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A lot can change in a year. Twelve months ago, the traditional universities were doomed, condemned to irrelevance by an onslaught of MOOCs. Not every last one of them was going to die; Sebastian Thrun said that perhaps ten might survive. This was not very reassuring for the executives, staff, students, and alumni of the 20,000 universities which don’t fall into the top-10, when ranked according to the criterion: “Universities which will survive MOOCs.”  We haven’t yet seen this category in the Times Higher Ed rankings, but we are sure its appearance is imminent.

One year later, it seems that, like Mark Twain’s, reports of these deaths are greatly exaggerated. In fact, as a Slate writer put it, “Anti-MOOC really is the new black.”  San Jose’s State University’s MOOCs-for-credit experiment has ended in qualified failure. There has been a plethora of articles and commentaries suggesting that the MOOCs were all just a bad dream, and we can go back to the chalkboard with a sigh of relief.

Experienced observers of technology will recognize this as a familiar stage in a cycle. This cycle is so commonplace, it not only has a name, but its name has been trademarked by a bunch of voracious consultants who are asserting ownership of what is really a natural phenomenon in the ecology of disruptive socioeconomic change. Nonetheless, to be fair, and to avoid litigation, we will introduce it by its proper name: the Gartner Hype Cycle (TM).

The Hype Cycle is pretty straightforward. It suggests that each new technology goes through five phases: a) the Technology Trigger, b) the Peak of Inflated Expectations, c) the Trough of Disillusionment, d) the Slope of Enlightenment, and finally e) the Plateau of Productivity. (Folks, they’re consultants, they can’t help talking like that.) Of course, it wouldn’t be worth real consulting fees if there wasn’t a graph, so here it is below.

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Fig. 1: The Gartner Hype Cycle

Some questions we need to ask in terms of MOOCs are:

  • Are MOOCs going to go through the full Hype Cycle? For every example of a technology which underwent this cycle, the skeptic can quote an example of a technology which went through the Peak of Inflated Expectations and then vanished without a trace. (Insofar as anything ever vanishes without a trace — there are still obscure but intense academic conferences on Optical Computing, for example.)
  • If we are on the cycle, in which phase are we, and how fast will the cycle unfold?
  • How should traditional universities, and traditional academics, respond to this progress?

The remainder of this article addresses the first two of questions in some detail; the third requires several articles all by itself.

Are MOOCs going to go through the full Hype Cycle?

Eleanor Saitta, a professional paranoid, has said: “When the Internet encounters an institution, it eviscerates it. Then it replaces it with something that looks very like the Internet.” Paul Graham Raven elaborated on this remark, “This has already happened to the music industry, and it’s currently happening to journalism and publishing. Who’s next in the firing line?”

For technology observers, the real question is, why wouldn’t the Internet eviscerate Higher Ed? It’s so ripe for it. Clay Shirky, in perhaps the best article on the whole subject to date, is not polite: “MOOCs are a lightning strike on a rotten tree.” In fact, one of the unstated reasons why the MOOCs have caused such panic is that it is a rare case of a death foretold.

In 2008, Harvard Business School’s Clayton Christensen, whose writings on innovation have cult status, and whose new books are awaited in Silicon Valley with Harry Potter-like fervor, published “Disrupting Class: How the internet will change the way the world learns.” This was the first time Christensen moved from analyzing past innovation to predicting a future disruption, and he left a deep impression on most readers. So, when the MOOCs appeared, it was as the prophet had foretold: Doom was upon us. And of course, having Silicon Valley venture capitalists throw more money at the MOOCs than they had initially thrown at Google, didn’t do anything to damp down the hysteria. You can read Christensen’s own measured take on MOOCs online.

Why wouldn’t the Internet eviscerate traditional universities? Do traditional universities have some magical protection that newspapers, music distributors, travel agents, advertising, banking, booksellers, matchmaking, photographic agencies, Encyclopaedia Brittanica, and thousands of other eviscerated industries didn’t have?

I have read almost every mainstream article on why MOOCs won’t work, and almost all of them focus on the same two flawed arguments.

