Will MOOCs Destroy the Traditional University ?

26 12 2012

The higher education systems of the developed world face unprecedented pressures for change. Universities have been confronted with a perfect storm of political and technological forces that threaten to undermine their finances. Deficit-trimming governments had cut funding for universities. The debt-fuelled boom in higher education appear to be coming to an end. Moreover, new learning technologies, such as the MOOC, threaten to create mass unemployment for academics and bankruptcy for entire universities.

Some observers, such as HBS’s Clayton Christensen, have predicted that the provision of high quality education online will cause most universities currently in existence to bankrupt. Others, such as Bryan Caplan, have scoffed at such predictions. In this post on the MR blog, Professor Tyler Cowen of Virginia’s George Mason University adopts a middle-of-the-road position and argues that online learning will have a major disruptive effect on higher education, the predictions of doom and gloom are totally overblown. He points out that people’s motivations for attending university are partially social. He really hits the nail on the hear when he writes:

A large number of institutions in the top one hundred will move to a hybrid on-line model for a third or so of their classes and they will do so gradually, without seriously disrupting norms of conformity or eliminating campus life.  In fact this will become the new conformity and furthermore through time-shifting it may increase the quantity and joy of drunken parties and campus orgies.  Eventually these on-line classes will be sold for credit to outside students.  Some top schools will sell credits in this manner, even if the more exclusive Harvard and Princeton do not.  Many lesser schools will lose a third or so of their current tuition revenue stream.  Note that the prices for these on-line credits, even if hybrid, will likely be much lower, plus lesser schools lose revenue to the schools better at designing on-line content. 

Now Tyler is exaggerating a little bit when he suggests that campus orgies are a common feature of university life. More students have probably gone to a meeting of the campus Star Trek club than an orgy. But his basic point is valid: for a lot of people, university is about socialising.

I suspect that in the future, university education will involve a mixture of online learning and face time with the professors.  In fact, this is already the reality at many universities. I know that at my previous employer in Canada, students studying on campus were allowed to take a certain number of the classes the university offered online. The students preferred the online classes, which had initially been designed for people living in remote settlements, because they could listen to/watch the lectures whenever they wanted, which simplified the task of juggling regular classes, off-campus employment, and a social life. However, all of these students felt that it was worthwhile living in residence.

P.S. A consortium of 12 British universities has announced that it will launch a MOOC project called FutureLearn. It’s broadly similar to  Coursera and Udacity, both of which are based in California. It will be interested to see what strategies FutureLearn adopts to try to differentiate itself from the more established MOOCs.