Clay Shirky on Higher Education and the MOOCs

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.


4 thoughts on “Clay Shirky on Higher Education and the MOOCs

  1. Like you DFox I worry about the future of university education and the impact of online courses. I have never taught online and am feeling some kind of slow drift towards having to, in order to truly understand the new system.

    I think the big issue is CREDIT. If someone just wants to learn stuff, well, then the recorded lecture is a longstanding tool for that (think of the Justice series on PBS… or…. books!). If they want credit (and credit by a reputable institution, which means standards, serious attempts to avoid cheating, etc) then I don’t see how online teaching saves much work–the grading remains the same, unless the tests are all automated (but then: cheating, plus, no rigor = suspicious credit), and if you’re ethically serious about education, you have to have office hours, some kind of online discussion, and so on. So you’re back to CLOSE to square one, with the advantage that much of this can be asychronous and distributed, which of course is a huge advantage b/c it lets all kinds of people earn credit, but not a huge advantage financially–which is *kind of* the point, no?

    Two more thoughts before I go:

    1. At Penn State many onlnie courses are taught by adjuncts, very few by tenure-line faculty. This makes the economics better but they’re just the same as the economics of adjuncting more generally… the advantage for Penn State is that it doesn’t have a large population of people here in central PA to take evening courses (or “executive MBA” programs) so this allows Penn State to play in a game (via online) that many universities (including those that offer 40 students a year a $40,000 Master’s degree in English — Chicago and Columbia, e.g.) are already playing.

    2. Anything that destroys the University of Phoenix and its ilk is almost certainly a good idea.

  2. A timely post for me, both the Shirky and this take on it. I’m helping a faculty member develop a MOOC-like “course” here that’ll be just open to the college community and run through our learning management system. I’m deeply ambivalent about online learning but there’s no doubt it’s here to stay and will radically alter the higher ed landscape.

    Just so I could learn more about MOOCs, I signed up for one on Coursera. I’ve only watched a couple of lecture segments and done a couple of quizzes, so I don’t have much to report yet, but two quick thoughts:
    1. Clearly, MOOCs have a long way to go in terms of quality and quality control. Right now, it still feels pretty clunky.
    2. There will be fewer faculty trained in specialized disciplines, but there will be many more instructional designers, curriculum specialists, assessment specialists, etc. (or what Coursera calls “Content Operations Specialists”) to help those faculty put their expertise online. This is already happening of course, but this trend will only accelerate.

  3. Over on the Twitter, @zunguzungu points to an excellent commentary on the costs of online education by Bob Samuels.

    Short version: Compared to the current in-person model, no cost savings in the short run and, depending on the technology, substantial investments may be required. Potentially very little cost savings in the long run…. more grist for e.hayot’s point above.

  4. As with so many adminsitrative adventures, my fear is that this is also part of the general trend in which resources shift away from faculty (both teachers and researches) and end up pouring into upper- (but not quite *top*-) and mid-level administration. We already have multiple positions devoted to online course design and management in the College–though of course these pay for themselves, largely through revenue generated by online courses…

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