Friday, January 18, 2013

Why MOOCs are like Farmville

Another day, another report from one of the thought leaders on higher education. This time it is from Moody’s, which proclaims the death of the traditional model of higher education. While the concerns raised by Moody’s are real – diminished resources due to state budget cuts, declining family incomes, and less willingness by students to take on debt – we should hesitate before leaping to the conclusion that these challenges necessitate a radical change, through massive adoption of online learning technologies such as MOOCs. Count me among the skeptical – I’m not yet convinced that MOOCs are going to lead students to jettison a traditional higher education experience anytime soon.

Over the past few weeks, for every piece of commentary extolling the virtue of MOOCs, I have found another that calls into question whether this particular type of online learning is sustainable over the long term. For one, no one has yet come up with a sustainable financial model for free massive open online courses (which, at most schools, are financed by traditional, tuition paying students – a practice I object to). As the University of California has found out, if you build it, students don’t necessarily come once you start charging them for the experience. Other issues with MOOCs include a lack of opportunity for the development of social capital and teamwork skills, less emphasis on exceptional achievement and individual distinction by students, and the supplanting of the concept of higher learning with job training.

As MOOCs have now reached the peak of inflated expectations, I expect that skepticism of their potential will become more widespread and accepted. When I think about MOOCs, I think about other new innovations, like Farmville, that failed to live up to their early hype and were doomed by poor quality and a lack of financial support, as they descended into the trough of disillusionment. Once that happens, the true innovation becomes separated from the hype, and what many times remains is very different and potentially far more impactful and lasting than what was initially expected – what Gartner refers to as the slope of enlightenment.

The current hype surrounding MOOCs is focused on the potential for increased access and lower costs associated with vertical scalability – but this assumes a traditional one-to-many model of learning with the teacher (or content creator) playing a gatekeeping role. This is not altogether different from the traditional classroom lecture, only with technology supplanting the physical classroom as the mediator between teachers and students. This is not revolutionary or even an evolutionary change, but something that more closely resembles what sociologist George Ritzer identified as The McDonaldization of Society some twenty years ago.

McDonaldization does not represent the true potential for change made possible by the widespread availability of the Internet and massive adoption of computers and mobile devices. What truly has changed is the nature of collaboration itself, which is best understood as the shift from relationships based on one-to-many exchanges to relationships based on many-to-many exchanges. In the world of many-to-many relationships, the role played by traditional gatekeepers – whether we are talking about record companies, book publishers, newspapers, or teachers – diminishes and is supplanted by a world where every individual is simultaneously enabled to become both a content creator and subscriber at the same time, with social networking tools like Facebook and Twitter enabling collaboration on a massive scale.

Within the context of many-to-many relationships, the potential of MOOCs and their potential for lasting impact on higher education becomes something altogether different than what many now expect. My predictions:
  1. De-emphasis of the traditional classroom lecture. Regardless of whether teaching occurs in a physical classroom or is delivered on the Web, higher education will shift from a model predicated on the teacher as content creator and the student as content subscriber, to a model focused on collaboration where both teachers and students are creators and subscribers simultaneously. In this new world, learning becomes less about the dissemination of knowledge and more about the process by which knowledge and innovation are created.

  2. Teachers will no longer be the authoritative center of the learning process. Social networking theorists like Valdis Krebbs emphasize that in a world of many-to-many relationships, power is shared equally among all participants – and the authority of traditional gatekeepers is greatly diminished. In this new world, teachers will become stewards and facilitators of learning, as one among equals engaged in many-to-many collaborations.

  3. Our notion of rigor and achievement will no longer depend on the credit hour. If there is anything anchoring the current model of higher education, it is the concept of the credit hour. How do we know a course of study was rigorous? Because students met for three hours a week, completed three hours of homework between meetings, repeated this cycle 15 times, and received a positive evaluation from their instructor. In a world of many-to-many relationships, a peer review and evaluation model will develop that will prove to be every bit as rigorous as anything that exists today. Individual achievement and distinction will be based upon an individual’s reputation as determined by the social network in which they are engaged. The late Randy Pausch outlined one such model in The Last Lecture (starting at 51:10 in the video).
If MOOCs can help us accomplish these three things, they will surpass their hype and their impact on higher education will be far more lasting. But doing so will only solve one of our challenges – which is how technology can be harnessed to deepen learning. These innovations don’t, by themselves, solve our other problem – which is affordability. I’m convinced that we can tackle this problem, not by adopting the principles identified by George Ritzer, but by rolling up our sleeves and thinking and acting quite a bit differently. That is going to require administrators like myself to do things that we would rather avoid - taking cost out of the system - by setting priorities, separating the must haves from the wants and nice to haves, and creating a culture where we advance our careers not by building new things and consuming more resources, but by being very good stewards of what we have. If we can figure how to do all of those things – we will truly change higher education for the better.


  1. Dear Timothy
    You have several wrong conseptions about MOOcs.

    1.- MOOCs are not massive at all . Just reporters and people like you say it is MOOC, it is massive.

