Daniel W. Drezner

Twilight of the MOOCs?

Twilight of the MOOCs?

Your humble blogger has been hearing about MOOCs — massive open online courses — for the past few years now. Among the foreign-policy community, Walter Russell Mead has been banging on about these things for quite some time: See here and here and here and here and here and … you get the idea. Your humble blogger has been, well, let’s say MOOC-curious, but not completely persuaded.

Now the Economist weighs in:

Dotcom mania was slow in coming to higher education, but now it has the venerable industry firmly in its grip. Since the launch early last year of Udacity and Coursera, two Silicon Valley start-ups offering free education through MOOCs, massive open online courses, the ivory towers of academia have been shaken to their foundations. University brands built in some cases over centuries have been forced to contemplate the possibility that information technology will rapidly make their existing business model obsolete. Meanwhile, the MOOCs have multiplied in number, resources and student recruitment—without yet having figured out a business model of their own.

Besides providing online courses to their own (generally fee-paying) students, universities have felt obliged to join the MOOC revolution to avoid being guillotined by it. Coursera has formed partnerships with 83 universities and colleges around the world, including many of America’s top-tier institutions.…

On July 10th Coursera said it had raised another $43m in venture capital, on top of the $22m it banked last year. Although its enrolments have soared, and now exceed 4m students, this is a huge leap of faith by investors that the firm can develop a viable business model. The new money should allow Coursera to build on any advantage it has from being a first mover among a rapidly growing number of MOOC providers. “It is somewhat entertaining to watch the number of people jumping on board,” says Daphne Koller, a Stanford professor and co-founder of Coursera. She expects it to become one of a “very small number of dominant players”.

The industry has similar network economics to Amazon, eBay and Google, says Ms Koller, in that “content producers go to where most consumers are, and consumers go to where the most content is.” Simon Nelson, the chief executive of FutureLearn, disagrees. “Anyone who thinks the rules of engagement have already been written by the existing players is massively underestimating the potential of the technology,” he says.

Sounds game-changing … or it sounds like the mania that gripped dotcom world circa 1999-2000. Mead and the Economist clearly think it’s the former. Are they right?

I’m not so sure. One can point to individual MOOC flame-outs or surveys of MOOC profs and conclude that it’s not a game-changer, not really — but I’m not sure those individual data points rise to the level of falsification.

This Inside Higher Ed piece by Ry Rivard, however, is a bit more telling.

As scores of colleges rush to offer free online classes, the mania over massive open online courses may be slowing down. Even top proponents of MOOCs are acknowledging critical questions remain unanswered, and are urging further study.

Dan Greenstein, the head of postsecondary success at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, now wonders aloud if MOOCs are a “viable thing or are just a passing fad.” Gates has agreed to spend $3 million for wide-reaching MOOC-related grants. But Greenstein said higher ed is suffering from “innovation exhaustion,” and MOOCs are part of the problem.

“It seems to me, at least with respect to MOOCs, that we have skipped an important step,” he wrote in an Inside Higher Ed op-ed last week. “We’ve jumped right into the ‘chase’ without much of a discussion about what problems they could help us to solve. We have skipped the big picture of where higher ed is going and where we want to be in 10 or 20 years.”….

If anything, MOOCs are going through what the technology consulting firm Gartner has identified as the “hype cycle.” The firm says any much-hyped product goes from a “peak of inflated expectations” to a “trough of disillusionment” before institutions figure out how to really use and benefit from a new technology.…

The new rhetoric in discussion of MOOCs may also be showing up from MOOC providers themselves. Sebastian Thrun, the CEO of Udacity, predicted last year that within a half-century there would only be 10 institutions of higher education left in the world.

Now, Thrun is a bit more modest. "Upfront, I believe that online education will not replace face to face education, and neither is it supposed to," he wrote in a blog post last month. "Just as film never replaced theater plays and many of us prefer to watch sports live in big stadiums, online will not abolish face to face interaction." He also said ed tech innovators should be "willing to learn from our failures and to forge on."

OK, give me a second, I’m just going to take a moment and savor the irony of Gartner’s discovery of the "hype cycle," given that a decade ago they pretty much claimed offshore outsourcing was the second coming of the Industrial Revolution and then … it turned to be juuuuust a little overhyped.

That said, I suspect that Gartner is likely correct this time. Evangelists like Mead or the Economist are way overselling the immediacy of any change in higher education because of MOOCs. Pro tip: If the biggest evidence that something is a game-changer is a firm can raise capital, then there ain’t any there there just yet. It’s promise and nothing more, as the owners of Pets.com will tell you.

That said, I do suspect that over time, some departments and some courses in some schools will make this kind of adaptation. If I had to predict, however, I’d say that there would be two trends. The first is that more state schools will be forced to embrace this option by budget-conscious state legislators. This doesn’t mean that state students will get a better education. Indeed, I’d predict the opposite. My hunch is that sitting in a classroom with other students listening to a pretty good in-person lecturer provides far more educational value-added than a student watching the best MOOC instructor alone in their room. But even if it won’t be a better education, it should be a cheaper one.

The second, and more important, trend is that global students should be the biggest beneficiaries, simply by expanding the supply of available educational options. And MOOCs might solve that pesky question of how to handle setting up satellite campuses in countries with questionable regimes.

What do you think?