Grazing - a personal blog from Steve Ehrmann

Steve Ehrmann is an author, speaker, and consultant.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Disruptive Innovations and MOOCs

We've been bombarded with news stories about the disruptive threat of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

While MOOCs can be useful, they don't seem likely to be disruptive.  To understand why, let's take a closer look at the definition of a MOOC and then at what we know about disruptive innovations.

What's a "MOOC?"

There are at least five definitions of "MOOC" in use:
  1. A single course that can attract thousands of learners ("Massive"), is completely free ("Open"), and is online ("Online Course"). This was the initial definition of MOOC and is the one I'll be using in this blog post. 
  2. A course that is designed for massive numbers of students, is free and online but doesn't actually attract more than a few dozen students. If an institution offers twelve MOOCs to the world, and only one has more than 20 students, how many MOOCs was that? 
  3. A course that is comparatively inexpensive (the student must buy a book and pay to be assessed or certified), is online, and for which massive enrollments are hoped.  (Personally, I call these MIOCs - Massive Inexpensive Online Courses).
  4. The materials for massive courses (e.g., their presentation materials, texts, tutorials, online discussion tools, auto-graded tests, etc.) which are then adapted by different colleges in order to offer their own, tuition-based, small enrollment courses.  (I'll be writing a future blog post about the possibilities and hazards of this model, which resembles the telecourse strategy that was popular a couple decades ago. 
  5. Any course offered with a learning management system that was originally developed to support MOOCs (definition #1) even when the course itself is a conventional online course: small enrollment, not at all free.
That said, let's just focus on the original definition: #1.  

What kind of education does a MOOC offer?  

Think of a self-help book or a set of instructional videos - you'll get the idea of what instruction without teachers can look like. Or imagine inviting anyone interested in learning to be a nurse to come to a football stadium to watch instructional video about physiology on the Jumbotron.  A MOOC is more than just instructional material so imagine that your learners also have machine-graded tests and the option to talk with other students. And imagine that learners are also given guidelines to use if they choose to assess one another's work.

What happens when people try such an educational experience, in the football stadium or online?

Not surprisingly, most of those who sign in take a peek and then walk away. Only a tiny fraction are motivated enough and prepared enough to work their way through all the materials. 

Is it possible that this experience does more than teach them to cram for a test? Will that experience help them act competently and wisely in the world? In part, that depends on the subject.   

  • COuld someone who studied Algebra 1 that way be adequately prepared to take algebra 2?
  • Could someone who took enough French MOOCs think and speak in French sufficiently well to live in France?  
  • Would someone who learned medicine that way be trustworthy as a nurse in an operating room?
It seems to me that, like self-help books and instructional videos, MOOCs have a role in helping people learn. But it's likely to be a different role than instructional forms that involve more intensive coaching and interaction with experts and peers.  Self-study has its limits.

MOOCs are attracting so much attention because so many people see the tens of thousands of learners signing up, and see a tidal wave, a disruptive innovation that can displace or destroy more expensive forms of learning.  Online music once seemed a crude curiosity, but eventually online music destroyed most record stores.  Are MOOCs the first step in that kind of disruptive innovation?

What Makes an Innovation Disruptive?

The term “disruptive innovation” was popularized by Clayton Christensen.  Christensen demonstrated that, while only a tiny fraction of innovations have that potential to destroy whole industries, such disruptive innovations often have similar life histories.

