Irresistible Force Meets Immovable Object

In the world of Higher Education, all the buzz these days is about MOOCs = Massive Open Online Courses. The buzz comes from all directions, to include the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine, the Chronicle of Higher Education; and more blog entries than ants at the class picnic.

The idea of offering classes from elite universities everywhere and anywhere, to anyone who wishes to enroll, free to the taxpayer and free to the student, is indeed a powerful, powerful force.

My own long-term “take” is that MOOCs will be THE Game Changer of the 21st Century.

With these caveats: the 21st Century is very young; MOOCs are just barely out of the womb; machine-learning is still in its diapers; and those Very Old Bricks and Mortar, –  a.k.a. “the University” — will have a big say in the whole entire matter.

Right now what surprises me the most, by far, is the fact that 33 very fine Universities have signed “Partnership Agreements” with Coursera Incorporated.

The Agreements are so much to the benefit of Coursera, with so little benefit to the University, that if you were a Man from Mars and had no knowledge of the history of each “Partner’, you could easily conclude that the University was a brand, spanking new enterprise just out of the box; and Coursera was the one with a thousand-year history of excellence in the delivery of “higher education”.

Here is a situation where those in charge of protecting the gems at 33 elite Universities — earned over centuries and solidified by invaluable bricks and mortar (located in every part of the globe) –  have authorized, a carte blanche, “license” to do as they wish with the gems handed to them.

Make no mistake.

These gems have been provided to a small, brand-spanking new, for-profit corporation with virtually no motive to improve learning outcomes; and every very large motives to package their “deal” in ways that would make them bundles.

How could this happen? How could two slick-talking youngsters from Coursera Incorporated,  without a dime’s worth of ‘real world experience) come away with fuzzy-wuzzy ‘licenses” letter-perfect for bogus deliveries?

In close reading of the “Partnership” documents, what was agreed to, in sum and substance, is this: “Go ahead, Coursera. Take our gems. See what you can do with them (and our brand image). Good luck.”

And out the door goes Coursera!

Who is protecting the (University) gems?

The gems are now on offer – free?

To anyone who can send an e-mail. 

To those who”complete’ the “course” — a document lightly shaded with the origin – and emblems of the University: Yale, Stanford, Columbia, Princeton.

To those who drop out — one in seven – now approaching two million drop-outs — well, so what?

Who cares what the drop-outs have to say about their experience?

If this isn’t a license to steal, what is?

{NOTE:  Having negotiated license agreements with major suppliers like Rolex, Tiffany, Johnnie Walker, Longines, Lancome, I know how tough it is to secure “rights” to distribute their products overseas. In addition to compliance requirements as thick as a cinder block, the proposed distributor also has to come up with substantial cash advances in seven figure amounts. But what is upper most in the minds of Rolex, et al, is the protection of their brand image.  Believe me, if there is even a hint that you could possibly damage their brand, regardless of the size of your cash offer, out-the-door-you-go!! }

It has taken me some time to reconcile how it was possible for Coursera to obtain the carte blane language in these licenses.

Part of that stems, I admit, comes from my own background in imports and exports – as above. Another part of it is my deep, deep conviction that the University is one of the Main Pillars of a civilized society; that those in charge are of the highest stature. In the many cases I have had an opportunity to meet with them, I have found persons of exceptionally intelligent individuals of unblemished integrity, outstanding credentials,  and deeply committed to the whole grand idea of the University.

They are the the Praetorian Guards of the Academy. 

They are the protectors of the Crown Jewels. The Keepers-at-the-Gate.

The guys you can trust who won’t give away the store. Or won’t be fooled by sweet-tongued mathematical wizards —  even those who come wearing Stanford garb. (And most especially, those financed by Venture Capitalists, out to make bundle.)

These are also the men and women are in charge of keeping a sacred bargain with their students.

It’s a bargain that promises that students who meet the high standards of enrollment; jump through all the hoops required during their four, five, six or seven years on the campus; pay substantial amounts for tuition; stay out of trouble with the innumerable collegiate temptations; that in return the University, will grant its  highest blessing: – From ‘days of old’, from Fes, in the 9th Century –  and from Cairo, Baghdad, Bologna, and Oxford in the 10th — a “Sheepskin”.

Now, today, we call it a diploma. But what it is, most of all, is a bargain. You gave us your best. And we continue to honor you by insuring those who follow you will also be required meet the same high standards.

Plus this – and it may well be the most important part of the bargain: We will never, never debase these credentials by granting our name, our history, or legacy, our brand by way of ‘third party’ deliveries.

That what we do not do is sub-contract the our commitment to excellence in the classroom.

Trust is the glue that cements all this. If “we” can “trust’ the stewards of the University, who can we trust?

Let us now turn to the “how” this has come about. (or my best guess!)


Unlike Rolex, the “irresistible force” inside every University is a deeply held culture obligating those wearing all their graduation finery tho provide “knowledge” as widely and openly and accessibly as is possible. Of course this obligation comes first to those who have earned admittance to the campus. But much the same “obligation” applies to the “masses”.

The Irresistible Forces of Technology, combined with the Irresistible Forces of “Doing Good” and the Irresistible Forces of “Free” “College” “Education” and Very Large Numbers of Highly Motivated Individuals (out of six billion worldwide), make for a mile-long, fully loaded freight train running downhill. If this train can’t be stopped, what other alternative but to get aboard?



The basic, immutable flaw with the Coursera Agreement is they want the University to believe it can ride two horses with one “magic” saddle. Sometimes the saddle is “perfect” for the resident student on the campus. And sometimes it’s “perfect” for the “open” student — the one who gets enrolled by sending an email; the one who “completes” the course – ‘with grades passed out willy-nilly by fellow students in the class; the one who gets a “certificate” – not quite marked – yet! – with Stanford, Yale, Princeton or Columbia on it — but, wink, wink — we are working on that.

Who cares about the metrics? Who cares than only one in eight complete the course? Who cares that the other seven go away with various degrees of an unhappy experience? Most certainly not Coursera. Like Facebook, their’s is a ‘numbers game”….get the numbers of enrolled in the millions, get several dozen fine universities “on board”, wrap it all up in an IPO marked Triple A, and walk off with millions — or billions.

Haven’t we seen this movie before?


MOOCs are a great idea — and every university should have at least a few of them inside their stables. But they have to be recognized for what they are – a Grand Experiment, good for the horse, good for its riders, good for other horses and other riders inside the barn.

This will take different practices and protocols, different training systems, different feed and nutrients, different saddles, different bits, blinders, reins and stirrups.

But the “owners” will be comfortable with these horses, for what counts is to improve learning outcomes…something the University is both good at and dedicated to achieve.

The idea of different horses in the same University barn is as old as the University itself. But what it cannot do, must not do, is to hire out the chores to those not directly employed by the University.

This is far too important for that. Most especially if those seeking to do the distributing have as their mission Big Numbers as Vs. Good Outcomes. Which is of course the mission of Coursera Incorporated.

About oregonhibbs

I'm passionate about improving access to education, worldwide, sailing, Duck football (I live in the shadow of the University of Oregon in Eugene) and connecting with people with ideas and work that "can change the world". With this in mind, I am the "Skipper" for Global Learn Day, which you can find out more about at OREGONHIBBS.COM ; Write to

Posted on November 27, 2012, in Khan,Coursera,Etc. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: