09/17/2013 10:29 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2013

Much aMOOC About Nothing?

I am fascinated by predictions on the way that technology, lately in the form of massive open online courses (MOOCs), will change higher education. Many observers, investors, and critical thinkers -- including McKinsey and Company -- have suggested a dramatic shift in the delivery of higher education as a result of technology. With many universities trying MOOCs, there seems to be evidence supporting the prediction. In part, the theory suggests that as more students take high-quality coursework in online venues for free, universities will be forced to change their educational and pricing approaches. There also is an expectation that some schools will be put out of business. The discussion advanced when some state systems (e.g., California) indicated a readiness to allow students to receive credit for certain MOOCs. Some observers see this as the start of a domino effect in which most states will move in this direction. McKinsey goes one step further in noting that employers will likely embrace this kind of approach because of dissatisfaction with the skills being taught in traditional universities. Such discussion fuels the description of this revolution as a tsunami aimed at higher education.

So, what's the reality going to look like? Although I believe that technology will affect universities and the ways that courses are taught, students learn, and academic progress is measured, much of the talk about MOOCs is hype. There are several reasons why this is the case. First, the value of free high-quality education to students is in contradiction with the system that generates the advances in knowledge that are shared in MOOCs. The knowledge is produced typically by faculty or others who have traditional appointments in universities or teaching hospitals. The knowledge is created through the thinking, experimentation, reflection, and learning of such scholars. While some traditional scholars teach MOOCs, the underlying work presented in any MOOC does not occur in a vacuum and is supported by appropriate market compensation for the faculty creating the knowledge.

Recall that MOOCs are theorized to reduce costs by eliminating many courses taught by traditional faculty and reducing the need for such faculty. This in turn should cause some individuals to lose their traditional jobs. Here is the problem: who will produce the next generation of knowledge to be presented for free in a MOOC? Will Harvard (or Stanford, or choose your preferred top university) become the only university -- ever richer by having its faculty teach the free MOOCs that put everyone else out of business? Unlikely. Faculty resistance is more likely to develop, which will slow the acceptance of MOOCs. Moreover, it is not clear who will do the work that keeps MOOCs at the cutting edge if faculty jobs are threatened by this innovation. MOOCs will then be the equivalent to the filmstrips that many of my contemporaries viewed 30 years ago in our Introduction to Psychology courses.

MOOCs have potential now because so many different faculty members are working on similar projects and issues. If a focus on cost eliminates that work, the value of MOOCs will decline over time. As professors perceive an effect on jobs, there will be resistance to MOOC-like learning. The Chronicle of Higher Education has already posted several stories about faculties raising questions about the value of MOOCs. And indeed, as the material in MOOCs becomes dated, actors will more and more become the people conveying MOOC knowledge (i.e., at that point it will not be necessary to have the knowledge expert present the course). There may be some short-term reductions in the cost of higher education, but eventually costs will escalate because too few people will be trained to do the work that is needed to provide the underlying up-to-date content in a MOOC-based education system.

Second, it is true that employers certainly would prefer higher education that provided skills more in line with corporate needs. This is no different today than it was 50 years ago. Half a century ago, however, many employers had apprenticeship programs and training programs that provided such skills. Yet, today there seems to be a contradiction between what employers seek and what they support with regard to worker training. The idea that a MOOC could provide this valuable training for free is a wonderful fantasy for employers. It is simply not going to happen. I certainly envision employers continuing to take advantage of technology to deliver training in more efficient ways. But the training lamented as in short supply will not be miraculously provided by someone else for free.

The third issue has received some attention. It has to do with the subjects who receive the training. Today's students often state that they prefer to learn using technology and other media. They also claim to be more effective when they multitask and show incredibly short attention spans. It is as if exposure to technology tools early in life causes someone to be predisposed towards attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). More specifically, the current MOOC story purports that thousands of students will view online courses and master the course subject (as indicated by completing some exam or competency check). This is analogous to the idea 30 years ago that students could go to the local library and read the leading works on a subject and become an expert. In the field of law it was possible as some states allowed apprentices learn the law on their own and then take the bar exam. In reality, few people are successful following this kind of approach. It takes considerable discipline and focus to learn this way. That is why professors were needed in the first place; they provide the guidance that students require. And when this fact is placed beside the seeming inability of today's average student to concentrate and focus, it seems premature to predict that MOOC-based education is the wave of the future.

In short, the vested interest of professors and characteristics of students on average interfere with the promise offered by MOOCs as an educational medium. This means that MOOCs are more likely to become a part of traditional educational approaches, just as advanced placement credit, articulation agreements with community colleges, and experiential learning have been melded into the current system. It also means that MOOCs will prove to be more effective in some subject areas than others and that MOOCs will deliver poorer results than some observers have touted. Students also will register for and start MOOCs at a greater rate than they will complete them and at a much greater rate than they will pass a competency test. (Such evidence already is ample.) Those wishing to gain familiarity about a topic will benefit greatly from MOOCs. Those wishing to get credit will pay for the opportunity.

The real reform to higher education is going to occur as the balance between in-person and technology-enhanced education is refined. Successful MOOCs will demonstrate where such refinement is occurring. In the end, MOOCs will prove to be a valuable tool in higher education, but they will not replace the current system by tidal wave.