MOOCs, MP3s, and the Rise of the eSME


Clay Shirky recently wrote a very insightful post comparing the disruptive potential of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, in higher education to the impact that the MP3 digital audio format had on the recording industry. When the MP3 came along, Shirky argues, entrenched forces in the music industry felt certain that consumers would not accept the lower level of sound quality they offered, at least not on a large scale. Turns out they were wrong.

Really wrong.

What the music industry didn’t realize is that the core issue was not about quality, it was about the fundamental shift in possibilities that the MP3 represented. A similar transition is now happening in higher education with the rise of the MOOC. I won’t cover all of Shirky’s points here – you really should read his entire post – but I will note that a similar disruption (and similar push back) is under way in the world of adult lifelong learning with the rise of virtual conferences, membership learning sites, and other approaches. (And yes, I expect MOOCs to play a role as well.)

What I’d like to expand on a bit here, though, is a key by-product of the MP3 and its corollary in the world of adult education: namely, the rise of the independent artist-producer.

You see, one of the key possibilities the MP3 offered was the ability for musicians both to record and to distribute their own music. Prior to the MP3 and the wave of innovations it helped spark, most musicians were pretty much beholden to the record companies for turning their passion into a way to make a decent living (or at least one that didn’t involve non-stop touring). As a wannabe rock-in-roll star playing in garage bands circa 1982 I felt this acutely. Maybe you did too.

Now, between Garage Band, CD Baby, and a huge range of tools and services that have cropped up to support independent musicians, the options I would have for carving out my own career path in music are astounding. I now see start-up bands routinely creating and distributing their own recordings in a variety of formats and even well-known, established bands often embrace this approach for all or parts of their output. While the recording industry has not disappeared – and likely won’t – it has had to adapt to dealing with artists on different terms than in the past.

The corollary in the world of adult lifelong learning is the rise of the independent, entrepreneurial subject matter expert, or eSME.

I touched on this a while back when I wrote about the concept of Any Given Monday, the basic idea being that an expert armed with good ideas and the right tools can now create and deliver educational offerings that rival those of large, established players.

The right tools are now available in spades. Cheap Webinar platforms. YouTube. Blogs. Social media sites. A wealth of platforms to help facilitate the publishing and selling of online courses.  The list goes on and on.

Even something like a MOOC – some of which attract well over 100,000 students – can be put together with relatively simple video equipment and a platform like the free Google Moderator. (In case you doubt that, this is exactly the approach Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig used when they ran an Artificial Intelligence MOOC at Stanford that attracted more than 160,000 students.)

Again, the question isn’t really one of quality. In competitive markets, that tends to sort itself out. The question is one of possibilities.

The MOOC is Only One of the Possibilities

Now, you may be thinking: but doesn’t something like the MOOC endanger lesser-known institutions and instructors? Once I can get access to top professors at Harvard and Stanford, why would I go anywhere else? Disruptive, yes, but hardly a boon for the average SME.

Again, the recording industry is instructive. Yes, Big Music still makes a lot of money off of top 40 hits and arena music fueled by mega stars, but the market for smaller acts that have built up a tribe of loyal followers has never been better. (As wired founder Kevin Kelly posited some time ago, 1000 true fans is really all you need – and I’d argue this can apply as much in the education business as in the music business.)

If you are a subject matter expert, your possibilities have never been greater. Seize them.

If you represent a traditional provider of continuing education and professional development, the time to come to terms with this shift is now. Some of the questions I would be pondering include:

  • How can we increase our value proposition to subject matter experts to ensure we remain as attractive as possible as a distribution platform for them?
  • Should we invest more in on-staff expertise or building long-term, contractual relationships with particular subject matter experts?
  • Are we doing enough to identify, cultivate, and attract the best subject matter experts in our market

As you consider the questions above, I think it is also worth considering the role that brand is playing in the MOOC phenomenon (It’s not an accident that some of the biggest brands in higher education were the first to jump on the MOOC bandwagon.) And what about how they are/may ultimately impact the market for validation and credentialing? (Will degrees continue to be as important as they have been traditionally?) Both of these areas have corollaries in the market for lifelong learning and the role of subject matter experts.

More on those last two points later. In the meantime, what are your thoughts? How do you see the landscape changing for subject matter experts and how are you responding?

Jeff

P.S. – If this post is of interest, I encourage you to check out my forthcoming book Leading the Learning Revolution: The Expert’s Guide to Capitalizing on the Exploding Market for Lifelong Learning.

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