The latest book from Larry Downes and Paul Nunes, Big Bang Disruption, published in January by Portfolio/Penguin, outlines how the risks associated with Clayton Christensen’s theory on disruptive innovation have intensified due to the effects of the internet and rapid technological change. Instead of established industries having years to respond, or at least trying to respond, to an upstart with an inferior, less expensive, low margin alternative, Downes and Nunes make the case that in this age of low barrier of entry services and products, due to, for example, ready-to-go cloud-based services, quick app development, broadband everywhere, and instantaneous marketing through social networks, start-ups can enter the market ready to compete at all levels, with not only a low cost alternative, but a higher quality alternative as well.
A example from the book is smartphone map apps taking 85 percent of the GPS market in 18 months. Garmin and other GPS providers could not find a way to compete with Google Maps, which came “free” with your smartphone and provided, for most, a higher quality of service and free updates.
Does the idea of Christensen’s “innovator’s dilemma” becoming the Downes and Nunes’ “innovator’s disaster” alter the conversation of higher education’s version of a disruptive innovation, MOOCs?
Since late 2011, MOOCs, massive open online courses, have become the commonly cited example of the delivery method that will change higher education forever. According to the hype, MOOCs will provide high quality, low cost learning to all, and with efficiencies of delivery, lower the cost of obtaining a degree. Add in competency-based assessments in lieu of credit, and you negate the need for a degree at all. Instead, a student will build a portfolio of competencies and skills that prepare her or him for a career.
By the end of 2013, the MOOC bubble had burst. Sebastian Thrun, the “Godfather” of MOOCs, declared that his model to provide free, Ivy League-caliber education to the world, especially to the developing world, wasn’t working. In addition, the MOOC provider he co-founded, Udacity, had redesigned its website to reflect the new focus on corporate training, and “closing the job skills gap-one course at a time.”
Molly Broad, the president of the American Council on Education (ACE) in an editorial on Inside Higher Ed, stated that it was “…a good time for all of us in higher education to take a step back and study the disruptive potential of MOOCs and other innovations.”, while at the same time stating that 11 MOOCs had met criteria for credit recommendation by ACE.
But, it is too early to discount the potential of high quality, engaged online learning, to transform higher education. We are still too early in the experimental phase to decide how things will end. Downes and Nunes remind us in Big Bang Disruption:
“All those failed experiments seem like evidence that the emerging technologies just aren’t ready. But in today’s hyperinformed world, each epic failure just feeds consumer expectations for the potential of something dramatically better…When declining technology costs finally make the right solution feasible, the appetite of consumers has already been thoroughly whetter. It’s too late then for incumbents to jump in. Waiting for the market to take off and hoping to be a fast follower is now a recipe for irrelevance.”
And a recent posting in 2014 to The Economist’s Free Exchange blog, suggests that MOOCs may be on track to reach another milestone. The post supposes that as the prices to produce [the online courses] converge toward marginal costs, “…MOOCs are likely to compete on quality”.
The post continues:
“Students will soon find that for very low prices they can get a much broader array of course choices, most of which offer superior instruction with much more flexibility… They may find that opportunities for interaction with instructors and fellow students are actually improved by the shift to online, because of the benefits of economies of scale and the gains from temporal and spatial flexibility. It will not be long before completion of particular MOOCs earn students enough credit at “real” universities to enable students to get a “real” degree. The stigma associated with MOOC learning should quickly flip to status signalling, since anyone who can do an entire degree online is probably disciplined and self-motivated.”
It is too early to say whether MOOCs are an innovator’s dilemma, innovator’s disaster, or just another type of online learning platform that will continue to improve and complement, but not supplant, the traditional model of higher education. But certainly, even though the hysterical rhetoric of MOOCs has died down, it is still advisable to keep an eye on the online technological and pedagogical experiments that are taking place in and out of traditional higher education, and that will only continue to improve.