02/14/2013 07:38 am ET Updated Apr 16, 2013

An Evolution Instead of a Revolution in Higher Ed

Flickr: leonshishman

Ever since the country's top universities teamed up last year in loose federations to offer free online classes to the masses, MOOCs have become a household word in higher-education circles. They remain a sensation and a curiosity on the higher-ed conference circuit this winter, where nearly every meeting seems to feature the leaders of the various MOOC providers: Coursera, edX, and Udacity. the New York Times declared 2012 "the year of the MOOC."

Critics of MOOCs have emerged just as quickly, with some of the biggest naysayers mocking the idea that a supersize lecture course could be considered innovative. Others simply worry about the impact of MOOCs on no-name institutions without deep pockets or superstar professors.

Lost in the debate is that the MOOC phenomenon is an important evolutionary moment, not a revolutionary moment, for the future of higher ed. When any sector of the economy undergoes sweeping change -- just as higher ed is experiencing now -- every new development feels like a major turning point.

But in hindsight, what we think of as big moments at the time often turn out to be just blips in the life cycle of an industry. Does anyone remember MOOs? Those Multiple-user Object-Oriented environments, which allowed simultaneous users to communicate with one another online, were cutting edge in the mid-1990s.

In talking with two pioneers of the MOOC movement recently, I was reminded that we didn't just wake up one day and Coursera had 2.5 million students, 215 courses, and 33 college and university partners (although it might seem that way).

At Stanford University, for instance, ideas to sharply upgrade the experience of online courses and make them free to the world had actually been gathering steam for several years among a small group of faculty members in the computer-science department. Andrew Ng had posted online 10 of Stanford's most popular engineering courses, at no charge, in 2008. A year later, Daphne Koller started to experiment with short video clips and embedded quizzes to improve online learning, eventually using the materials in place of her face-to-face classes, where attendance became optional.

Indeed, MOOCs have already evolved from when they entered our daily lexicon, in the fall of 2011, as have the business models of the providers. "We have started to put revenue models in place because our university partners are a little worried about this," Koller said. "They want to make sure this is not a drain on their resources. And frankly, we want to stop the criticisms in the media that this is not sustainable."

In trying to pin down one solution to all of higher ed's problems, we seem to have forgotten that one promise of MOOCs was that they would allow professors to experiment with pedagogical methods on a vast scale. In other words, we would learn more about how students learn by collecting data on them, tens of thousands of students at a time.

Already the introduction of the massive courses has resulted in efforts to rethink how we deliver classroom instruction. Take a test about to start at Syracuse University, where Jeffrey Stanton, a professor in the School of Information Studies, is taking the "M" out of MOOC and limiting enrollment in a forthcoming online course on big data. The class will be limited to 500 people.

"We wanted to focus on the quality of the student experience and peer interaction," he said. But he also wanted a big-enough cohort to understand the different types of students interested in the emerging field of data science and the backgrounds of those students that lead to successful outcomes. Teaching the typical online class of 40 students simply wouldn't produce a rich-enough sample.

The "OOC" shows that enterprising professors who are deeply committed to improving learning are already rethinking their courses and advancing ideas rather than just dismissing MOOCs as a fad.

At the same time, however, those evolutionary steps recognize that incremental change has a place in the discussion about higher ed's future. Teresa Sullivan, president of the University of Virginia, advocated such "incremental change" last summer as she battled the university's Board of Visitors after they tried to oust her for not moving fast enough to position the institution for the future. Many presidents and boards right now are in a hurry to write new blueprints for their institutions, fearing the end is near.

The sky is not falling, as Robert Sternberg of Oklahoma State University believes. While I'm not as sanguine on higher ed's financial well-being as Sternberg, colleges and universities have a little time to experiment and watch as the future evolves rather than envelopes them overnight.