Will Higher Education Repeat The History Of Theaters? [Updated]

Four years ago, I wrote a blog post on this subject when massive open online
courses (MOOCs) were beginning to be the hot item of discussion. Not
surprisingly, some disillusionment followed the hype as people realized there
was a low completion rate for these courses and services, like Udemy, felt it
was necessary to do some course correction.


Some of the disillusionment came
from the expectation that this form of education would be just an electronic
version of what has gone on in traditional classrooms for hundreds of years.

I call that “horseless carriage”
thinking – when people don’t realize that there’s a new thing, a car, which is
like what was in the past, but is sufficiently different that it’s not just a
carriage powered by something other than a horse. If you thought “horseless
carriage”, you wouldn’t have anticipated the growth of suburbia and all the
other changes wrought by automobile ownership.

Anyway, despite the disappearance of
MOOCs from the hype-o-sphere of the general news media, the number of MOOCs
continues to grow.


It’s not just that the number of
courses has increased, but MOOC enrollment surpassed 35 million in 2015.

As for the course completion issues,
Harvard Business Review put this in context by
pointing out that:

“The critics are right that most
people who start a MOOC don’t finish: just 4% of Coursera users who watch at
least one course lecture go on to complete the course and receive a credential.
However, given the large number of users involved, the absolute reach of MOOCs
is still significant. For instance, more than one million people have completed
a Coursera course since its inception in 2012, with over 2.1 million course
completions as of April 2015.”

It is also interesting that
educators are disproportionately the users of these courses. Daniel Thomas
Seaton and colleagues reported:

“Surveys of 11 MITx courses on edX
in spring 2014 found that one in four (28.0 percent) respondents identified as
past or present teachers. … Although they represent only 4.5 percent of the
nearly 250,000 enrollees, responding teachers generated 22.4 percent of all
discussion forum comments.”

As I wrote last time, one reasonable
analogy to the problems facing higher education is to compare it to the
challenge faced by theaters in the 19th century. During that period, every city
of any consequence had one or more theaters that were the venue for actors,
singers and other live performers.


Then along came recorded music,
later the movies and ultimately television. Those technological innovations
made it possible to deliver performances from the best actors and singers
without requiring them to be physically present. In addition, the revenue that
this form of recorded entertainment could generate was much greater than that
of any local live theater. Movie and record companies used that extra revenue
to provide “production values” and elaborate staging that wasn’t
possible in the local live theater.

The result: most of those live stage
theaters disappeared or became movie theaters (or car parks, like this one in


Now, technology makes it possible to
deliver on a large scale at least that part of a college education that
consists of watching a professor deliver lectures in front of a classroom.
Again, it is unlikely that the local university or college will be able to
match this global delivery or the “production values” that could
enhance these online courses.

Of course, we still have Broadway
plus a few successful regional theaters. So too there will be Harvard, MIT,
Princeton, Stanford and the like. But most colleges may find it increasingly
difficult to justify their continued existence using the current approach.

We’re already seeing the pattern set
by theaters replicated in higher education among the providers of MOOCs. Online
Course Reports described the pattern this way:

“Twenty percent of massive open
online courses offered by U.S. News and World Report’s Top 100 National
Universities are offered by the Top 5 universities on that list. Over half
(i.e., 56%) of MOOCs offered by those National Universities are offered by
schools in the Top 20. Almost 90 percent (i.e., 87.6%) of all MOOCs available
are offered by schools within the Top 50.”

“Course offerings per institution
drop off exponentially at a rate of -700% after those Top 50: that’s an average
of 21 MOOCs per university in the Top 50 decaying to an average of 3 MOOCs per
university in the bottom 50. Comparing these averages, we see a massively
unequal distribution of massive open online courses toward some of the most
expensive, highly valued, and heftily-endowed universities in the world.”

Although the market for MOOCs is not
quite the same as the market for traditional higher education, it is hard to
imagine that enrollment in less “highly valued” institutions will not be
affected by the alternatives now open to others. This is especially likely to
occur as those institutions provide credentials that used to be available only
by paying high fees to attend college on campus.

As in my post of four years ago, I’d
note that one of the major obstacles to these changes being more widespread is
the fact that that colleges have had the combined role of both delivering an
education to their students and certifying that their students mastered that
education (i.e., they provide college degrees as credentials).

