The death or the rebirth of universities in a time of disruption?

Publicerat 26 September 2017

The higher education system is facing a time of disruption. The rapid development of Massive Open Online Courses, MOOCs, has generated a lively debate. The effect on the existing higher education is in focus. Can MOOCs really be an alternative to face to face classroom teaching? Despite this legitimate scepticism, the number of universities offering MOOCs increase at a rapid pace. As MOOCs went from an experimental phase to become well established in 2012, more and more universities jumped on the bandwagon. Some clearly see an opportunity, while others seem to join without a clearly formulated strategy. Jumping or not, all universities are today expected to have an answer to the question: What are your plans within the MOOC area?

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The disruptive innovation theory indicates that we can expect dramatic changes

So far, the phenomenon follows the disruptive innovation theory by Clayton Christensen: incumbents regard the new service to be of a much lower quality; the new innovation target underserved or new customer segments; the service is offered at much lower price levels; the offer is less complete but holds the potential to develop fast meeting demands of present customers, “ordinary students” in this case. The disruptive innovation theory indicates that we can expect dramatic changes within the higher education industry. The core of the disruptive nature of MOOCs is, compared to ordinary face to face higher education, the very limited incremental cost to add one additional student along with that the service is ubiquitous. These two characteristics combined, lay the foundation for a very fast penetration. This pattern has earlier been seen for other internet based business models challenging established industries.

Consolidation and a shake out

The MOOC development can the coming years be expected to go through a number of distinct phases. We are still in a “proof of concept” phase and the business model is still not set. Distance learning courses do not significantly affect existing traditional universities, their funding or enrolment. The next phase may be triggered by MOOCs offering real exams, starting to cannibalize on the existing traditional university education. This may still have a limited effect until MOOC exams and degrees become accepted by employers as a substitute to ordinary degrees. First at this stage the existing education will have significant issues with the competition, most probably resulting in a massive shakeout. Good or bad may be discussed, but this scenario trigger the immune system of most university organizations, fearing decreasing demand for university education as we know it today. Focusing the debate on the potential cannibalism on today’s university education does however seem misdirected.

A democratization of higher education

When analyzing the university education of today, we tend to forget that it is “inaccessible” to huge groups of potential students. Statistics from courses given reveal that MOOCs attract a much broader spectrum of students. Not only do the students come from all over the world, the age distribution is much more evenly distributed across all ages. Even if not revealed directly by the information given about enrolled students, we can guess that: quite poor students manage to take courses; courses are to a much higher extent taken in parallel to work; there may be a more equal gender distribution in specific geographies; etc. MOOCs remove critical barriers for taking university level courses making them accessible anytime, anywhere and to all (with access to internet services). High quality education is made available to the masses with no limits in terms of classroom sizes, geographical proximity or financial situation. No one needs to feel misplaced due to gender, nationality, race, religion or age. Higher education seems finally to become truly democratized. However, there are costs.

Impact on the quality when the number of students rise from 100 to 100.000 students per class

The likely university shakeout and increasing class size for 100 students to 100.000 students have to affect the overall supply of high quality courses. Decreasing the number of generic basic courses, in subjects such as algebra, economics or IT, may not be a bad idea but we risk also significantly reducing the number and supply of niche courses targeting very limited groups. The MOOC debate needs to expand from just considering the present education scope targeting 18-25 year old students to fully grasp the true potential making higher education available to all. Are universities fighting this development? Isn’t democratization of higher education the foundation for our modern society? Protectionism, defending the monopoly of education seems misguided. Instead of discussing how to save universities with limited value add, support this democratization process and focus on developing mechanisms and incentives to maintain educational diversity in terms of niche subjects, local culture and languages.

/Dr. Martin Vendel, digitalization expert