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If Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are going to truly disrupt the higher education marketplace then non-consumers will need to play a critical role. Justin Reich outlines three categories of people currently underserved in the market and finds that given the diversity of interests involved, designing for all these populations might prove to be quite difficult.

A critical component to Clay Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation is the idea of the “non-consumer.” In most of the historical examples of disruption described by Christensen, disruptive innovators build products that served non-consumers, people underserved by the marketplace, and used these populations as a base for reshaping new markets for new products and services.

Sony Walkmans, for instance, emerged in a marketplace for audio equipment dominated by people who bought HiFi systems. (In writing this sentence, I am flooded by memories of dancing in my pajamas in my parents’ library to Thriller on vinyl.) The people who wanted HiFi systems didn’t buy Walkmans, because the sound quality was terrible. The marketplace for Walkmans was created by young people who wanted to take their music on the go, and didn’t care that the sound quality was much lower. The Walkman served people who weren’t going to buy HiFis anyway (or wanted both kinds of value).

If MOOCs are going to be disruptive in the ways predicted by Christensen’s theory, then non-consumers will play a critical role. Who might these folks be? Who are the non-consumers for college courses right now?

Students with Limited Access to Educational Institutions

One category of non-consumers are those who cannot access college-level courses. The apocryphal examples are those of young people in countries with limited educational infrastructures and systems, such as this story used to introduce a recent report on “Education Technology Success Stories” from the Brookings Institute:

“In 2011, a student logged onto the online classroom Udacity to take the final exam for her introductory Physics class. Khadijah Niazi had overcome several barriers to finish that exam. She lived in Pakistan, which recently blocked access to YouTube, the site Udacity used to host its video lessons. Undeterred, she posted a plea for help on an Udacity message board saying “I am very angry, but I will not quit.” Hours later several classmates from Malaysia, Portugal, and England attempted to find a workaround that would allow her to finish the class. Soon a Portuguese professor found a way to download the videos from YouTube and then upload them to a photo-sharing website that Kadijah could access. The next day she took the final exam. Even more amazing than the technology know-how is the fact that Kadijah was 11 years old and aced the college level physics class with the highest distinction.

Students with Access to Limited Educational Institutions

Kadijah is one such non-consumer, and so are the many students waitlisted for key introductory level courses in the community college and state university system in California. The demand for college-level introductory courses in California’s community college system outstrips the supply of seats in those courses. As one way to address this, California isconsidering legislation that would require California state institutions to accept credits earned from completing MOOCs and some form of proctored exam.

The alternative to certifying MOOCs as credit-bearing courses would be hiring more faculty, building more campuses or simply turning away more students. In these circumstances, MOOCs are providing instruction that California’s public is unwilling to financially support; the waitlisted students of the system are the non-consumers in Christensen’s model.

There are other kinds of limited educational institutions, such as high schools. For historical and bureaucratic reasons, high schools don’t offer a full range of courses that provide college credit, and the standardized curricula at most high schools don’t provide the range of options available at elite research universities. Some high school students can be served by online high schools or courses taught at community colleges, but broadly speaking, high school students are another population of non-consumers of collegiate courses.

People who have Completed their Degree from an Educational Institution

There is another group of people who cannot easily take college-level courses, in addition to people with limited access to college or access to limited colleges: those who have already completed college. College courses from elite institutions are sold in bundles: get all five courses, a dorm room with meal plan, gym membership, and so much more for only $49,999! Once you leave a college, it’s quite difficult to take courses from elite colleges.

The non-consumers in this category are particularly well-equipped to take and complete MOOC courses. They’ve developed learning skills in residential colleges, and in many cases gone on to develop the kinds of income streams that allow people to make learning a hobby.

So who takes MOOCs? And who completes them?

From the large enrollments found throughout the growing rosters of online courses, there seems to be emerging evidence that plenty of non-consumers exist in these three categories: people are excited for new educational opportunities, and the flexibility and low cost of MOOCs are distinct advantages in the current educational marketplace (even if MOOCs don’t compete well against residential college courses in other dimensions of quality).

Designing for these different non-consumer populations might prove to be quite difficult. A course primarily designed for those with limited access to education institutions might need to also account for limited access to technology, bandwidth, and other key parts of a network infrastructure. MOOCs serving these students might focus on developing low-bandwidth content, SMS distribution systems, and other adaptations for the developing world. Such courses might need to be more scaffolded to support students who haven’t previously developed the skill sets to complete college courses from elite institutions. A course primarily designed for college graduates might need to be highly interactive, media-intensive, and sufficiently challenging and entertaining to complete against the other options of a generally affluent population.

It will be interesting to see if MOOC providers can simultaneously serve these diverse populations, or if the needs of different consumer groups leads to differentiation among MOOC providers. If MOOC providers focus on the college graduates looking for continuing education, then these educational opportunities could accelerate opportunity gaps between more and less advantaged people.

This was originally published on the EdTechResearcher blog and is reposted with permission.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics. 

About the author

Justin Reich is an educational researcher interested in the future of learning in a networked world. Currently, he is a Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, a visiting lecturer at MIT, and the director of online community, research, and practice at Facing History and Ourselves. Justin is the co-founder of EdTechTeacher, a professional learning consultancy devoted to helping teachers leverage technology to create student-centered, inquiry-based learning environments. He earned his doctorate from Harvard University, where he led the Distributed Collaborative Learning Communities project, a Hewlett Foundation funded initiative to examine how social media are used in K-12 classrooms. He writes the EdTechResearcher blog for Education Week, and his writings have appeared in Educational Researcher, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and other publications.

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