What if Barnum and Bailey Ran the MOOCs?

P. T. Barnum and James Bailey and their Ringling Brothers made rightful claim that their circus was “The Greatest Show on Earth“.  I say they would do just as well in the business of MOOCs.  And they wouldn’t have to know a lick about quantum physics or Big Data or the Brothers Grimm.

What these two would instantly recognize is how much a university and a circus have in common. Both are a “Big Tent” operation starting with a clear understanding of how much each one of them affects the whole entire landscape merely by their presence.

Inside one is a three-ring circus made up of elephants and lions, wire-walkers, clowns, dare-devils shot from a cannon. All of it designed to deliver WOWs so resounding, so permanent, that the customers got their money’s worth — and would happily come back for more of the same.

What’s so different about that than a University? What is the Senate Faculty if not a three-ring circus crammed with brainiacs? What are the Department Heads if not lion-tamers and lightning rods organized to gather like-minded souls for wide intellectual enrichment?

What is not so obvious — and I think mostly lost on the MOOCs  – (and particularly Coursera!) – is how extraordinarily important is the “back-end” of these operations. Cleaning up elephant poop is a long way from spectacular. But how long would you keep happy faces if the poop wasn’t promptly removed?

What good is a sensational trapeze act when you can’t find the toilet for your six year old? Who is there to help a lost child? Or a frantic parent? The hot dogs have to be hot and the cokes have to be cold. All the “ordinary” workers have to get hired, trained, supervised and paid, fairly, and on-time.

All of it done it so smoothly that few outside the Tent even notice that this is the oil that makes the machinery run…..

…..precisely, the greatest weakness of the MOOC.

For my money, MOOCs  haven’t come within a long country mile of organizing on-line Help Desks in ways that would tremendously improve outcomes. Here they are running Formula One race cars without using tools that measure tire pressure or engine temperature much less have the tire changers and the gas pumpers to provide the fundamentals.

And they wonder why nine out ten of their “customers” never come back!

Yet, the corrections are so obvious it hurts.

(Maybe it’s because the solutions are too low tech?)

What the MOOCs badly, badly need are Help Desks — ones that run 24/7/365. (ore commonly known as Text Chat Rooms which date back to the Stone Age of the Net) The rooms should be staffed with a Pit Crew as determined in their job as as are the owners and drivers of the race cars.

During Global Learn Day, we proved time and time again the value of these kinds of chat rooms. They were, easily, the best places to learn more, meet others, solve problems, make mid-course adjustment, patch and repair on the fly; make improvements on the next Voyage. The best and most lasting lesson was that the combination of Crews and Chat Rooms enriched, enlightened and endeared in amazingly abundant ways. All of it of extraordinary value when measuring performance — as vs. motion.

If I were Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s Chief, I would offer real time chat rooms to every MOOC on the planet.

One type would be to help with the content of the course — staffed by very bright students likely to come out of the course itself. The other type would to help with ordinary “navigation” for purposes of provided real-time “drill down” information of an FAQ variety. These would be staffed by those who would also make good librarians, good tour directors. good food servers. People who don’t have all the answers, but driven by the same the same sense of urgency and obligation as a very good Pit Crew.  

The biggest surprise? The Pit Crews become treasure chests, made easy to pick through simply by close reading of the transcripts.  This is not rocket science. A job better  left to those who worked for McDonald’s where what’s drilled into them is the need for clean restrooms as much as the need for super-fast service.

MOOCs and Amazon could quickly come to hard-headed cost/benefit calculations  in ways that everybody wins. More book sales for Amazon,  less grousing from the student, reduced burdens on the Gurus, better measurement devices for the Providers. More trophies at the race track.

MOOCs should treat the Help Desks the same way Mission Control treats the care of every rocket launch. Where those in charge accept that if the lights aren’t all green, a crash is not far off.

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About oregonhibbs

Just past 70 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".

Posted on August 21, 2013, in MOOC's Global Ed Conference. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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