Time waits for no one

By Gregor Kiczales posted on April 15th, 2015

Gartner calls it the trough of disillusionment:

“Interest wanes as experiments and implementations fail to deliver. Producers of the technology shake out or fail. Investments continue only if the surviving providers improve their products to the satisfaction of early adopters.” [Gartner Hype Cycle]

That is where we find ourselves with MOOCs. A widely circulated New York Times article called 2012 “The Year of the MOOC”, but here we are in 2015 (2 1/2 years later!) and since MOOCs haven’t replaced universities yet, some claim that MOOCs are over, disruption is just talk, and we have nothing to worry about.

I still don’t think so.

First, MOOCs are just one of the pressures facing universities. Schools everywhere are under growing budget pressure. Some small schools are closing. A shift in demand may be emerging, with application rates to Arts programs down, while applications for science and engineering appear more steady. There are growing calls for higher education to have a clear connection to career success.

A more endogenous problem is the number of seats at research universities taught by sessionals. Part of the argument we make for students to attend research universities is to be taught by world-class researchers. Giving them sessionals instead is a bit of bait and switch. Another problem is that sessionals are underpaid relative to their peers, and a two-track salary system does not lead to a long-term stable work environment. A report from the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education says that in the US 25% of part-time college faculty are in families where at least one person relies on public assistance. Think about that for a moment, someone has a PhD, is qualified to teach at a college or university, and is on welfare. (UBC does better than many schools in this area because we have the tenure track instructor rank, but we are not entirely free of these problems.)

Second, universities have always been changing. Size of school, size of lectures, form of research funding, teacher-student ratios and many other parameters vary over time in response to a variety of economic, social, government and other pressures. University enrolment in Canada has soared in the last 20 years, and actual participation rates are higher than ever before. While these are arguably changes for the better, they are nonetheless changes, and no law of God or man guarantees they are irreversible. An article in last Saturday’s Globe and Mail talks about falling demand for MBAs—23% fewer students took GMATs in 2013 than in 2010.

But there’s more going on. The key to understanding disruptive innovation is that the momentum builds outside the existing customers of the established players. Put another way, the indicator we need to watch is not our existing students or our existing program offerings. Instead, it is the burgeoning market of non-traditional learners the new forms of education are building.

Consider this. Suppose you want to learn how to wire a three-way switch, or patch a bicycle tire, or do a cartwheel, or solve two equations with two unknowns, or compute simple probabilities, or file your tax return. Where do you turn? For many people the answer is YouTube, either directly or through a Google search. Fifteen years ago you would have turned to an instructor at a community college or community center, or perhaps looked for a book, or asked a friend who might have directed you somewhere else. Now the majority of us have decided that we are willing to get this kind of education from an entirely new form of provider. We are willing to trust social network analysis and collaborative filtering algorithms to recommend to us “the right” video to learn something we want to learn. Our guide to finding expertise is now “the network”.

This sea change appears to fit the model of low-end disruption described by Clayton Christensen. The new offering serves customers who do not need the full value of a community college, much less a research university. But even though this is not a direct threat, it is building up challenges we will have to deal with. As time goes by, more and more people are becoming comfortable with learning online, rather than from a book or in a classroom. They will arrive at university comfortable with this form of learning and will expect changes in how university offerings work. They will expect timely learning resources and will be willing to trust network reviews of learning offerings. A recent report from Harvard and MIT describes just this effect.

“The HarvardX and MITx MOOCs have called many longstanding features of residential courses into question: the rigidity of the semester schedule, the lengthy periods between assignment submission and feedback, and the rarity of sharing syllabi, lecture notes, lesson plans, assessments, and rubrics across faculty teaching common courses, to name only a few examples.” [HarvardX and MITx: Two Years of Open Online Courses Fall 2012-Summer 2014]

The same report also describes positive outcomes from on campus students using MOOC based materials. The MOOCs are getting better; in Gartner’s terms, the surviving providers are improving their products to meet the demands of early adopters.

All of these activities are happening more quietly than during the MOOC media frenzy two years ago. We are in the trough. But they are happening, and momentum is building. Now is the most important time for us to pay attention. Now is when we need to design and implement changes to our offerings that are adapted for this new period of higher education. We can’t afford to wait until the new landscape is clear—by then things will be moving too quickly for a large organization to catch up.

UBC’s flexible learning effort is intended to do just that—to focus our attention, and to provide a framework for making changes that will make the UBC educational experience better than ever before. With the launch of this new website I encourage you to join the conversation on these issues. Comment on the blog posts here, or you can contribute a blog post of your own. But I encourage you to join the conversation soon.

Now is not a time we can wait and watch.


Gregor Kiczales is a Professor of Computer Science and the Provost’s Fellow for Flexible Learning Strategy.

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