Tuesday, September 17, 2013

MOOCs - more glacier than tsunami

About a year ago Stanford University president John L. Hennessy made a much publicized presentation comparing MOOCs to a tsunami about to hit higher education. It certainly intensified the discussion of online learning and helped to put MOOCs on the front pages of some glossy publications. However one year later and we maybe should change the metaphor. Although the various MOOC players have made a dramatic impact on the educational landscape I don't see the wave sweeping away any campuses just yet. No ivory towers have crashed down and curiously the most active proponents of MOOCs are those universities with the most ivory towers to defend.

Maybe MOOCs are part of an educational glacier that will eventually lead to radical changes but as a slow grind rather than a massive impact. In that case the MOOC is simply one of many concepts that will be tested and developed as the glacier grinds over the landscape. Although I often compare what's happening to education with changes in publishing or the music industry there are fundamental differences. An article by Jonathan Tapson, MOOCs and the Gartner Hype Cycle: A very slow tsunami, points out that choosing to download an album instead of buying it in a shop is an undramatic and instant decision and meant that the music industry changed radically in a very short period. Education however is a major life decision and students are unlikely to opt for new options until they offer a recognized and proven improvement on the traditional model.

"Undertaking a university degree is not an impulse purchase, like a book, or a song, or a newspaper; even a periodical or cable TV subscription only lasts a year or two, and involves moderate cost and no time commitment. A traditional university degree is a minimum three-year, whole-of-life experience, which results in a career-defining outcome and a mountain of debt, or cash spent, or some equivalent outlay. Not entirely unlike getting married, in fact."

For students today MOOCs are not an alternative to college and they are unlikely to be that for several years. Most colleges will continue with business as usual for many years but slowly the alternatives will become more serious and appealing to an increasing number of students. The article projects that the real effects of this change will not really be felt until around 2023, quoting Bill Gates, “we always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten”

There's a lot happening in education today and MOOCs are just one of many important new elements being experimented with. They're all part of the glacier but I don't believe that one element will lead to real change. The MOOC concept will fade into something else and we'll see plenty of tsunami scares before we finally realize that change is more organic and less dramatic but the effects will be radical.

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