MOOCs, Milkshakes and Clay Shirky’s book ‘Cognitive Surplus’

The ‘Milkshake Mistake’ described in Clay Shirky’s Book

I’m a big fan of professor and writer Clay Shirky. The insights he shares about digital culture via his writings are sharp and thoughtful. I read Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizers last year and found it relevant and instructive despite its publication date of 2008. On its heels is Cognitive Surplus: How Technology Makes Consumers Collaboraters (2010), which is accurate not only in the predictions made of how society behaves today with our abundance of time, connectivity and tech tools, but of most value was how it changed my views about MOOCs’ role in education.

I realize that the education community [myself included] may have been thinking about the purpose of xMOOCs all wrong. We’ve been caught up in the details of the MOOC itself— the pass rates, the content, the delivery, the grading, etc., and in turn the applicability of MOOCs to higher education. Yet its the profile of the participants and their behaviours that we should have focused on, not the MOOC characteristics. It was Shirky’s story in Cognitive Surplus about ‘Milkshake Mistakes’ that prompted this revelation. I’ll elaborate further, but first a brief overview of the book.

Overview of Cognitive Surplus
Shirky examines how North American society spends much of their leisure time, which during the 1960’s was on television; millions of hours on passive media consumption. Yet with the expansion of the internet and the reduced barriers to access, there has been a dramatic shift to more active media consumption. Shirky describes in Cognitive Surplus how the collaborative energy (time) that individuals collectively contribute to causes; community and global, are changing how societies function. Wikipedia,, and are examples Shirky shares that illustrate his point. Groups that come together to participate in online spaces created to provide knowledge, support, and/or community action via the internet. Shirky describes the internet as the ‘connective tissue’ that binds people together.

From Milkshakes to MOOCs
The instructive story about milkshakes comes early on in the book—chapter one. The vignette is a marketing story from an article published in MIT Sloan Management Review, Finding the Right Job for your Product (2007).  Shirky’s example is not about comparing education to a product, but illustrates how thinking differently about a user’s experience should be the focus, not the product or tool.

CognitiveSurplusCoverThe journals’ article uses the milkshake story to make a point about product development, how McDonald’s was seeking to improve sales and market share of its milkshakes. The story describes how several marketing experts in an effort to solve a product problem were focusing on the milkshakes, and to a lesser degree its customers. They were examining how to improve the milkshake’s appeal; the flavor, sweetness, consistency, even its packaging.  However, one marketer examined the situation differently. He analyzed how customers used the shake, when and why. The results were interesting, he determined that the milkshake customers where commuters, buying the shake for breakfast on their way to work. The shake fit their breakfast bill; easy to consume in the car, not too hot, a one-handed meal, it was somewhat tasty. This was McDonald’s ‘aha’ moment—finding a solution about the product that wasn’t about the product, but about what the customers were using the product for. The example illustrates how assumptions about traditional practices [what is eaten for breakfast], can get in the way of thinking about new solutions.

Shirky uses the McDonald’s example to help the reader think about media differently, “we talk about the effects of the web or text messages, it’s easy to make the milkshake mistake and  focus on the tools themselves” (p 12).  We need to focus on user behaviours, and the solution we are looking for and not the tool, or product itself [i.e. technological tools] to solve problems. Below is an excerpt from the article that highlights the point, and I’ve added words to demonstrate the applicability to education.

“The odds of getting it right will be much higher when we frame the market’s [education’s] structure to mirror the ways that customers [students] experience life [learning].”

Application to MOOCS
There are parallels to how many educators perceived and analyzed MOOCs initially. Many thought MOOCs would challenge and potentially replace traditional higher education. The focus was on the MOOCs details: the significant student drop out rates, the content delivery methods (the varying quality of recorded lectures), the course rigor (or lack thereof) the peer-review grading platforms etc. All these factors were made in comparison to traditional methods of higher education. The yard stick for the MOOC was the traditional, face-to-face college course. This was the problem. Granted, this made sense given the number of universities that rushed to apply the MOOC model to undergraduate education for purposes that were somewhat unclear, but appeared valid.

Yet have we not been preoccupied with the details of the product, the MOOC as per the Milkshake example?  Perhaps we should be looking at MOOCs from a different angle—who is taking the courses and why, the behaviours of the students, and then analyzing the results before making predictions that MOOCs will disrupt traditional higher education. When drilling down and examining MOOCs students and their behaviours we find this:

  • Many students sign up, but few become active, and even fewer complete the course.
  • Many of the active students, if not the majority of MOOC students have a college degree, and in some cases more than one.
  • Many are working professionals, are over the age of thirty.
  • Many students are outside of North America, countries including, UK, Australia, India and countries within the Russian Federation
  • Course completion rates are low – usually around 10%
  • MOOC students cite reasons for taking the course as personal, interest, to brush up on their skills or to learn something new.
  • A small minority of students participate on class discussion boards within classes (ranging from 4 to 10% of active students). Those that do participate, do so actively, are articulate and appear motivated. *

Granted much of this data was not available until many courses were underway – and we needed the early adopters to even be able to have data to analyze. However several programs continued to develop even after this data on MOOCs became available. San Jose State University for example, implemented a pilot program with Udacity offering three courses for undergraduate students, including a remedial math course. Now looking at the behaviour patterns of MOOC participants, does it seem logical that a remedial math course would be successful? No surprise the results from this program were dismal. Another Colorado State University-Global Campus offered students the chance to take a use a MOOC for credit, as long as they passed the proctoed exam (at a cost of $89). Apparently there were no takers.

