The MOOC’s Not the Thing

Almost everybody in higher education is either figuring how they can make the MOOC (massively open online course) craze work for them or they are tearing their tweed jackets and skirts over it as they anticipate their sections of 12 or 15 being eaten by online gatherings of 20,000.

Angel investors are feeding beasts such as Udacity, Coursera, and EdX with their millions.  The toniest of institutions are rapidly aligning themselves with the new MOOC producers.  Those schools which are merely quite good need not apply.

It seems that everyone is making ready for a new world in which Harvard and MIT export their courses to the masses of students anxious to learn from the very best.  Khan Academy is scary enough.  What about HarvardX?

As irresistible as the premium MOOC seems, I think the change that is coming will take a different form.  I don’t think it will actually be the Harvards and MITs leading the charge.  Neither do I think the change producer will be the MOOC with thousands of students.

Tilt the prism just a few degrees and then you will have a better image to view.  What is going to happen is that educational publishers (and maybe some highly motivated individual academics, such as Jim Collins) are going to remake higher education.

Existing universities are not going to participate in their own destruction by outsourcing giant chunks of their operations to elite institutions.  What they will do, though, is work with educational publishers (and entrepreneurial individuals) to radically reduce the cost structure of teaching students.

The change is a simple one.  For a wide variety of courses, it would be easy to combine a package of text, short lectures that can be downloaded, slide packages, activities, and exams into a ready-made class.  The great professors, not the great institutions, will do this with the educational publishers in much the same way they do now.  All that is missing is to flesh out the current book, slides, tests, and reviews combo with some lectures and other activities.  Were he not now dead, James Q. Wilson (the dean of American Government professors) would easily be able to round out his famous textbook offering in just this way.

When these packages are ready, institutions hoping to cut cost will be able to hire master’s prepared instructors to facilitate the courses.  They won’t need to do the hard work of preparing content.  All of that will be done for them.  Neither will they need to plan.  Again, pacing will be part of the package.  All the instructor will need to do is to facilitate discussion, answer questions, and grade tests and papers.  With that workload, it will not be too difficult for a single instructor to handle five or six sections in a semester.  Because individuals with doctoral-preparation will not be needed (the doctor will be the one who comes in the package), the pay scale will be lower and the load per instructor will be higher.  If such a change can be accomplished, the savings are potentially immense.

I hasten to add that I am engaged in an exercise of prediction rather than of desire.  I love universities the way they are.  Teaching my own section of students who follow a plan of learning I have created for them is a joy.  It is especially wonderful if they are energetic participants in the exercise.

But I recognize that higher education is the latest sector to enter the path of Schumpeterian creative destruction.  When Schumpeter’s storm gets here, it will be via a revolution and expansion in educational publishing (by adding various media) rather than through the domination of MOOCs farmed out by the Ivies.