Are MOOCs disrupting higher education as we know it?

April 30, 2014


Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are cheap, convenient and broadly available. Why, then, are more than half of universities undecided about using them?

That was the question of the hour during “Debating Online Higher Education: Sebastian Thrun and Niall Ferguson” at the Milken Institute Global Conference.

Ferguson, the Laurence A. Tisch professor of history at Harvard University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, gave a simple answer: “The way we learn is not as aligned with MOOCs as you may think,” he said. “We learn with books. We learn with our peers.”

That’s not to say that Ferguson is against MOOCs. In fact, he made a point of calling himself an “early adopter” when, back in 1999, he created a company called Box Mind – through which he produced some of the first MOOCS – and separately developed a 30-hour documentary series.

The challenge the panel raised is finding a way to effectively educate the masses while preserving what Ferguson called the “magic” of universities that have “produced substantial achievements of our civilization.”

Sebastian Thrun, CEO of Udacity and a Google fellow, thinks that MOOCs and universities can benefit each other. He refers to the decision to televise college sports in the 1960s. Contrary to concerns that people would no longer go to the games, the effect was the opposite: the sports became more popular. 

According to Thrun, the question should be, “What can MOOCs do that we can’t do today?”

He argues that, in addition to their practical applications, MOOCs also accommodate a “mind-set shift” from dividing your life into segments of learning (college, career, family, etc.) to learning along a continuous spectrum.

But if you think that MOOCs represent a “dramatic institutional break,” noted Ferguson, think again.  Corporations have “far shorter lives” than universities, he said.  “Although Google seems absolutely astonishing, it won’t exist in 100 years. Harvard will.”