The value of bad ideas

I use a trick with co-workers when we’re trying to decide where to eat for lunch and no one has any ideas. I recommend McDonald’s. … Everyone unanimously agrees that we can’t possibly go to McDonald’s, and better lunch suggestions emerge. Magic!

It’s as if we’ve broken the ice with the worst possible idea, and now that the discussion has started, people suddenly get very creative. I call it the McDonald’s Theory: people are inspired to come up with good ideas to ward off bad ones.

Jon Bell, “McDonalds Theory

Here’s my theory: the MOOCs we’ve got at the moment really are just a bad idea. This is awkward, because so much money has now been sunk into them, it feels defeating even to imagine their failure. But there’s a bright side: what if MOOCs are the icebreakingly bad idea, whose gift is to inspire us to come up with something better?

MOOCs wouldn’t be the first bad idea to be taken seriously and attract major capital investment, about which people later look back and wonder: what were we thinking?  I once met the man who co-designed the Sinclair C5, an infamous battery-powered vehicle that was expected to transform the way people got around in crowded British cities in the 1980s. The design had been feted on news programs and TV shows, and the project had a major backer with serious money. But then the prototype was tried out on an actual road, and people noticed that the battery didn’t work in the rain and it was disturbing to change lanes on wet roads at 15mph in a low lying tricycle that barely reached the wheel arch of your average road haulage vehicle. Cartoonists had a field day.

Last month, the Sinclair c5 was voted the biggest innovation disaster of all time, topping a list of mostly entertainment technology formats or communication devices that failed, and pizza scissors.

Some of these had enjoyed brief success before being overhauled by a competitor or successor, but the C5 was distinguished by being panned from the moment it showed up on the road, when all the ideas that had seemed so convincing in prototype collided with the realities of scale and use. As Rodney Dale, who has written a loving history of the C5, noted sadly, the “seductive exhilaration which won everyone over to the C5 on the test track quickly evaporated by the feeling of vulnerability among real traffic.”

But the principles and the concerns behind the C5 didn’t evaporate. The problems it was attempting to address—and the commercial opportunity it was attempting to exploit—were real. Since 1984 we’ve found out more and more about the impact of excessive oil consumption on our environment and our global economy, and we’ve continued to explore alternatives to the ways in which we use and fuel private cars. It was a visionary idea, just a really awful design.

And this is where we are with higher education. Different systems all around the world are facing different problems, but the problems are real, and the systems we’re using to address them are underpowered and unimaginative. More lectures, bigger lecture theatres, overcrowded tutorials, staffing flexibilities that are appalling euphemisms for sustained and harmful exploitation of the academic precariat, standardised curriculum and unvarying assessment practices, inflexible approaches to student creativity, timed exams, grades and escalating student debt: all of these are the bad ideas we live with and defend. So let’s not romanticise our current situation just because the alternative that’s getting all the attention is an even bigger bad idea.

Where I work we’re now seriously asking the MOOC question: should we? why? with what? for whom? And what are the risks involved in us adapting those that are being made elsewhere?  Wouldn’t it be good to have some Stanfordy things in our curriculum, especially when it comes to the foundational material in the disciplines that genuinely need their students to cover at least some of the same ground no matter where they study? Obviously, the situation’s trickier for the humanities, but don’t the world’s MOOCs give us access to new areas of curriculum that we can’t supply ourselves, in such a small educational economy?

Provided we put aside the daft and insulting conceit that we’re lucky to gain access to the world’s best professors all of whom naturally work at the world’s elite institutions, I think the answer to some of these questions has to be: well, yes. We all benefit when students access new and different curriculum, for the same reason that we gain when those who can afford it travel as part of their study program. And we all have something to share in return.

But first, we need to move beyond the bad bits of the idea: that massive enrolment is a cunning alternative to overcrowding; that volunteer tutoring is sustainable or just; that recorded lectures solve the problem of lectures; that institutional research brand is a guarantee of individual teaching excellence; that timed exams and peer-reviewed short answer papers are anything other than roll call; and that any of these services are going to remain philanthropic once the testing phase is over.