    2.- ONLINE Courses by elite universities will be financed by MIT and Harvard ( they are edx non profits ) beautifully. MIT knows that cost of an online course is less than $ 5 if there are enough students within a time period. ( Say 100,000 and up in 5 years ) Therefore financing is no problem. If they charge only $ 10 per course they will make billions of $ beside financing . They have the vision . Even though they are non profit but they will finance and make money too .

    3.- During last 20 years bad online courses and degrees by 1,300 colleges at high prices of $ 1,500-3,000 per course replaced the TRADITIONAL HE in the USA. Replacement is 7 million students out of 18 million total. That is 7/18 = 39 % .
    That means even bad onlines proved in the last 20 years that online is sustainable even at very high price. Today
    online courses by elite non profit universities at much better quality than old ones can definitely replace the rest of the HE in the USA including the world . They are not MOOCs. They are MIT, Harvard, Berkeley, Georgetown . I do not mention for profit initiatives at all . They will die soon .
    4.- New online by elite universities is a solution to HE in the USA

  2. MOOCs for profit will die soon .
    1.- They do not provide the same course at oncampuse .
    2.- Tyhey have many non elite universities. Non elite universities cannot attract students while there are elite ones .

  3. Get prepared to be disappointed my friend. The only reason we are having this silly debate is because we have allowed costs to get out of control the past 13 years. If we get aggressive about taking costs out, students prefer a traditional education - albeit one prefaced on a many to many style of pedagogy.

  4. Agreed, significant opportunities exist to reduce the inherent costs of the traditional brick and mortar model or hybridized on-campus/on-line educational experience. Higher Ed is experiencing many of the same transformational impacts (market consolidation, tighter margins, more transparency around customer expectations) that the commercial marketplace has experienced over the last thirty years. Better tools exist today (cloud, virtualization, etc) to ease the transition if traditional educational providers take up the challenge. Tim is in a minority of Higher Ed CIOs that realize that these are difficult decisions that need to be made (now) to preserve and optimize the value of the student experience.

  5. Many of us who've been in IT long enough become inured to the hype cycle. I personally find it alternatively entertaining and horrifying to watch unfold in higher ed.

    Tim, you are correct: eventually the simplistic approach of current MOOCs will give way to more sophisticated models that will take advantage of the benefits many-to-many connections enable between people and systems. In a similar way, just a few short years ago the hype around server virtualization versus the "old fashioned" model of physical servers centered on gross cost savings and server utilization. The equally powerful but more nuanced values of server virtualization (flexibility, portability, ease of deployment) took a back seat. For many of the early "hypers," the more nuanced values weren't even in the picture. So it is with MOOCs.

    Most education is organized on a one-to-many model that's been in place for generations. Nearly everything is set up to support this system: administration, building construction, software development, you name it. This model was designed to support an industrial production system that for the most part no longer exists in the US. It should come as no surprise that the early incarnations and interpretations of MOOCs extend this model of thinking, i.e. - reduction in cost per class and/or student, early "flipped classrooms" turning professors into talking heads/machines, and so on. There's a place for both the old and new models, but the switchover to the new model will be painful and risky for early adopters. Those invested in the existing model will fight to keep it.

    IT leaders embracing the new model should have no illusions that this will put them squarely in the crosshairs of many of their colleagues. Hopefully, we can help them see the value in, and strategically (and thoughtfully) navigate this inevitable shift.

    Great read, thanks for posting.

  6. Tim and team

    Great article, but I think comparing MOOCs with McDonalds and Farmsville is definitely something you should reconsider. If anything traditional "Brick-and-Mortar" schools are outdated because they have been built over 2500 years ago and have not been evolving with times. For example take a look at how much your kids kindergarten teacher knows about her students and compare it with how much a student advisor knows about their students.

    There are several articles I would like to recommend to you for getting additional insight into the state of US Higher Ed. Here are some examples -

    Mitch Daniels, President of Purdue University -

    N2N's take on why we need Education Reform -

    Story board on MOOCs and their relevance and emergence into mainstream -

    I request Higher Ed CIOs, Presidents, Faculty and Staff to start focusing on students and student success instead of traditions, hierarchy and politics. Higher Education is horribly behind the curve in terms of their ability to deliver quality education because we are entrenched in traditional brick-and-mortar schools and classroom based learning. Educational institutions should adopt and show the way for innovative ideas and enable the students with tools for success in the emerging technologies and sciences. Otherwise, it's the end of the University as we know it.

  7. I appreciate your thoughts - good things to think about. I deeply admire what Mitch Daniels is up to at Purdue and thought his piece last week was pure brilliance. But, I think the world he aspires for higher education is much closer to what I outlined above and has very little to do with what most people think the potential for MOOCs will lead to. I am mindful that President Daniels warned against chasing fads - and I think that the hype around MOOCs clearly falls into that.

  8. Tim

    Thanks. I do agree, MOOCs as they currently exist might be flavor of the day. I am not ready to rule them out as fads just yet though.

    Thanks for your leadership and thoughts.