The recent "Thrun Pivot" as well as a study from U. Penn have thrown cold water on some of the stronger claims for MOOCs. Sebastian Thrun explains that MOOCs just don't work for "certain people" -- you know, the kind of people who find it hard to get a college education. There's nothing wrong with MOOCs, you see, they're great -- there's just a lot of people that aren't smart enough to use them. The solution? Give up on "democratizing education" and instead focus on vocational training for high-tech workers. Not only can smart, well-educated tech types (like Thurn perhaps?) build their skills with MOOCs, well-heeled tech companies will pay Udacity to expand the skills of these workers, and to get access to them for recruiting. It's actually a pretty good business model and, if you're someone who wants to have a successful start-up, it's probably a good strategy. It just doesn't have much to do with "Disrupting Education" or the "Education Revolution" and certainly little to do with "Democracy". (For a fine and witty analysis of Thrun and the Fast Company article about him, take a look at Mike Caulfield's blog.)
At the same time, it's become apparent that Coursera, another bold experiment in Democratizing and Disrupting, also disproportionately works to train those who already have a good education, those who happen to be male and in the upper economic brackets. Coursera can show you some heart-warming stories of “poor kids” from distant places who have changed their lives through education, but when you look at the "big data" it's pretty clear that Coursera's elite instructors from elite institutions are mostly teaching more of the world's elite to be more successful.
For those of us in the more traditional and less-elite higher-education trenches it's hard to suppress our glee. Many of us expressed doubts about the impact and the effectiveness of the MOOC as an pedagogical format. We felt resentment and, if we're honest, some envy as new-comers to the field were feted by everyone from Bill Gates to Barak Obama, and hailed by the New York Times as the great innovators come to show us that everything we thought we knew was wrong. From journalists like Thomas "the revolution is here" Friedman to the chortles of Clayton Christiansen ("50% of higher ed institutions will be in bankruptcy in 15 years") we were told that we had failed, we were obsolete buggy whip makers and we should get out of the way and let the savants of Silicon Valley wash over our ancient, overpriced, privileged institutions and replace them with gleaming virtual castles of technological goodness.
So it's reassuring to see doubts emerge about MOOCs. But I'm worried that some of us will take away the wrong lesson and think we can simply go back to talking among ourselves only about incremental improvement in course design and attracting faculty to the Friday workshop by providing tacos and beer. The great MOOC scare of 2012 has been a profound turning point and there's no going back. Yes, it's true that MOOCs represented much more of an incremental advance than a radical rethinking of higher education. Yes, many (but not all) proponents of MOOCs have been insufferably egotistical and have been rewarded by hagiographic and breathless and very sloppy news coverage. Yes, the rhetoric has been ignorant and ahistorical. And yes, many of them will make the kind of money that few of us higher education trolls can even imagine. (That even includes us overpaid administrators.)
But there IS something important about scaling up a course so that 200,000 people can take a look at it, even if "only" 10,000 finish it. It matters that there are now experiments underway that will collect millions of data points, not just surveys of 20 or 50 or 100 students. And those people around the world who have changed their lives because all of sudden they could take a course at MIT or Stanford or Michigan, they are real people and they matter and that's really a wonderful thing, even for those who are the elites of sometimes very poor countries. (Anant Agarwal, president of EdX, did a nice job of pointing out these potential advantages while being mostly open and honest about the challenges at his Sloan keynote last week -worth watching.)
There's a lot of rough road ahead and more stupid articles ("Can MOOCs cure homelessness?") and hoodwinked educational and political "leaders", but that doesn't mean we should dismiss the possibilities of delivering education at scale using technology. And in the process some universities will crumble or consolidate, and some faculty will decide they'd rather retire than adapt to the new world. But those of us who are the technology and pedagogy leaders on our campuses are the only ones who can make sure that real students will benefit from the unique historical and technological moment symbolized by the MOOC. If we leave it to a few from Silicon Valley it's pretty clear that the outcome will be grim. We can take a few moments for some well-deserved self-satisfaction, then it's back to work. Anyone who said it would be easy was either lying or didn't know what they were talking about.