How MOOCs are Similar to Virtual Events (and Quite Different, Too)

October 19, 2013

Can you say MOOC?
Photo credit: Flickr user audreywatters via photopin cc


In Boston this past week, I attended one marketing conference and walked past another. I scanned the schedule of the other conference and saw a recognizable set of popular topics: mobile, big data, social media.

And then I noticed a session on MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and their role in the future of education. That evening, I met a college buddy for dinner and we talked about MOOCs. He was experimenting with them and even received a few certifications from completing an online course.

So this got me thinking about MOOCs and their growing popularity. In doing so, I was drawn to the many similarities they have with virtual events. Let’s consider a few.

How MOOCs are Similar to Virtual Events

Extended Reach to a Global Audience

Extended reach across the globe
Photo credit: Flickr user DonkeyHotey via photopin cc

MOOCs, like virtual events, can reach anyone with an Internet connection. Whether you’re in Paris, France or Paris, Texas, it doesn’t matter.

The New York Times ran a piece about a boy who attended several courses via MIT’s MOOC from his home in Mongolia. And that’s the power of an online platform. Traditionally, your event or your college course required your physical presence. Today, anyone can attend from anywhere.

Disrupting Business Models and Conventions

The emergence of MOOCs and virtual events disrupted venues and formats with hundreds (or thousands) of years of history (e.g. education and events).

When disruption hits an industry, some seek out the change, while others combat it. We’ve seen these dynamics in both the education and events industries. The disruptive force, though, needs to seek and refine a sustainable business model. MOOCs are finding their way. Virtual events have not proven to be self-sustaining, financially.

The Power of Online Collaboration

MOOCs and virtual events help people find and discover new connections (online) and facilitate a degree of collaboration that wouldn’t have happened face-to-face.

In MOOCs, online students can answer each other’s questions (which would be rude to do in the middle of a lecture), while also grading each other’s assignments.

In a virtual event, 50 attendees can simultaneously chat and brainstorm a topic, in a way that just wouldn’t be possible (with that many people) in-person.

Ultimately, the power of online collaboration can lead to face-to-face connections and experiences. The boy from Mongolia (Battushig Myanganbayar) ended up attending MIT. And the girl in Paris, France will end up traveling to the conference that she first attended online.

How MOOCs are Quite Different from Virtual Events

There are important differences between MOOCs and virtual events – and these differences give MOOCs a higher likelihood of finding a sustainable and successful business model.

Education is a More Basic Need

The need for education is basic
Photo credit: Flickr user One Laptop per Child via photopin cc

TED conferences are an exception. In B2B, the majority of conferences and events are for industry gatherings and professional associations. In other words, places you go once you’ve started your professional career.

Higher education, on the other hand, is what many seek in order to land their first job. And because of the high cost of higher education, some families have never sent a single person to college.

MOOCs can now provide a taste of that education to any family member.  They’re also relevant to those already in the workforce who want to stay current in their industry or branch out into others.

Conceived by Insiders

Let’s consider some well-known MOOCs: Coursera, edX and Udacity. They were founded by professors at Stanfard, MIT and Harvard. In other words: insiders identified the need, built the platform and formed companies to find sustainable business models.

It’s the insider angle that gives MOOCs their advantage: an insider appreciates the complexities of the system in a way no outsider can. And, the insider has valuable connections that would take outsiders a long time to assemble.

Virtual events platforms were built by entrepreneurs, who partnered with the insiders (event professionals) to find a sustainable business model. Advantage: MOOCs.

Technology Advancement

Virtual events emerged circa 2005-2006. At the time, Twitter didn’t exist, Facebook was just opening its service outside college campuses and the iPhone had yet to be created.

MOOCs emerged several years later, to an entirely different world: a world of social media, pervasive mobile device usage, lower bandwidth costs and more convenient video production/streaming capabilities.

Technologies like USTREAM and Google+ Hangouts have made it a cinch to broadcast live video from anywhere. As a result, they’ve raised the bar for vendors who provide similar services. If only virtual (and hybrid) events had it so easy back in 2006.

