Are today's MOOCs the netbooks of 2009?
Remember the netbook craze? We were all going to replace are overly expensive and bulky laptops with cheap and light netbooks.
Who needs a big hard drive or processing power when everything useful is in the cloud?
Why spend lots of money on fast power sucking processors when cheap processors originally designed for mobile phones are more than adequate standard computing tasks?
The netbook was supposed to kill the traditional computer maker. Apple was going to be forced to come out with a netbook equivalent. The $1500 laptop was destined to go the way of the mainframe.
But then it didn't. By CES 2013 the netbook was dead.
Is there anything we can learn about our current craze for MOOCs from the history of netbook?
I'll offer 4 possibilities:
1. Anticipate the Hype Cycle: We are probably at the peak of inflated expectations for MOOCs today, just as we were for Netbooks in 2009. It is difficult to predict when the trough of disillusionment will hit, but we can be sure that it will come eventually. The netbook concept is due for some sort of slope of enlightenment (maybe the Google Chromebook?), so when we all become disillusioned with MOOCs we should hold on for whatever comes next. Don't get too excited about the MOOC's of today. Be excited about what will come next.
2. The iPad and the Power of Unexpected Developments: The iPad wounded the netbook, the various Android tablets struck the mortal blow. Now everyone walks around with those ridiculous iPad keyboard cases, and nobody wants to be seen within a mile of a netbook. What will be the iPad equivalent to the MOOC? Maybe Random House, WGU, and Amazon will get to together to create a hybrid of book/course that will be built into the next Kindle device, so that people reading an e-book would also take a class together (on the device) - simultaneously getting college credit while monetizing the class through the purchase of the book? Or maybe not. Doesn't matter. Something will come along that will be sort of like MOOCs but way better, just the way a tablet computer is cheap and lightweight but way more user friendly (due to the touch screen) than a netbook.
3. Quality Has a Way of Winning: I'm typing this post on a 13-inch Macbook Air. With its 512GB of flash storage and 8GB of memory this thing cost me over $2,000. I see MacBook Air's wherever I go. They seem to be the most popular machine at academic conferences, although lots of people peck away at those goofy iPad keyboard covers. Why is everyone paying $1,500 for a MacBook Air when a Windows 8 Acer AO725-0687 can be had for $300 bucks? Because the MacBook Air is better in every possible conceivable way than the Acer AO725-0687. We will pay for quality. The world's best MOOC will never offer a learning experience commensurate with a seminar.
4. The Difficulty of Predicting the Consequences of Innovations: We still don't know where all those dollars invested in innovations around the netbook will eventually take us. I may carry around a $2,000 MacBook Air today, but my next computer might be a $249 Chromebook. The netbook opened the door for the idea that computing power does not need reside on the local machine, and that the true value add is in the network. MOOCs will forever change how we see the purpose of higher education. No longer can we offer courses that are more about information transfer than designed around the co-development of knowledge between faculty and student. A traditional lecture class, one where the information flows only one-way, is today as anachronistic punch cards. MOOCs will change higher ed, but they will not bring about an era when the campus experience is replaced by only a few massive courses taught to everyone by the world's greatest professors. Today's MOOCs will help bring us to some unknown, but much better, future for higher ed.