Don’t expect too much of every new disruptive innovation in higher education

There is no doubt that higher education has seen significant change over recent years, but not the kind of fundamental shift that some commentators were expecting a couple of years ago. At the beginning of the current decade a number of people – including some university leaders – were predicting that all universities would have to adopt MOOCs (‘massive open online courses’) if they were to survive. MOOCs would subvert and replace the pedagogical model used for as long as anyone can remember in higher education; and for that matter the business model also.

It hasn’t happened. Over recent months there have been several articles and studies suggesting that while MOOCs are not dead, they are unlikely to dominate university education. They are too easy for people to access, so too many people are dropping out early; they are not being recognised by employers; they are too expensive to design and run, particularly if they produce zero revenues.

I shall avoid saying that I told you so right from the start; though of course I did. But I will say that higher education is by its nature too conservative for all of its traditions and practices to be swept away overnight by one piece of disruptive innovation. Technology-enabled distance learning will continue to grow and develop, but the courses it spawns will not at a stroke become the new norm, particularly if they are un-funded and nobody is paying. There is clearly room for innovation and change, but it needs to be driven by analysis and evidence.

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4 Comments on “Don’t expect too much of every new disruptive innovation in higher education”


  1. While I largely agree I would not rule out substantial change in time. Higher education is incredibly complex and difficult to change and not necessarily for the right reasons. Most of the people in the system are conservative and acting in their own self-interest. Those benefiting from the system are also conservative and don’t really understand how it works (do we?). This includes students, parents, governments and employers. Somebody once said that change comes more slowly than predicted but is often greater than predicted. It is not realistic to expect learning technologies to change HE as quickly as you are suggesting. It has already revolutionised adult and distance education (Has IT Sligo now more distance learners than DCU?) and now there are some very interesting experiments in campus education (e.g. free first year of study with Arizona State University). So don’t worry guys, you’ll get to retirement safely but things may be very different for your grandchildren. (I certainly hope so).

  2. Vince Says:

    I’ve done a good few of these courses now, and I think Futurelearn has it down best. Coursera worst. But none have hit the sweet spot like the Khan Academy, they are miles and miles ahead of the others.
    I’ve tried to plumb just why this is the case and I’ve come to the conclusion that unclear goals is the core difference. Where some could best be described as of the educational industry, very distinct from engaged with education.
    It is, frankly, a form of contempt for those who are studying, for it views them as buyers of product. A product, any sort of old dross, that can be sold to those desperate enough to believe they- the sellers- have their interests at core, and nothing could be further from the truth.
    Should this MOOC idea work, yes I think it should. Will it work, again yes I believe it will.
    I think it’s a rather simple equation. High schools and 3rd level are not connecting with 50% of the population of any given year. People leave unfit, and for the most part have been policed rather than guided through western thought. They arrive out to a system of employment best suited to the 18th centuary where pensions have become a currency of social control and a key card to a right wing politics. Basically what else is there to correct the flaws, errors, and outright racism of the System. And the sooner you lot get over yourself and recognition private efforts before a PC no matter how disjointed, the better. Not everyone has access to good dedicated teachers. Not everyone attends schools that sends MP’s to the House, many are little more than antechambers to HMP’s.


  3. I have attended a number of MOOCs now and although they are very well made, researched and presented it is because their appeal is so wide the content has in general lacked the ‘hook’ of a revealing lecture.
    The need to take notes in the lecture situation is paramount, the mad scrabble to listen, make sense and find the words – the multi-cognitive experience and helps the knowledge stick is what MOOCs lack. The student is too often a passive observer. Occasional questions and quizzes do little other than help one acknowledge that Yes, I was attentive at that period.
    And the discussions! Poor tutors having to trawl through all that drivel for the occasional gems!

  4. anna notaro Says:

    Meanwhile in the US another Commission will take on the future of Higher Education. Expect a new Report in three years. http://chronicle.com/article/Another-Commission-Will-Take/234047


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