03/06/2013 01:49 pm ET Updated May 06, 2013

If You Want a Revolution, Just Announce One

I can picture a 14th-century newspaper headline: "Today the Hundred Years War has begun." Were only our current journalists so clairvoyant, though some certainly claim to be. We can always count on columnist Thomas Friedman to declare a revolution after a provocative discussion with a few executives. In this case, he met with those who founded two companies in the past year, Coursera and edX, and then saw a new era in higher learning in his crystal ball ("Revolution Hits the Universities" in the Jan. 27, 2013 New York Times).

This is all because of the very recent emergence of so-called MOOCs -- "massive, open, online courses" -- now being tested tuition-free on the global public. One of the O's in MOOC could easily stand for "overhyped." While large numbers have registered globally, these courses would be on the chopping block if they were an average cable television show. Far, far fewer actually finish these courses. This, at most, signals initial curiosity and perhaps even an unmet thirst for opportunities to learn online. But it is far short of revolutionary. Yet.

Nothing major, in fact, has changed. The impact has been negligible. With the nominal blessings of prominent universities, and thanks to journalists and educators engaged in science fiction, these random courses, at most, have suddenly raised the credibility and visibility of online learning, and stimulated exciting conversation and curiosity on how to better integrate technology into the classroom.

But, at worst, MOOCs have been hyped as the silver bullet for a debt-ridden public and a planet overwhelmed with insatiable demand for higher learning. This is more speculative hope than responsible journalism.

Nothing has changed. Yet. Applications still increase at major universities. Students are not bolting from traditional higher learning. Those giddy about the revolution are not likely to start sending their own children off in search of alternative credentials.

The key word is "yet." Change is likely, as it always is, but perhaps different, slower, and even more exciting, complex, and subtle than the hype would suggest. It is simply too soon to say. MOOCs are introducing a truly original scale through the institutional imprimatur of renowned academic brands. But they have yet to catch up to the ways many schools -- without fanfare -- had already integrated technology over the last decade.

MOOCs have exploded because of their marginality from the mainstream. The challenge will now be to integrate them into the everyday business of educating and certifying students seeking degrees.

Until then, symbolism should not be confused with substance, or interesting experiments with paradigm shifts. True academic innovation is unrelenting, labor-intensive, and often unheralded. The national public is thirsty for simple solutions to the escalating costs of going to school. The global public is in search of in-country means of providing higher learning for their exploding middle class. A new academic infrastructure truly responsive to worldwide demand will not emerge instantaneously.

Many will want, and even more will need, a traditional residential campus. A minority will be suited for a more self-motivated online environment. The messages and options will be confusing and noisy in the years ahead, as they have become over the past decade.

We've seen the dramatic proliferation of for-profit schools, with their predatory tactics for recruiting. We've seen the tragic abandonment of state support for public universities, which will now need to operate more like private institutions. We've seen private research universities chase rankings by increasing their expenses for faculty and facilities. Rising student debt has become the scary byproduct of these trends -- and grown to what is now an unsustainable bubble.

We owe the public a flexible and meaningful array of ways of achieving higher learning. But with more models, their quality and value will become all the less apparent.

Perhaps we can find ways to take local higher education more global -- and bring together, through technology, students from different cultures. Perhaps we can encourage institutions to better differentiate themselves based on their strengths and uniqueness, rather than having to serve the complete menu to a captive audience of local students. Perhaps we will fully sanction lifelong learners, who thirst for more knowledge, skills, and credentials to cope with a half-century of uncertain employment realities that await them. Perhaps, but less likely, we can find ways to deliver higher education more efficiently, so tuition prices can abate.

But I need to stop myself from engaging in the very speculation I criticize. Nothing has changed, yet. Mega-online courses have neither provided a single solution for the public's concerns about college affordability, nor the apocalypse for those in academe who fear their world is unraveling. While exciting conversations examine how to improve learning and extend educational opportunities, a new reality has not clearly emerged. Yet.

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