What Bill Gates’ Saturday Essay made me wonder about university MOOCs

Bill GatesBill Gates is no longer involved with the day-to-day business of Microsoft (even though my children still think that’s who I work for), and instead spends almost his entire time on the work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which focuses on global development and health. And last week he wrote an essay for the Wall Street Journal, titled "Bill Gates: My Plan to Fix The World’s Biggest Problems". The underlying message – that measurement of progress is the critical factor – is clearly spelt out in a number of areas:


In the past year, I have been struck by how important measurement is to improving the human condition. You can achieve incredible progress if you set a clear goal and find a measure that will drive progress toward that goal…

This may seem basic, but it is amazing how often it is not done and how hard it is to get right.


You should read the whole essay, as he talks about examples of how measurement is making a difference in education and health around the world (and doesn’t avoid sensitive issues, especially in his education examples).

But the basic message can be boiled down to two things:

  • Set a clear goal
  • Find a measure that will drive progress towards that goal

What are the clear goals of MOOCs?

And it left me wondering what the basic message means in the context of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course), a big emerging initiative across higher education at the moment, nationally in Australia, and internationally.

Without doubt MOOCs are measurable – something that can be seen in most of the reporting on MOOCs, where the stories revolve the numbers of student signing up, participating, and actually completing the courses. But the ‘clear goal’ bit is more of a challenge. Some universities are using it as a marketing mechanism, for example to raise the profile of their university generally, and either increase the desire of people to attend their university, or worse case not reduce their intake (see MIT Tech Review); others see it as a new business model – for example, to expand their business by increasing revenue from assessment and certification of their non-core audience (see this TechCrunch article). But at the same time, the risk of a MOOC is that it devalues the core teaching and learning ‘product’ that students are buying from a university.

So if the ideal mechanism is ‘set a clear goal’ and ‘measure progress towards that goal’, what are the goals for the university of the current rush to create, promote and enrol students into a MOOC? There doesn’t seem to be much written about that in the current MOOC conversation.