What is really so disruptive about MOOCs?

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are getting quite the attention. Through platforms like Coursera, edX and Iversity, top class academic institutions are delivering their education for free. And they indeed have massive enrollment. So, it’s no wonder that MOOCs have been billed as disruptors of higher education. They’re opening up higher education to the masses.

However, there has been some critiques. Those showing up are mostly the already educated, and only relatively few complete the courses. Another critique is that some MOOCs are simply putting the off-line courses online. But, it’s still early days. MOOC providers – platforms and schools – are still learning how to best utilize this phenomenon.

One way I believe MOOCs are already showing a true disruptive force is not in the delivery of education, but in the delivery of degrees. Degrees now come as a package of courses delivered by one institution (with an occasional ‘semester abroad’), for which you pay a fee. That is: for the package. In that package, you may find the best course in, say, behavioural economics, but maybe not the best course in statistics. Also, you are quite dependent on the ‘curator’ of the course, for you may find that some elements you think are essential (let’s take design thinking as example) are missing. And this is not only from the perspective of the student, but also from the perspective of the future employer. This employer might look for a certain package of skills and knowledge, but might find that mostly they have to do some additional training of new hires in one specific area of expertise.

This is where a not often mentioned disruptive power of MOOCs comes into play: with MOOCs, you can cherry pick your courses to create a degree-equivalent package. Now imagine that you are a manufacturer of electronic equipment hiring many marketeers. But from whichever package provider (educational institution) they come, they are all missing basic knowledge of design thinking, and let’s say a basic understanding of electrical engineering, but they have too much theoretical knowledge about marketing for fast moving consumer goods. The way MOOCs are presented, as stand-alone modules, allows HR professionals to curate their own packages, in which they indicate what courses are relevant for people who want to work at their company. You can see it already being experimented with at Coursera with the specializations, and the Nano-degree of Udacity and AT&T.

I think we will see more and more of this. And it will extend from the online MOOCs, to the university campuses around the world. Students will cherry pick modules. Maybe study a semester at this university, then one at another university in another country, add in some MOOCs and maybe even some certified experience or reputation points gained in platforms like GitHub and OpenIDEO. Just as companies will curate their own degrees in a similar matter. Students will want this, HR professionals will love this, and schools will have to find a way to deal with this.

This post was published earlier on LinkedIn.

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