The tsunami has been postponed because MOOCs are a lousy product.

Before Kevin Carey came along, Stanford President John Hennessy was doing most of the heavy lifting as the bad guy in the MOOC chapter of the online education book that I’m working on now.  The guy has said things about MOOCs and online education in general that most people in the business were politic enough to keep to themselves.

“There’s a Tsunami coming,” he famously told the New Yorker magazine in 2012. That presumably explained his efforts to keep his university at the forefront of the education technology revolution. After all, it is better to ride the wave than to be submerged by it. Yet the whole metaphor – even the construction of the sentence by which Hennessy presents it – paints him as a passive actor. He is not leading a revolution, but following a movement that would occur whether Stanford involved itself with education technology or not.

Elsewhere, Hennessy spoke frankly about the effects of this “tsunami” on universities in general and the professoriate in particular. At a 2012 forum on “Higher Education in the Digital Age,” Hennessy declared that the public university model is untenable. Therefore, “You just have to blow up the system.”  More importantly, he told the gathering that “faculties will shrink as technologies grow.”

Now that Hennessy is retiring, it appears that he’s starting to change his tune.  This is from a new interview with the MIT Technology Review:

“The truth is, looking at a talking video for an hour is absolutely no more motivating—perhaps even less motivating—than sitting in a large lecture hall for an hour.”

Then there’s this nugget from later in the interview:

“Motivation and personal contact are critical issues. I just don’t think that beaming a MOOC into somebody’s bedroom is going to create the kind of engaging experience they’re going to need to succeed in school.”

Yes, you can still read signs of the inevitable “technology will improve” argument throughout that interview, but imagine what would have happened had we faculty all gotten out of the way of that tsunami way back in 2012.  Our students would now be stuck with a lousy product for the foreseeable future.

Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. John

    I think this post highlights another aspect of all these calls for “transformative innovation.” Namely, the people who lead them tend not to be around long enough to live their consequences. Obviously, as has been famously observed, in the long run we’re all dead. But university presidents — who increasingly tend to be from a separate managerial class that’ s only in one place say 3-6 years, arriving from somewhere else and then moving somewhere else — tend to be hired guns, sort of like corporate raiders back in Romney’s day. And while I really don’t mean to slander them with that comparison — I’m sure many of them are much more well-intentioned than your average corporate raider — the structural result is the same: though they claim to be engaging in ‘long term thinking,’ all the incentives for them are actually of the ultra short-term variety. (Will they be perceived as transformative leaders? Will they be seen as getting things done? Will donors give to them now, therefore? Will legislators? Will they get their next job, when? etc.)

    Meanwhile, people who would like or expect to invest themselves in an institution long term have to deal with either the unintended consequences of transformation (which tends to have many more of the latter than it does planned successes) and also just the perception that what they want to do in a slower, more organic way will never work and is not good. Thus, for example, the prosaic but basic idea of education has no defenders (though thousands of people who thought that was what they were doing), even as untried schemes for economic incubators and online academies proliferate: often increasing the costs of the former by demanding more cross subsidies from tuition. And in the end, the gunslinger rides off, and the village has to put the fields back together.

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