January 29, 2013

MOOC and Grandes Ecoles: surfing the tsunami

In North-America, the development of Massive Online Open Courses (MOOC) is seen as a panacea, a way to fix some of the multiple flaws of the higher education system. From a buzz standpoint, this belief culminated when Stanford president claimed "there is a tsunami coming." The debate is less lively in France. Yet, the tsunami would have good chances to affect the French higher education as well.
An originality of the French higher education system is the prominent position of Grandes Ecoles. I am working in one of them, Telecom Bretagne, which is part of the Institut Mines-Telecom.


My first claim is that Grandes Ecoles are in danger. Reasons include:
  • Grandes Ecoles have to face new competitors. The emergence of start-ups like Udacity and Coursera has transformed Grandes Ecoles into an oligopoly of dinosaurs. Grandes Ecoles are used to the competition among themselves. In short Grandes Ecoles share the "market" of producing highly-qualified professional students, which is a market that universities do not address accurately. The reality is that all Grandes Ecoles have approximately the same offer: roughly same size, same structure, same diploma, same normalized courses. The aforementioned new competitors are start-ups with limitless ambition and nothing to lose. They have almost no administrative cost, they do not waste money in research, they can fail and revise their strategies on a month basis, they can address students worldwide. These start-ups actually shuffle the cards.
  • Grandes Ecoles' main asset is diploma in a certification world. Companies like Cisco and Microsoft have developed professional certification systems for years. Students become super-expert in a given specialty and receive a certificate, which demonstrate their employability. Though, these efforts have never disrupted the high-education system. By offering individual courses, MOOCs challenge again the notion of degree, which is commonly seen as a set of certifications (including many useless ones). The companies that are not convinced by the degree system will find in MOOC a great opportunity to revisit their Human Resources processes and to bypass Grandes Ecoles.
  • Grandes Ecoles are not attractive for the targeted students. Grandes Ecoles are very attractive to bright French students, but MOOC's target population is all over the world. Unfortunately, Grandes Ecoles are visible neither in international rankings, nor on the web. Grandes Ecoles have also not demonstrated strong relationships with companies that really matter to students (especially Apple and Google). Finally, the perspective to live in France during three years for courses that are not all considered as worthwhile is a key weakness.


My second claim is that Grandes Ecoles are in an excellent position. Here is a selection of advantages.
  • Grandes Ecoles are adaptive. These are small institutions, which are directed by managers having a long experience in industry. Grandes Ecoles are far more flexible and reactive than any other institutions. They can re-organize, they can develop strategical plans, they can reinvent themselves and they can embrace new ways to fulfill their missions without delay. MOOC is an opportunity for Grandes Ecoles to develop new businesses and to improve their offers.
  • Grandes Ecoles excel on what complement MOOCs. It is a common understanding that MOOC is about knowledge. A set of MOOCs is not enough to turn students into smart workers. Many other competencies should be developed, including team-working, communication skills, and social networking among classmates. Grandes Ecoles focus on these aspects through project-based pedagogy, personalized and tutored curriculum, campuses designed as learning centers, and good placement in attractive companies. In Europe, Grandes Ecoles excel in all these aspects and find here a way to differentiate in a positive way from other institutions. Grandes Ecoles can leverage MOOC rather than suffering from MOOC.
  • Grandes Ecoles have already a strong relationship with companies. Curricula are typically discussed with companies on a regular basis such that learning matches the requirements of targeted employers. Grandes Ecoles also have developed programs for "continuing education" in relationships with Human Resources. Thus Grandes Ecoles are used to the act of selling learning programs elaborated by their faculties in a business perspective. The diploma is a virtual good that has made sense since the XIXth century, often challenged but never surpassed because companies like employees who are more than just a super-expert in a couple of areas.
The next couple of years will be key for Grandes Ecoles. It will be very interesting to observe what the executives of Grandes Ecoles will do. Undoubtedly, executives will have to be brave if they want to transform their institutions. They have to make Grandes Ecoles able to compete at the planet scale, to leverage their assets, to catch up emerging trends, and to focus on what is really making Grandes Ecoles unique learning places. Strong decisions will have to be taken. For example: giving up with academic research to re-focus on education, cutting faculty jobs in departments that have no activities in core scientific domains, developing business related to buying/selling MOOCs...


  1. I fully agree that MOOC are probably a disruptive innovation that we had better be a leading part of rather than look at them being developed as if we were not concerned.

    I think your blog exagerately focuses on Grandes Ecoles cwhich are the most open to these innovations today in France, in sharp contrast to Universities at large. However I find the "risk" part of the debate sterile ansd useless. Unfortunaltely as it comes first in the architecture of your text it gives the impression there is nothing more than an violent charge against the institution who pays your salary every month (and more).

    I'm much more interested in the part on opportunities in your text and it is the one I really think we should build upon, notiwthstanding the fact that as in any organization "Change" is a word that is difficult to impulse.

    Paul Friedel
    Directeur de Télécom Bretagne

  2. Good article Gwendal, as usual :)
    Some american university actually consider MOOC as a promotional content for their degrees :
    Is it relevant for Grandes Ecoles ? I am actually concerned that this system may lead professors to evolve into salesmen ...


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