No, MOOCs Are Not Disrupting Higher Education

Last week’s Washington Post story on Marginal Revolution University had the following sentence in its lead:

The MOOC movement is emerging as a disruptive force in higher education.

There’s some hedging around the word “emerging”, but for the most part the statement is false. MOOC’s are not currently disrupting higher education. We know this because there are no high school seniors walking into the guidance counselor’s office and saying, “I’m not going to college. I’m going to learn all I need to know from MOOCs.” Right now MOOC’s are not a substitute for a college degree.

That doesn’t mean that MOOCs are not being disruptive. One area of disruption is the “I live in a neighborhood or country that’s left me too poor to go to college and so I’ll remain uneducated” sector. Another is the “I already have a college degree and a job but I want to learn new skills” sector. In these instances MOOCs have already emerged as substitutes for doing nothing or enrolling in some kind of night class. But in terms of a standard college education there’s been no real disruption.

It’s important not to jump the gun on the success of MOOCs because the hardest task — developing a workable system of credentialing — remains unfinished, and patting ourselves on the back for all that has been accomplished can lead to complacency or disappointment with the slow pace of change. Instead of focusing articles on the glory of MOOCs, I think journalists would better serve the public by shifting coverage toward workable credentialing and the quest for a system that will allow MOOCs to be a substitute for a college degree.


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