The dominant story in higher education for 2012 was clearly the rise of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), particularly the xMOOCs such as Coursera, Udacity, and edX. There has been a lot of debate on the merits of xMOOCs in terms of disruption, business model and academic quality. While I think these questions are interesting, the more important impact from xMOOCs can be seen in terms of forcing higher education as a system or culture to no longer ignore online education as a self-contained side issue and instead evaluate the role of online education for all of higher education.
Ignoring the Impact of Online Education
For decades, if not centuries, the higher education system in the US has been holding on to a relatively stable status quo. Demand for postsecondary degrees constantly rises, the economic value of these degrees rises, the reputation of institutions remains high. This status quo has held despite two very uncomfortable underlying issues. One is that tuition and total student costs at a faster rate than inflation or even health care. The second is that US higher education as a system has not leveraged the remarkable gains from technology that almost every other industry has achieved.
It's true that there have been many innovations in higher education based on technology usage such as online software, but the system at large has been remarkably resilient and avoided any structural change. Yes, the vast majority of institutions have a centrally-supported LMS, but the pedagogical design of most courses has remained unchanged. Yes, many individual faculty have designed rich learning experiences within their courses, but their departments and colleges have typically resisted the uncomfortable discussion of whether these new pedagogical models should diffuse to the broader set of courses and programs. Yes, there have been online education innovations from for-profits and even public colleges such as Rio Salado and SNHU, but these organizations have remained self-contained and not directly affected the mainline non-profit educational model.
One of the core beliefs that has held together this status quo has been the assumption that online education is necessarily inferior to face-to-face lecture-based models. This assumption holds that the non-elite sectors that serve the lower rung of degree-seeking students might be able to handle online education - particularly served by for-profits and community colleges - but the elite institutions have avoided online education since they need to preserve their reputation for quality.
Jerry Weinberg described in his series Quality Software Management how the Satir Change Model, which is similar to Everett Rogers work, can describe much of the change process arising from technology-based innovations. The model shows how social systems or cultures react to a transformative event through various stages (see Steve Smith's post for more information).
The issue for our discussion is that a foreign element - the change or innovation - is the key event that triggers the move away from the late status quo. This change typically leads to resistance, and eventually to a period of chaos. During these two phases, the performance of the social system fluctuates to a large degree and actually is often worse than during the status quo phase, as the social system wrestles with how to integrate the change in a manner that produces benefits. The second key event is the transforming idea, when people determine how to integrate the innovation into the core of the social system. This integration phase leads to real performance improvements as well as less fluctuation. As the innovation reaches a critical mass, a new status quo develops.
The foreign element that dismantles the status quo is not necessarily the basis of technology adoption that gets adopted. The transforming idea is typically related to the foreign element, but it is not equivalent.
It is not a given that the innovation actually takes hold, there are cases where the social system does not benefit from the innovation.
MOOCs as Foreign Element
The real significance of xMOOCs, in my opinion, is that they are acting as the foreign element triggering the end of the status quo. The key method of this change was the removal of the core assumption that online learning is necessarily inferior to face-to-face education.
This assumption changed when the elite of the elites - Stanford, Harvard & MIT - publicly declared from the highest levels of the administration that online learning and educational technology was here to stay.
- Stanford created the first xMOOCs in 2011 that led to the creation of Coursera and Udacity. Subsequently, in 2012 Stanford president John Hennessy described "the coming tsunami in educational technology" including the view that colleges should embrace online education and that traditional lectures are becoming obsolete.
- Harvard and MIT jointly create edX in 2012, with each school committing $30M of investment in this new venture.
- MIT appoints a dean of digital learning with the mission to "assess how new models of online instruction ... might become integral parts of MIT students’ on-campus education".
- Stanford appoints a vice provost for online learning as "part of a larger Stanford Online initiative that the university said would restructure learning and better position it as a worldwide learning institution".
Higher education is a tight, networked community with an established pecking order in institutional reputation. How can a school brush off the importance of online education when Stanford, Harvard and MIT say that online education not only is good enough for them, but it will also improve their traditional courses? This question was at the core of the clumsy firing and reinstatement of the president of the University of Virginia. As described by Helen Dragas, chair of UVa's board:
We see no bright lights on the financial horizon as we face limits on tuition increases, an environment of declining federal support, state support that will be flat at best, and pressures on health care payors. This means that as an institution, we have to be able to prioritize and reallocate the resources we do have, and that our best avenue for increasing resources will be through passionate articulation of a vision and effective development efforts to support it. We also believe that higher education is on the brink of a transformation now that online delivery has been legitimized by some of the elite institutions. [snip, emphasis added]
The Board believes this environment calls for a much faster pace of change in administrative structure, in governance, in financial resource development and in resource prioritization and allocation. We do not believe we can even maintain our current standard under a model of incremental, marginal change. The world is simply moving too fast."
The challenge is that the higher education system has not found the transforming idea yet. We're in the chaotic period where system performance is fluctuating wildly, and in many cases the changes brought by MOOCs and other forms of online education actually are harming the output. There are some wins, there are some losses.
So what are the implications of viewing xMOOCs circa 2012 as a foreign element?
- The late status quo has been dismantled and we will not go back. While we don't know how quickly changes will come or in what form, but change driven by online education is upon us.
- The current generation of xMOOCs served their role as foreign element that dismantled the late status quo. The transforming idea will most likely not be xMOOCs as they now stand - there are multiple models of online education that are now being evaluated in a new environment.
- The conversations and decisions about online education are often being driven from presidential cabinets and boardrooms rather than just among specialists. This changing conversation will be frustrating for those who have expertise and deep knowledge in online, but it will also be an opportunity to influence changes that were not possible before.