Sramana Mitra: The simple thing is if you give things for free, people just click on it and then move on. If they pay for it, there’s a lot more commitment.
Peter Hirst: Low completion rate isn’t necessarily something that should be critical in relation to MOOCs, exactly because of what you said. People can try it out and see whether this is of interest or value to them. Perhaps, they get value out of a part of it and fulfill an important need for them.
Sramana Mitra: We’re not a free program. We have one layer of free program which is this weekly online mentoring session we do over WebEx. We have entrepreneurs around the world dial-in to that session and use that program. The premium program is a $1000 annual membership fee program. It has got a very rich curriculum with video lectures and case studies. It’s divided into various topics. People don’t do the whole thing at once. People have a one-year membership and they’re working on different aspects. When they’re working on market sizing, they will go use the market sizing module and study that. When they’re working on positioning, they’ll deal with various modules inside of positioning. They are consuming the content in bite-size blocks in a very flexible way. Each of these are somewhere between 10 to 30 minutes short modules with case studies. I think that flexibility, at least in our audience because a lot of them are practicing entrepreneurs, is immensely valuable. That usage model says a lot about what people find advantageous in online learning.
Peter Hirst: If we track forward in this lower-cost space, we’re going to see overwhelming options for people in terms of the content that’s out there. For people who are busy and value their own time, having some way of sorting out which are the truly valuable learning options that are out there is something worth paying for.
Sramana Mitra: Absolutely, the danger of everything being free is that we have already seen the complete demolition of the media industry by everything going for free. The media industry finds itself with its back to the wall and not being able to recover from that. I think it’s a very dangerous trend. All educational institutions going online and becoming for free is a dangerous trend.
Peter Hirst: If you think about that analogy in the media industry, one of the questions becomes, where does the quality content come from in that model? On the one hand, you can certainly have a lot of content. We talk about the democratization of the content creation side of things. That could just as easily apply in the learning and education space. People sitting in academic institutions don’t have the monopoly anymore in being able to create a good and useful course, or even a component of a course. I think there are spaces still, if universities still exist as places where people come together to create understanding and insight, where I think there can still be a premium and value.
Sramana Mitra: I think the universities are in a superior position – at least, in a lot of cases. They are in a superior position to be able to create content because there’s a business model around it. Universities have a business model that supports a bunch of teachers, professors, and instructors to invest in creating content out there in the open. As a regular person, you don’t have a business model around just creating content and put it out there, and expect everybody to be using it for free. How do you get compensated?
Peter Hirst: I think you could see the analogy to that in the world of mobile apps. If you look at the app stores, there are a lot of people who are investing a lot of time into creating apps. They’re not going to make a living doing that. They’re probably not going to buy their next meal doing it. There’s some value to a society in that whole economic activity happening. From an individualist’s perspective, it’s not clear that the majority of people who are trying are actually going to be able to make a living doing it.
But there is, in the learning space, something interesting. There are very significant opportunities for people who are not making their living as educators. They’re making their living in various business or non-profit roles who may, for a variety of reasons, still be motivated to share what they think is their expertise. Even if they’re not making a living doing it, they will still invest their time and effort and potentially produce good economic value for society in doing that. You can look at Wikipedia as an example of that.
Where I’m sitting at MIT, I don’t think that I can imagine, in the coming decades, a world where there wouldn’t still be sufficiently compelling reasons to bring together the greatest minds in terms of researchers, faculties, and students to create these learning communities where there’s so much energy and so much happens.