Are Moocs disruptive, interesting or just marketing?

Van der Bosch poses an interesting question as he states that Moocs are an interesting development, but as he says that Moocs are the wrong revolution.  Bonnie Stewart writes about the supposedly disruptive character of (x) MOOCS, pointing to the many publications using this term. She sees a trend in the power relations to shift, however preserving and consolidating the power relations of the traditional universities. xMOOCs are, in her view, just an opening of new markets based on the reputation and brand of the elite universities. Rolin Moe in Reviewing Christensen’s Disruptive Technologies (Harvard Business Review, 1995) in MOOC Terms gives an historical interpretation of Christensen’s original definition of disruptive innovation, using it to analyse xMoocs.

Thrift in de Chronicle is even more cynical, listing four main reasons why MOOCS are called a disruptive innovation and became a hype over the past months: 1. Moocs do appeal to economic elites, which see opportunities for profit in an economic environment where pretty well everyone is chasing limited opportunities for high returns. 2. because it taps into a vein of middle-class anger over tuition costs (a subject also mentioned by van der Bosch). 3. Moocs could reduce costs of higher education for governments, providing an attractive excuse to reduce spending. 4. because all that said, as higher-education systems continue to grow in scale, it makes sense to look at ways of teaching more people more efficiently, and MOOCs may well be a part of the answer.

Concluding that, no elite universities will be caught up in a more general industrialization of higher education

Meanwhile, edX announced the new members in February. In this announcement, they described their selves as “the not for profit online learning enterprise [..] building an open source educational platform and a network of the world’s top universities to improve education both online and on campus while conducting research on how students learn”.

Promising: “Courses offered by institutions on the edX platform provide the same rigor as on-campus classes but are designed to take advantage of the unique features and benefits of online learning environments, including game-like experiences, instant feedback and cutting-edge virtual laboratories”.

However, the Chronicle poses the question How can a non-profit organization that gives away courses bring in enough revenue to at least cover its costs?  Agarwal (president of edX) states that edX is non-profit, but self sustained. EdX expects income from several sources. Firstly, there is an agreement that “self-service” courses will be offered through edX without any further help, it pays a fixed amount of the income generated by the course to edX ($50.000 for a new course, $10.000 for recurring ones). Next, institutions can use edX as a consultant and design partner, paying for each course developed within this model. Furthermore, edX has a deal with a network of testing centres and has plans to license the courses to other universities, both potential sources of income.

Another interesting aspect is that Koller is quoted stressing that Cousera offers to share a larger part of the profits with the university that provides the course. It seems that competition between the MOOC-platforms has started?

napkin sketch by Clayton Christensen for Wired Opinion

So there are several positions taken with respect to the way we should look towards Moocs. Of course it is interesting to know the opinion of the person who labelled Disruptive Innovations. Christensen and Horn asked the question: Beyond the Buzz, Where Are MOOCs Really Going?

Their answer is simple: Yes.

For this answer, they have three reasons. Firstly, Moocs are serving non-consumers. Although Moocs are limited in the services they provide compared to traditional colleges, they offer free and accessible education to a broader audience, who can not afford the traditional offering. However, this is a characteristic of ODL in its broadest sense as can be read in the rapports of the UNESCO. China, Russia, Brazil and Turkey all offer some kind of Open Educational Resources with the intention of making education available in places where are no institutes for higher education and for people who are not able to participate in the traditional HEI’s. Secondly, as they state: disruptive innovations improve over time to march upmarket. This is also given as a reason why Moocs have become popular in recent months, using the augmented possibilities to increase quality. An observation which will not be shared by everyone commenting on Moocs. Lastly, Moocs redefine quality in the industry. As Christensen and Horn state: in the future, courses might be offered based on employer demand, not faculty research interests. MOOCs are already evolving in some ways away from traditional educational constraints: Udacity’s courses, for example, have shifted from a time-controlled to a more competency-based learning model that takes advantage of the online medium.

License Some rights reserved by Toban B.

Will Moocs be disruptive in the sense that they will change traditional education?

Their specific form, to which I will return in a later blog, makes it possible for a new segment of “customers” to participate in education. It becomes more easy to sell “education” as a product to firms, incorporating it in their corporate universities. Just as the introduction of the film, the movies, made the stage performance available for whole new audiences, winning in efficiency as one performance could be seen by millions but (perhaps) losing in other features as effectiveness  (the impact of the players on the spectators) or artistic aspects. Moocs facilitate the mass-consumption of education, but not the mass customization as predicted by Christensen and Horn. For that they are to inflexible. Furthermore, ODL and Moocs can facilitate other “revolutions” in education as flipping the classroom; transferring simple readings and task making to the e-domain, whereas the class room will be used for discussion and group work.

Predicting the future is not something I like to do, but my experiences with scenario techniques make me very doubtful if these kind of uses of Moocs will be applied soon. Drawing a line representing the use of Moocs as a change agent in traditional HEI’s versus a line of the supply of relevant Moocs by other HEI’s provides an optimistic quadrant in which Moocs will be offered and used to change the traditional educational systems against a realistic quadrant in which Moocs are offered by good willing individuals, used by individuals who have no other choice!


11 thoughts on “Are Moocs disruptive, interesting or just marketing?

  1. Dear Frank,

    Your post is impressive, because you look for the bigger picture within MOOCs can be framed. Awaiting the intended follow-up, I stick to a few notes.
    (1) Disruptive innovation will take a new appearance, because nowadays everybody knows the concept and tries to become the winning party. However, modeling yourself as a frontrunner in the MOOC-movement is smart for any reason (from marketing, power policy to idealism)
    (2) The impact of MOOCs in programs for regular students will be limited at short notice. Most students will prefer lectures not because of their content, but because they are part of the traditional universities’ ecosystem: a smart students does not ask questions for reasons of curiosity, but because he(mostly)/she wants to be seen and heard.
    (3) In the near future MOOCs will have an impact on distance education. Here, students are acquainted with online courses. These institutions will start to use world-class courses in stead of developing all courses by themselves. This opens the way for teachers to engage in other educational taste, like supervising projects.
    (4) I have an idealist dream. This is that in the future all world-class scolars will be supported to develop a MOOC that presents their research and its outcomes. In this way MOOCs are part of a global strategy of knowledge valorization, and there is a large variety of courses that facilitates customized learning.

    This is for the time being.

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