my proposal here.

But what exactly does Native mean for the Second Screen? How does something that works for a targeted and terse storytelling style such as Twitter translate to 2nd screen TV? Perfectly valid questions – and a topic for the next missive.