The Future is Attending University Inside a Café: Why Starbucks Can Win the MOOC Game

Where content was arguably once king, in 2014 content is ubiquitous.

Sitting in a Beijing Starbucks at 6am on a winter morning in 2007, borderline delirious from lack of sleep, I had a vision of the future of learning that I’m more convinced than ever can win.

When it comes to ubiquity, pretty much nobody does it as well as Starbucks. Having traveled three million miles, I can assure you that with slight to moderate regional additions in food and drink, Starbucks in Shanghai, St. Louis, and St. Petersburg are pretty much the same. Along with that sameness, which many hate, (usually including me, unless I’m in Jakarta and homesick) is a consistency of space. As of March, 2013, you can find this ubiquitous sameness in a remarkable 62 countries and 20,891 locations. 

Given that this isn’t going to slow down any time soon, what can this mean for education? Let me tell you more about the vision I had in my neighborhood Beijing Starbucks seven years ago.

What Starbucks does best isn’t their bone average coffee or truly abysmal food, it’s community. Whether or not you’re a fan of the company or what they sell, you can’t deny that massive numbers of people congregate at many Starbucks locations in many cities every day. I would go so far as to argue that 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at myriad Starbucks locations throughout the world, there are vibrant, active communities of consumers.

Where I feel the MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) have truly missed the mark after the amazing launch of the notion by Canadians George Siemens and Stephen Downes, who designed and taught the first MOOC in 2008, is in the second “O.” Online by itself is teaching and learning into a vacuum. Katy Jordan, a doctoral student at the University of Texas, has undertaken a truly exhaustive study of MOOCs and found that completion rates of MOOC courses is below 7%.

So MOOCs in their current incarnation don’t do what they were designed to do if you believe, as a matter of principle and practice, that fewer than 93% of students should drop out. And while that’s only one thing wrong with MOOCs from where I sit, it’s a pretty huge one.

Thus spake Starbucks. 

They get engagement. When you sell very close to $15 billion worth of stuff in 2013, you can’t help but understand how to engage your consumers. 

What I like to think of as “The Starbucks Advantage” as a purveyor of Massive Open Online Courses is their physical space. It’s truly not about content (education content of the level of rigor required for a MOOC is as readily available as is hot coffee); it’s about community.

Imagine sitting at home or the office on the Starbucks MOOC site. You take your course modules, then after dinner head over to one of 15 Starbucks in your city that have a space set aside for not only your postprandial skinny hazelnut macchiato but also a course seminar with teaching assistants. Then imagine that Starbucks used a cool new technology such as Crowdmark to meaningfully mark assignments, which would make it painfully easy for degree-granting colleges and universities from around the world to get in on the game (full disclosure: I’m an investor—in Crowdmark, not Starbucks).

If you think that my 2007 vision of what Starbucks can become is a little too Utopian, remember that it wasn’t so long ago when people laughed at the prospect of Starbucks selling music.

One of the great things about working in 2014 at the intersection of innovation and education, as I have the great good fortune to do, is that little is impossible. I stopped being surprised about things years ago, probably when I took my first sip of the coffee of the future.