A Focus on the Core Unit (the Lecture)

The college lecture
Photo credit: Flickr user pinelife via photopin cc

MOOCs found success by focusing on the core unit of their offering: the online course. Virtual events, on the other hand, charted a more complex route by attempting to re-create the conference experience in 3D or pseudo-3D.

Virtual events had elaborate lobbies and lounges, and an exhibit floor complete with virtual booths. MOOCs have not attempted to re-create the quad, the library steps and the dining hall (although online eating may be possible one day with 3D printers).

Over time, virtual events adapted to focus more on the content and less on the virtual furniture. MOOCs have focused on the core content from the start.


Massively Open Online Events. Would virtual events have evolved differently if we used an alternative name? Probably not. MOOCs, while similar to virtual events, have a number of advantages.

I’ll be watching to see how their business model evolves. And like my college buddy, I’ll have to spend a few evenings attending an online course myself.

5 Reasons I Prefer Traditional Classrooms to Massive Open Online Courses

February 18, 2013

Traditional classrooms have benefits over MOOCs


Don’t get me wrong: I’m a big fan of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC). I’m fascinated by MOOC’s and believe they’ll shape the future of higher education. And if you couldn’t tell by this blog, I’m a proponent of online experiences.

That being said, I recently attended an intensive, classroom-based program (to get me trained on a particular vendor’s marketing software) and that experience made me further appreciate the value of the traditional (physical) classroom.

It’s All About Your Personal Learning Style

MOOC’s have the potential to reach a global audience – and for some, they’re perfect learning vehicles. Me? I’m easily distracted and inclined to multitask. When my team (the New York Giants) played in the 2012 Super Bowl, my attention was split between the larger screen (the game) and a smaller screen (the Twitter feed on my laptop).

While the shared experience of Twitter was rewarding, I knew that my attention and appreciation (in the game itself) was partially compromised. That was something I’m passionate about (sports). Now, imagine an instructional program to teach you to use software. It’s interesting, but doesn’t involve the same level of passion. Imagine the potential for distraction.

Let’s consider five ways MOOC’s may not work well with my learning style.

1) Inclination to multitask.

We all multitask online. Don't we?

Photo source: User Victor1558 on flickr.

Admit it. Whether it’s a web meeting or a webinar, you’ve often checked email, posted to Facebook or updated a spreadsheet while someone else was speaking. You’ve also been asked a question (while multitasking) and were forced to confess that you weren’t paying attention.

In my classroom training program, we performed hands-on training exercises with the software. So that meant our laptops were out, we were online and our browsers were open. So yes, I multitasked a bit, even in the traditional classroom setting.

However, the traditional setting forced me to focus, because of the other people in the room. I knew that falling off track could cause me embarrassment, while a lack of eye contact with the instructor would be rude. When you’re online, you can multitask and lose focus without much penalty or repercussion.

2) Lack of discipline and focus.

Being on the web makes it easy to multitask. And did you notice that ever since browsers introduced tabbed browsing, that multitasking within a browsing session becomes heightened? Hey, that means you! Please return from the other tab!

Beyond online or application multitasking, I also have an inclination to lose focus. If a particular learning topic doesn’t naturally engage me, I’ll start to get drowsy. Or, I’ll think about what to have for lunch. A traditional classroom setting, on the other hand, provides convenient ways to pull you back into focus.

First off, your brain tells itself, “I’m sitting in a classroom, so I’m here to learn. Let’s stay focused.” Next, you have the other folks in the room (learners and instructors), who keep you from putting your head on the table or going in the corner to read a book.

3) Multitasking beyond the computer.

If I was working from home and attending the same classroom session online, I’d be inclined to hit “pause” (if I could) and get a few things done around the house. Maybe the laundry is done and the clothes need to be put in the dryer. OK, so I’ll take my laptop with me and go do that.

Similar to tweeting during the Super Bowl, my attention has just been compromised. In a traditional classroom, there are barriers that prevent you from doing this (not to mention the fact that your laundry machine is back at home).

4) Limited “connection” with the instructor.

