Saturday, May 11, 2013

Can MOOCs just be good enough?

Recently I've used some of my corner of the internet to push some MOOC pessimism and in the course of that argument have taken particular issue with the visions of disruption often put forward by believers in educational technology. Matt Yglesias has a piece up at Slate that goes a long way in clarifying what exactly disruption, in its original formulation as posed by Clayton Christensen in The Innovator's Dilemma, means. In the way it is popularly understood, disruption seems to mean just "to change dramatically the way things are done." But Yglesias takes pains to distinguish this perception from Christensen's idea, which he explains as follows:
Christensen observes that many successful companies spend most of their time working on what he calls “sustaining innovations.” You are IBM, the world’s most successful manufacturer of mainframe computers, and so you pour your energy into building better and better mainframes. You look at your client base—the universe of institutions that need mainframes—and ask yourself how to keep upselling those clients on more and better mainframes. This leaves you vulnerable to a “disruptive” innovation like the personal computer. 
What makes disruptive innovations so deadly is they’re not better than your product. They’re worse. Anyone who needed a mainframe at the dawn of the personal computer era would find a PC to be an incredibly lame and underpowered alternative. So you ignore the alternative in favor of meeting the needs of your customers and perfecting your product. But the disruptive product keeps iterating and improving and selling to people who didn’t need mainframe computers but who do have use for a cheap, flexible PC. Soon enough, the PC market has swamped the mainframe market and your firm is on its last legs. You’ve fallen victim to the innovator’s dilemma: Your own success in the mainframe market blinded you to the real trajectory in the industry.
I've not read Christensen's work, but the idea here seems to be that the initial and most powerful uses of a specific innovation are not always it's most broadly marketable uses. And while the initial innovators devote a lot of time to maximizing the quality of these innovations, they often miss crucial opportunities produce a much more successful product. Put another way, the most powerful or advanced version of a particular innovation might not be the best value proposition. That's why worse innovations can beat out better ones. Because although the innovation might be somewhat worse, it is significantly cheaper, which ultimately gives you more bang for your buck. And because often the broadest market segment doesn't need your innovation to have all the bells and whistles, it would prefer to pay less for a pretty good version than way more for an amazing (but not much more useful to them) version.

So the real question for the future of MOOCs and educational technology (and it's one I admit I didn't confront in my initial thoughts on them) is not whether they provide a more effective education, but rather if they provide a good enough education at a much cheaper price. That question is much harder to answer because it is hard to know how such technologies will continue to improve. Perhaps as the technologies and practices that accompany them continue to improve, they really will be able to provide a "good enough" education. But there are a few things that make me doubt it.

First, it's hard for me to envision an educational technology recreating the sorts of social pressures and academic learning environments that seem essential in causing even good students to follow through on the demands of an education, especially in higher education. Basically, learning is really hard and demands all sorts of self-discipline. Our self-discipline is often subsidized by the social demands and incentives that abound in a school or on a college campus. I go to class not just because I know its what's best for me, but also because I have friends in the class who it would be nice to see, a teacher or professor who might know me well enough to expect (or at least take account of) my presence there, and because when I look out my window or down the hall I see lots of other people going to class. Anyone who has taken an online class knows how tempting it is to leave the lecture running in the other room while you cook dinner, channel surf, or tidy up. Going to a physical space where someone is watching you for signals of attentiveness and where you can see your peers taking notes pushes you to do educationally productive things in a way you might not when you're connecting to your class through a computer.

Second, it seems to me that if MOOCs were to become a viable way to get a good-enough degree on the cheap, there would become significant pressure on them to become degree rubber-stamping factories. Because in a two-tier world of educational options where one is option is great and really expensive and another is pretty good and cheap, you have to imagine that the best students, the ones with the sort of inherent self-discipline to really succeed in a MOOC, would still continue to flock to the better and more prestigious traditional options for higher education. If that's the case, it will be difficult for MOOCs to get their graduation rates high without some slippage in academic standards and, consequently, in reputation.

And if MOOCs and other educational technology innovations can't find a way to ensure that students are completing and passing their classes and earning a degree that has some credibility, it will be hard to meet that "good enough" standard required for disruption.

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