Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Darwinization of Higher Education

Stanford president John Hennessy has described the current changes in higher education initiated by technological innovations as an approaching tsunami. His remark was prompted largely by the emergence and rapid growth of MOOCs (massively open online courses), first from Stanford itself, joined soon afterwards by MIT and Harvard.

Are MOOCs going to initiate, or be part of, an educational tsunami? I think it’s too early to say. But in true mathematical fashion, I’m going to pursue the hypothesis that this
is the case and examine what is happening. In doing so, I’ll draw on the insight into MOOCs I gained from giving my own a few weeks ago, which I wrote about in last month’s column, and have been blogging about regularly at MOOCtalk.org.

Hennessy's observation was widely interpreted as being about the structure and business of higher education, and that may indeed be what he had in mind. He does, after all, have the responsibility of ensuring the survival and continuing prosperity of one of the world's leading universities. (A task that, as someone who receives a Stanford paycheck every month, I wish him every success in fulfilling.)

But when you look a bit more deeply at the way MOOCs are developing, you see that the real tsunami is going to be a lot bigger than that. It's not just higher education that will feel the onslaught of the floodwaters, but global society as a whole.

Forget all those MOOC images of streaming videos of canned lectures, coupled with multiple-choice quizzes. Those are just part of the technology platform. In of themselves, they are not revolutionizing higher education. We have, after all, had distance education in one form or another for over half a century, and online education since the Internet began in earnest over twenty-five years ago. But that familiar landscape corresponds only to the last two letters in MOOC ("online course"). The source of the tsunami lies in those first two letters, which stand for "massively open."

Right now, the most popular MOOCs draw student enrollments of about 50,000 to 100,000. In this it’s not unreasonable to expect those numbers to increase by at least a factor of 10, once people realize what is at stake.

True, those numbers don't tell the whole story. In particular, roughly 90% of the students who sign up do not complete the course. But that leaves many thousands who do finish, many of them with near perfect scores. And when that tenfold increase kicks in, it will be tens of thousands that complete. Paradoxically, it's the high rate of dropouts that will generate the tsunami (if there is one).

A good analogy is Google. Before Stanford graduate students Sergei Brin and Larry Page came up with their search algorithm, finding information (on the Web or elsewhere) was a time-consuming, and often hit-or-miss affair. At heart, what makes Google work is the efficient way it discards almost every possible answer to your query. Occasionally, in so doing, it may throw away the one item you really should see. But, given the way the algorithm works, that happens very, very rarely. As a result, Google gives you answers that are good enough for your purposes, most of the time.

The ability to sift through a massive amount of data means that there is no need for precise identification in search; with enough data, "good enough" really is good enough. In information terms, it's survival of the fittest; the process has no respect for the individual, but overall is extremely effective.

Now, the same university that gave you Google has launched the truly massive, open online courses. (Earlier MOOCs were not really massive. Indeed, the really massive ones, with millions of students, are probably a year or two away - yes, it could be that short a timeframe.)

Right now, the media focus on MOOCs has been on their potential to provide (aspects of) Ivy League education for free on a global scale. But an educational system does more than provide education. It also identifies talent - talent which it in part helps to develop. That makes a MOOC the equivalent of Google, where it is not the right information you want to find but the right people.

And the world definitely wants to find the right people. Last year, the World Economic Forum and the Boston Consulting Group issued a report describing the scale of the increasing need for talented individuals in today's world, and the numbers are staggering. For instance, the report states, "The United States ... will need to add more than 25 million workers to its talent base by 2030 to sustain economic growth, while Western Europe will need more than 45 million." The educational systems of these countries are not coming anywhere close to meeting those needs.

At the level of the individual student, MOOCs are, quite frankly, not that great, and not at all as good as a traditional university education. This is reflected (in part) in those huge dropout rates and the low level of performance of the majority that stick it out. But in every MOOC, a relatively small percentage of students manage to make the course work to their advantage, and do well. And when that initial letter M refers not to tens of thousands but to "millions," those successes become a lot of talented individuals.

One crucial talent in particular that successful MOOC students possess is being highly self-motivated and persistent. Right now, innate talent, self-motivation, and persistence are not enough to guarantee an individual success, if she or he does not live in the right part of the word or have access to the right resources. But with MOOCs, anyone with access to a broadband connection gets an entry ticket. The playing field may still not be level, but it's suddenly a whole lot more level than before. Level enough, in fact. And as with Google search, in education, "level enough" is level enough.

Make no mistake about it, MOOC education is survival of the fittest. Every student is just one insignificant datapoint while the course is running. Do well, do poorly, struggle, drop out - no one notices. But when the MOOC algorithm calculates the final ranking, the relatively few who score near the top become very, very visible. Globally, talent recruiting is a $130BN industry (Forbes.com, 2.12.12). It's "Google search for people" in action.

For those of us in education, MOOC education requires a major adjustment in attitude. Most of us go into the profession because we care about the individual. We love to interact with our students. Moreover, universities have all kinds of structures in place to catch and help struggling students. But in a MOOC, all of that goes out the window.

Doubtless, some current higher educational institutions will step in and provide support for MOOC students who need it. But what they won't be able to do is make education a local affair, where it is enough to do better than most of your fellow students at University X, or even in country Y. The fight to hire top talent will be global. And for American students from even moderately affluent backgrounds, a lot of their competition will have far more to gain from doing well, with all the added motivation that will bring.

Yes, some organizations will make money from MOOCs, though it is unlikely to be the Ivy League course providers whose stellar faculty and exclusive brands make their courses so attractive. They cannot afford to lose their exclusivity. But new sources of revenue for some colleges and universities who can adapt to the arrival of MOOCs, and the possible death of those that cannot, is just a market adjustment. If we are going to witness a tsunami, it is likely to be the true globalization of higher education and talent search.

POSTSCRIPT ADDED DECEMBER 5By chance, a day after this column appeared, Coursera sent out a mass email informing current and former students of their new talent placement service. (I have no connection to Coursera other than using their platform for my MOOC, and no knowledge of their business plans.) See my recent post at mooctalk.org for more details, where I also give a brief history of this column. (Yes, it has a curious past.)