The first is that you can’t get a high quality student-teacher or student-peer interaction on the Web. That fact may be correct, but sadly, you can’t get one at 99 percent of modern universities either. What is your institution’s real staff to student ratio? How many of your students have experienced a real Socratic dialogue? Mine neither. As Clay Shirky put it, “We did this to ourselves”.

A real “they don’t get it,” generation-gap feature of this issue is that our Gen Y students experience real peer engagement through technology — so much so, that they’d rather interact online even when they are in the actual presence of each other, leading to increasingly plaintive movements to avoid “phubbing” (the act of socialising online when in the physical company of friends). The idea that an interactive human experience has to be face-to-face, or even granulated in exchanges of more than 140 characters, is alien to them. It’s anecdotally reported that Kleiner Perkins invested $20 million in Coursera, because their number of users grew faster than Facebook’s; if you consider that one out of every eight minutes of global online activity is currently spent on Facebook, it’s hard to take seriously the idea that the socially interactive component of traditional education is going to defend it from online offerings.

The critics who cling to the fact that MOOCs can’t match the quality of education of the elite universities are no more relevant than the audiophiles who told us that MP3 downloads wouldn’t catch on, because the sound quality wasn’t as good as CDs. Free, convenient, and online trumps high quality, every time.

The second flawed argument is that MOOCs have terrible completion rates, and therefore are not effective substitutes for real education. Quoted completion rates for MOOCs courses range from 5 percent to 16 percent.

But does it matter? I think any debate on this issue has to take into account the number of students doing MOOCs, and the costs (real, as well as opportunity cost) involved. A small percentage of a very large number is still a large number — when 14 percent of the 160,000 students who signed up for Udacity’s “Introduction to Programming” passed, that added up to 23,000 completions.

To put this in perspective, I have worked at three public and one private university, and I am certain that if we added up all the students who had ever completed this common freshman course, at all those universities, over their entire histories, it would be unlikely to exceed 10,000 completions. Udacity managed this in three months, with a staff of less than a dozen, and on a budget that wouldn’t get my School’s financial manager excited.

It’s still a troublingly low completion rate, when viewed from the perspective of the individual student. Nonetheless, the non-completion of the course carries almost zero cost. There was no enrolment fee; nobody relocated cities to attend; I imagine no-one left their jobs to study (in fact, we can be certain that an awful lot of people sat under their bosses’ gaze at their office workstations, looking industrious, while they studied); and neither successful nor unsuccessful students were left with crushing study loan debt. Given the massive differences in volume, cost and convenience, comparing MOOCs and traditional delivery on the single critierion of completion rates is not really meaningful.

If MOOCs are going to offer free and convenient higher education, it’s academic to question whether or not they will disrupt the expensive and inconvenient traditional model. The interesting questions are: when, and how much?

Where are we on the Hype Cycle?

This is actually the most interesting question around MOOCs. For universities to develop a useful response, it’s importance to understand how the disruption will unfold, and when.

The speed of the buildup of hype — from the Technology Trigger to the Peak of Inflated Expectations, so to speak – has been extraordinarily fast. Part of this is the Christensen effect, alluded to above, and part is simply the rate of uptake of the MOOCs by an enthusiastic public. The graph below is a screenshot of Google trends for “MOOC”, other appropriate terms give a similar trend curve.

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Fig. 2: Google Trends for “MOOC”

The shape of this curve suggests that we are at, or past, the peak and about to enter the trough. Problems will start to be felt in the traditional sector when the curve turns upward from the trough, although any plans to deal with it ought to be in place long before then. So, when does the storm hit us?

The Very Slow Tsunami

This is where it gets interesting, where the MOOCs narrative departs from the Internet as usual.

Undertaking a university degree is not an impulse purchase, like a book, or a song, or a newspaper; even a periodical or cable TV subscription only lasts a year or two, and involves moderate cost and no time commitment. A traditional university degree is a minimum three-year, whole-of-life experience, which results in a career-defining outcome and a mountain of debt, or cash spent, or some equivalent outlay. Not entirely unlike getting married, in fact.

For a school-leaver in the university demographic, even postponing the start of studies is as consequential as taking them up. So, opting to study online is not a $1 or $10, CD-or-download decision. The US obsession with getting into prestigious colleges is not a fad; it is a sensible response to the brutal economics of the job market and social mobility. (I recommend David Samuels’ “The Runner” as a fascinating meditation on this obsession.) In the early days of the computer industry, it was said that “nobody ever got fired for choosing to buy IBM.” An equivalent statement might be, “Nobody ever ruined their life by going to Harvard.”

