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
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
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.
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)
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.