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Higher Ed Has MOOCs, but K12 Still Needs to Catch Up

We predict that within five years, Eastern Michigan University, Western Michigan University, Central Michigan University and Northern Michigan University will all be closed down—or at least they won’t be doing business as they are now. Maybe some of their special programs, such as Western Michigan’s eCommerce Technology program and Eastern Michigan’s Judaica program, may continue to exist in some format, but the costs involved in getting a degree from such institutions simply do not justify the benefits. It doesn’t make a lot of sense anymore for young folks starting out to take on over $125,000 of debt in order to go to a college that is not a recognized, highly ranked research or teaching institution.

We can hear the responses already: That’s a crazy prediction—what are you talking about? That’s too bad about higher ed, but I’m in K12. We may be off a year or two in our prediction, but closure is inevitable for schools across the country. And disruptive change in K12 will unquestionably and inevitably follow on the heels of the disruptive change in higher education.

Massive, Open, Online Courses

We ignore this new acronym at our peril. Coursera Inc., founded in 2012, is one of a handful of new for-profit companies offering MOOCs. Every day, Coursera is seeing 30,000 individuals sign up for its constantly growing list of higher-education courses. Yes, there is no business model yet, and it isn’t clear how a company can make money from offering MOOCs, since they tend to be free. Yes, offering video lectures plus quizzes is not the most scintillating or even most effective mode of instruction. Yes, MOOCs have a monologue flavor to them while education needs to be more of a dialogue.

Details, details, details. The technology to enable MOOCs is in place; when the demand calls for it, scaling from 300 online students to 300,000 will be a piece of cake. For instance, Stanford’s highly visible Artificial Intelligence (AI) MOOC was taught recently and was labeled successful based on the number of students who completed it, and companies wanting to offer more of them have been formed with millions of dollars in venture capital. There is no stopping this juggernaut. As Thomas Friedman put it in  a New York Times op-ed piece published May 12, 2012, “In five years this will be a huge industry.”

The financial, newspaper, television, retail, music and automobile industries—to name a few—have experienced disruptive change, with digital technology as both culprit and savior. William Gibson, the writer who invented the term “cyberspace,” commented, “The future is here now—it is just not evenly distributed.” Future incarnations of MOOCs are the future of higher education.

Is K12’s Future Here Now?

So far, K12 educators have been spared this disruptive change. By and large, it’s been business as usual in higher ed and K12. For both fields, however, the future will not look like the past. BYOD, the Khan Academy, and the flipped classroom are all vying for the trophy as the transformative event in K12. In our opinion, though, K12 hasn’t yet had its “MOOC experience.” As historian David Labaree stated, “Universities constitute 70 of the 85 longest-lived European institutions in the last 500 years.” If higher ed can change—and do so overnight—then we in K12 can be sure that our transformative event will occur very soon.

Cathleen Norris is a Regents Professor at the University of North Texas and a past ISTE President. Elliot Soloway is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan and Chair of ISTE’s Special Interest Group on Mobile Learning (SIGML). For the past ten years Cathie and Elliot have been circumnavigating the globe, advocating for the use of mobile technologies in classrooms.

Visit Cathleen and Elliot’s blog.