How the web is disrupting yet another industry and what it means for your charity

In the social sector much of our interest in technology seems to me to focus on how we engage with supporters and users. As we seek to become more sustainable, investment in broadening our base or strengthening our relationships with supporters has taken precedence. Which is fine – tech has huge potential when it comes to core activities such as fundraising, campaigning and brokerage (time, money, assets). But I wonder if we are less comfortable with the disruptive nature of tech when it comes to other aspects of how we operate? Collecting data and reporting on our outcomes and how we provide services to users seem to provoke less discussion – there aren’t many websites about how we can use tech to redesign advice services, for example. That’s another blog for another day, but for the New Year I aim to write a few blogs on how tech might disrupt social action beyond giving and fundraising.

Disruption is short-hand for fundamentally changing business models – reduced costs, fewer jobs, alien ways of doing things we always did this way. Technological change has seen-off some extremely profitable businesses in industries such as film-based photography, recorded music and newspapers. Next up? Universities and education – and in particular the rise of the Massive Open Online Course, aka the MOOC.

MOOC ado about nothing?

Lucy Bernholz has highlighted MOOC as one of her top 10 nonprofit buzzwords of the year, whilst its apparently the higher education buzzword of the year – and over the last month by news feed seems to have contained dozens of articles on MOOCs. The New York Times described 2012 as The Year of the MOOC. At it’s simplest a MOOC is the sort of distance learning offered by the Open University – nothing new here. Students watch short, TED-style video lectures – at a time that suits them – and increasingly take interactive coursework.

But two characteristics are disruptive of the higher education business model: first, content is offered free to students, who don’t need to register with the university running the course. Or pay. And second, is their scalability: massive in this context means thousands of students in some cases. The current flag bearer is a course run by Stanford University with 160,000 students. The economies of scale are difficult to comprehend.

I want to learn more about data visualisation – so I’m taking part in my first MOOC this month, Introduction to Infographics and Data Visualization, run by the charitable Knight Foundation and Miami University. Its free. And I’m one of 5,000 students. The first version of the course taught 2,000 students in 109 countries. You can read more about the course here.

So what?

Depending upon who you read and believe, this will lead to nothing less than a rout of the higher education system, with ‘wholesale bankruptcies’. Other universities are sniffier (as this excellent article from The Economist deliberates), whilst some analysts argue that the real revolution comes not from these one-to-many approaches but instead from peer-to-peer approaches to learning (this article explains more, whilst Trade School is an example). Peer-to-peer is attracting much interest in the UK from funders such as Big Lottery Fund.

My favourite futures quote is from William Gibson: ‘the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed’. So, I’m interested in how the MOOCs model might impact on UK voluntary organisations. First, it’s noteable that some (many?) of the MOOC providers are nonprofits, such as the Khan Academy. Potential students will include UK residents and beneficiaries. It’s also worth noting that some of the big US foundations are putting in significant investment: the Gates Foundation is investing £1m in MIT to see if the MOOC model can help reach low-income students. Google is experimenting with its own tools to enable your organisation to build its own MOOC – in other words, this might not just be a play for big institutions.


These trends suggest that UK voluntary organisations that provide learning and development services might increasingly find themselves operating in a global market. There may be opportunities to use some of the new and emerging platforms to host and share content, indeed to find a much bigger audience. Funds may follow. They also highlight the ever-present issue of scale – and that providing services such as training and capacity building will no longer take place in rooms of 12 people, but over the web to thousands of participants, with blended learning the ‘at best’ option in terms of affordability. They highlight the need for organisations and staff to become comfortable with approaches that severely limit face-to face-interaction. They might suggest that our intellectual property – which we often closely guard and, in some cases, assume we can charge for – isn’t actually worth that much in an information rich world. And they highlight the need for new business models such as the freemium approach – the courses are free but recognition of achievement requires payment. As Lucy Bernholz notes, MOOCs require a discussion of “how, for whom, and who pays?” that is probably required more broadly in many organisations. This may not bode well for community university partnerships or charitably funded/subsidised university research, if The Economist is correct – both of which impact on different parts of our sector.

Now what?

I’d normally say that these are long-term, slow burn trends that are 5 years away. I’m not so sure – this seems to be a fast moving area. The actions I think we need to take now include looking at the potential for the sector to think about its own platforms (such as Knowhow Nonprofit) – can we shift more learning and development online and disrupt ourselves? I think as individuals we need some direct experience of these learning tools so that we can see how they might be applied to our own areas. We need to think about business models – and how a proportion of our face-to-face work might learn from the approaches adopted by the MOOCs (technology isn’t the solution to service delivery, but neither is it irrelevant). And we probably need a better understanding of what’s on offer to help our own beneficiaries and users.

And finally, I think we need to show funders and commissioners that we are thinking about the implications of disruptive tech such as MOOCs for our own service delivery models so that we can deliver the proverbial more with less. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this and more broadly on how tech can shape the service delivery offer of voluntary organisations.

Creative Commons Credit: MOOC the Movie by Giulia Forsythe

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Karl Wilding Karl Wilding served as NCVO's chief executive from September 2019 to February 2021.

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