Coursera – A Major Strikeout (Technology for the Masses follow up)

A reader and long time friend sent us a link to check out Coursera, a relatively new social entrepreneurship company that offers free online courses taught by Professors from the top universities. Given the timeliness of our previous post, Technology for the Masses (excerpt below), I felt that it was important to track societies progress towards the goal of offering accessible online education.

By opening up very affordable education to the masses society will advance because more people would be educated and have access to the best educators.  In addition, having a very strict level of competition would make people push their own boundaries.  Perhaps this in and of itself should be the goal.  I mean is the goal to educate the most people in the best way possible or is the goal to create a class system where some people can say I went to Dartmouth and you went to a State school?”

The site is currently in beta version but offers an array of courses from economics to medicine. The courses are crafted around pedagogical foundations, such as mastery learning and peer assessment, aimed to promote active learning. I jumped on board and created an account, enrolling in Game Theory taught by two Stanford Professor’s. It is a 7 week section that expects a workload of 5 to 7 hours per work. The format is lecture videos with integrated and standalone quizzes. After successful completion you even receive a signed “statement of accomplishment”.

Coursera is definitely a step in the right direction, and the collaboration they have received from some top Universities is really impressive, but they have critically failed to release the potential of online education. The fact that the content is there, Universities already willing to partner, and platform capable of educating millions, yet you only receive a certificate of accomplishment? I can get a certificate of accomplishment for climbing the rock wall at the YMCA, but where does that get me?

Support Center FAQ:

So… beyond personal satisfaction, what is the benefit of learning the material and taking all the tests?

This is the equivalent to completing the necessary coursework and passing all the exams to become a CPA… only to receive a certificate with that says you did a good job?

Academia is on the verge of a pivotal transformation that could reshape the future opportunities for millions across the globe, but they are too afraid to release their grip. Coursera proves that the resources and capability are available! The only way a system like this will be valuable is when you can actually earn a degree. This is a mere variation of the Khan Academy, Academic Earth, and “futureedX. As long as society requires a degree as proof of academic achievement, these certificates are no more than a pat on the back. As stated in our previous article, it appears to be more important for the education system to protect its brand image and defend the status quo rather than open its doors to the world.

At Fortune’s recent Brainstorm Tech conference, Peter Thiel and Erich Schmidt debated over the degree to which technology has enhanced peoples lives.  One of the points of contention was that technological advancements have not led to real wage growth.  The reason proposed was that government intervention held back advancement, but could it be that elitism and brand protection are equally to blame?

All the pieces are in place.  We already have a high-caliber education that is ready for the masses at a very low cost.  Yet, the kind of education that can have the type of disruptive outputs and real wage growth that Thiel and Schmidt discussed is prevented by universities protecting their brand. Under the current format of college, these types of online courses will fail to reach their full potential.  In Technology For the Masses, we lay out a different business model for education that could revolutionize the game.  It’s time for the education system to embrace change before they experience their own MONEYBALL moment and get blindsided by some brilliant individual who alters the game forever by exploiting the status quo.