MOOC Disruption, It's Cliché But Real

A blog about business and economics.
May 15 2013 1:32 PM

MOOCs Let Universities Serve New Clients and Different Kinds of Educational Needs  

154843202
Can't watch this at a MOOC!

Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a piece about how people need to stop throwing the term "disruption" around willy-nilly as part of all-purpose hype. And I want to invoke that principle today because there are a few good stories out that illustrate the disruptive potential of online higher education offerings ("MOOCs") but I don't want people who are understandably turned off by excessive MOOC hype to just close their ears.

But here's a piece about Georgia Tech's plans for a $7,000 online master's degree in computer science:

Georgia Tech said it does not plan to lower admission standards to find 6,000 or so students for this track -- a number than is 20 times larger than its current computer science master’s degree program. Instead, Georgia Tech hopes to attract more qualified applicants from across the world, including inside the military and at companies – places that harbor nontraditional students who could not previously come to a traditional campus or find the money for a full degree, on campus or online.
Advertisement
A course survey that drew more than 5,000 responses found that more than 40 percent who took the MOOC were 45 or older. Most held at least a bachelor’s degree, were not alumni of U-Va. and didn’t know anything about the professor.

And here's a longread from Aaron Bady about why MOOCs aren't as good as real college. That's the hallmark of real disruption. The new thing is not as good as the old thing. But it's cheaper and more flexible. And the power of the decreased cost and increased flexibility is that it lets you serve markets that were not previously served. My mother-in-law is pursuing a graduate degree in her field largely through online offerings in Texas since there aren't any graduate-level institutions where she lives. Moving across the country for school is great for teenagers, but it's kind of a pain for the rest of us. And expecting high-quality providers of highly specialized in-person education services to be available in every physical location in America is unrealistic. Whether or not it's the case that the optimal way to benefit from the University of Virginia's educational offerings is to move to Charlottesville, developing an affordable way to gain some of that value without moving to Charlottesville is valuable.

Personally, I've learned a great deal from pre-MOOC online education offerings—Brad DeLong's economic history lectures and Robert Shiller's finance lectures, both available for download on iTunes. My second-best alternative to those things wasn't to enroll at Berkeley or Yale, it was to just hear what those professors had to say. Fortunately in my line of work gaining some extra competence in those areas is beneficial to me even without a formal credential, but lots of people are differently situated and need credentials. Hence MOOCs. What this means for the "traditional college student" of tomorrow, I'm a bit unsure. But these kind of changes, where incumbent providers sneer about inferior products while the new technology serves new markets, are important. That's basically been the story of journalism and technology over the past 15 years, and it's been change for the better.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.