“Innovation Exhaustion”

July 11th, 2013

The rhetoric about and around MOOCs seems to have moved to a new place in the past week or so — with the obvious but still necessary proviso that the term “MOOCs” is less and less about what it stands for [Massive Open Online Courses], more and more a kind of shorthand for disruptive innovation in higher education. As such, the term almost always appears in the plural, connoting not one thing but a variety of flavors, many of which are not, in fact, massive, or open, or entirely online, or even courses in a standard, stand-alone sense.

It is with respect this fuzzy construction that we have reached a new stage, not so much (or not just) of further fuzziness, but of what Dan Greenstein, of the Gates Foundation, recently called “innovation exhaustion“–noting that “innovation exhaustion comes out in an obvious and growing frustration with MOOCs.”

Some of this is reflected in new waves of faculty backlash, spawning headlines like “Could Professors’ Resistance Derail Online Learning?”  (which, not atypically, confounds MOOCs and online learning generally). But this, too, has changed. There is, after all, more than grumbling and the occasional op-ed piece. Academics are getting organized. I had reported earlier on the Committee on Institutional Cooperation’s position paper about avoiding the corporatization major MOOC providers seem to represent. There is also Association of American Colleges and Universities and the faculty-led Campaign for the Future of Higher Education, the former decrying the MOOCs’ amplification of higher ed’s “least productive pedagogy” (lectures/testing), the latter fearing doing “serious damage to a generation of students by just throwing them into MOOCs” — both cited in a recent Inside Higher Ed piece called “Beyond MOOC Hype.”

That article likens the trending perception of MOOCs to certain points in a Gartner hype cycle — going from from a “peak of inflated expectations” to a “trough of disillusionment” — and a lot of that also has to do with practical, economic considerations: the failure of a viable, sustainable business model to emerge, the fact that, for all the hype, there’s very little market penetration, the recent survey showing that just 4% of the American public had any real familiarity with MOOCs.

That, of course, is not the real or full story, even from an economic angle. The business case for MOOCs rests not on their viability, either financially or pedagogically; it rests on their potential as an alternative to an increasingly unworkable business model for traditional higher ed — afflicted by rising costs, declining public support, steep(ening) tuition, ballooning student debt. In a piece this week called “MOOCs and Economic Reality,” Clay Shirky noted that

MOOCs represent a change in expectations among our clientele that cannot easily be contained in traditional structures. For as long as students and their parents have nervously scanned tuition bills, they’ve asked themselves “Isn’t there another way to do this?” And for that long, the answer has been “no.” Now, for the first time, the answer is “maybe.”

That bright and shining “maybe” may be behind the reason that, as Forbes noted yesterday, Coursera has another $43 million in venture capital. It could also be why foreign competitors to the likes of Coursera are emerging, as the Chronicle noted at the end of last week. There’s lots of investment in something that has yet to show return on investment. And though investors have sometimes been wrong, even spectacularly, it’s fair to suppose there’s some serious thinking behind this flow of funding and activity.

It may be that we are not only too conventional in our thinking about the delivery of higher ed but also too conventional in our consideration of its clientele. As Len Sherman recently pointed out in a blog post (with the possibly punning title “Whither Higher Education?“), whether or not MOOCs work for traditional college students is not, really, the question: “In the long term, resistance from incumbent stakeholders will eventually be overcome by two large and powerful constituencies poorly served by today’s status quo: the 70% of US adults who do not have a college degree and the large number of employers challenged by a skills gap in the recruiting marketplace.”

These are of course external constituencies as far as higher ed is concerned, un(der)served because higher ed hasn’t made serving them a priority. But there may be an even more interesting reason that, for all the MOOC hype, there’s so little MOOC bandwagon in higher ed: Sherman points to a “significant faculty skills gap that constrains many colleges and universities from gaining widespread buy-in to exploit emerging technologies.” This not only exists but is likely to persist because

graduate students pursuing a career in academia typically get limited formal guidance on general teaching skills, let alone tutorials on emerging technologies to digitally enhance their classrooms. On most campuses, there is simply too little opportunity and incentive for junior or senior faculty to lead the charge on pedagogical experimentation.

Too true. And it is surely one great reason why, in this particular case as well as generally, disruptive innovation tends to come from the outside. Greenstein is right — higher ed’s reaction to all the MOOC hype is “innovation exhaustion.” But the exhaustion comes not from actual innovation, just from hearing about it so much. In the current near-vacuum of transformative change, innovation itself will likely largely continue to come from forces outside (or at best on the fringes), even if their outsiderhood is held against them.

  1. Alyson Vogel Says:

    A phrase popped into my head while reading this… the deMOOCratization of education- maybe that’s how it will get in the heads of the public because that 4% is such a tiny number for such a big idea to grow and flourish!(I’m almost afraid to Google it lest I discover that someone else much smarter has already coined it). I gather that a good portion of the 4% are info savvy educators like those who read this blog and not too many of the needy education clientele it means to attract. ROI indeed.

    While we’ve only touched the surface of wondering how we might best help in guiding our fellow CUNY colleagues who’ve expressed interest in wanting to invest what’s left of their limited time and energy in online education, I don’t see myself suggesting a professor even consider MOOCing yet. However I would love to be able to resource the best minds in the world and help my faculty locate and build an educational framework around some extraordinary and available materials now proliferating for absolutely free so they may make the most value for a student’s dollar.

    Lastly I’ll admit that hearing the Blackboard support of a MOOC platform announcement does raise my curiosity level meter just a bit closer to the green line.

    There… I just peeked and Googled my new word… and it tried valiantly to correct me: “did you mean ‘democratization’?” Well… kinda. Meme anyone?

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