Things That Can’t Last Don’t: Clay Shirky on the disruption of higher education by MOOCs

The cost of attending college is rising above inflation every year, while the premium for doing so shrinks. This obviously can’t last, but no one on the inside has any clear idea about how to change the way our institutions work while leaving our benefits and privileges intact.

In the academy, we lecture other people every day about learning from history. Now its our turn, and the risk is that we’ll be the last to know that the world has changed, because we can’t imagine—really cannot imagine—that story we tell ourselves about ourselves could start to fail. Even when it’s true. Especially when it’s true. 

Clay Shirky recently published a wide-angle perspective on the disruption of higher education by MOOCs: Napster, Udacity, and the Academy. To set the stage, Shirky cites the recent history of the music industry:

“our MP3 is the massive open online course (or MOOC), and our Napster is Udacity, the education startup.”

If you’ve not been studying the rapid evolution of free online education, then Shirky offers an excellent introduction. If you have been following MOOCs closely, then I suggest you go straight to the Shirky blog — Clay has some angles that you may not have thought of.

One area that needs a lot more discussion is how credentialing is going to work, and the acceptance thereof by employers. Personally, I think the learning part of higher education is going to benefit enormously from the blossoming of efforts like Coursera and Udacity. This is true even for the lucky few who can afford to give up four+ productive income-earning years while they borrow or spend $250,000+ to attend Stanford, MIT or Oxford. That’s because the MOOCs offer a very effective laboratory for learning about learning while experimenting with new learning modalities. If you spend a bit of time reading the Kahn Academy and Udacity blogs you’ll see that they have an intense focus on learning how students learn and what facilitators are effective.

But the most important payoff will not be collected until Google or Rand Corp. accept and respect demonstrated competence from successful MOOC students. Udacity is advancing on this front. E.g., they are partnering with Pearson on testing. Further, Udacity is channeling high-accomplishment students to employers. Both for fees. Education is free if you work at it. The benefits of what you have learned will cost a little bit. And employers will pay their share.

I’m optimistic that demonstrated competence will gain stature relative to elite school degrees. Just thinking about the tech industry, the vast majority of the thousands of new engineers needed are going to have to come from the median college – not just the elite schools.

Those that forecast MOOCs diminishing the power  of the elites are likely to be proven wrong. The elite schools will continue to deliver the signaling and peer grouping benefits. For those with the bucks — the elite schools will continue to be a shortcut to the yellow brick road. But what really matters to the economy and to the next generation, is how the median college performs — how much competence a college graduate buys for their investment.

7 thoughts on “Things That Can’t Last Don’t: Clay Shirky on the disruption of higher education by MOOCs

  1. Part of education consists of students interacting with the instructor and each other. Although on-line learning has its place, it in itself is not an adequate substitute for well-designed and well-run classrooms.

    Archaic instruction methods should be replaced. By archaic, I mean having an instructor lecture while students take notes, missing part of the lecture as they do so, and trying not to fall asleep. Lectures, in general, should be replaced by reading, either traditional books, or on-line. Then, after the students have read and studied the material, they should meet in small classrooms with an instructor to discuss what they have read. That technique has been shown to be far more effective and efficient than trying to keep awake while listening to lectures.

  2. Thanks for your comments – very much on target I think. The jargon for the concept you outlined is “the inverted classroom” where the lecture phase is consumed at home on the student’s schedule. And what used to be lecture time is high value peer group learning, or seminars, or tutoring — the modalities that are amplified by face to face.

    • I wish it had been like that when I was in college. For me, lectures didn’t work very well; if I missed something, it was gone forever. When reading, if I didn’t understand something, I could always re-read it. I did much better with subjects where most of the learning was based on reading.

      However, there is significant room for text book improvement. It seems that some text book authors are paid by the word instead of being paid by the actual content. Also, there doesn’t seem to be an incentive to write in such a way that it is easy for the reader to understand. I particularly remember one economic text book. I re-read the first page of one chapter several times and still wasn’t sure of the points the author was trying to make. So, I actually outlined it and then realized that the author had written an entire page which contained practically no information. Students’ time is too precious to be wasted by unnecessary and pointless verbage.

      If education were based on studies to determine which methods are most effective, probably students could acquire a good education faster and less expensively.

  3. If education were based on studies to determine which methods are most effective, probably students could acquire a good education faster and less expensively.

    That’s exactly where the innovators like Udacity and Kahn Academy are going. They are rapidly developing their MOOC platforms to support controlled experimentation. BTW, this is one of the reasons that Google has progressed so rapidly – they are constantly running experiments on us – the users.

  4. Well done Steve. What I love most about writing about the coming disruption in higher education is that every time I do, I get pelted with several harshly negative “It’ll never work” comments from people that, upon further googling, are always university faculty members. Assume the crash position, Professor!

    • Dave, that shouldn’t be surprising. Entrenched bureaucrats often resist change; they feel threatened by it. We need to get rid of the dead wood and use teaching methods that work better and cost less. Good teaching methods also teach students to think for themselves.

      The lecture method of teaching was appropriate in the olden days before the printing press, mimeograph, and Xerox were invented. Times have changed, a fact that we should have recognized centuries ago. Now classes should be used mainly for discussion of what has already been read.

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