Big fish eat little fish?


So edX and Arizona State are gonna offer MOOCs for credit.  Will the big fish eat the little fish? Actually, I think it will be more like the big fish eating all the little fish’s fish food, but the effect of this announcement will still be a lot of dead fish:

The Global Freshman Academy will give learners anywhere in the world the opportunity to earn freshman-level university credit by completing online courses from ASU on It truly transforms the admissions process by offering curriculum online for credit where students pay only once they have passed a course. Whereas the traditional college admissions process is closed, the Global Freshman Academy is truly open for all.

By allowing students to learn, explore and complete courses before applying or paying for credit, the Global Freshman Academy reimagines the freshman year experience, and reduces academic and monetary stress. This creates a new path to a college degree for many students who may have never considered a degree a possibility.

In my opinion, it’s also very important to note that ASU isn’t becoming a MOOC consumer, as this IHE story on the announcement explains.  They’re using their own faculty and joining the previously-elite MOOC providers club.

Arizona State hasn’t exactly volunteered to be the educational test case for Clayton Christensen’s disruptive innovation theory.  That would take an all-MOOC undergraduate degree rather than just using freshman year as a loss leader, but consider this exchange from the same IHE story at the last link:

Asked if edX planned to continue in that same direction, perhaps building on the Global Freshman Academy to offer full degrees through MOOCs, Agarwal laughed and again resorted to the baseball metaphor.

“We’ve just gotten to first base here, and now you’re asking me about getting to home plate?” he said.

And why not?  That seems like the logical extension of Christensen’s thinking.

But disruption doesn’t have to mean MOOCs replacing faculty in introductory courses.  The new issue of Academe addresses this issue directly: “Disruptive innovations do not necessitate reductions in the proportion of full-time or tenured faculty,” or in the case of MOOCs getting rid of most faculty entirely.  The authors of the annual salary report also explain the particular problem behind this kind of thinking coming from a place like ASU:

Multiple business models generally create greater inefficiencies and higher overall costs. These inefficiencies can, for the most part, be managed and do not constitute exigent circumstances. Thus, the organizational complexity of established institutions of higher education, not full-time faculty instructional costs, poses a substantial challenge.

In other words, the little fish (a.k.a all-online start-ups) will eventually eat the big fish (or all the big fish’s fish food) and the strategy will fail.  The disruptors will in turn be disrupted themselves.  This is indeed a very slippery slope

In the meantime, we will all have to cope with the fact that education technology has just become weaponized.  Arizona State is now the first predator university. They are willing to re-define what education is so that they can get more students from anywhere.  If they don’t kill other universities by taking all their students with a cheap freshmen year, they’ll just steal their fish food by underselling 25% of the education that those schools provide and leaving them a quarter malnourished.  The result is that schools which stick to reasonable standards with respect to the frequency and possibility of teacher/student interaction now have to fear for their very existence.

While this is good for nobody, it is especially bad for faculty at all levels.  Remember the  good old days of MOOCs when the only people teaching those courses were going to be the best of the best – the superprofessors?  Well, now that edX sees deflected tuition money on the table, they’ve thrown out that particular aspiration.  No disrespect to the faculty of Arizona State University (which I’m sure has more than a few really outstanding professors on it), but I find it hard to believe that students are gonna say to themselves, “I need to take all my MOOCs from ASU because they have the best professors in every field.”

What we have here then are mostly ordinary faculty agreeing to participate in a scheme to steal the bread and butter of other ordinary faculty so that they won’t have their bread and butter stolen first. While I understand that the first rule of academia is every man and woman for themselves, in the long run the only folks who will benefit from this kind of inter-professional death match will be (to use a name coined by my old friend Historiann) the Lords of MOOC Creation…and whoever controls the endowments of Harvard and MIT.

Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

This Post Has 11 Comments

  1. Kathleen Lowrey

    Do you really think it will work, though? I think this is actually great, because it’s going to go down in flames while everyone watches (I’ll also be pointing and laughing). The “disruptive innovation” model might say “hey we’ll provide cheap shoddy rebar” and eat everybody’s lunch. The thing is, as cheap and shoddy as that rebar might be, it’s still rebar! It’s not made out of old chewing gum and squirrel fur. It still is rebar and it still does the stuff rebar is supposed to do.

    Higher ed does not work that way. If you don’t learn in your MOOCs (and it seems like mostly, students don’t) you haven’t actually gotten any training. And if your credential at the end is not accepted by credential-takers (which, I am pretty confident, it won’t be), you haven’t actually gotten a damn thing. Disruptive innovation only works if the cheap version of the original thing is still some version of the original thing. You can’t compete by saying “hey instead of buying their rebar for your building, come over here and buy this drawing of rebar on a paper bag! It’s super cheap!”

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