The good ideas trapped behind this wall of nonsense are starting to emerge. This week I had a lovely day sitting about with the people who design our rooms and choose our carpet tiles and light fittings, and make our award-winning outdoor spaces, which really are appreciated by everyone. Talking together we started to imagine how new kinds of campus spaces and educational technologies should work together to support international collaboration among students in ways we haven’t been able to offer before; about facilities where students could meet and create their own digital materials or remix ours; and about the need to reform our outdated business rules in relation to wireless access. It was exciting, and fun, and offered one of the best conversations I’ve listened to on the value of courage in institutional planning.

But a caveat, before we throw open all the doors and windows to the winds of change blowing from the global north: bad ideas don’t always move aside like the Sinclair C5 to make room for the better ones that follow. Here in Australia there’s a lesson from the history of imported innovations that have had long term environmental consequence: the cane toad.  Cane toads were brought here in 1935 from Hawaii, in a well-intentioned effort to reduce crop damage without excessive use of pesticides, and we can recognise those principles as basically good.  The scientist who arranged their introduction to Queensland wasn’t blinded by greed or lacking in awareness. It’s just that, as the Australian Dictionary of Biography puts it with heartbreaking understatement, “the toad proved less useful than had been hoped, and itself became a pest.”

Let’s just keep this in mind: whatever problems we’re trying to solve, and whatever ideas we think are good, we are taking care of a complex and fairly fragile educational ecosystem here. And if a toad doesn’t prove as useful as you hoped, you can’t always get it to go home again.

17 thoughts on “The value of bad ideas

  1. Oh MfD,

    I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the MOOCs aren’t the problem. Yes, they are a terrible idea as now conceived. Yes there are good ideas emerging out of these discussions MOOCs and online education in general. However, the problem is the political economy in which these ideas are emerging. As long as universities are treated like business ventures rather than the public good that they are bad ideas with money-making potential will live on, on good ones (even ones that simply won’t make as much money as the bad ones) will eventually die a lonely death.

    I’m being realistic here, not fatalistic. That’s why right-thinking people everywhere need to organize now. Waiting around for the best possible outcome to emerge like Aphrodite from the water will only depress you more.


  2. I don’t think we’re in disagreement, actually. My feeling is that the best outcome won’t emerge, it will need to be created and shaped, and lobbied for, and properly resourced, and all in all this isn’t good news for anyone who thinks that gift-wrapped packages of free stuff from the global north can be used to help Australia manage its new austerity budget. (Don’t forget that we were very late to the global austerity party, but we’re catching up now, and it’s the timing of this major shift to the political economy of Australian higher education — see last two posts — that makes us particularly vulnerable to hasty import.)

    I’ve been thinking for a year, partly thanks to following your arguments, about what options Australia has in relation to US MOOCs, other than just letting it happen to us like climate change or what’s happened to our film industry in the face of Hollywood, or fending it off on nationalist grounds, which is an equally awful response. In many spheres Australia doesn’t regard itself as capable of achieving or leading change because we’re a very small population. But I think on this one we can at least start to argue that we can shape the future of our online education systems by learning from the mistakes being made elsewhere, as well as from the truly awful mistakes we’ve made ourselves.

    That’s why I’m keeping cane toads firmly in mind, while arguing that we should make something of this.


  3. Not so much the cane toad I think, the toad itself is pursuing the same ends wherever it is, regardless of any particular ecosystem. I think probably a more apt parallel for the urgent desire to get into MOOCs is the Collins class submarine which highlights the same combination of a nationalistic fear of being left out and the need to be somehow cutting edge. Australian institutions want to be in the main game but usually find themselves desperately catching up on the rules.

