One of the odder Central Casting Gigs: MOOC strategy, silly and serious

Pretending to be students of Clay Christensen in his MOOC audience!

From yesterday’s NYTimes on Harvard Biz School’s fraught embrace of MOOCs:

Professor Christensen did something “truly disruptive” in 2011, when he found himself in a room with a panoramic view of Boston Harbor. About to begin his lecture, he noticed something about the students before him. They were beautiful, he later recalled. Really beautiful.

“Oh, we’re not students,” one of them explained. “We’re models.”

Harvard Class Day, 1906. The visitors are strolling down North Harvard Street to enter the stadium. The B-School didn't even exist until 1908.
Harvard Class Day, 1906. The visitors are strolling down North Harvard Street to enter the stadium. The B-School didn’t even exist until 1908.

They were there to look as if they were learning: to appear slightly puzzled when Professor Christensen introduced a complex concept, to nod when he clarified it, or to look fascinated if he grew a tad boring. The cameras in the classroom — actually, a rented space downtown — would capture it all for the real audience: roughly 130,000 business students at the University of Phoenix, which hired Professor Christensen to deliver lectures online.

A minor bit in a fascinating piece: HBS is living out in real time the question of just what kind of innovation MOOCs embody? A Clay Christensen style disruption (something I heard him foretell in a commencement speech in 1999 at Marlboro College for their online MAT), or something that can be folded into a more incremental strategy (a la Michael Porter’s view of sticking to your core differentiation)?

A later bit in the piece describes what happens when your core differentiation gets dissolved: the “unbundling” potential of online ed (perhaps this era will be known as the “great unbundling of media.” Format, content, and platform are now all just a digital stew.)

“François Ortalo-Magné, dean of the University of Wisconsin’s business school, says fissures have already appeared. Recently, a rival school offered one of his faculty members not just a job, but also shares in an online learning start-up created especially for him. “We’re talking about millions of dollars,” Mr. Ortalo-Magné said. “My best teachers are going to find platforms so they can teach to the world for free. The market is finding a way to unbundle us. My job is to hold this platform together.”

Christensen’s bet? He, and many others like him, won’t be able to do it: Christensen’s on the record as saying, “half of the United States’ universities could face bankruptcy within 15 years.”



A scene that will seem antique to kids born today?

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