There has been a shift in how people are talking about MOOCs. At first, the idea was that MOOCs would open up access to education for anyone who wanted or needed it—people in developing countries, people in developed countries who couldn’t afford the time or money for a traditional education, people who wanted to boost their job skills but didn’t necessarily need degrees, and so on.
Recently, however, higher education in particular seems to be talking much less about these larger goals and instead focusing on the technologies that MOOCs use.
For example, MOOCs have been making a big splash in the area of business education, which, with its high tuition, is something of a cash cow for traditional colleges and universities. With elite institutions like the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business putting their courses online, it looked for a while like traditional b-schools were in a whole heap of trouble.
Some of the early researchers behind this idea were Wharton’s Christian Terwiesch and Karl Ulrich, who in a report earlier this year basically warned business professors that they had better start finding new ways to make themselves relevant or potentially face being replaced by MOOCs. In an article this week at Financial Times, however, they seem to take a slightly different tack. While they have always suggested that it isn’t the MOOC itself, but rather the technology behind chunked video content that threatens disruption, in the new article, Terwiesch and Ulrich discuss ways that technology can be used to “strengthen today’s business schools,” rather than replace them.
Similarly, in a recent article for Inside Higher Ed Kristen Eshleman of Davidson University notes that two of the most important reasons universities try MOOCs—expanding access to education and lowering costs—haven’t actually come to pass. She suggests instead that MOOCs can provide the greatest benefit on campuses through “improving educational outcomes, fostering innovation, and conducting learning research.”
So, the question arises: What aspect of MOOCs is really disruptive? Is it the idea of making education more widely available, or is it the technology behind the courses? This is something we need to think about carefully. Technology can be used in many ways, including to reinforce the status quo. But the idea that anyone with an Internet-connected device can get an education—that is truly revolutionary.
As we move toward the next phase of MOOCs, let’s not forget their greater promise: education for all.