MOOCs: The cutting announcement of the wrong revolution

A litany of recent complaints shows that something is wrong with higher education: Cost are rising with 10% every year (US), content has lost track with the explosive development of new knowledge, alumni’s competences do not match with the requirements of the labour market, teachers deliver lectures in the same way as their predecessors did for centuries, revenues for society are unclear. 40% of all students are leaving without a grade. Universities are inside looking, fixed at ratings, complacent and self-confident and consequently do not consider any reason for change.

According to Christensen[1], universities are on the eve of disruptive innovation. Disruptive innovation is the fast acceptance by the public of affordable new products and services, which were disregarded by established companies and are mostly offered by new entrants.

MOOC producentenLess than one year ago, the first MOOCs (massive online open course) were launched. Their pros and cons are discussed in an uncountable number of blogs; presumably, papers in academic journals are still in the peer review stage. The appearance of MOOCs is pleasing me. Not because they are free of charge or massive, but because they open the gates towards uncountable sources of knowledge, which will allow students to customize their need for information. I am confident that MOOCs will displace lecture-based teaching at short notice

However, this is the wrong revolution.

The future of the lecture theatre
The future of the lecture theatre

The exchange of lectures for MOOCs does not question the dominance of the acquisition of knowledge in higher education. Yet broad agreement exist that higher education in the first place has to develop ‘readiness for society’. The attainment of this goal is encompassing three learning processes: (1) the acquaintance of relevant knowledge, (2) the application of knowledge and (3) and the exchange between codified and practical (or tacit) knowledge. The best way by far to organize these learning processes is by merging them.

Learning processes
Learning processes

A critical assessment of mainstream of higher education reveals that universities spent most energy on delivery of knowledge. Application of knowledge is dominated by ‘near transfer’, which means that students learn to give practical examples of theoretical concepts. ‘Far transfer’ originates from the analysis and solving of real problems, without prior exposure to cues regarding relevant knowledge. It occurs in Schools that deploy problem- or project-based learning. Exchange of codified and practical knowledge is absent in general. It might take place during internships, but projects outside the university are better and moreover, they offer opportunity for integration with other learning processes.

A balanced and integrated approach of the three learning processes mentioned above is occurring in only few universities. Elsewhere, students learn (and forget) lots of knowledge, have only limited experience with the application of knowledge and are ignorant of the clash between codified and practical knowledge. Consequently, the majority of our universities are disavowing their main goal, the development of ‘readiness for society’. It is this verdict that justifies a revolution in higher education.

Who will smash the first tomato and start the right revolution?

I guess, nobody will, and this brings me back to the topic of disruptive innovation. Corporate universities have the best chance to take over higher education for adults at short notice. They are in a perfect position to organize projects and to exchange codified and practical knowledge. Until now, they are incompetent to organize the delivery of knowledge. Still, the breakthrough of MOOCs will make the difference. Deploying MOOCs will enable corporate academies to organize the three educational processes mentioned above in an integrated fashion at relatively low cost. This will enable companies to scale up their learning programs and to improve the level of competence of their employees, which is badly needed in face of our society’s need for innovation.


[1] Clayton M. Christensen, Michael B. Horn, Louis Caldera, and Louis Soares: Disrupting College: How Disruptive Innovation Can Deliver Quality and Affordability to Postsecondary Education February 2011 http://goo.gl/ogr5r

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Auteur: Herman van den Bosch

Ik ben hoogleraar aan de Open Universiteit en hou me bezig met regionale ontwikkeling, innovatie en leren. Ik ben bovendien curator van Amsterdam Smart City. Ik zie het streven van steden om smart city te worden in samenhang met duurzame welvaart, rechtvaardigheid en welzijn. Daarom spreek ik bij voorkeur over inclusieve groei

7 gedachten over “MOOCs: The cutting announcement of the wrong revolution”

  1. Herman,

    Nice view on the possible effects of MOOC’s on “traditional” HE and life long learning. To my opinion, MOOC’s will offer life long learners more value than students. I agree with having an education is more than just porring knowledge into one’s head, but is also about learning to be critical, learning to reason about your view on matters with other individuals. I wonder though if your statement that corporate universities will be in the best position to profit from MOOC’s. First, deploying a MOOC is not that cheap (estimates are that it cost at least $50K to create an xMOOC). But do corporate universities have the capabilities in pedagogical and didactical competences to create a perfect online experience? And why should it be Massive? Which theoretical subjects require a massive approach in adult education?

    1. Thank you Robert.
      May I add a few remarks:
      (1) I fundamentally agree that life-long learning will be the most important benificients from MOOCs
      (2) To be frank, my statement that corporate universities might benefit from the disruptive innovation results from annoyance that other institutions for higher adult education (like the Open University) fail to take their chance.
      (3) I did not mean that corporate universities should develop MOOCs, but use them (maybe the word deploying is wrong)
      (4) In my inaugural address in 2003 I pleaded (in vain) for intensive cooperation between open universities and corporate universities, in order to safeguard pedagogical and didactical competences in the latter.

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