A possible view into to this choice might be through the long Windows vs. Linux competition in PC operating systems that started in the 1990s and has persisted until today, although lately it seems to have lost some of its religious fervor. One option was free; the other option was reassuring; in this particular case, the costly option was also the most convenient. The choice required some commitment, and reversing the decision was a painful process.

For most PC owners  — over 90 percent — reassurance and convenience won the day over price. I remember a senior decision maker in a large organization defending his corporate choice of Windows to me: “When Linux doesn’t work, who are you going to call? There’s no-one to pick up the phone and yell at.”

And yet, most PC owners choose Windows, but more processors run Linux. The vast server banks which sent you this article are almost certainly running Linux; the domain name servers and intelligent switches which route it to you are probably running Linux. Similarly, in phones, the iOS vs. Android market is showing the same outcome. In the end, the volume market is dominated by the low cost option, every time. The key phrase here, though, is “in the end.” It takes a while. MOOCs vs. traditional is not a sprint race; it is a marathon.

The school leavers of 2013 are not going to go the MOOCs route. They can’t. As of this writing, there is no MOOCs undergraduate degree program, and only one sort-of-MOOC Master’s degree. They are going to commit into three, four and five year academic programs, and they will be locked in to the traditional route thereafter.

The school leavers of 2014 are going to have some MOOCs degree options to choose from. It’s a big life decision — who’s going to jump first? Certainly not the wealthy kids, who can afford Harvard. And as we all know, the wealthy kids tend to define which are the fashionable options.

The first MOOCs adopters will be the kids and families for whom “free” is a compelling argument. Don’t forget, though, that within the last year we have adopted a new way of referring to this demographic: the 99 percent. Now, 99 percent of humanity is an awfully large target market. It’s not really that straightforward, though. In most Western countries, a significantly large percentage of school leavers will still have the option of paying for college, usually with massive debt, and almost all of them will take this safe choice. Once again, they are locking themselves in for the duration of their studies.

The kids of 2015 will not have seen any successful MOOCs graduates yet — certainly not successful in the career sense — but it will be a tempting option, and some of them will jump. The rich kids will still sign up for Harvard without a second thought.

And so it goes. This is the very slow tsunami of the title — a gradual but inexorably rolling change in societal and professional attitudes, pinned at one end by the bedrock certainty that the elite institutions produce the elite people, and pulled at the other end by the growing awareness that free isn’t necessarily junk, and it’s, well, free. It will take 10 or 20 years, and be imperceptible while it happens, like boiling a frog. When did newspapers actually die? I’m not sure, but Fairfax Media made 2000 people redundant last July, so perhaps it’s a death which is still in progress.

Harvard and Cambridge are safe, forever, for the same reason that some people still buy Rolls-Royce motor cars (no, I don’t know either, it’s a rich thing). For the mid-range institutions, there is probably a happy 10-year window in which they are safe and can continue in blissful ignorance. Given that almost every senior university executive I have ever met has less than 10 years to go to retirement, don’t bet your life that they will take this problem seriously (we call this the “horizon problem” — an executive’s outlook extends only as far as a horizon defined by his or her retirement date, plus six months).

The figure below gives our best guess of how the cycle will unfold. We have positioned the end point on the uptake curve at 2023, ten years from now (Gartner call this the “Slope of Enlightenment,” which in this context is either entirely appropriate or deeply ironic, depending on your point of view). Why 10 years out Bill Gates’ statement that “we always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten” is surprisingly consistent for technology upheavals, and in the case of education, given the locked-in inertia described above, the longer end of this range is appropriate.

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Fig. 3: A projection of the Hype Cycle for MOOCs

Assuming that you’re an academic and you weren’t planning to retire in the next decade, what then? There’s no simple answer to that; however, knowing that your institution is not going to die next year, but will probably become terminally ill in the next decade, should both sharpen your thoughts and give you some time to develop some strategies for co-existing with the MOOCs.

[Image courtesy Wikimedia]