MOOC supporters have lately traded breathless optimism for more measured—and more convincing—arguments. Writing in the Boston Globe, researchers Clayton M. Christensen and Michelle R. Weise argue that MOOCs are only beginning to cause a beneficial “disruption” in higher education. As MOOCs go through many stages of development, they’ll continue to serve a distinct set of students—job seekers, people brushing up on their skills, and those unlikely or unable to attend a four-year institution. These are the people whom higher education in its current form is failing.They conclude:
In our research, we see over and over again that it is nearly impossible for established leaders to disrupt themselves. So what does that mean in practical terms for more traditional colleges? Some will have to accept they can’t be everything to everyone and scale back their course offerings. Academic leaders, no longer able to count on state or federal subsidies, will have to bear down on the inefficiencies built into how they now operate. Not every campus will be able to be a research institution. Tenure will be called into question.Over time, colleges and universities will have to compete with providers who offer low-cost, direct paths to employment that do not necessarily end in degrees or certificates. Campuses will have to be clear about the value of a college degree. Students and families will demand a more precise understanding of what they can expect from their college degree. And that will benefit all learners.
The Wall Street Journal hosted a symposium of three professors who are also optimistic about MOOCs, if not unreservedly:
PROF. [DARRYL] TIPPENS [provost of Pepperdine University]: If we aren’t careful, we will bifurcate education into two separate and unequal systems: the residential college education, which involves rich interactions between professors and students, enhanced by an array of heady co-curricular experiences with the goal, not just of information transfer, but transformation—the formation of competent, ethical citizens and whole human persons. The other model will promise less: somewhat depersonalized, “objective” and fact-based training; skills development that leads to certificates, badges and degrees—valuable, but carrying less prestige.PROF. [CLAY] SHIRKY [of New York University]: We were already not careful, in exactly this way, and exactly as you describe, this bifurcation has happened.PROF. [RAY] SCHROEDER [associate vice chancellor of online learning at the University of Illinois Springfield]: Those who can afford it will continue to pursue the traditional campus-based learning. Those who can’t will choose among MOOC and other online-learning opportunities that are more affordable and flexible. They will learn and earn; holding down a job and, perhaps, supporting a family while learning late at night. This will become the affordable norm for many in the years ahead.
We suggest you read the whole thing. Professor Schroeder’s take seems to us to be correct: As online programs become more numerous, convenient, and better tailored to various kinds of students, more people will incorporate them into the rhythms of their lives. And the appeal of flexible and cheap educational options shouldn’t be underestimated, even if MOOCs are only in their infancy. From what we can see, their future is bright.