Here Comes the Massive Open Online Commencement Speech

The brave new world of Massive Open Online Courses – perhaps the hottest technological trend ever in the field of higher education – is disrupting more than just the conventional classroom. Every aspect of the elite university experience could soon be massively open and massively online. Already, commencement speeches – once low-key, private (and usually boring) affairs intended only for a university’s students and alumni gathered in one geographic location – have become as popular as TED Talks. As higher education delivery platforms continue to transform, universities have the opportunity to use these massive open online commencement speeches as online ideas platforms capable of reaching tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people around the world.


This year’s bumper crop of commencement speeches – featuring the TED-friendly likes of Nate Silver and Melinda Gates - seemed to typify more than ever before how the Internet can amplify the scale and reach of a single commencement speech (or Commencement Talk, if you will). Take Neil deGrasse Tyson, for example, who spoke at Rice University in mid-May. In his talk, Tyson spoke upliftingly about the mission of mankind to colonize the stars, channeling the inspirational message of President John F. Kennedy. Not surprisingly, Tyson's Rice University speech -- which coincidentally clocked in at roughly 18 minutes (the exact duration of a TED Talk) -- has already racked up nearly 30,000 views on YouTube.

Or, consider the Wesleyan commencement speech of Joss Whedon, somebody who’s perhaps not strongly associated with academia, but who would make a great TED speaker. Whedon, a screenwriter and TV producer who's made a name for himself with TV shows like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and movies like Marvel's "The Avengers", gave what might be called a prototypical TED Talk about "being all your selves" (i.e. embracing all your complex identities). The YouTube version of Whedon's Commencement Talk has already racked up over 220,000 views.

Even inspirational commencement speakers who didn’t even appear on campus fared well this season. David Foster Wallace (“DFW”) has become something of an icon for the millennial generation, so it’s perhaps no surprise that his Kenyon College commencement speech from 2005 ("This is Water") continues to garner so much attention posthumously. This year, a group of filmmakers gave DFW's commencement speech the full-on cinematic treatment this year - racking up 2.7 million views on YouTube in just 4 days from getting a takedown notice from the David Foster Wallace Literary Trust.  

Just with these numbers, you get an immediate sense of how the MOOC trend can transform higher education. Ten years ago, who would ever have thought that a commencement speech could "go viral" and inspire millions?

Yet, think of the way that TED Talks transformed the boring, jargon-filled academic speech into a piece of pure entertainment theater. Think of the way that MOOCs are creating academic superstars out of junior faculty members around the nation. For universities to stay ahead of the MOOC trend, they will now have to consider how other aspects of the “elite” on-campus experience previously reserved for a few hundred students at a time can be transformed for online audiences that number in the hundreds of thousands. Remember -- people watching commencement speeches (while perhaps deciding where to apply next year) are located in places like India, China, Russia or Brazil -- not just in America.

What the Internet has done is explode the notion that specific geography matters in order to deliver an elite education – cities like Palo Alto, New Haven, Cambridge or Princeton are now just nodes in a massively connected digital network connecting students, academics and educators around the globe.

So which do you prefer, commencement speeches or TED Talks? Sure, parents may like it when power players like Joseph Biden or Ben Bernanke show up to give a brief talk to their newly graduated sons and daughters (proof that their generous spending over the past four years finally paid off), but what would the kids prefer? They would probably prefer something that they’d share with their friends on Facebook, transform into a GIF and give a thumbs-up on YouTube -- something like JK Rowling's 2008 commencement speech at Harvard, which became a TED Talk ("The Fringe Benefits of Failure") viewed more than 1 million times. The rise of the Massive Open Online Classroom means that the Massive Open Online Commencement Speech is here to stay.

image: Many Hands Holding Graduation HatsShutterstock

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