The same disruption has been happening in education for several years but this year the explosion of free university courses under the working name MOOCs has pointed the way forward and has provoked reactions of denial and dismissal similar to those of the music industry several years ago. The fact that the education sector is full of extremely clever people has not made much difference, as Shirky notes:
"We have several advantages over the recording industry, of course. We are decentralized and mostly non-profit. We employ lots of smart people. We have previous examples to learn from, and our core competence is learning from the past. And armed with these advantages, we’re probably going to screw this up as badly as the music people did."
Many academics make defensive statements that things like MOOCs can never replace the quality of traditional face-to-face education but they miss the real point. Of course they're not going to replace the elite universities simply because attending them is a passport to success and provides a network for life. However, the teaching that goes on there is not always top class. Universities' reputations are based on the quality of their research - very few invest as heavily in fostering top class teaching. Even at the elite universities most of the actual teaching is conducted by postgraduates and adjuncts who are often provided with very little pedagogical training. Most contact time at universities is taken up by lecturing, something that is supremely suited for the net.
The opening for MOOCs and other disruptive phenomena in education is that they can provide good enough education for free or at low cost to a mass market, the vast majority of whom could never dream of attending a top university. This concept of "good enough" means that we are perfectly happy to accept lower quality if it does the job to a reasonable standard. Take mp3 music files that are poor quality when compared to a good old vinyl record on a top level stereo system but who cares since it's so much more portable and convenient. Same thing goes for text communication with the seriously retro SMS format. Even if you can today send video messages and use all sorts of other instant messaging services the old SMS is still king simply because it works everywhere and reaches virtually every mobile ever invented.
MOOCs and their offspring will provide mass education whenever you need it and we're seeing a new educational ecology taking shape to challenge, seriously disrupt and in part replace the traditional system. Some will provide the courses, others will provide validation and certification and others will offer meeting places, tuition, study groups and mentoring. The one-stop shop of the traditional university is being dismantled. These new services may well have plenty faults at first but since they are open these faults are dealt with in public and are often remedied immediately, in stark contrast to shortcomings in traditional universities which can take years to be dealt with, if ever.
Shirky argues that MOOCs etc are not replacing the traditional system but are creating a whole new game, as the mp3s did for music. The problem for the education system is realizing what's happened in time to do anything about it.
"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."