This week, both The Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times added to to mounting conversation about the status, role, and nature of college in our present moment–this time from the teenage perspective, proposing two alternatives to the traditional high-school-to-college conveyor belt: later or never.
Roger Steare, an organizational ethics professor in the UK, guides organizations in the private and public sectors: “Ethics is no longer optional, it is absolutely crucial to the sustainability and success of our businesses, our public-sector services and every other institution and enterprise.”
More at his organization, Ethicability.
(Chart by James Lawrence Powell)
In the last two posts, I broached the question of what long-term, structural effects online learning will have on higher education. At Thanksgiving, I spoke a great deal with my two nieces, who are getting ready to go to college next year, and their parents, about the myriad dimensions of the process. Like health care, college has become one of the most complicated, and most anxiety-inducing, pieces in the puzzle of modern life, not least because they are the sectors in which costs mock inflation. Indeed, with the election over, I’d wager that families discussed these issues more than maybe any others.
As we’ve seen over the last decade, industries we considered staples of life in the modern industrialized world–music, journalism, and retail–were radically disrupted and transformed when the world became Flat. This year, the New York Times has declared 2012 the Year of the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), with 3 flagship online universities pioneering the new platform:
I want to follow up and throw into the mix two other perspectives I’ve come across in the meantime:
- Robert Koons, a professor of philosophy at University of Texas at Austin. Though Koons does not explicitly discuss online learning or MOOCs, his scathing, Closing-of-the-American-Mind-ish critique of the modern university–which he considers the most corrupt institution in modern society–casts light on spiritual, intellectual, moral, and economic weaknesses in the status quo that make the university vulnerable to the digital disruption.
- Clay Shirky, NYU new media guru, one of the closest things we have to a public intellectual. Essentially, Shirky seems willing to bet his tenure that early MOOC platforms like Udacity are tantamount to Napster, and that over the long haul online learning will indeed to to higher education something like what the mp3 did to music.
The NY Times’ fascinating report on the rise of the MOOC raises questions about what we might call the “Professors of the Future”:
Udacity courses are designed and produced in-house or with companies like Google and Microsoft. In a poke at its university-based competition, Dr. Stavens says they pick instructors not because of their academic research, as universities do, but because of how they teach. “We reject about 98 percent of faculty who want to teach with us,” he says. “Just because a person is the world’s most famous economist doesn’t mean they are the best person to teach the subject.” Dr. Stavens sees a day when MOOCs will disrupt how faculty are attracted, trained and paid, with the most popular “compensated like a TV actor or a movie actor.” He adds that “students will want to learn from whoever is the best teacher.”
The implications are enormous, and difficult to sift through.
Apparently 2012 is not only the return of Quezacotl and Mayan Apocalypse, but, according to the The New York Times, the Year of the MOOC (Massive Online Open Course).
The paint is barely dry, yet edX, the nonprofit start-up from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has 370,000 students this fall in its first official courses. That’s nothing. Coursera, founded just last January, has reached more than 1.7 million — growing “faster than Facebook,” boasts Andrew Ng, on leave from Stanford to run his for-profit MOOC provider.
“This has caught all of us by surprise,” says David Stavens, who formed a company calledUdacity with Sebastian Thrun and Michael Sokolsky after more than 150,000 signed up for Dr. Thrun’s “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” last fall, starting the revolution that has higher education gasping. A year ago, he marvels, “we were three guys in Sebastian’s living room and now we have 40 employees full time.”
“I like to call this the year of disruption,” says Anant Agarwal, president of edX, “and the year is not over yet.”
What does the MOOC mean for the future of the traditional university? The $20 million question–or, perhaps more accurately, the $50K/year question–is whether digital technology will do to higher education anything like what it did to the music industry. A decade ago, few would have thought that a computer company would replace the record store; but here we are.
What might a tipping point look like?
As Sandy approached, the media compared the storm, in its scope, rarity, and composition, to the three-headed monster that hit south of Nova Scotia in 1991 and was featured in the best-selling novel and feature film, The Perfect Storm. In addition to the multiple meteorological elements, many all but immediately started speculating about the human element that magnifies the storm’s disruptive power: next week’s election. But there is another dimension to the storm that makes the moniker, “perfect,” even more apt: climate change.