MOOCs are not the be-all, but they might just be the beginning

innovation-MOOC-disruptiveIt’s rare that I come across opinions on online learning that aren’t either the same thoughts rehashed or opposite ends of the pendulum. And during a recent interview with a “disruption” expert, I think most people are getting MOOCs all wrong.

On the one hand, you have those who say MOOCs are single-handedly changing the entire meaning of education, bringing with its free online content delivery the same education without any of the debilitating costs of a traditional four-year degree.

On the other hand, you have those who say MOOCs are a flash in the pan that can never equal the quality of face-to-face education, and though they’re “nifty” to attend, they’re not granting degrees or helping attendees land careers.

Well, shoot. Neither opinion is necessarily wrong, but they are a little too divisive for my taste. Instead, I find myself interested in the opinions of Senior Research Fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute, Dr. Michelle Weise, and DegreeofFreedom researcher and writer, Jonathan Haber.

According to Weise and Haber, MOOCs are not yet ‘disruptive’ to traditional education. Instead, they’re on the cusp. And here’s why…

(Next page: Are MOOC’s disruptive?)

Are MOOCs really disruptive?

In order for something to be considered disruptive, it has to completely erase the old way of doing things and usher in a new way of doing things that fundamentally changes things forever. Think: The personal laptop.

The other characteristics of a ‘disruptive innovation,’ are the ability to provide services to a market untapped by the current dominate provider, as well as the ability to offer something at a lower cost, but not better than, what the dominant provider is offering.

Sounds like a MOOC, right? Eh, not really.

“MOOCs don’t have all of the characteristics of a disruptive innovation just yet,” said Weise during a podcast with Haber. “Are MOOCs questioning our basic assumptions of what higher education is? Yes. Have they brought attention to the potential of online learning in a positive way, where before there was mostly disdain? Yes. Are they urging teachers to connect more with their students and personalize their lectures? Yes. But are they disruptive to traditional higher education? No.”

Watch Weise discuss higher-ed trends:

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According to Weise, while MOOCs are low-cost and not necessarily better than face-to-face learning, they still don’t tap into a different market, since “the average MOOC attendee already has a BA; is over the age of 30; and is looking to take a MOOC not for a degree, but rather furthering their life education.”

Weise is right. According to all of the big MOOC providers, like edX, attendees already possess a degree, are older, and often employed. There’s no untapped market there.

That’s not to say there aren’t cases where this isn’t true in developing countries, like Rwanda, in which Haber pointed out is currently piloting Kepler—a fully online nonprofit university program that combines MOOCs with in-person seminars to provide students with employment opportunities.

But these examples, so far, are few and far between.

However, Weise brought up another interesting point: MOOCs may be on the verge of being disruptive, thanks to Udacity.

(Next page: On the verge of disruption)

On the verge of disruption

One of the ways MOOCs are fundamentally changing traditional higher education is not so much in trying to replace the model, but bringing in competition.

“For one of the first times, MOOCs are giving traditional higher education institutions incentive to reduce cost; it’s driving price competition,” explained Weise. “[2013] was one of the first years we saw more aggressive price competition.”

In other words, the dominant provider is beginning to realize its own limitations, which could lead to lasting change.

Another way MOOCs are verging on disruption is by Udacity’s recent decision to implement an actual disruptive innovation: online competency-based programs.

Many people saw Udacity’s move to partner with companies (like Facebook and Google) to create MOOC packages for skills these employers desire as a failure; but as Weise explained it, it’s really a brilliant decision that could turn into a viable business model.

“Udacity and Coursera were never meant to be providers of totally free, massive courses. They kind of did it to see if they could and then they got typecast. Now, they’re providing a skills pipeline for a fraction of the traditional cost of higher education. And at the same time, they’re lessening the wariness of employers to hire ‘vocational’ students.”

Coursera and edX are also hot on Udacity’s heels, with Coursera partnering with the Wharton Business School to offer a MOOC bundle of courses on the foundation of business, and edX partnering with MIT for logistics. Both provide competency pathways for students.

“It’s easier than seeing a random list of courses from students,” noted Weise. “Offering a bundle of courses from either employers or institutions known to provide an education valued by employers gives students a better chance for employment.”

And let’s be honest, that’s really what’s it’s all about these days: A better chance for employment. Yes, there’s still a need for what traditional four-year institutions provide (deeper thinking, personal growth, an introduction to courses like philosophy and art history), but as the economy changes, so too must providers of education; and in many cases, that means providing other options.

So let’s ease up on MOOCs, because they have the potential to serve up what students need most right now: A chance.

They’re also forcing institutions to lower prices; create better connections with students; and think about better serving the needs of all students, not just some.

“Instead of focusing on what MOOCs lack, focus on what they’re providing those in non-traditional realms and how this could ultimately disrupt higher education,” concluded Haber.

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