Some online learning modules use a PowerPoint presentation or desktop sharing (no video). Others present the instructor via webcam. Neither compare with the instructor being 10 feet in front of you. There’s no way (yet) for online learners to make eye contact with their instructor. In a traditional classroom, however, being in the same room creates a connection that helps reinforce focus and discipline.

5) Less effective for hands-on learning modules.

Instructors provide assistance in a traditional classroom setting

While online platforms are effective at assigning hands-on exercises to learners, there’s something about the classroom setting that you miss online. Our program was over 50% hands-on modules (which was great). If you had an issue with your assignment, you could raise your hand and the instructor would visit.

Often, it was a simple setting (or step) that needed to be adjusted. You could watch over your neighbor’s shoulder to understand their issue and how it was resolved. I imagine that this same sort of “instructor-led management” can be accomplished online. But being in the same room created a shared learning experience that’s hard to replicate online.


In The New York Times, Thomas Friedman wrote quite eloquently about MOOCs in a column titled “Come the Revolution.” And while I just got done writing about how MOOCs may not suit my learning style, count me a big fan of their potential.

After all, my training program was highly specialized. It was far different from the college lectures that MOOCs have focused on to date. In addition, it was a regional course. An overwhelming advantage of MOOCs is their ability to support an audience of geographically dispersed learners.

So, for Physics 101, I’ll see you online. For the marketing software boot camp, I’ll see you in the classroom.

Newspapers: With Print Declining, Go Virtual

March 24, 2009

Source: GlobalPost

Source: GlobalPost

In a previous blog posting, I wrote that newspapers could leverage virtual event platforms to transform the reader experience from one of unidirectional consumption to an interactive community of participation and engagement.  In an article titled “A Web Site’s For-Profit Approach to World News “, the New York Times highlights Boston-based GlobalPost.  The good folks at GlobalPost are clearly thinking outside the “print box”, with an approach that mirrors (somewhat) some of the points I made in my original blog posting.

For one, GlobalPost has deployed a freemium model, built upon a wealth of freely available, advertising supported content.  The premium service comes into play with a service called Passport, which, as eloquently stated by GlobalPost, “offers an entrée into GlobalPost’s inner circle”.  According to the New York Times article:

Passport subscribers, who pay as much as $199 a year, can suggest article ideas. “If you are a member, you have a voice at the editorial meeting,” although the site will decide which stories to pursue, said Charles Sennott, a GlobalPost founder and its executive editor. He said Passport is meant to “create a feeling of community” for subscribers who might otherwise see newsrooms as “impenetrable and fortresslike.”

On the GlobalPost Passport web page titled “Benefits of Membership“, one can discover further detalis about the access afforded to Passport subscribers:

Passport also gives you a significant voice in the news. We invite you to join us in reinventing the media equation, empowering members for the Web 2.0 era. Instead of the old top-down model where editors decide what you need to read, as a Passport member you play an unprecedented role in shaping the stories that get covered, via ForeignDesk, Correspondent Calls and Newsmaker Interviews. Simply put, it’s access that gives you an edge.

While GlobalPost would need to find a business model to profitably support this – I can envision the use of a virtual event platform to serve as the foundation for their interactive community.  By “profitably support”, I mean that the additional cost (e.g. virtual event platform, higher costs for editorial staff, etc.) would need to be weighed against the additional revenue.

But that being said, the use of a virtual event platform could facilitate:

  1. Direct, interactive access from Passport subscribers to GlobalPost’s Editorial Staff – in the form of text chat (both private and group), webcam chat (both private and group), forums and blogs (in the platform), etc.  What better a way to shape the editorial focus than for the Passport members (the most loyal of readers) to engage directly with the folks responsible for producing the content.
  2. Direct engagement among Passport subsribers – generate and sustain subscriber loyalty and retention by allowing them to connect with one another.  After all, two subscribers who visit the “United Kingdom” section of likely have common things to discuss.
  3. Drive incremental revenue by upselling your Passport subscribers – one you have a loyal following of Passport subscribers, upsell them into higher and higher premium services – e.g. scheduled video chat sessions with your Publisher; access to exclusive content; access to all archived content, etc.

Kudos to GlobalPost on their somewhat contrarian model – and best of luck on the new site and success of Passport.

%d bloggers like this: