Academics and Venture Capitalists: Not close vs open, but evidence vs speculation

December 13, 2012 at 9:14 am 10 comments

Aaron Bady’s essay critiquing Clay Shirky’s take on MOOCs is highly recommended reading (linked below).  I bought in to Shirky’s “Udacity is Napster” argument, and I still think that access may trump quality.  But Bady really highlights why there is such a distinction in views about MOOCs.  The first sentence below is wonderful, both pithy and true.  It’s not that MOOCs won’t be wonderful, it’s just that there’s not enough evidence that they will — but venture capitalists and “education disruptors” run on hope, not evidence.

The key difference between academics and venture capitalists, in fact, is not closed versus open but evidence versus speculation. The thing about academics is that they require evidence of success before declaring victory, while venture capitalists can afford to gamble on the odds. While Shirky can see the future revolutionizing in front of us, he is thinking like a venture capitalist when he does, betting on optimism because he can afford to lose. He doesn’t know that he’s right; he just knows that he might not be wrong. And so, like all such educational futurologists, Shirky’s case for MOOCs is all essentially defensive: he argues against the arguments against MOOCs, taking shelter in the possibility of what isn’t, yet, but which may someday be.

via Essay critiques the ideas of Clay Shirky and others advocating higher ed disruption | Inside Higher Ed.

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10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. mgozaydin  |  December 14, 2012 at 9:31 am

    Shirky you look for an evidence that MOOCs will be succesfull.
    1.- Coursera has no evbidence yet .
    2.- edx has an evidence of 1300 colleges providing online courses and degrees for 20 years even at prices $ 1,500 per course fıollowed by 6.5 million students now for 20 years .
    Now edx contains elite universities online courses , 100 times better than classical 20 years old OLD ONLINE COURSES at a small price. Sure it will be more succesfull than the OLD ONLINES .
    Only missing link is degrees now . It will be completed in 3-4 years .
    In fact I suggest edx should make a project like 2U degree consortium among member universities .10 courses from MIT, 10 courses from Harvard, 10 courses from berkeley, 10 courses from Uni of TEXAS . This is my vision .

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  December 14, 2012 at 10:37 am

      edX has little evidence either. I just visited MIT last week. They have little evidence of learning, or what leads to success in their offerings. What they do know about their completers suggests that the majority of edX students already had the content, that there may have been little new learning going on.

      • 3. mgozaydin  |  December 14, 2012 at 11:00 am

        Come on mark.
        Does that mean ” there is no0 evidence ”
        Evidence is 6.5 million students alreadty taking onlğine courses and paying huge moneis. edx is elite universities consortium sure it is better than 1,300 old online providers .

        • 4. Mark Guzdial  |  December 14, 2012 at 11:21 am

          “Surely it is better” is not evidence. That’s speculation.

  • 5. guy  |  December 14, 2012 at 10:45 am

    Venture Capitalists… Speculation… Duh… I just checked and I still have an essay written by a VC named J. William Gurley in 1999 (before Internet bubble broke) named “The Rising Importance of the Great Art of Storytelling.”

    It’s too long to copy/paste here, but to sum it up (imo), Bill very accurately observed that the good CEOs at the time were great at telling a story. In his words “…venture capitalists are hot in pursuit of an entrepreneur or CEO with a thespian bent.”

    Why? Here is a paragraph which is my favorite…

    This notion that the ability to tell a good story is a
    critical aspect of success is likely troubling to many,
    especially if you replace the term “storytelling” with
    the more derogatory term “hype.” To keep things in
    perspective, however, you must recognize the enormous
    likelihood for self-fulfilling prophecies. Whoever
    grabs early mind share typically secures strong
    financing. Strong financing adds to the story, which
    then may help enable a killer partnership – once again
    adding to the story. The press writes about the
    partnership, which adds even more fuel to an already
    increasing leadership position. Finally, consumers
    read about this unique leadership company and are
    influenced to use the product or service.

    From the point I read this back in 1999, I had a completely different perspective of the industry I was part of. We now know that the storytelling worked for some companies (Amazon, Priceline, …) but for many the fantasies crashed – hard.

    So, isn’t this what is happening with MOOCs at the moment. You could equate academics looking for evidence with old-school investors (like Warren Buffett) back in 1999 crying out that they just didn’t understand the crazy metrics being thrown at them, e.g., eye-ball count, to justify investment. Old-school investors were crying out “where’s the beef?” as they saw companies going public without profit… no evidence that success was guaranteed…

    maybe I’m off base, but, just a thought…

    • 6. Mark Guzdial  |  December 14, 2012 at 11:06 am

      I don’t think you’re off-base at all — I think you’ve described it well!

  • […] In the last three weeks, I’ve spent a day at MIT (talking to several MITx and edX researchers) and two days at Stanford (where just about everyone I met is teaching MOOCs in Coursera or Class2Go or Udacity, and I got the chance to meet with Daphne Koller, too), where I was asked several times about what questions I would like answered about MOOCs.  I didn’t get any answers, but folks at Georgia Tech were asking me about the questions, so I thought I’d share some of them here.  This is the evidence I’m looking for. […]

  • 8. Yusuf  |  December 16, 2012 at 11:05 pm

    Do you remember “Intelligent Tutoring Systems”? What a great idea! Bottle up all knowledge in a field, stuff it inside a computer tutor, add some pedagogy, personalization, a predictive user-model and we’d have universal education in no-time.

    Alas, it did not happen. ITS is still an active research area. There has been many advances, but most of our computer tutors are very limited; not much fun to interact with.

    MOOCs are the new ITSes. A great idea that could make education cheap and accessible. For every criticism of MOOCs, we have a set answer – “Yes, but these are early prototypes, just wait until we have better user modelling, more interactive quizzes, a well-developed model for peer-learning, a more robust method of marking and measuring what students have learned”.

    It is a sweet dream. I’d like to believe it. I’d love to think that it will happen in the next 5 years… But, I am not holding my breath for it.

    What is unfortunate is that the per-student cuts in education has led to MOOCs like environments in traditional universities. Professors give lectures without interaction. Tutors and assistants run through weekly exercises sometimes without much understanding of the deeper material themselves. How much worse could it be to replace the professor with a video, the tutors with a multiple choice test? Not much of an improvement, but not much is lost either!

    I once taught a class of 700 students. Maybe students should have watched youtube videos instead of watching me!

  • […] a great deal on MOOCs, as have we all although Mark is much easier to read than I am, and his recent comment on Aaron Bady’s response to Clay Shirky’s “Udacity is Napster&#8221… drew me to the great article by Bady and the following key quote inside Bady’s […]

  • 10. OPEN EDUCATION: THE BADY vs SHIRKY DEBATE « ANIMAL MY SOUL  |  February 6, 2013 at 11:44 am

    […] Academics and Venture Capitalists: Not close vs open, but evidence vs speculation ( […]


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