Fortunately a few schools and even MOOC providers have been paying attention to MOOC participant behaviours. Coursera implemented a professional development program for teachers, offering a series of courses for education professionals. Likewise some companies, Microsoft for example, have recognized the opportunity and partnered with Udacity to create specific courses for working professionals in skill areas that are in need at the company. Georgia Tech may be on the right path by offering an Online Master’s Degree of Computer Science. The profile of the potential students is more in keeping with the MOOC profile of students.

Overall the MOOC phenomenon has been a catalyst for conversations about change within higher education institutions. Such discussion and analysis about education practices and methods is needed. However, to further the conversation and move discussions and actions in a positive direction, thoughtful analysis and consideration of the students; their behaviours and educational needs is required before applying the technological tool [or product] to fix the problem. Think of the Milkshake Mistake  —McDonald’s needed to create a new breakfast product, not a new version of the same milkshake.

* References: I’ve included the links here to papers, and blog posts that have been published by professors of institutions offering MOOCs that shared results of demographic data on participants collected from surveys completed by students on a voluntary basis.


Clay Shirky’s Ted Talk, How cognitive surplus will change world.

Groups, Clay Shirky and Online Education

This post explores the significance of student groups in online learning courses—the value and influence on institutions in light of the principles outlined in Shirky’s book “Here Comes Everybody”.


I just finished reading Clay Shirky’s book Here Comes Everybody, The Power of Organizing Without the Organization. You may wonder how valuable such a read would be given the book was written in 2008, yet reading the book with five years of Internet advancements under our belt, was strangely thought-provoking.  More so when considering the influence and power that groups can, and have wielded in the realm of online education, specifically in courses attracting massive numbers. Here I’ll share the potential that groups hold for learning within online courses, the three principles needed for successful groups, and how student groups are subtly influencing the paradigm shift in education.

Clay Shirky: Author
Shirky is a professor, journalist, author; he studies and writes about the effects of the Internet on society from a cultural and economic viewpoint. Several recent articles written by Shirky have caused some educators to bristle. In a blog post from 2012, Napster, Udacity, and the Academy Shirky compares higher education to the music industry, suggesting that the MOOC model, or some version of it, will replace higher education as we know it. Yet my focus here is not on Shirkys’ views on education, but his insights on group formation which is particularly relevant in light of learning online in massive courses.

Three Principles of Effective Groups
Shirky discusses how society is transforming, with citizens newfound ability to form en masse with the advent of the Internet and the low barriers to group formation. Now, in 2013 there are even fewer barriers to group formation than at the time of Clay’s writing. Now groups can come together with a choice of platforms. Though all groups develop for different reasons, there are elements common to effective groups which Shirky outlines in his book (p 261):

  1. The Promise is what brings the group together, around a topic of interest with a basic desire to participate. Implied in the promise is that each member will participate and contribute.
  2. The Tool is the platform that will help people approach the problem/topic together. Usually a leader [organizer] emerges within a group, or soon-to-be group and chooses the platform for group communication and collaboration i.e. Facebook, Google + Community, etc. He or she will invite members, and/or approve members joining, etc.
  3. The Bargain is the guidelines or rules for participating. Group norms are established, i.e. what is acceptable for communication and not, contributions, etc. The organizer essentially established the tone, which influences the culture of the group. I have seen examples of this in virtually every large online group I have participated in; the organizer dictates through actions and tone, which influences the effectiveness of group collaboration and even participation.

Groups that Collaborate
To collaborate effectively groups need the three components as mentioned. Shirky uses Wikipedia as an example of a large group that demonstrates the three principles. With its tightly knit core group and a commitment to a promise, to create a database of free content maintained by a massive community of contributors, Wikipedia has control built-in by its group norms [the bargain]. An example of the bargain in action, is when one or more of the community of contributors overrides an article written by someone that tries to sabotage its integrity. Enough members care about Wikipedia, which is why it continues to thrive (p 140).

Groups, Learning and MOOCs
Here is where things get interesting. In small, online closed courses, group collaboration is under the control of the instructor—groups actions are structured, guided, even graded as part of a student’s final grade. Group work in this instance can be effective, as instructors can teach students how to participate and collaborate effectively.

But in MOOCs learning through group interactions is not within the instructors control, yet there is even greater potential for rich learning to happen with its large, diverse body of learners. Though MOOC organizers can guide participants and be catalysts for group formation by suggesting participants share, connect and collaborate outside of the MOOC platform. [It’s also helpful that instructors suggest tools to facilitate group work. Though this may seem obvious, the instructor cannot assume that everyone is familiar social tools as a vehicle for learning]. Still, learning within a group in this context is dependent upon the self-direction and motivation of its members.

The Power and Influence of Groups on the Institution
Yet for institutions that offer massive courses, there is a risk. When working with massive numbers of students, not only is group collaboration and learning not guaranteed, there is potential for groups to influence actions and decisions of instructors and institutions in ways that may not be expected, or even desired. Groups have the potential to sabotage the learning of others and the course over which the instructor has little control. Already we have seen the influence of groups within Coursera courses. For example with the Microeconomics course where groups of students were challenging the professor which prompted the professor to quit the course before it was over. Or the Fantasy-SciFi that was sabotaged by a group of students participating in the discussion forums that were working under anonymous profiles causing numerous to be vocal about their negative experience. And the Foundations of Online Education with the thousands of student complaints about the  structure and technology glitches, forced it to shut down.

We are just beginning to see the power of groups in online learning courses with massive numbers of students. There is great potential yet to be realized, for the development of new knowledge and problem solving with the collaborative efforts of students worldwide. The power of groups cannot by ignored, the influence they have is great, and the institutions that embrace it and acknowledge that they are no longer in control, will be better prepared to create conditions to harness its potential.