Thursday, 22 November 2012


  One of the first questions Matt Johnston and I ask ourselves when we look at changing our open classes  is: "Will this change constitute a barrier to entry?" and if the answer is yes then we re-think it. In this way we've enabled our classes to become global networks, accessible to non-English speakers, people without recourse to funds and/or a UK secondary education. They've become a distributed pool of talent from which clients can search and hire, similarly we've begun to connect our distributed student-pool to the collaborators (speakers, professionals, lecturers etc) for private tuition - at a fraction of the cost of a tradition a degree course, significantly less than most "portfolio reviews" and with exciting responses.

  Outside of Coventry there are over 60 collaborating Universities with editing rights on the schedule. Inside of the University the classes have become some of the most popular and the Photography BA course in which they sit is now the hardest to gain entry to (even at the maximum UK fee chargeable) with the highest achieving applicants by a significant margin  and all at no additional cost to the institution.

So where's the catch?

Well, because of their success I was talking again about them again this week in the context of MOOCs in what the New York Times described as the year of the MOOC. But the thing is,  they're not MOOCs.

  One of the barriers to entry that Matt and I struggle with are cultural barriers to entry. The language is different and I suspect the crowd-sourced translations often miss our intended meanings.

 The management culture within an institution like a university uses a markedly different lexicon to the people at the sticky end. When we think about "sales and brand equity", we probably don't easily equate that to "the number of students in the room and what they thought of the class" but this is exactly what it means in an Open Class and we have to make that clear. It's our job as teachers to explain this to our managers, we have to bridge this cultural divide.

  Phonar is an Open Undergraduate Class Hybrid (from now on referred to as an OUCH). It is a regular undergrad class, a version of which lives and leverages online. That means it doesn't incur the massive start-up costs of Coursera or Udacity (which, when used as examples prompt managers to question price-points and returns on investment etc). Instead it re-thinks what my valuable product as teacher actually is and turns that "learning experience" (sunk cost) into an outward facing and long-tail asset - which means:

if the experience of the class is awesome then enable as many people as possible to find out.

  What follows is enabling the participants to engage in such a way that they amplify everyone's experience without incurring an atoms drag - the edu-cultural translation to which is:

"how do you increase the students' perceived value of the educational experience and improve their employability chances by introducing them into professional networks etc without increasing overheads?"

  Well open classes like DS106 , phonar and picbod are very successful at this because they understand social media is not a media at all, but a network, and so they leverage the architecture of that pre-existing network. They don't incur huge set-up costs or massive investment because they re-purpose existing university assets effectively and free up versions of the class in order to maximise participation via that "social-media" network.

So here's the kicker,  universities kind of already hold all the cards in this respect. The onsite classroom experience is a generative one and social media enables versions of it to be distributed which amplify that face to face (paid-for) experience.

  Dear University - don't listen to the journalist who's never written or run a successful open class. You don't need a MOOC, you do "onsite" really, really well and you have a portfolio of onsite experiences that can be freely amplified just by opening them up.

Come and ask us about OUCHs and leave the MOOCs to institutions who hold all the cards but prefer to play roulette.