MOOCs, Innovation, and the Naïve
A thoughtful piece by Clayton Christenson and Michael Horn was challenged this morning on Twitter by John Hagel @jhagel: “Sorry, Clay, we’re thinking much too narrowly abt MOOCs as disruptive force – is it really just-in-time mini-courses?” That may not be a fair way to characterize their position (see the link below). But it surely notes the wide-scale naivety of most of the movers in the MOOC game. This material is fissile. Read to blow in a global chain-reaction.
[My earlier discussion:https://futureofbiz.org/2012/12/20/yes-we-really-do-need-mooc-state-level-and-global/ ]
It has long been clear that online education would become transformative. It has just taken longer than anyone might reasonably have expected. There are many reasons, ranging from broadband speeds to the clannishness of the academy and its accreditation systems to the rather simple fact that thinking analogically (out of the box, for those who prefer to speak in cliches) is hard. Smart people find it especially challenging. Their smartness equips them quite brilliantly to avoid the need for it. You will see this principle in action (it needs a name) everywhere from the Fortune 500 C Suites where no-one needs to take social media seriously (or, for that matter, women execs) to Washington, DC, where most of the time some of the shrewdest of men (and some women) are looking in their rear-view mirror.
Back to MOOCs. There has been “distance education” for over 100 years (begun back in the heyday of the USPS), and even now mainstream higher ed sees that as the template for what the internet can deliver. Along the way there have been wondrous and complex efforts to duplicate the environment of the classroom online – complete with cameras in a real room and all the accoutrements of a campus at a distance.
Finally, the efforts of one or two major schools and a handful of renegade faculty have led to the offering of “massive” courses (yes, gaming is the model here along with the silly lingo) and the daring principle of “open” access (pioneered in the UK by the Open University, but anathema to the due-process calculus of American schools and their peer accreditors). A famous early experiment, when using rather primitive email-based methods an academic offered a course (was it in Byzantine history?) and recruited hundreds of applicants, led nowhere. Suddenly, catchup.
And as elite schools play around by offering a course here and there, and entrepreneurs join them – in search, as is proper in even the digital world, of a business model – we now confront a move by a whole tranche of midlevel colleges to use the MOOC technology to offer sampler courses in their traditional programs. I could not avoid the broadest of smiles as I read the report. They seem genuinely to believe that an add-on course or two will help with recruitment. They seem to have absolutely no idea that they are playing not so much with fire as with a nuclear chain reaction. However exactly this comes about (I offer some suggestions below), the MOOC is set to devastate western higher education as we know it. Even in the UK a similar grassroots effort is now underway, with the British Library as a partner.
Here are some trajectories that, jointly or severally, are set to lay waste what for generations has been “higher education” in the United States and elsewhere.
· I have argued elsewhere that the United States itself (perhaps through USAID) or one or more of our major foundations should very rapidly develop a global MOOC-based university offering full undergraduate and graduate degrees. My view is that such an initiative would offer the west a major strategic advantage vis-à-vis other contenders for global influence, and could initially take advantage of widespread knowledge of English (and, then, French, Spanish, Portuguese) in the developing world (Africa in particular). If this is done, there will immediately be blowback since the nature of the MOOC is that there is essentially no marginal cost for one more student, and the offering is accessible internet-wide. That is to say, these offerings would sweep the United States also.
· A second salient into the future may emerge from initiatives taken by individual states or chambers of commerce or other entities with credibility and resources intent on improving the quality and flow of college-educated students and aware of the increasingly prohibitive cost, to states and individuals, of the standard approach. Let’s say state A takes an initiative and plows money into it while closing state university campuses to pay the bill. Again, the project will not be containable within the state. The key would be a first mover with the credibility to challenge the supremacy of the peer-accreditation system. I am actually a fan of that system (versus the European statist option), but it has institutionalized establishment control. We may expect other players to join the regional accreditors in standard-setting. Since the cost to the user will be zero, the control that accreditors have exercised through federal recognition of their decisions for student aid purposes will become moot.
The point is clear. Once a degree-granting MOOC is up and running, its impact will be viral, across the length and breadth of the internet. It will very rapidly destroy the economic model that sustains our current higher education system. Those colleges presently toying with offering sample courses in this subject and that had better look to their laurels. Many of them will not be around in 10 years’ time, and some I suspect in five. Some turkeys now veritably preparing for Christmas, while others believe it will never come.
I am not saying that this is all going to be to the good. But some facts seem clear and it helps us not at all to pretend otherwise:
- MOOC economics – no marginal student cost – will lead to huge global institutions as well as niche efforts with base funding from foundations, governments, religious institutions, business leaders, in a vast free-for-all.
- New, global accreditation mechanisms, probably competing with one another, will emerge.
- There will be carnage among the current midstream state and private institutions without the branding and/or endowment to buck the supply and demand curves.
- Huge new opportunities will be opened worldwide to hundreds of millions who currently are excluded; a dramatic driver of global innovation and development.
- The plain initial focus on tech subjects and others readily susceptible of AI teaching and grading will give place to a wider curriculum as AIs rapidly improve their capacities.
- The human/social dimension of these enterprises will mesh with exponential developments in social media.
- If MOOCs are the answer, what is the question? (hastac.org)
- Mentored MOOCs for Global Learning? (rebeccafrostdavis.wordpress.com)
- UW-Madison to offer free public online courses starting in fall (jsonline.com)
- MOOCs : A pivotal development in higher education – or a complete miss? (voxxi.com)
- British MOOC Provider Expands; Prime Minister Promotes It in India (insidehighered.com)
- Coursera and edX add universities and hope to expand global reach (insidehighered.com)