    After WW2 the Australian navy bought some excellent diesel boats, Porpoise class submarines (built by Scotts Shipbuilding and Engineering Company of the River Clyde), which were rebadged as Oberon class submarines for the RAN. They had US sonar, radar and torpedo systems which were subsequently updated to also fire antiship harpoon missiles. The RAN loved those boats and in 1985 HMAS Ovens became one of the few conventional submarines to fire a sub-surface-launched Harpoon missile, successfully hitting the target over the horizon. That was a Gallipoli-like moment for the RAN, a technical accomplishment of the highest order in the face of the nuclear-powered ASW deployed by the RAN’s colleagues in Pu’uloa.

    The Oberons though were old and the RAN wanted new boats: faster, quieter, more powerful. In fact, the RAN came up with a shopping list of what they wanted in a submarine, which seemed to be everything. If it went in, or on, or around submarines the Navy wanted it. There was a long drawn out process in which hopes were raised, dashed, rose again before being finally crushed and reconstituted as the cherry-picked, mix’n’match design which was announced by Kim Beazley , the then Defence minister in the Hawke government. Then there was a long construction period, which was mostly about delays.

    The first Collins class left dry dock in 1996 (eleven years after project approval). Since then the Collins class have been beset by technical problems: , IT breakdowns causing sonar and radar failure, weapons non- responsiveness, limited propulsion performance, limited capacity to staff the boats, difficulties sourcing or producing spare parts, and the combat systems was both so crap, and so late, that the whole thing had to be redone from scratch in 2001 in conjunction with the US Navy. It’s been reported they sound a bit like a tractor underwater.

    The Collins class are the classic attempt by Australians to not be left behind. They’re sure to be the model for our own catch up MOOCs.


  4. I’m overjoyed by this reminder, thank you. This is the thing about bright ideas — there has to be some kind of risk appetite or we never learn anything, but once fear of missing out is the driving factor (as it is with MOOCs in Australia at the moment) we often lose the ability to pull back and reflect on the power of sunk costs to prop up a bad idea beyond the point when we should change direction.

    There’s something else in Australia’s natural history: lantana. I was thinking about this yesterday when I was reading an article about the kudzu vine. Lantana was introduced to Australia in the 1840s, after a project of plant hybridisation in Europe produced over 600 delicate little cultivars that were distinguished by the variability of their remarkable little flowers. Fast forward, as they say, and in the more hospitable climates Australia, South Africa and India, lantana has turned into a rampagingly noxious weed that’s eating whole hillsides, suffocating local vegetation, and we’re going after it with flamethrowers.

    This is a time for cool thinking in Australia, but the thud of glossy brochures from the corporate education conference sector on our doormats (not to mention the CEOs of the global north edtech empires who are trekking down here to evangelise to us at these events) suggests that we’re not quite achieving this.


  5. I’d be interested in your views of why MOOCs are a bad idea. Or is the idea itself good and just the implementation that’s bad? You can’t really just say oh x is a bad idea without giving any reasons. As it happens I think the MOOCs that predominate at the moment are often not particularly well designed or delivered but at the same time I think that the idea of free access to advanced level content for free is fundamentally a good idea. Does that mean I think MOOCs are good or bad?
    The other observation I would make is that as bad implementations of ideas go, MOOCs are not the worst thing that universities do. In my experience much of what passes for a university education probably seemed like a good idea at the time but is delivered, more often than not, in a deeply flawed way.


  6. Hi Mark

    I think what we’re seeing at the moment is a step, not the destination: so the big platform MOOCs really are badly designed interpretations of an important development for higher education. And I don’t extend this criticism back to the open courses run by Canadians that have recently been blotted out of MOOC history.

    So what I think is specifically bad about the current xMOOCs is the fetish for stadium size crowds as an index of openness. Size itself is suffocating quite a bit of the collaborative potential of open, online, advanced level, transnational and intercultural engagement with content — which to me is the really good idea that lies just behind access to content. I say this as I’m participating in a VentureLab MOOC that’s trying to get 19000 people to form into small teams. Some people will have good experiences from this, but I’m really focused on those that don’t, for whom a smaller enrolment could have made for a much richer, less isolating experience.

