Blurring and Pearson

By Gregor Kiczales posted on September 22nd, 2014

A recent article in Slate describes a situation in which students in two different US schools – a college and a university – are taking two different online psychology courses, from two different instructors. Sounds like a relatively ordinary situation. Except that it turns out there is actually just one course, developed by Pearson, and offered by many other schools as well. It is the MyPsychLab course and they have similar courses in other disciplines as well.

Who is the university and who is the publisher?  Is it the instructor’s course, the university’s, or Pearson’s? Who should really be the subject of student’s teaching evaluations? Is Pearson stepping into “our turf” and if so, how did they get to this point?

I would argue that faculty and students at many schools have encouraged and supported Pearson each step of their path to this point. By asking publishers for power point slides, online problems, sample exams, videos and so on we have asked them to take their offerings farther and farther away from traditional books. They are now simply taking further steps towards producing an “actual course”.

The increasing expense of producing online courses is another force acting in the same direction. If an online course, or just the online component of a blended course, costs 100k to develop, then can it still make sense for one school to develop that? It seems unlikely. Pearson is betting that they can use their size and resources – £5 billion in revenue – to invest significantly more in a course like this than any one school will choose to. Schools can then choose to offer MyPsychLab and give their credit for it.

But what then is a course? What part of  a course does the faculty member teaching it represent? What is a university? What part of that space can Pearson own? What part do they want to own? (The most profitable of course, but what is that.) This kind of blurring is common when a sector disaggregates. As the old bundles of offerings split apart, new and existing players are suddenly free to provide offerings that were previously out of scope. The most nimble players move to stake out newly profitable clusters of offerings, while less nimble players are left to work out what role is (or isn’t) left for them to play. Where the lines between individual schools, consortia and companies like Pearson will end up is anyone’s guess, except it’s unlikely to be where it was five years ago. Courses like MyPsychLab are here to stay, and as they get more popular they will attract more and more development resources.

Only a die hard skeptic would claim that an online courses with a million of dollars of investment won’t provide good aids in learning for students, or won’t be attractive to students. These courses could end up being really good. Only a die hard optimist would deny that as that happens Pearson and others won’t try to move more and more into the space traditionally occupied by universities. They are a business after all.

The UBC Flexible Learning Strategy outlines several ways to cope with these challenges. One is to selectively partner with other schools – our joining edX represents one such move. Another is the blended transformation. We have to be so good at teaching in the classroom (with online resources) that students clearly get more out of coming here than they would get from online courses alone. Put another way, as the online courses get better, the on campus courses have to get even better.


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Gregor Kiczales is a Professor of Computer Science and Provost’s Fellow for Flexible Learning Strategy.

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