education's digital future

MOOCs’ disruption is only beginning

JOURNALISTS, AS 2013 ended, were busy declaring the death of MOOCs, more formally known as massive open online courses. Silicon Valley startup Udacity, one of the first to offer the free Web-based college classes, had just announced its pivot to vocational training — a sure sign to some that this much-hyped revolution in higher education had failed. The collective sigh of relief from more traditional colleges and universities was audible.

The news, however, must have also had the companies that had enthusiastically jumped on the MOOC train feeling a bit like Mark Twain. When newspapers confused Twain for his ailing cousin, the writer famously quipped, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” Undoubtedly pronouncements over MOOCs’ demise are likewise premature. And their potential to disrupt — on price, technology, even pedagogy — in a long-stagnant industry is only just beginning to be seen.

How important is disruption in higher education? Tuition costs have been ballooning faster than general inflation and even faster than health care. And what do we get in return? Nearly half of all bachelor’s-degree holders do not find employment or are underemployed upon graduation. At the same time, employers have not been satisfied with degree candidates. Two recent Gallup polls showed that although 96 percent of chief academic officers believe they’re doing a good job of preparing students for employment, only 11 percent of business leaders agree that graduates have the requisite skills for success in the workforce. And this is all occurring while higher education leaders were convinced that they were innovating all along.

Any industry has both sustaining and disruptive innovations. Most people are very familiar with the former, which are meant to drive up prices by delivering bigger, faster, stronger products and services for the best customers. Disruption, on the other hand, changes the nature of performance itself, usually driving down prices. Together, these two vectors keep costs in line.

Higher education, however, has historically seen only sustaining innovations. To outpace fellow institutions in the game of college rankings, schools have improved classrooms, updated technology, sponsored faculty research, increased administrative overhead, and decked out residence halls and dining facilities. Costs have spiraled out of control.

To exacerbate matters, the US government has put a floor — not a ceiling — on prices. Through policy and increased Pell grants and other subsidized loans, the government has only enabled people to afford the costs rather than incentivizing institutions to make the cost of education more affordable to people.

Fortunately, though, the mania around MOOCs jump-started several meaningful conversations in the opposite direction....

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