    Taking up your second point, the PR problem universities are facing at the moment, especially in media and political coverage, is that we’re doing so many everyday things quite badly that it looks like we can’t do anything well. I’m not convinced by this argument, especially when the actual solution keeps looking like a throwback to the even worse things we were doing ten years ago — sage-on-the-stage lectures, for example. MOOCs have made a second fetish of the professor rather than the community of learners, and I think this is a really backward step.

    And then there’s casualisation. Just as Australia’s hourly paid academics were thinking things couldn’t get worse in the local labour market, along come Harvard’s graduate students offering volunteer peer tutoring in order to put this on their resumes.

    I think we should keep moving forward with open online education, but I think we shouldn’t fall for the first toad that will have us, especially on the grounds that this will somehow put us in better company in the global rankings. That’s a really bad idea.


  7. I am wondering if the question that MOOCs are purported to answer is the wrong question – wrong in at least two ways as I will explain.

    First, the answer ‘MOOC’ seems to be given to ‘how can we use technology to teach effectively and efficiently?’ Since learning itself is not exactly achieved efficiently or effectively if critical thinking skills are a part of the mix, it is hard to to imagine how MOOC is the answer for anyone who is thinking about student learning. Instead what if the question – how can we teach in a way that provides maximum time for research and the all important publication thereof while at the same time transferring all responsibility to the learners? Oh, now MOOC makes some sense. And in addition the desire to use Stanford MOOCs – Stanford has great researchers and maybe some will rub off if we get students to enrol on their MOOCs. (Flying pigs fitting harnesses now, I imagine)

    Second, what if the question is something like, how can we teach increasing cohorts of ill prepared students for a future that we can hardly imagine? This is hard, there is no single answer. Perhaps the difficulty of the question demonstrates the need for a long conversation and lots of trying stuff out. But most of all, it reminds us that no matter what we all do, every tertiary institution can’t be in the top 1%, but with a small shift in focus, most can serve the needs of their particular students well indeed.

    Sorry to rant, but sometimes it just flows from the fingertips.

    So good to be retired an not at meetings where I might just go on like this, eh?


  8. Is there another way of looking at MOOCs? In themselves they surely have little formal educational value, however they get set up/staffed/accredited. But if you think of them as ways to remind people of the joy of learning, even if in an imperfect way, then maybe they are effective shop windows for what can be achieved in a more structured environment – like a school, a university, a book club, an evening class…. If we think of them as loss-leaders, then our expectations are lowered, and their imperfections are much less obvious.


  9. One of the interestingly odd things about MOOCs is that universities have lived for years in the vicinity of all sorts of other kinds of free teaching (U3A being the big organised example, but also various practices of people learning things from each other, workers’ education co-ops, not to mention the entire internet which as Patrick Masson keeps patiently explaining really handles the job of storing content quite well) and it’s only now that MOOCs have released the seductive perfume of big brands into our sector that we’re carrying on about unbundled education as though it was all invented yesterday in Palo Alto.

    I think Djerbekka’s absolutely right: if MOOCs are the answer to higher education’s issues, they reveal the impoverished and self-serving nature of our questions. But if they’re taking the significant value of a U3A class and making it available to people beyond those who can get to your local library, then they’re changing something — it’s just that they may not be the change that universities need.


  10. I loved the C5 analogy, but I’m not certain it works. The C5 was a disaster because it sounded like a good idea but wasn’t. MOOCs are different: they’re a solution to a non-existent problem which their purveyors have identified as the absence of a competitive, commercial educational HE system. They propose efficiency where we would reject that as a meaningful paradigm. The McDonalds analogy does work: McDonald’s doesn’t solve the problem of hunger, it solves the non-problem of convenience. MOOCs look efficient and convenient, but they’re anti-educational because they cut out the value we add to certification: debate and human responsiveness.

    I don’t worry too much about appearing a bit nationalist in objecting to MOOCs. Any institution which offers courses on a global basis can’t possibly address the cultural diversity which I hope we agree is a good thing. Standardised education designed at a great distance from the student’s own environment is culturally and pastorally deadening.


