In the article linked below, The Economist makes the case for MOOCs (massive open online courses) as disruptive innovation. Nothing could be closer to the truth. While neither perfect nor the panacea to the complex and manifold problems of academia and education in the 21st century, MOOCs shook this edifice up, and they shook it up hard.
I love a good upset. I love it in football (yes Spain, England, Portugal, you will be better next time for having been eliminated so soon this time) and I love it in my own industry. Higher education is a complex system to fix, to disrupt or change – which is why it took a technological revolution to finally shake these shackles. Except, the problem isn’t as The Economist suggests tenure or the quality of the teachers (the number of tenured faculty pales in comparison to the number of university administrators and the relationship between teacher quality and student learning in K-12 is difficult to apply in higher ed, where assessments are not the norm and faculty are generally hired for their expertise, not their pedagogical training or skills).
The problem is access. Too many students, not enough universities, not enough professors, not enough class rooms, not enough funding.
As Über and AirBnB have shown, with the right technology you can upset traditional industries – not to destroy them, but to make them better. Über and AirBnB both have demonstrated the enormous problems in the taxicab and hotel industry, exposing corruption, price-fixing and terrible responsiveness to customer needs – and they did that by using technology. Without the algorithms and the apps that match an Über customer to her nearest Über driver via her iPhone there would be no Über. In that same way – without the power of an agile website, open source coding, and social media platforms that make communications seamless, immediate and informal across continents, there wouldn’t be MOOCs.
The cost of education is a significant barrier to access. Most of us are price sensitive, and when choosing to spend our money on a hotel room, we tend to compare across hotel categories and amenities. If Air Bnb can deliver equivalent or better accommodations for the same price – are MOOCs going to provide that same alternative? Maybe they can, but is that equivalent to an education?
The problem is that unlike a cab ride or a Mews cottage in London, education is not a directly fungible asset. When you rent that mews cottage, you know that what you are getting is an adorably diminutive, overpriced ground-floor apartment in a great part of London that is still cheaper than any hotel room.
When you pay for your education, what you get is an education. By paying less for this education, you are not getting more for your money. By paying more, you will not immediately get a job. The focus on cost when discussing access and the concern with added value in education is shifting the conversation to focus on a very narrow, and narrow-minded, definition of education: Education as the means to employability. Education as a means to a job. And so we slip towards defining education as job training.
I am not sure that is the direction we want to go into, and yet, I fear that if we don’t start talking about education as the common good it was designed to be, we will have missed a great opportunity to disruptively innovate it. Instead we will turn universities into massive job training centers. This is not an invective against MOOCs – this is an alert not to define MOOCs, and anything we can do to teach more and better in the digital context – as a means to a degree and a job. MOOCs can be a way to an education, and some MOOCs can effectively provide job training. Let’s just not equate one with the other.