We Don’t Need Vanity-Driven MOOC 4.0 Hype

I was interviewed in both Higher Ed Dive and Inside Higher Education regarding ASU and the Thunderbird School of Management’s initiative to reach 100 million learners worldwide with “an accredited online Global Management and Entrepreneurship Certificate.” Press release here and brochure here. From IHE:

The Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University plans to launch a new global management and entrepreneurship online certificate program that will offer five free online business courses in 40 languages worldwide and aims to reach 100 million learners by 2030, 70 percent of them women.

The program was announced by the university Thursday and will be funded by a $25 million alumni gift matched by in-kind donations from the business school and the university, which will bring the business school at least halfway to the $100 million goal for launching the program across the next two years, said Sanjeev Khagram, dean of the business school.

Make sure to read Higher Ed Dive and IHE, as well as the Wall Street Journal, for full descriptions.

I am not typically this blunt in interviews, but on this story I was quite skeptical in HED:

The program benefits from the well-known names of Thunderbird and Arizona State, as well as the $25 million donation, said Phil Hill, a partner with ed tech consultancy MindWires. But it took popular MOOC platforms years and hundreds of millions of advertising dollars to reach a scale similar to what Arizona State is hoping to achieve, Hill said.

“Somehow they think they’re going to create something that’s just another level of scale we’ve never seen before,” Hill said.

Coursera, a MOOC provider launched in 2012, had more than 92 million registered learners on its platform as of late last year. Around the same time, edX, a competitor, had 41 million registered learners.

and in IHE:

“We know that there are skeptics,” [Sanjeev Khagram, dean of the business school] said. “We know this is bold and ambitious. But we believe in moon shots.”

Some online education experts are indeed skeptical. Phil Hill, an education market analyst and co-founder of MindWires, an educational-technology consulting firm, said that even the massive open online course juggernaut Coursera needed a decade to reach 100 million learners and did so only with venture capital support far more robust than the amount with which Thunderbird is working.

Hill called the goal of reaching 100 million people “press release hype” and said Thunderbird officials “need to have cold water thrown on them.”

“There’s no realistic plan to say they can come even close to what they’re planning,” Hill said.

Hill said Thunderbird’s decision to offer a certificate program makes a lot of sense and harnesses the growing momentum for such online offerings. But he questioned whether there are 100 million people worldwide who will even want to leverage the opportunity. Noting Thunderbird’s goal of reaching learners in Africa, he pointed out that any coursework offered there will need to be optimized for mobile delivery so that students without reliable internet connections can find one to download work and then complete it from home when off-line.


Make no mistake, this is not a simple matter of ‘ASU & Thunderbird can do as well as Coursera’. Coursera reached 100 million learners in a similar time frame as what Thunderbird is proposing (just under a decade), but they used over $446 million of funding. More importantly, Coursera built up a catalog of thousands of courses leveraging the content and brand of 200+ institutional partnerships. Thunderbird is counting on $125 million (let’s assume they can double this to $250 million with other donations) with a catalog of five courses and the brand name of just ASU and Thunderbird.

From the press release:

Thanks to a historic $25 million donation from the Francis and Dionne Najafi Global Initiative, Thunderbird will offer an accredited online Global Management and Entrepreneurship Certificate, consisting of five world-class courses in 40 different languages. Of the 100 million learners the program will reach worldwide, it is estimated that 70% will be women and young women. Never before has such an ambitious global higher education program been launched.

They are right that no one has made such bold claims.

Not the Gnomes Again

This initiative seems to follow the classic Underpants Gnomes strategy.

Answering The Much Hyped “Phase 2” of South Park - “Underpants Gnomes Profit Plan” | by exex zian | Frontiers | Medium

In the ASU / Thunderbird case, the core claim is that the certificate is accredited, but what does that mean? There is no accreditation body that has reviewed this program, because it does not exist. Furthermore, to provide value to a global audience, you will need local accreditation in many locations. The IHE article shows that they haven’t even solved the problem of the home institutions giving credit.

People who enroll will earn a badge for each course taken, and if they complete all five courses in the program, they will receive an executive certificate. Khagram said he is working with the university to ensure the certificate can be converted for college credits.

The accreditation is still in the works and is based on the home school accreditation and offering of credits, but this has yet to be complete.

In 2012 I wrote a post on e-Literate describing four barriers for MOOCs to become self-sustaining, and I think this applies to the Thunderbird program nearly a decade later.

So what are the barriers that must be overcome for the MOOC concept (in future generations) to become self-sustaining? To me the most obvious barriers are:

* Developing revenue models to make the concept self-sustaining;

* Delivering valuable signifiers of completion such as credentials, badges or acceptance into accredited programs;

* Providing an experience and perceived value that enables higher course completion rates (most today have less than 10% of registered students actually completing the course); and

* Authenticating students in a manner to satisfy accrediting institutions or hiring companies that the student identify is actually known.

Beyond that, how can Thunderbird provide credit and accredited certificates for that many learners in that many locations? Accreditation and credits typically rely on knowing who the student is (and that the student is the one taking the assessments), and in most places these rely on some level of interactivity and student support. HED’s description of the plan:

Small teams of faculty members will curate the courses’ content, which will contain interactive exercises and allow students to connect through peer groups. Faculty associates will provide feedback to students, a process that will be aided over time by artificial intelligence, Khagram said.

“We’re going to have tons and tons of data coming back from the questions they [students] ask,” Khagram said. “Over time, we can build that into — through AI and machine learning technology — systems that can be responsive to the learners.”

Yet another AI will save us somehow moment for education at scale, without the support of look at our results in program X, we can learn and scale with this initiative. At least they provided the qualifier of “over time.”

Online Global Hyperbole Certificate

ASU is known for innovative programs and taking “moon shots”, but I have never seen the school put its name on such over-the-top hype. Usually ASU makes a big splash that emphasizes the unique nature of the program (free tuition for Starbucks associates, free freshman year through Global Freshman Academy and edX, etc), but they don’t make numerical goals and they don’t describe themselves as A#1 in everything. But with this initiative?

Thunderbird is the most global and digital leadership and management academy in the world and has touched over two million learners in its renowned 75-year history. Over the last four years, we have engineered the greatest turnaround in higher education history.


It is the boldest and most ambitious global education initiative in higher education history

MOOC 4.0

From HED:

Thunderbird Dean Sanjeev Khagram described the new effort as “a MOOC 4.0”

“Think about it as a MOOC with all of the new digital tools that we have,” Khagram said.

The problem with this initiative is that we can think of it as MOOC Hype 4.0, building on the over-the-top claims from a decade ago and adding AI and promises of accreditation to the mix. What would be better is to have an initiative that is bold but builds on the lessons of MOOCs, and online education in general, and the pandemic. I’m in agreement with Russ Poulin and Kelvin Bentley on this one.

I admire ASU for consistently trying bold new initiatives, and for being willing to move on when the initiatives don’t work, as they did in 2019 with Global Freshman Academy. I think the approach of a sub-degree certificate with real value (accreditation, ability to use to earn credits in a degree program) is a good move, as is the intention to help underserved global populations. And the willingness to invest heavily in the initiative is noble.

But we don’t need this type of hype to make wealthy donors and institutions look good in the press and with the Davos crowd.