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Are today’s MOOCs akin to the first generation of smart phones?

Is edX / Coursera circa 2017 comparable to original (and largely forgotten) touch screen mobile phone / communications & computing device - the 1994 IBM Simon?

There is a possibility that for all the wonderful benefits of open online education - and there are many - that MOOCs are an idea that is ahead of our time.

The open online learning movement is at an interesting point in its story.  MOOCs have evolved away from the platform that some thought would disrupt traditional colleges and universities, and towards a reality that concentrates advantages amongst our privileged incumbent institutions.

Through MOOC initiatives such as edX’s MicroMasters program, top institutions are developing new recruitment and admissions funnels for specialized graduate programs.  For other selective and well-resourced institutions, MOOCs have acted as living laboratories to develop new capabilities and expertise - with these benefits accruing to traditional residential students in the form of instructional innovation.

What MOOCs have not done is what the iPhone has done - that is change the game.

The 10 year old iPhone is a device and a platform that changed everything about how we relate to technology.  Before the iPhone a computer was something we used, but was not a device that we always had with us.

The iPhone and the app - along with the Android phones that followed - have replaced a range of single purpose devices that we once owned.  We no longer need cameras and calculators or gaming devices or MP3 players - the iPhone (and its cousins) does it all.

The IBM Simon was interesting, but it never went anywhere.  Today’s MOOCs are more successful than the Simon, but like the Simon, MOOCs have not caused much in the way of non-incremental structural change within the industry in which they emerged.

What might MOOCs look like in 2025 or 2030?

Can we imagine a world where open online learning has displaced those parts of postsecondary education that can effectively be pushed to scale?  Would students be better served if the bundle that included foundational learning was broken apart, pushing introductory courses to online and mobile adaptive learning platforms?

If what we want in higher education is more opportunities for educators to build relationships with their students, then doesn’t it make sense to move available resources away from large lecture classes and into smaller seminars.

What MOOCs may eventually enable us to do is to diffuse the benefits of the seminar - as well as the gifts of a classic liberal arts education - to students beyond a privileged few.

Let MOOCs take care of education as job training, leaving professors to focus on the work of teaching students how to learn.

An expensively bundled traditional residential education should be built - at least in part - around relationships between educators and learners.  Large enrollment introductory lecture classes can do many good things, but they do not do much to further these relationships.

Move foundational learning to MOOCs, and tomorrow’s colleges and universities can focus on the differentiating offering of professors getting to know their students as individuals.

MOOCs, like the iPhone, might just change everything.  But as with the birth of the first smart phone way back in 1994, we just might be too early to see where this innovation will eventually take us.

What future do you see for open online learning?

Had you heard of the IBM Simon?


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