Simultaneous with a new semester starting in brick-and-mortar College-land we’re seeing new MOOC courses begin, coupled with a post-summer reboot of debates from earlier in the year regarding the plusses and minuses of massive online learning.
Given that MOOCs still seem to be stuck between the Peak of Inflated Expectations and the Trough of Disillusionment on Gartner’s legendary Hype Cycle, it’s no surprise that brickbats continue to be thrown at MOOCs for their various shortcomings.
But whenever the term “passing fad” gets connected with some form of technological innovation, I tend to start thinking about what the world might look like if the phenomenon being targeted actually turns out to be a fad which passes.
One could imagine a post-MOOC future, for example, in which the for-profit MOOC providers run out of cash or non-profits lose support of their moneyed sponsors, or where fewer and fewer universities decide that creating and maintaining a MOOC is worth the trouble. And if course enrollments shrink (because the market for MOOCs turns out to be finite, for example, or sign-ups numbers start looking like the number of MOOC finishers) it will become harder to base enthusiasm on classes currently claimed to draw tens or hundreds of thousands of students.
But remember that MOOCs represent a technical as well as social breakthrough. And if history is any guide, such breakthroughs are difficult to stuff back into a bottle once they have demonstrated that something remarkable can be achieved.
Even on the business side, a worst case scenario (the shutdown of existing MOOC providers due to investors losing interest in organizations that never develop a successful business model) would likely resemble what happened in the Telecom business in the late 90s/early 2000s.
During that period, investors poured billions into organizations that spread the hardware and software required for high-bandwidth digital communications throughout the world. But when overcapacity coupled with under-demand led to the shutdown of struggling Telecom providers, no one yanked recently laid fiber optic cable out of the ground to create Christmas lights or shot recently launched communication satellites from the heavens. Rather, these assets were acquired by surviving providers at bargain prices and today underlie the high-bandwidth wireless world most of us can no longer live without.
In the case of MOOCs, we now know that technology can enable excellent (as well as some not-so-excellent) courses that can be shared with masses of people on a global scale. And with the technology behind such projects proliferating (most recently with the announcement of a partnership between edX and Google to put course creation into the hands of the masses), it’s hard to imagine a future where the ability to teach classes of any size is forgotten or ignored.
On the societal side, MOOCs are feeding off the same energy that is powering various “Open” movements, from Open Software that underlies many of the web sites you read (including this one) to Open Access which is taking on commercial academic journals and is starting to encroach on the multi-billion dollar textbook industry.
With Open assumed to be superior to proprietary, especially in non-profit worlds like academia that embody (or at least like to claim) a mission of altruism, it would be difficult for institutions of higher education that recently shared their courses with the world for free to suddenly announce that they have changed their minds and will now start charging for what they were just giving away. And given what happened to the last academic consortium that tried the monetize publically available courses, it’s not clear that a commercial market for MOOCs actually exists.
So if the technology behind MOOCs continues to improve and expand and the moneyed institutions that are providing the content continue to see MOOCs as a relatively low-cost means to demonstrate their generosity and commitment to a wider community, we seem to be at a stage where worst cases would mean changes to the configuration of forces within the current MOOCiverse coupled with a realignment of expectations, but no retreat.
So for better or for worse, the open, free, and increasingly crowded educational world currently being built is likely to stay with us, even if the things it creates become one choice among many technology driven educational options in the future.