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In this metaphor, students must bang their heads against virtual bricks to earn learning.

When will academic institutions learn that outsourcing their online learning services is always a mistake? A recent Inside Higher Ed article titled “Where Are the Savings?” examines Georgia Tech’s contract with popular Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) platform Udacity. The article points out a lack of savings for the institution and a ceding of brand and intellectual property to Udacity.

I’d like to say I am surprised, but I’m not. This is just one more data point in an ongoing pattern for higher education, when dealing with learning technology.

Perspective: Imagine World of Warcraft, the record-breaking massively multiplayer online role-playing game. Would it make sense (or a profit) for Blizzard  to develop all the concept art, write all the content, record all the music, and then pay another company just to put it together and host it? I think not. By the same note, would it make sense for universities to pay an outside company to provide TAs, have professors write class plans, and then tell all their students that the classes were off-campus and being taught by a guy from Teachers, Inc. because some outside company said they had better classrooms and could teach the university’s content better?

Why doesn’t this make any sense? Because in both cases it is the story of an organization outsourcing their core competency: creating an experience. To say that Udacity (or whoever else) is the perfect solution for all universities (or any university) implies one thing, that all learning experiences are exactly the same. If that’s the case, then bad news if you’re an expensive university, because you just told students that your primary product (education) is exactly the same as the lower-priced guy.

All universities do not have the same learning experiences. They are different flavors, feels and mechanisms built around individual professors, faculty and university values. Your online learning, be it MOOC, LMS, or whatever, should be your core competency. In a world of MOOCs, the best education is king. Unless you’re one of the few big universities, the only thing that can differentiate one MOOC from another is the learning experience’s quality, and you’re not going to find that in a mass market product.

According to IHE, Georgia Tech will spend 3.1 million on Udacity in the first year. Now, I’m pretty sure that money could be used on a far more sound investment, a group of programmers. Instead of these ludicrous amounts of money going to companies like Udacity or Blackboard, they should hire open-source developers. They should build their own tools, or using open-source tools and building on top of them.

There’s no need to run on some external dev schedule, you don’t have to depend on unreliable support systems, and you don’t have to beg for features. If you’re running your own MOOC, you’ll have it in your system. You’ll own it and everything in it. Build it open-source and collaboration with other universities will flow automatically.

The online revolution for education means a big shift in how we judge universities. For the first time, these institutions will begin competing on the worth of their product (education) and not their brands. No matter how you approach MOOCs, that’s going to happen. You just have to look at the rising popularity of rating universities by their Return on Investment to see it coming. When you’re building them yourself, however, at least you can offer a better, and more unique, proposition. Give control up to a company like Udacity or Blackboard? You’re just giving up the whole game.   Hat tip to Mark Sample for pointing out the Inside Higher Ed article.

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