The MOOC Scoop: Innovation and the Naive

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/ ]

Memorial Hall de Harvard

 

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.

Beyond the Buzz, Where Are MOOCs Really Going? | Wired Opinion | Wired.com.

The University of the United States: Please can we get on with it?

education online

education online (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

Another smart piece from the ubersmart @cathyndavidson on the future of higher ed has me mulling yet again . . .. She has a way of generating mull.

It’s perhaps been no surprise that “distance education” (in its many modalities) has lingered outside the mainstream for a score of years longer than one might have expected. There are, of course, reasons. Substantively, a deep unease that the secret sauce of higher ed is related to campuses and classrooms and realtime connectedness between professors and students. OK, large state universities do not exactly fit that norm, but we shall leave it for now. The presence of tacky, usually for-profit, operators with (on a good day) marginal accreditation. The commitment of our better educators to the avoidance of, essentially, school by scantron.

But the real barriers have been formal. Higher education is the most conservatively-organized enterprise on the planet. Back in the day when I worked in one of its outposts (early 90s), I watched a multi-year reform process designed by one of the nation’s leading educators encompass at least two PhDs and four vast volumes of materials, and achieve, exactly, zero. My observation: the system was designed to resist nuclear attack, and we were watching the faculty clamber out of their bunkers, blinking but unbowed.

My view is that in the next 10-12 years higher education will undergo creative destruction on the scale that publishing has been experiencing of late and travel agencies (remember them?) a quinquennium earlier. The online/free experiments that somewhat self-consciously a cluster of major schools has initiated (and that seems to have been a cause of the wonderful free public entertainment afforded of late by the lunatic managers of UVa) are extraordinarily late in the day. But they are with us.

Back to point: Here is what we need. OK, I have said this before, but since you didn’t listen, world, let me say it again. And note the strategic context. It could hardly be bigger.

The major opportunity for the United States to influence global culture and secure lasting relationships in the flux of C21 lies precisely here: In the initiation of a United States open university offering full degree programs worldwide to all comers. We have perhaps an 8-10 years branding advantage against certain rival institutions, chiefly in China, who will otherwise take on this task with abandon. While much could have been achieved a decade ago, key factors from 2012 out are the explosive adoption of mobile, mobile’s shift even in developing nations to feature phones and smartphones, and very large improvements (even if not quite to the levels Ray Kurzweil keeps expecting) in the AIs that enable language interpretation and the increasingly post-clunky experience of distance teaching.

A dozen major issues are raised, but they can all be answered. What we need is for the school to open its doors. Within a decade effectively every one of planet earth’s denizens will have access to smartphone mobile connectedness. And that’s all we need.

Then let the chips fall. Yes, US-based students may join in. Yes, this will destroy large swathes of the higher-end global education infrastructure as we know it. And, oh yes, dumping tenure (one of my favored targets) will certainly help us get there from here (all we need, seems to me, is an appropriations rider in Congress).

But blending the vast educational nous of the UK’s visionary Open University with our latest tech delivery methods, the Department of Education‘s savvy, the global cultural outreach of USAID – together with our vital partnerships in UNESCO and the World Bank  . . . the question is not whether but how, and when.

Can We Replace Professors With Computer Screens? | Co.Exist: World changing ideas and innovation.