Venture capitalists and higher education

Well that’s a big topic for what I aim to be quite a short post. I was listening, from a distance, to the Great Debate which was held at the ASCILITE 2012 conference currently underway in Wellington, NZ. The debate was on MOOCs as game changers in higher education. I have more to say on that but I’ll leave it for another post. What I want to talk about here was the emphasis placed by the anti-Mooc debaters on how bad it would be to have higher education run by venture capitalists. I remarked in a tweet how perplexed I was by this sentiment.

A number of people responded to this and Peter Sloep wrote a a very thoughtful piece on the debate that included some thoughts on the role of venture capitalists. I have to say I agree with almost everything he says. In an ideal world it would be largely as he describes.

Having said that, we don’t live in an ideal world and I do, therefore, find it curious when people, in general, complain about venture capitalists in in public forums and yet seem happy to remain silent while their institutions sell low quality closed courses for a small fortune to international students. Institutions that have grown fat and lazy from the massification of higher education over the last 30 years while still churning out courses who only ever have any quality control applied to them every 5 years when they get increasingly rubber stamped by Academic Boards whose main interest is looking at the enrolment forecasts and the bottom line rather than the rigour of the course. Institutions that are loathe to discontinue any student however poorly they perform in assessments (particularly full fee paying students).

In the case of Udacity and Coursera I happen to think that they are run by people who are committed to providing free courses at the best quality they can deliver. There are lots of things I disagree with about xMOOCs. There are huge improvements that can be made, but strangely enough their intrinsic motivation to provide free courses for everyone is not one I can disagree with. Given that we are only a year or so into the xMOOC age I think there is plenty of improvement to come. Just remember how poor most traditional courses are the first time they are run. I think I’d rather side with an organisation that makes its  failings open and learns from them. There is a far greater chance of improvement than from organisations that keep it all closed and hidden from view.

I don’t really care who pays the start up bills and I hope that they can develop a sustainable business model. If that business model delivers benefits for student, the subject matter expert and the investor then that’s fine. At least we’re all open and honest about it. Which is more than can be said for current approach to delivering not a lot of higher education for very large amount of money.

It’s a world we’ll have to live in because more start ups are coming to the higher education sector every day. Every aspect of the business (for want of a better word) of higher education will be disrupted. Entrepreneurs and innovators smell blood in the water and it’s the carcass of Mr Creosote (aka the higher education sector) that is attracting them.

I’ll finish by saying that this sounds as though I’m anti university and anti higher education. Nothing could be further from the truth. I want higher education and universities in particular to rediscover their role in providing a public good for society at large. This is a role that, in my opinion, they are only partially fulfilling at the moment. I hope that the sector in future can provide space for genuine scholarship, the ability to think and to research and innovate and that it can come to terms with the fact that it is no longer the gatekeeper of higher learning.

Finally, I disagree with Sebastien Thrun. I think there maybe many more Higher Education Institutions in the future than there are now, not less but I think they’ll be much smaller. They’ll also more collegial and much happier places to be than our current institutions.

Here is my list of Mooc resources.

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