A Course May Be Many Things, But Its Future Lies In How We Value It (+0.10pts)

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How should instructors and those who create courses understand the “course” in a changing marketplace?

When we witness companies in the lifelong learning space obtain $65 million dollars in additional investment capital to grow their platform, or get acquired for well over a BILLION dollars, it kind of forces you to pick your jaw up off the floor and take notice. At their core, these are businesses that deal in something so familiar - the course - and yet at those lofty valuations it feels anything but.

Let’s flesh out a few rough ideas related to what the course is:

1. The course as a body of study on a specific subject or topic

For many of us, this definition fits our traditional idea of what we know of a course. We go to school, enroll in a subject or topic, and learn about these areas of (sometimes required) interest over a designated length of time. The outcome we seek might be for a certificate or degree, to gain a workplace skill, or for purely fun and enrichment.

While the learning modality may change (face-to-face, online, or a combination of the two), the basic variables are the same. We have students, an instructor, curriculum and activities that represent the ingredients necessary for meaningful teaching and learning. The course functions as the frame or vessel to make all of these different pieces come together.

2. The course as person(ality)

Here’s where we’ll begin to stray from our typical notion of a course. The shift occurring is one away from school as a home to and driver of course creation to one where the instructor possesses much more control over where/how they teach and ownership of their professional brand. Let me explain.

In the age of social media, we “follow” people and their ideas (see: Twitter) and increasingly value this connection over the messaging of a faceless brand. Why? The message when shared by a real, live human being has the potential to be far more personal and compelling. It’s this kind of follow-the-person(ality) that aligns well with some of the significant changes occurring in the field of lifelong learning.

Nothing marks this change greater than the decoupling of instructor and the courses they create from the school itself. We can see the emergence of this in online learning marketplace upstarts Udemy and Teachable where, for instance, “you can build a beautiful course website and control your branding, student pricing, and data all from one place.” Ankur Nagpal of Teachable, reinforces this sentiment further in his blog post, The Rise of the Celebrity Online Teacher, where he writes:

“Being best in the world brings with it a legion of followers that look up to you as a thought leader and would pay you money to learn directly from you. If you do not have the followers, being the best teacher of a specific topic is a great way to build that following." 

Implicit in being “the best teacher” is you, the instructor, not a school or marketplace. The latter can be what you leverage to build your following, but the course *you* create will be the vehicle that gets you there.

3. The course as the anti-degree

If you distill a college degree down into one of its basic elements, what do you have? A course, of course. The idea we need a college degree is becoming increasingly tenuous. In Ryan Craig’s article on Forbes.com titled, The Next Assault on the Ivory Tower: The Unbundling of the College Degree, he writes that “big data is enabling employers to get smarter by looking beyond the degree, to its component parts: the discrete skills and competencies most predictive of success in the workplace. In a world where competency is king, it will be challenging for universities to insist on general education requirements, or completing the entire degree bundle at all.”

As the broader lifelong learning marketplace and formal higher education converge, we’re seeing companies attempting to focus on assigning meaningful certification to individual courses, as well as in the creation of discovery engines that allow students to locate all of the learning that exists around them.

In addition, MOOCs have stopped trying to be massive and are quickly moving away from the “massive” moniker.  In fact, they’re now becoming increasingly regional through international expansion and focused upon professional development and certification. Some are even guaranteeing jobs once courses and programs are completed.

Further, individuals are now able to build their own lifelong learning transcripts with what they’ve learned and what they’re learning right now.

What might this all mean? Learners will have more choice and flexibility in where, how, and what they want to learn. As a course creator, the very notion of this excites me, but how will learning be valued moving forward?

4. The course as commodity

As we speak of instructors offering courses independently through hosted platforms and the unbundling of the college degree, we’re met with the reality there will exist a surplus of courses and learning opportunities available to individuals. In an industry as massive as continuing education, how will we assign value to them in terms of their quality and cost? Will this be dictated by instructors, schools or a company that manages a platform or marketplace for courses? We’ve already seen platforms grapple with this very pricing issue.

In the age of Amazon Prime, will the lifelong learning business model of the future resemble an all-you-can-take membership, similar to Skillshare and Lynda.com’s online course subscription model?.  This kind of subscription service could make sense given the disruptive changes occurring in other industries related to books, music, and television. Can these learning subscription services equitably compensate course creators over time, or will it be a race to the bottom? 

While the course will continue to be a mechanism for how we learn and share information, as with anything, it's future will ultimately lie in how we value it.