But things are changing even on that
front. As Class Central has reported

“One of the big trends last year
[2015] was MOOC providers creating their own credentials: Udacity’s Nanodegrees,
Coursera’s Specializations and edX’s Xseries.
For Coursera and Udacity, these credentials have become a main source of

Similarly, Georgia
has online Master’s degrees in fields like computer science, aerospace engineering and operations research.  As an example, the
online computer science website proclaims:

“With [the online degree in] CS, you
can join computing professionals from more than 80 countries who are earning
their M.S. on their own time, in their own homes, and for a total cost of about

Employers who used to shy away from
candidates with online degrees from for-profit organizations, like Phoenix,
might look differently on an online degree from a Georgia Tech or a Coursera
credential from a course provided by Princeton.

Overall, the way that MOOCs and
other innovations in higher education are growing and changing is a rising
threat to many not-so-prestigious, yet expensive, private institutions.  

And it is only a matter of time
before uninformed (or even well-informed) public officials begin to question
the traditional model of higher education. Public institutions in states where
the government has dampened its enthusiasm for higher education spending, like Arizona
, have in response taken the lead in online offerings even for
undergraduates – offering an online bachelors for about $12,000 a year. Of
course, many public colleges have not yet reacted this way.

Community colleges, which also
receive public funding but serve student populations that may not yet have the
talents and temperaments for online learning, may escape immediate impact of
these changes. But again, the question is “for how long?”

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights


Are MOOCs Failing?

There have been recent articles featuring primarily Sebastian Thrun, the earlier leader of massive open online courses (MOOCs) and founder of the company, Udacity, which specializes in developing and delivering MOOCs.

The first was a piece in Fast Company about how Thrun has been disappointed by the experience of MOOCs.  This was followed by a more positive piece in the New York Times about changes in MOOCs that are being considered in order to address their failures.  The failures turn out to be the small percentage of people who actually attend the full course and the fact that most of them already have degrees.

However, the discussion might be misleading.  It not so much whether online courses are good or bad, but how it is very difficult to succeed with a new innovation by casting it as a minor modification of something that already exists.  In this case, the idea that online learning should be very much like a typical college course, but just online, may not have been an innovative enough idea.  For example, the Khan Academy, which packages learning into ten minute videos that anyone can access, is a much greater change from convention and has also been much more successful.

Indeed, the fact that many in the MOOCs already have degrees maybe should make MOOC developers reconsider their target.  Perhaps MOOCs will be much more appealing as a cost-effective means of lifelong learning for those who cannot afford the time or additional money to attend college than for those who would be college students.

In a knowledge age, the biggest challenge is how to provide learning opportunities for all adults – all of whom need to continue to learn.

(Disclosure: While this blog has had previous posts on higher education, it is now more relevant since I was recently appointed to the board of the Westchester Community College.  Of course, my views do not represent those of the College now, or as it may turn out, even in the future 😉

© 2014 Norman Jacknis


The Lever To Accelerate Education Reform?

Although there has been lots of news this year about online education – such as massively open online courses (MOOCs) – as a proportion of overall spending on education these efforts are still quite small.  What will accelerate reforms like these and other, perhaps even better, changes to the ways that people can learn?

It has struck me that before this acceleration of innovation can occur, we must cut the Gordian Knot of education – the fact that, in general, the same institutions that offer education are also the ones who certify that a student has mastered the material.

If we could break that combination, people will be free to learn in the ways that are best for each of them individually.  Instead of one size fits all, each person could use one or more of these approaches: MOOCs, classroom, peer-to-peer, self-teaching, online video, hands-on or other ways that may be invented.  Then an authoritative independent organization can certify whether or not the person has mastered the material.  

So it was interesting to read in the New York Times, a few weeks ago, that:

“Working with Mozilla, the MacArthur Foundation and a consortium interested in virtual learning, former President Bill Clinton announced a project on Thursday to expand the use of Open Badges — online credentials that employers or universities can use in hiring, admissions, promotions or awarding credit. The badges serve as credentials that can help self-taught computer programmers, veterans returning to civilian life and others show skills they learned outside a classroom. ”

It remains to be seen how widely this particular initiative will go, but this or something like it – sooner or later – will provide that independent credentialing system that is needed for disruptive innovation in education to start happening.

© 2013 Norman Jacknis