Feeling Disrupted?

January 30th, 2014

Disruption logoA colleague has a great line: when the world ends, he wants to be in the groves of academe. “That’s where everything happens last.” And he has a point. Working on analogies from business, experts like Clayton Christensen, the guru of “disruptive innovation,” tell us academics to brace for accelerating change, even tectonic shifts, but the only tremors seem to be in the press — and sometimes they seem to be delirium tremens. We’re told to expect tsunamis and revolutions, but we look around, not just a day or two but a year or two later, and almost nothing has changed. Make that more like one step forward, two steps back. The New York Times declared 2012 “The Year of the MOOC.” I  called my retrospective on 2013 “The Year of Un-MOOC-ing.”

None of this is news. In fact, if you’ve been following the press, not least of all the popular press, you’ve seen the chastening headlines for some time, like this one from Time magazine in September: “All Hail MOOCs! Just Don’t Ask if They Actually Work.” In addition to those published since my December retrospective, we have obits, including one called “MOOCs: Been There, Done That” that  ushers the disruptive phenom of Massive Open Online Courses into the boneyard where ventures like UNext, AllLearn, NYUOnline, and Fathom are buried. Another, from an economist at Stanford, explains why the colleges that gave rise to the major MOOC providers like Coursera, Udacity, and edX should never accept credit for their MOOCs. Perhaps most tellingly, a recent report on a consortium of universities agreeing to give credit for MOOCs revealed no cases of students asking for such credit: “Once again, an invitation to redeem MOOC learning for traditional credit had been met with the sound of crickets.”

It’s interesting to look at Jeff Selingo’s latest take on the MOOC phenomenon, which first recalls the good old days of MOOCs, the “frenzy prompted The New York Times to declare 2012 ‘the year of the MOOC.'”

Then, last year, all the curiosity and hype that surrounded the 2012 version of MOOCs turned to condemnation and remorse. High-profile campus experiments using the courses proved disappointing. Faculty members at traditional universities fought off efforts to allow the courses to replace face-to-face teaching. As 2013 came to a close, another proclamation about MOOCs arrived in this front-page Times headline: “After Setbacks, Online Courses Are Rethought.”

What makes Selingo’s take interesting is that he was, with Brooks and Friedman, one of the “adapt or die” prophets, a journalist fueling the hype. But he got a book out of it (College (Un)Bound: The Future Of Higher Education And What It Means For Students), and now he is, as his byline notes, “a professor of practice at Arizona State University.” An academic. And you can tell by the way he describes the write-off of MOOCs he’s getting ready to write-off that write-off. After citing that Times article (“After Setbacks, Online Courses Are Rethought“), he continues,

Critics of massive online courses seized on this latest article, along with a recent profile in Fast Company magazine of one of the biggest proponents of MOOCs, Sebastian Thrun of Udacity—where he called the courses “a lousy product”—as evidence that 2014 will be the year when higher education returns to reality and all this talk of disruption finally ends.

Nothing “finally ends” — another rule in academe — so you can see where he’s going with this. As a matter of fact, it was evident in his title, “Innovation in 2014: Welcome to the Evolution“: “Lost in the debate and hype over MOOCs and other innovative ideas to finance and deliver a college degree, however, is that we are living in an important evolutionary moment, not a revolutionary moment, for the future of higher education.”

Uh. OK. Nice to hear. And when were we not living in such a moment?

I would not want suggest that there is nothing to learn from all the Sturm und Drang, or not much more than that a lot of the pasta thrown at the wall slides off — though even that is a lesson worth learning. But I think a more important lesson for journalists (and ex-journalists) to consider is that university administrators and faculty don’t make there best decisions with a gun to their heads. And they work better when they’re looking at evidence and data, not touted potential.

The not so simple fact is that higher education in the US (or anywhere, but especially the US) is a incredibly stratified and complex unsystematic system. People who say they’ve seen the future or know what the next big thing is should acknowledge that, even if they’ve seen something work somewhere (and many didn’t wait for that, of course), what works for some in some place is not going to change (or end) the world. The real lesson to be learned here is the opposite of hubris: have a little humility in the face of complexity.

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