Why MOOCs won’t kill universities

Forget the dire predictions – universities aren’t finished.

The MOOC evangelists have predicted that the disruption they will wreak will mean that universities are dead in the water. Christiansen foretells wholesale university bankruptcies within 10 years (since extended to 15 years). Sebastian Thrun goes further, asserting apocalyptically that within half a century there will only be 10 (10!) universities left in the world.

The evidence base underpinning these sweeping predictions is, to say the least, limited and I am therefore reluctant to invest too much effort in offering an alternative view. So you won’t find too many references here.

It is also genuinely disappointing to see the relish with which some commentators anticipate the demise of our institutions of higher learning. Fortunately, they are talking piffle as the following points demonstrate conclusively.

The future for universities?

Not the future for universities

Eight reasons then why MOOCs won’t kill universities:

  1. More not fewer. Rather than sweep institutions aside MOOCs will actually prompt growth in HE providers. The increase in the range and accessibility of online resources will stimulate demand for local universities and colleges which will have to expand to meet the expectations of those who have had their appetite whetted and have demonstrated they have the ability to pursue a higher education course.
  2. Disappointment with MOOCs. For many, not least the 9 in 10 who drop out of MOOCs, the disappointment which results from the limitations of the format or the poor quality of the provision or a multiplicity of other reasons for deciding that online content delivery is not for them may leave them wanting more. More traditional higher education providers will be on hand to offer a more rounded experience which might overcome this disappointment and build on the newly discovered enthusiasm for learning. If even a small proportion of those who don’t complete their MOOCs decide to enrol then demand for mainstream HE will grow not shrink.
  3. Universities are innovative too. Higher Education is actually rather good at innovation. Despite the appearance of stability and consistency at the core over many years (centuries in some cases) universities have always supported and nurtured innovation. They have also been subject to and had to adapt to radical changes down the years. So, there is really nothing new here for HE and we can expect plenty of interesting and creative responses to the MOOC movement. Indeed universities are accustomed to disruption and change. One of the mistakes the MOOC evangelists make is to conflate system sluggishness with institutional, departmental and individual indolence. Universities are home to many outstanding innovators and entrepreneurs and can offer incredibly dynamic and fast-moving research environments. Let’s not forget where the MOOC leaders first got their breaks
  4. Governments want to invest in HE. Governments almost everywhere continue to believe HE is a good bet for economic success and national prosperity and they will therefore continue to invest in universities regardless of the numbers claimed to be enrolling on MOOCs. There are, according to Webometrics,  currently at least 21,000 universities across the globe. This number will continue to go up in the next few years not down.
  5. Quality counts. It’s all about quality of outputs not just the inputs. If universities close it will be because of poor quality provision not as a result of MOOC offerings in themselves. It is just as likely that student demand will force weaker providers to raise their game.
  6. University diversity means most will survive. The MOOC zealots seem to think all universities, at least outside the Ivy League, are the same. They aren’t. Diversity is a strength.
  7. Universities are cunning. Bandwagon jumping by some institutions is arguably either a clever subversive tactic to undermine MOOCs from inside or a deliberate distraction from alternative disruptive innovations being undertaken by universities. I’m not allowed to say which.
  8. Universities award degrees, diplomas, certificates and credit. MOOC consortia don’t. HE providers therefore hold quite a few cards when it comes to certification of learning. MOOC enthusiasts bleat about this a lot as if it is somehow unfair. It isn’t. It’s the difference between a university with hundreds of years of public investment, history, intellectual capital and legal (or regal) underpinning and a collection of snappy videos. You don’t get to award degrees just because you want to.

So, there you have it. Despite what the doom-mongers say, universities will continue to thrive, prosper and grow. It really takes a bit more than a few MOOCs to change that.

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7 thoughts on “Why MOOCs won’t kill universities

  1. Pingback: Why MOOCs won’t kill universities | Registrarism | ProComMotion

  2. Here here. For now I also see little point in exerting effort to counter so many over blown fear mongering articles on the future of universities. Instead I would like to quote the most pertinent point from above that seems to be forgotten too often:

    “Universities are home to many outstanding innovators and entrepreneurs and can offer incredibly dynamic and fast-moving research environments. Let’s not forget where the MOOC leaders first got their breaks”

    Well said. That being said, the more they continue to innovate with online or tech supported learning, the better. Wink wink. All the best.

    PS – Our developer just shared this with me – http://bit.ly/VqtOHb Whether or not it is relevant to this article or to our impending education project is questionable. Nevertheless this the Bill and Melinda Gates fund is one of many very positive funds encouraging edutech. I think we should be focussing on how emerging trends and needs can complement universities (as well as prepare pupils for uni), rather than compete.

  3. Nicely put! I’m curious what you think about the flip side: Will universities kill MOOCs? Or at least the ideal or promise being promoted of MOOCs offering access to ‘university quality’ courses for those who are somehow restricted from participating in formal education? Will the credential become the focus, or will knowledge for its own sake become increasingly recognised?

  4. Pingback: The Imperfect University: Sectoral change since Robbins and into the future | Registrarism

  5. Pingback: By not very popular demand: it’s the top Registrarism posts of 2013 | Registrarism

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