Watch out for the MOOCs

David’s question about what a 21st century university might look like arrived, by chance, just at the same time that I saw this from Clay Shirky, who is interested in one particular online player – Udacity – which depends on using a MOOC (massive open online class).

Clay Shirky is a very eminent figure, and his explanation of the MP3 file as an example of how a seemingly obscure technological development can precipitate disruptive change is a powerful one.  So it’s with some trepidation that I take issue with him.  But the Internet thrives on debate, so I’ll do so on a couple of specific points.  His discussion of the role of quality, and the limitations on the sound quality from an MP3 file or the educational quality of participation in a MOOC, is interesting and is relevant to disruptive innovation.  Because it’s a typical characteristic of disruptive innovations that they are ignored because innovative products and services aren’t perceived as being good enough, only for the products and services to improve gradually until they become serious threats.  This is the lesson of observers who might have dismissed Apple in the 1980s as frivolous because they sold personal computers costing several thousand pounds, or who would have ignored Skype because it offered inferior sound quality to a phone line.

But most recorded music isn’t played through expensive equipment in an acoustically perfect environment.  So it’s reasonable to assume a ‘satisficing’ effect, that once the technology to play music had reached a certain sound quality there wouldn’t be much pressure to improve on that.  Which explains partly the success of MP3: it may not be a perfect format but for most listeners it’s good enough.

So, if you were to go back a decade to the start of the digital music revolution, I don’t think that sound quality would have been perceived as the barrier to wider use of MP3s.  Instead, I think you would have found a tacit assumption that, because the previous technologies for recording music, whether they had been phonograph cylinders or CDs, depended on the music being associated with a physical artefact, people who bought music would still have wanted the sense of possessing some such artefact.  Perhaps the ultimate expression of the importance of this artefact was t the interest accorded to the artwork on album covers.  The MP3 was disruptive because it removed the coupling between the recorded music and the artefact.  But when it first became available it wasn’t at all obvious that this would be acceptable to the market.

So what has this to do with MOOCs?  I’d suggest that if we’re looking for a technology that really has the scope to disrupt higher education, we shouldn’t just be looking at quality or engagement.  We shouldn’t just be preoccupied with whether lectures and tutorials offer the sort of interaction and coordination seen among musicians playing a string quartet (or a jazz piece, or a concerto, which I think is a particularly powerful metaphor for a lot of learning).  Instead we should be looking for technologies which can decouple the student experience from the physical university in new ways.

And on this count, I’m not sure if MOOCs are really new.  I think they offer some interesting pedagogic options, and may well open up education to a broader group of students, as did the Open University from the 1960s onwards.  But I also think it reasonable to ask, given that traditional universities have survived the first generation of Internet-based learning from around 2000, the advent of the Open University in the 1960s, and the emergence of correspondence courses in late Victorian times, why MOOCs should be more disruptive than earlier technologies.

Incidentally this shouldn’t be read as an argument for complacency.  One of the lessons of disruptive innovation is that organisations are threatened by sources of competition that they can’t foresee, and they don’t know about.

Finally I’ll pick up on the issues surrounding music.  People do still pay to listen to live music, and, given that string quartets are mentioned by Clay Shirky, it’s worth noting that there’s a long-established series of chamber concerts on Sunday evenings in London that’s been running, with just two changes of venue, for around 100 years.  Unfortunately I don’t have the data, but a determined archivist should be able to find out the price of these concerts over the years, and plot how it has changed in real terms.

Oddly enough ‘cost disease’, as Clay Shirky calls it, did have an effect on the recording of string quartets.  From the 1980s the Naxos record label set out to sell budget recordings of classical music.  This was a period when production costs of CDs were going down because of the same influences that reduced the cost of many electronic and related goods.  Naxos’s idea was to match this with a budget approach to finding artists, by looking for young and little-known performers who would expect lower payments than their more famous equivalents, and would welcome the exposure.

Moreover Glenn Gould – the famously eccentric Canadian pianist – gave up live performances in the 1960s on the understanding that he believed recorded music to be the future.  Fifty years later, one of the most significant areas of impact of the digitisation of recorded music is on talent scouts, who no longer need to travel to rooms above pubs or to busking pitches to discover new artists, but who instead trawl the more obscure reaches of YouTube.  Nevertheless, live music hasn’t disappeared.

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