When I started an economic discussion of MOOCs and what they’re worth, I anticipated someone would bring up the two-ton-ape economic controversy surrounding free online college-level courses: their impact on the traditional academy.
I didn’t anticipate that this would coincide with yesterday’s story regarding the high-profile refusal of the Philosophy Department at San Jose University to use courseware from edX to teach subjects like ethics (using Michael Sandel HarvardX Justice course).
If I were still studying (or teaching) rhetoric, I would commend the authors for skillfully framing their message (clearly aimed at the powers-that-be in their own university system) as a letter to a colleague (Sandel), written more in sorrow than in anger – a rhetorical strategy that increases profile while reducing risk.
Looking at their missive from a pedagogical standpoint, they bring up all of the shortcomings of MOOCs that I and others have been discussing for quite some time (lack of interaction between professors and students, limited assessment methods, etc.), while also pointing out that material (such as Sandel’s Justice video lectures) are not necessary in a setting where local professors already create the range of content needed to support blended learning.
But their biggest complaint (an economic one clearly targeted at the decision-makers who chose to license MOOC content at San Jose State) is that the availability of high-profile, third-party content from name-brand universities will make it easier for a university’s leaders to start downgrading the role of the existing faculty, turning them into glorified adjuncts supporting content provided by distant “star” professors.
Given that I’ve been approaching the subject of MOOCs (including my recent slight foray into MOOC economics) from the standpoint of what they might mean to an independent learner, I’m going to defer a longer conversation about how MOOCs might be integrated into traditional college classrooms and the impact this might have on institutions until after I’ve researched and thought about the topic more deeply.
But I can tell you now that this eventual analysis will be informed by an important book that should be read by anyone trying to speed up, slow down or simply understand the transformations currently underway in education: Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.
Written by Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen (with coauthors Michael B. Horn and Curtis W. Johnson), the book builds on Christensen’s earlier work on the impact of disruptive technologies on institutions.
In this earlier work, the author sketches out a dynamic that tends to impact any industry undergoing disruption. The computer industry, for example, was once dominated by “Big Iron” manufacturers like IBM and Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), companies that built and sold machines costing hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars to institutions that could afford to buy them (such as corporations and government agencies).
During the period when inexpensive personal computers were first coming onto the scene, no one buying computers from IBM or DEC was asking those companies to make machines that were smaller and cheaper. In fact, they were asking them to make their computers bigger and faster and were willing to pay extra for ever-more powerful systems.
So the initial customers for these clunky, underpowered PCs were not traditional computer buyers (who considered the new devices little more than toys) but a new group of home and small business users for whom any computer was a step up.
And so a new market was created that was big enough of fuel the rapid innovation-based evolution of the micro-computer, to the point where it eventually caught up with and ultimately demolished companies like DEC who kept building what customers claimed to want (bigger, faster and more expensive machines) until those customers realized that wasn’t actually what they wanted or needed any longer.
If you apply this same formula to education, the customers for disruptive technologies such as MOOCs will not likely be institutions that already have resources in place to teach courses in the same subjects offered by organizations like Coursera, Udacity or edX. Such institutions might flirt with these resources or (as in the case of the San Jose State philosophy department) reject them. But the real market for such courses will be places where no other alternatives are available.
Such places might include a high school where students want to take high-level classes not taught in their district, or a college that doesn’t have a philosophy department that still wants to offer a class in ethics. Or it might include my house or the coffee shop down the street (or in Brazil) where life-long learners take classes without having to be attached to any institution at all.
And these educational niches might just be big enough to sustain the kind of experimentation, investment, innovation and patience needed to let these new educational tools develop, just as personal computers (once considered joke technology) eventually grew up to define an industry (not to mention the world we now inhabit).