Prediction is generally a sucker’s game, as we all know both from our own embarrassing attempts and from seeing failures of clairvoyance around us all the time.
It seems to me that several things can get in the way of our ability accurately to see what’s coming. One of them might be a restless dissatisfaction with things as they are: the worse things look to us right now, and the more we want them to change, the more we may be likely to think change is inevitable. (I see this as the combined effect of both general wishful thinking and a persistent, Victorian-era belief that society is always progressing.) Another might be an enthusiasm for Shiny, Exciting New Things: if someone predicts a cool new development, some of us may tend to believe the prediction because we like things that are cool and new.
There’s a flipside as well, though, and that’s the equally human tendency to dismiss predictions of discontinuity because of our own investment (emotional, temporal, or financial) in continuity. At the risk of belaboring the obvious: in my experience, librarians who have invested 20 or 30 years of their careers in cataloging or collection development tend to be less open to radically new ideas about the catalog or the collection than those who haven’t, and publishers that have spent 100 years building a business by selling subscription bundles tend to be less open to predictions of article-based purchasing models.
So, with all of this in mind, what do we think of the massive open online course, or MOOC: educational megatrend of the future? Flash in the edu-pan? Is it going to be the new iTunes or the new Second Life? (You remember Second Life, don’t you? No? Ah.)
A year and a half ago, Sebastian Thrun brought the MOOC to general public awareness when he launched an introductory MOOC on the subject of artificial intelligence, and reactions to the MOOC’s sudden prominence were both widespread and highly varied: MOOCs “pose a great threat to… literacy“; no, they represent the future of global education. MOOCS can’t offer authentic learning; yes, they can. In recent months, the initial excitement seems to have settled into a general skepticism and a feeling that perhaps the MOOC was all shiny ephemeral promise and no boring, sustainable follow-through.
But last month Jonathan Tapson, an acting dean at the University of Western Sydney, floated an interesting hypothesis on his blog: that the dynamic we’re seeing with MOOCs is an example of the Gartner Hype Cycle, which looks like this:
Tapson’s suspicion is that we’re past the Peak of Inflated Expectations (MOOCs are the future of global education!) and entering the Trough of Disillusionment (Hey, MOOCs haven’t cured cancer!), but that in the long run it will to turn out that they’re slowly but deeply disruptive of traditional higher education. He presents a chart of what he thinks will happen with MOOCs over the next 10 years:
He lays out his prediction in these terms:
[A] gradual but inexorably rolling change in societal and professional attitudes, pinned at one end by the bedrock certainty that the elite institutions produce the elite people, and pulled at the other end by the growing awareness that free isn’t necessarily junk, and it’s, well, free. It will take 10 or 20 years, and be imperceptible while it happens, like boiling a frog.
Now, Tapson acknowledges the very real possibility that there will only be a trough, and no subsequent climb-out—the possibility that, in other words, what MOOCs are experiencing right now isn’t the Gartner Hype Cycle at all, but rather just a plain old hype-and-bust cycle. That’s not what he predicts, though. What he predicts is “a very slow tsunami.”
I’ve written about MOOCs in several previous SK columns (here first, then here, here, and here), and they have never been very far from my mind over the past couple of years. I remain intrigued and (as someone with 20 years of professional investment in traditional higher-education practices) apprehensive. Personally, I have to confess that I suspect Clay Shirky may have been right when he wrote about the MOOC emergence earlier this year. I don’t think the important question is whether or not we like the idea of MOOCs. We may think MOOCs are wonderful or that they’re terrible; that they’re elitist or that they’re insufficiently discriminating; that they’re a salutary innovation or a menace to the integrity of higher education. But I suspect the important questions—the ones that will determine the MOOC’s impact in the future—are these:
- Do MOOCs have the potential to solve problems that are real?
- Are these problems that traditional higher education has been expected to solve in the past?
- Is the traditional higher education system failing to solve them now?
- Will traditional higher education resist changing itself in the ways necessary to solve them in the future?
If the answers to these questions are all (or mostly) “yes,” then Houston, we have a problem. Shirky characterizes the rise of the MOOC and its likely impact on higher education as “a lightning strike on a rotten tree.” As someone who hopes to keep working in higher education for another 18 years or so, I wish I could be more confident that he’s wrong.