Opening Our Eyes and MOOC-ing to the Future

This summer, I’ll teach a “massive open online course” (MOOC) on gamification—the use of digital game-design techniques to solve business problems—through Coursera.

I teach this subject to MBAs at Wharton, but this new version will be delivered free, online, and open to thousands of students worldwide through recorded videos and interactive exercises.

My course is an experiment. So is Coursera, the online platform delivering it. Both could very well fail. Despite, or perhaps because, of that I couldn’t be more excited.

The gamification course illustrates an important point about innovation. Startups have two great advantages. They can take risks and move adroitly because they have so little to lose, yet they live in terror that, if they don’t grow, they will surely lose everything. Balanced against such advantages are the assets that startups lack: established brands, customer and partner relationships, and the wisdom of experience.

What if an industry existed where the venerated incumbents didn’t have to worry about investors pushing for steady quarterly returns and customers beholden to dying products? Where sufficient threat of decline motivated innovation, but a collapse was not so imminent to starve the necessary resources? The leaders in that industry would have extraordinary potential for transformative innovation.

The industry I’m describing is higher education in the United States.

It’s both a scary and a thrilling time to be a professor at an elite institution like Wharton.

Scary because so many trends threaten the entire system: student costs rising as employment opportunities shrink, global competition for the best minds, industries in transformation, new online competition and an epochal shift in communications modalities from paper to screens, just to name a few.

Thrilling because all of these are opportunities in disguise.

Two years ago, Salman Khan was an unknown, former hedge-fund manager posting YouTube math lessons for his relatives. Now Khan Academy is widely heralded as the future of education. While that’s overblown, elements of the “flipped classroom” model that Khan popularized are revolutionary.

Coursera, a venture-backed startup led by two Stanford computer scientists, applies this model to higher education. Penn, Stanford, the University of Michigan and Princeton are Coursera partners. Harvard and MIT just announced a competitor: EdX. Other universities will undoubtedly jump in. For an industry that has changed little in centuries, this is extraordinarily rapid change.

There are many serious questions about Coursera and its ilk, which I don’t have time to delve into in a short post. My point is not that they are bound to succeed. Quite the contrary: they are impressive because they are so challenging and risky.

One of the lessons of my course is to lower the fear of failure. Games are great learning tools because players don’t hesitate to try again when at first they don’t succeed. Business schools should teach our students that, but we also should take it to heart ourselves.

If higher education can make this kind of monumental shift, it’s a sign for other industries facing the same innovation challenge.

  • Mahades

    so helpful to the world…

  • Javed Ahmad

    great article with useful knowledge.

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