Clay Shirky has a long and deeply thought-out post on Massive Open Online Classes (MOOCs) and the future of higher education over at his blog. As this is one of my issue-obsessions right now, it was a personal must-read and I thought I would drop a pointer to it here. His chief point is that the MOOCs, within the context of higher education, serve as the best analogue to the music industry’s MP3s, the newspapers’ Craigslist / Google, or the movie industry’s BitTorrent – the internet’s disruptive agent of choice for this particular industry.
The people in the music industry weren’t stupid, of course. They had access to the same internet the rest of us did. They just couldn’t imagine—and I mean this in the most ordinarily descriptive way possible—could not imagine that the old way of doing things might fail.
I agree with this fundamental point and, more than that, with most of his associated arguments and corollaries. In particular, I appreciated that he does not fall prey to the “same approach to teaching today as 1000 years ago in medieval Europe” trope, and takes the time to address the components of traditional higher education that are not likely to be obsoleted by the internet. All the same, he argues that – just as with MP3s, Craigslist, Wikipedia, and BitTorrent – the new internet substitute for higher education does not have to offer better quality to be highly disruptive. Indeed!
In Shirky’s vision, the chief near-term feature of the higher education landscape will be the breathtakingly rapid expansion and improvement of MOOC offerings from Udacity, Stanford, Harvard/MIT, and others, which will suck the oxygen out of the business model at the “low end” of the market first and proceed up-market from there. As an interesting aside (which I also appreciated), he points out that the true bottom-feeders of higher education are not the lowest-priced institutions but quite the reverse: they are the for-profit conglomerates, which offer much higher cost (debt) per value delivered than any public institution. Moreover, he points out, we are not talking about a product that threatens the business model of the Ivy League or, really, the top 100 schools in a fundamental way. (However, he does see deep trouble ahead for median institutions; as he puts it, “Bridgerland Applied Technology College? Maybe not fine. University of Arkansas at Little Rock? Maybe not fine.”)
At Penn State we are active participants in our own disintermediation these days, with a “World Campus” that happily offers online course credits for money – and good money at that. It has been hard to witness the expansion in these offerings, and the increasing contribution they make to the annual budgets of many Departments (including mine), without mixed feelings. On the one hand, this is a tremendous business success for the institution. On the other hand, we seem to be in the process of online-educating ourselves out of a job. And yet on the third hand – the point of Shirky’s piece, really – what choice do we have? We can either suffer disruption by others or disrupt ourselves.
In the academy, we lecture other people every day about learning from history. Now its our turn, and the risk is that we’ll be the last to know that the world has changed, because we can’t imagine—really cannot imagine—that story we tell ourselves about ourselves could start to fail. Even when it’s true. Especially when it’s true.
Finally, in a last twist of the rhetorical knife, I imagine I’ll be thinking a lot about these issues come January, when I begin teaching our Department’s World Campus version of “Life in the Universe” for the first time. We’ll see how it goes.