Will MOOCs Work in Refugee Camps or Is "Democratizing Education" Just Marketing Hype?



In February of 2014, Reda Sadki, Senior Learning Systems Officer in the Learning and Research Department of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, uploaded this video of his interview with Barbara Moser-Mercer - the "lady who did a MOOC in a refugee camp."


Although the case study that Prof. Moser-Mercer describes only involved two learners in Dadaab, Kenya - I think it deserves to be part of the larger ongoing conversation about MOOCs.


In this video, Prof. Moser-Mercer speaks eloquently and convincingly about the potential of online learning in places -  in this case Dadaab, the world's largest refugee camp - where traditional higher education is not available.


It's difficult to imagine a more challenging environment for learning than an insecure and arid refugee camp with 500,000 residents on the border of war-torn Somalia.  But that is where Prof. Moser-Mercer, a cognitive psychologist from the University of Geneva, has chosen to do her heroic work. 


The refugees that Prof. Moser-Mercer worked with come from cultures that support sharing and communal activity (eye-opening for me, because I'm only familiar with the competitive approach to education that my students have pursued to gain entry to exclusive higher education in China and the West ).  

And in Dadaab (as in other places outside Western capitals) a certificate verifying a marketable skill can be a life-changing goal. 


In other words, a higher education at a premiere university isn't the only or optimal goal... and a MOOC can offer education for an entire community that co-learns with the student who is actually pursuing a certificate.


I'm ashamed to admit it, but this short video has forced me to reconsider (mitigated) my skepticism about MOOCs.

If you're an educator - or concerned about how the web can democratize educational opportunities - maybe it will have a similar effect on you.


Does Big Data Matter to Indie Filmmakers?


In the age of the internet, a rapidly growing ocean of data is being generated, collected, and in some cases used by marketers to target customers.

And it isn’t just active online user behavior that is being mined by marketers.

Mobile phones are also creating vast amounts of information (e.g., even if your phone is “off,” your phone company keeps "a database of where phones are likely to be" and therefore has a pretty good idea which movie theater is closest to you right now).

And the so-called “internet of things” - enabling data collection from previously dumb appliances and objects – may soon change marketing forever (e.g., it won’t be long before you’ll own a refrigerator that texts you when your milk has reached its sell-by date - but information from your fridge - like treats purchased for a date or upcoming televised sporting event - may also soon trigger movie suggestions in your Netflix queue).

What does all this mean for filmmakers?

We already know that Netflix is mining big data to make user recommendations and to tweak their content acquisition decisions.

And we are beginning to see businesses built around extracting useful information from the vast amounts of online video (e.g., security camera and cellphone videos) "based on what’s going on rather than how they’re described."

But how will this new world of so-called “big data” impact individual small budget filmmakers?

Does big data even matter to indie filmmakers?

Isn’t big data just a tool for marketing to mass audiences? 

A crutch that will kill creativity?  

The enemy of indie film?

Maybe not. 

The idea that data can be analyzed in a creative way to help make marketing decisions is something that has been axiomatic in the big studios for decades. 

(Long before there was an internet, my first steady gig in Hollywood was shuttling videotapes and questionnaires to-and-from test screenings conducted by the studios back in the 1970s. We called it “audience studies” back then – and I know from first-hand experience that the data we were collecting was deeply flawed.)

Still, it’s a mistake to allow Old World ideas about the flaws of “audience studies” to cloud our vision of how big data might help us now.

Today the flood of information being generated by digital devices and their users is poised to change how indie films are financed and marketed in fundamental ways.

For indie filmmakers to benefit from the New World, we first need to understand how big data works and to abandon our biases and misconceptions about market research.

The first misconception to discard? 

Isn't big data just that stuff being collected by the government and multinationals?

While it takes big money to collect and organize vast amounts of data, the term “big data” also refers to how specific datasets are used – for example, how an indie filmmaker might analyze information about what movies cable subscribers are watching on VOD to yield predictive information based on key correlations (e.g., fans of gore who live within 5 miles of a particular theater).

In other words, the trick to using big data may not be in having the resources to collect it and store it, but in unlocking its value for our unique use cases.

Some forward-looking entrepreneur – with access to someone else’s large datasets and an appreciation of the challenges faced by filmmakers – might just be be the one to unlock big data’s promise for indie filmmakers. 

Besides identifying fans of gore near a certain theater, how else could big data pinpoint customers who would love a particular film?

How will the predictive models of big data be different from the Old World tools?

For indie filmmakers, the dream is that big data might minimize marketing costs by narrowly targeting just those potential customers with key psychographic identifiers (markers that indicate the highest likelihood of enjoying a particular film). 

With big data, it should be possible to alert a small core of fans – fans who will spread the word about a film via social media.

But how are cash-strapped indie filmmakers supposed to access a huge dataset to find just those potential fans who will become rabid backers? 

My best guess?

It will probably require a well-financed coder to come up with an easy-to-use tool that filmmakers can use to get at information that “would have been hard or impossible [to get] with smaller samples [and] fewer variables.” Liran Einav and Jonathan Levin, “The Data Revolution and Economic Analysis”, Prepared for the NBER Innovation Policy and the Economy Conference, April, 2013, p. 2.

And the challenges don’t stop with simply building a big-data-for–indie-filmmakers tool… 

The marketing of such a new tool will also require money and creativity too.

So if it will take time and money and expert coding, why bother?

Here’s why:

The rewards of targeting new films to core audiences could be huge.

And, while the coding and marketing challenges will be big, the datasets the developer will need for filmmakers to identify potential core fans probably already exist. 

That’s because a smart developer could use data that was not originally collected with the goal of helping filmmakers. 

(As Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier have observed, the initial reason for gathering data may have little relation to how that data is used: “With big data, the value of information no longer resides solely in its primary purpose.” Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier, “Big Data: a revolution that will transform how we live, work and think”, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013, p. 153)

So an algorithm that teases out a number of factors that correlate with potential rabid enthusiasm for any given film (e.g., theme, genre, actor, story, etc.) might be applied to a dataset that already exists.

Final Question:

Any developers out there interested in discussing likely datasets and algorithms for indie filmmakers?

Why Snowpiercer's Release in Theaters and Then Two Weeeks Later on VOD Matters for the Future of Film



Snowpiercer is a sci-fi/action spectacle from Korean director Bong Joon-Ho. Snowpiercer was released on just 8 screens in the US on June 27th, 2014 by Radius (a division of the Weinstein Company that specializes in both VOD and theatrical) with a two-week theatrical window. After gaining critical heat in theaters, the film was quickly made available on VOD platforms across the country.

In a Thompson on Hollywood exclusive that appeared online on July 21st, 2014, Harvey Weinstein discussed Snowpiercer's numbers - making the case that, for certain films, a hybrid release (e.g., a limited number of exclusive theatrical engagements, followed quickly by a VOD release) might be as profitable as the conventional (but much more costly) wider theatrical release followed months later by VOD.

"According to Weinstein, following two weeks in theaters, "Snowpiercer"'s first week on VOD earned $2 million, a company record."

Randy Finch's Film Blog:

Thoughts from a film producer about making and distributing films.