Here's a summary of that common narrative thread.  
  1. The story begins with a dominant product and the industry creating it.  And now appears an innovation which, compared with the dominant product, is much less expensive but so bad that only someone who can't afford the dominant product might want to use it. People producing or using the dominant product don't see the innovation as a threat.  (Those of us with long memories might think of the computer industry of 1980 and the early microcomputer kits, of records v. CDs, or CDs versus online MIDI music.
  2. The innovation does sell and as it improves and appeals to more people who aren't using the dominant product, income increases. The income funds still more product improvement.  Now the product begins to appeal to marginal customers of the dominant product.  The quality is still far less and the marginal customers aren't going to be missed.  (Imagine if a company came up with an inexpensive way to teach Slavic Languages and other lesser taught languages, good enough so that many people became accustomed to learning languages that way instead of taking college courses.  Most universities wouldn't consider that a threat, even though they were losing some credits they might otherwise have sold.  
  3. Often at a relatively early stage, people in the dominant industry notice the growing innovation and try incorporating it. But the requirements of the innovation are so different that it fails to thrive inside the dominant organizations, even while it is growing outside. (With MOOCs, for example, almost all the 'teaching' effort comes before the students arrive and it requires a team; once students begin, the MOOC is expected to run itself. But universities don't even assign faculty a teaching assistant until the term begins.)
  4. The innovation's expanding stream of revenue and customer acceptance enables continuing improvement and wider markets.  This evolving innovation now appeals to some of the customers in the dominant part of the industry  (imagine the grandchildren of MOOCs could somehow provide effective general education more effectively than survey courses taught by mathematics and physics departments.)  Those new customers help finance even more improvements in the new product. 
  5. The innovation continues to improve and capture new markets.  The "disruption" happens when he dominant industry has lost so much revenue that it can no longer support itself.  Tower Records goes bankrupt. 
The story of disruptive innovation might repeat itself, with the conqueror eventually conquered by a still newer innovation. 

Are MOOCs likely to Disrupt Anything?

MOOCs don't follow Christensen's narrative: they're free and have few options for generating revenue: advertisements sold for exposure to students, and student data used by advertisers. That revenue doesn't seem likely to build to levels that would pay for keeping the first generation of MOOCs up to date, improving the state of the art, and paying for development of a second, larger generation of MOOCs.  

Several years ago, everyone was talking about Second Life as an educational innovation of huge importance.  Hundreds (thousands?) of educational institutions, including GW, invested in creating 'campuses' in this virtual world.  That predicted disruption is one of dozens from just the last few decades that never happened.  There have certainly been some transformative uses of technology that,e even now, are subtly reshaping higher education teaching and economics.  But none of them fit Christensen's model of disruption.

Can MOOCs be Useful?


1. Sharing it forward. Universities are the beneficiary of charity from countless other people: alumni giving gifts, our own teachers, our colleagues, our neighbors...  MOOCs are a way of paying it forward to learners we might not otherwise ever see, some of whom may be very talented and very motivated - perhaps even more talented and motivated than most students we teach every day.  It's the same motivation that might prompt a faculty member to work with his or her undergraduates to write, or improve, a free online open textbook like this one.  There are already hundreds of such instructional resources and the number is growing rapidly.

2.  Marketing a university's strengths to a new population of learners: Suppose GW wanted to begin offering a hybrid degree program in bio-engineering to students in Brazil.  But many students and educators in Brazil might not know about GW's expertise in this field.  So, to spread the word, we might also try creating the world's best Portuguese MOOC in bioengineering and take care to market it in Brazil. .  In our MOOC's materials, we would interleave information about our tuition-based program in Brazil, the one that involves face-to-face interaction, coaching, assessment, and certification from real experts. By striking that contrast, we'd reduce the chance that Brazilian learners would assume that GW offers them only online instruction without teachers. 

3. Testing innovative educational materials or methods in a big way.  I suspect this MOOC potential is being oversold even though it does have some potential.  Imagine testing materials for a freshman course by first trying them in a best-selling self-help book on the same subject.  That would certainly help you see if the materials are exceptionally engaging and easy to use. And it would yield lots more student data than a campus course enrolling only a few dozen students.  But materials that could have worked quite well on campus might fail in a MOOC where learners have less coaching and are likely give up far more quickly. If the goal is to use a MOOC to perfect materials for campus use, the hazard is what researchers call a 'false negative.' To put it another way, materials that might require, say, 10 hours of effort before they perform adequately on campus might require 50 hours of development work in order to perform equally well in a MOOC. (The Annenberg/CPB Project routinely invested $2 million in a course in order to produce materials that would be adequate for distant learners.)


So MOOCs (free online courses) aren't by themselves the harbinger of disruption to the norms of higher education?  What about Massive Inexpensive Online Courses whose materials can be used by individual colleges to teach small classes with less faculty labor? Is that a good idea? potentially disruptive? And what about more conventional online education? How disruptive might that become? I'll address those questions in future posts.

In the meantime, do you agree with the picture I've painted of MOOCs? Do you have different notions of what 'disruption' means?