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Marketing Education In A New Reality

In a makeshift production studio at the University of Pittsburgh, adjunct professor Larry Foulke is speaking passionately into a camera, preparing his online course, “A Look at Nuclear Science and Technology,” for the masses.  So animated is his delivery in front of a video crew recording his lecture, it’s as if he is speaking face-to-face to his class. But chances are nil that he will ever meet most of his students, and even if he did, there would not be enough time to greet them all. That’s because nearly 12,000 people in the United States and abroad have signed up via the Internet for the course.

Welcome to the world of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), a phenomenon that is spreading rapidly, prompting even some of the nation’s leading universities to gamble that giving away free instruction by some of their top faculty will pay dividends down the road.  With enrollments that can push 100,000 or more, these virtual courses generally are noncredit, though many involved in the movement see a future in awarding certificates for a fee.  Some even see potential for giving full academic credit, among them San Jose State University, which last month announced an experiment with online education venture Udacity Inc., to develop courses in algebra, college algebra and elementary statistics at $150 per course.

The past few centuries have witnessed technological revolutions in virtually every area of our world; health, transport, communications and genomics, to name but a few. But education seems to be the one area stuck in the past.  Contrary to massive increases in public sponsored spending on education, mainly on brick and mortar and teaching theory, statistics that measure performances remain dismal at best.  Millions of underperforming students are trapped inside the public, tax supported education marketplace, which rewards the status quo and discourages experimentation in new fundamentally bold techniques and the use of technology to improve teaching performance.

Enter Sal Khan, a former stock market analyst and MIT graduate, who stumbled upon a unique technique to help teach complicated mathematics to a few of his younger family members.  His teaching techniques became an immediate sensation and quickly went viral across the internet, resulting in the birth of Khan Academy, and once again demonstrated that revolution in an industry and the marketplace most often comes from outside of the establish community. The experiment has proved to be very successful and has turned the traditional educational model on its head. Today, Khan Academy’s mission is to provide a free world-class education for anyone anywhere at any level, kindergarten thru post graduate.  The greatest challenge to expanding this new and successful approach remains in breaking into the traditional monopoly of public education.  Bringing in new ideas from the free market is one thing, developing a state-of-the-art strategy to introduce a totally new education delivery model into the current closed, public funded establishment is quite another.

But the nation’s post-secondary colleges and universities have long understood the importance of marketing to attract students to their various institutions.  Even public funded institutions must compete with private free market educators to attract and maintain a viable student base, advertising their universities many features and benefits, utilizing a wide range of media vehicles to include digital, mobile and the internet.   But this year college tuitions have begun to rise to a level which many believe will be unsustainable in the future.  Whether at public or private schools, college tuition over the past few years has skyrocketed, due largely to the federal government’s growing role in the financing of a college education.  With a year of tuition, at even the most middle of the road institutions quickly approaching $50,000, the electorate is casting a more jaundiced eye toward federal spending, the argument is that student loans will be clipped and the tuition ‘bubble’, heavily relied upon by both private and public education entities, will soon burst prompting the arrival of a new era in marketing post-secondary education.

Such prestigious institutions as Harvard, MIT and the University of Texas System are creating free online versions of some courses, and hundreds of thousands of students across the globe are signing up.  In a recent publication, Issues in Science and Technology, two experts explain some of the factors behind this new approach to education and speculate about how it could benefit students and the nation.  The paper’s authors, William B. Bonvillian of MIT and Susan R. Singer of Carleton College, argue that the combination of new technology with advances in the science of learning is making it possible to experiment with a new model that could make education more effective as well as less expensive. The goal is not to replace in-person learning with online courses but to blend the two in ways that enable each approach to do what it does best.

The success of MOOCs as a vehicle to transition to a newer marketing reality for the educational industry remains to be realized.  The tactic of giving away free samples of product to an emerging market is certainly nothing new to business of marketing and in the internet arena it has been a strategy long tested, resulting in extended periods of profitless quarters, and in many cases, years.  In an era of monumental change and challenge in business, nothing, if it is to survive, can afford the luxury of remaining the same.

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