MOOCs, Mobile, and the Future of Higher Education

Higher Education April 06, 2014

In 2025 and beyond we will use mobile, digital technology to learn. The classroom will be in our hands. We will have access to knowledge, lessons, and learning technology anywhere, anytime. We will learn in the moment. Our learning will include immersive, multi-sensory experiences that simulate reality. Artificial intelligence will fine-tune learning to fit each or our needs. Human educators will sometimes work as our learning coaches, more essential to the processes of learning than as holders of knowledge. Universities, if they continue, will be places for hands-on education and collaboration.
This scenario comes from a recognition of the pent-up demand for change in higher education and of the untapped potential in digital technology. In the growing economies of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, demand for academic and professional learning outstrips supply. In the United States, higher education is ever harder to afford. Fixed, narrow curricula, slow progress, and constraining requirements frustrate the brightest learners. And meanwhile, employers are not satisfied with the quality of the skills they see in graduates.

Against this backdrop, MOOCs—massive open online courses–have emerged as a challenge. They are the part of the first wave of technological challenges to the system. A first warning shot across the bow of this global institution.

MOOCs are disruptive innovations [Christensen, Clayton M. The Innovator’s Dilemma. New York: Collins, 2003. Print.], challenging the formal higher education system. A disruptive innovation can be unrefined, suffer performance problems, and be unproven in its intended uses yet still emerge in a sector and create a new market and value network. The new technology is not always as good as the old, or at least it is not recognized as being as good.

MOOCs today fit this reality. They are unsatisfying if we assess  them with traditional measures. Their completion rates, if compared with classroom courses, are abysmal, at as little as five percent [Kolowich, Steve. “Completion Rates Aren’t the Best Way to Judge MOOCs, Researchers Say.” Chronicle of Higher Education, January 22, 2014]. 

But to look for MOOCs to be as good than traditional higher education is to miss the point. MOOCs are good enough. They give some learners access that before never could have it at all. They represent the first wave of change which will break new ground and build new markets in higher education.

MOOCs are only in their earliest stage of evolution, and they will get better. Lots of organizations are working to move digital learning to the next waves of capability. That will include adding intelligent software to the content to help learners confirm their progress, and pace their work. Intelligent courseware will be much more than MOOCs as we know them.

Even today’s MOOCs have ways in which they outcompete classroom learning. MOOCs release content from a fixed schedule. They allow learners to work at the pace which is right for them, from anywhere. They allow the learner to choose what they do and do not want to learn. MOOCs loosen what is rigid in the traditional higher education system: curricula, majors, degrees, school terms, class periods, access and rights to access, costs, and location. Dropping those barriers gives an advantage that for many, even now in the early days of MOOCs, outweighs their downside.

MOOCs are teaching us how to question the traditional higher education system: its structure, its timing, its costs, its leadership, and so on. And in the differences we see between the experiments in online learning, we see how much, and perhaps how, higher education will change.

The system’s fixed parameters need no longer be fixed. And they create much of the unsustainable cost structure that is raising doubts now about the efficiency, equity, and efficacy of higher education. We will see changes in each of the key parameters of today’s system:

From: To:
Fixed, generalized curricula: degree and certificate programs Tailored, micro-content: by the skill or lesson
Degree or certification Badging
Evaluation by testing On-the-job skill demonstration
Physical classroom Virtual classroom
Learning in groups Individual learning
Synchronous—offered on a schedule Asynchronous—learn when/where you want
Institution-based Cloud or workplace-based
Course-centered Learner-centered
Requirement-driven Learner-driven
Qualify to enter Open to anyone
Expensive Cheap or free


For future success, we will have to rebuild the higher education system on new terms. Many of the details: how to assure adequate learning, how to avoid too narrow of focus for learning, what the future business models for higher education will be, and what the roles of existing institutions will be all need to be figured out.

Whether and how MOOCs and their descendants succeed in higher education, they show us how so many of the parts of higher education are under challenge by changing demands and changing technology. Our future system has to reckon with those challenges. In each is an opportunity to do more, do better, and spread the opportunity for higher learning to far more people.

Higher education may evolve gradually to align with new realities. But too many parts of this enormous system are under pressure to change, not the least among which is its economics. Transformational change seems more likely.

For different stakeholders across the higher education system it is critical now to re-imagine how we lead and structure higher education. Educators need to build a coherent vision of that future, and discover how they can build towards it. We could no more imagine education today without the book than we should imagine its future without digital technology. The MOOC, with all its flaws, is showing us something about that potential.