    1. “Standardised education designed at a great distance from the student’s own environment is culturally and pastorally deadening.” – one might even suggest that it is a quasi-colonial model.


  11. Thanks for the stimulating post Kate. To examine another important but often hidden dimension of the current context: Some parts of these 10 minutes if read the right way, might give more food for thought than I could currently construct here with text – but hope to in the future.


  12. I’m not a higher education expert, but I can speak about MOOCs from a learner’s and teacher’s perspective. I have a master’s degree from a major American university, but the MOOC I took recently from edX/HarvardX was possibly the best university course I’ve ever taken.

    If we continue to argue for or against MOOCs from the perspective of experts in higher education, we’re missing the point. Education is about students. We say higher education is broken, but we don’t say consumer electronics is broken. We’re all now spoiled for choice when it comes to mobile phones and TVs. Consumer electronics has always been about consumers. If only higher education were centered on students instead of faculty, infrastructure, and tradition.

    I also teach online courses in research communication to researchers in several developing countries, as part of the AuthorAID project. I have just started writing a series of blog posts on MOOCs:

    Finally, the analogy with the Sinclar S5 would be more appropriate if multiple models like the S5 had been jointly introduced into the market by companies like BMW, Audi, Benz, and Porsche. But no, it was an eccentric, idealistic, “lone-wolf” product from the start.


  13. Ravi, you are absolutely spot on.

    Wherever there is identified customer pain and a high value addressable market, there will be cash available to fund disruptive business models. Clearly there must be customer pain, because big VCs with huge amounts of capital under management would be unlikely to make the kinds of cash investments into MOOCs that they have made if there wasn’t a relatively easy analysis to take place that allows them to see what the value is for the total of current incumbents and to run a model that shows sufficient revenue from a realistic market penetration to meet their internal rate of return metrics for order of magnitude capital gain. You only need a few tens of thousands of people to pay a hundred dollars a year who re-up for more years; and tell their friends that the courses are good value to generate a huge revenue stream…. Its FaceBook all over – and what was their IPO worth on the day (regardless of the fact that it headed downwards on the first day of trading)?

    What educators appear to forget in discussing MOOCs and what they fail to convey to the students that they teach, is that the models that they are involved in may not be broken, but they may be becoming redundant in terms of business models, just as buses are substantially redundant for transportation in an era where the motor car is yet another utility. Perhaps what education needs is Kaizen production philosophies in order to learn how to continually improve?


  14. Hi Chris – Good to see a reply to my post, albeit more than 3 months later! Maybe the revolution of MOOCs has come about in response to the achingly slow evolution in higher education. Your point on Kaizen philosophies guiding education improvement is brilliant. I suppose a lot of educators keep trying to better themselves and how they teach (and they are successful), but I wonder if that’s true at the institutional-level.


  15. Hi Chris and Ravi

    I’m really interested that you bring up the issue of buses as I’ve just come back from somewhere (Fiji) where buses are still a primary means of local transport–and actually there are all sorts of efficiencies and environmental gains from this. So I’m wary of stories of progress that assume that there’s only one direction worth pursuing, and only one pace worth achieving.

    The scale of VC investment in education technology in general is interesting, and I’m partly persuaded by the “customer pain” argument in relation to student debt. But university education is a complicated consumer product, as its efficacy depends so heavily on the value assigned to it by a third party: employers. What traditional higher education and VC-funded MOOCs are both betting relate to their separate calculations on this matter.

    As for whether or not individual educators or their institutions are achieving change, there’s a fourth figure — in Australia at least — that really makes this process like wading through wet cement: government regulation. It genuinely is hard to try new things when internal processes are designed around upward reporting obligations driven by a very conservative set of standards, and a quality framework designed to ensure that all students have the same experience. So, the crowning irony: these standards are driven entirely by rhetoric about value to the student/customer.

    It’s a loop, and I don’t think MOOCs are a particularly progressive way forward, any more than extending private car ownership is a boon to the environment.


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