Stop fighting progress; address the unintended consequences

Surely we’ve learnt from history that it is utterly futile to resist advances in technology? Once something has been invented, it can’t be “un-invented”. Luddites haven’t historically delivered many long-term successes; they haven’t typically been a good investment.

Advances in technology often create new problems – sometimes unintended consequences; other times very much intended. Ultimately, it is the consequences which have to be addressed, rather than the technology itself. It therefore seems odd to me that so much energy is being expended in fighting the adoption of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) – which have been in the news again recently following the publication of an Open Letter to Professor Michael Sandel from the Philosophy Department at San Jose State University.Borsig_steam_locomotive

There are very few examples of technologies or techniques which have have been slowed-down, killed-off or subjected to strict controls (human embryology being an example where strict controls are in place). For the most part, progress continues unabated. The adoption rate of personal computing and web-based tools, for example, has been breathtaking, creating many new opportunities along the way whilst at the same time inevitably leaving casualties in their wake.

Traditional postal services have been heavily impacted by the proliferation of email; calls to and from landlines have reduced as mobile phones have taken their place; we have seen typewriters all but disappear as word processors have become ubiquitous; and we don’t see as many ploughs these days either.

MOOCs are a natural evolution, simultaneously taking advantage of available technology, and dealing with almost unbounded escalation in costs of education. Bill Clinton recently said of university education “I think the only sustainable answer is to find a less expensive delivery system”. MOOCs might not be the final answer, but they are surely a first step worth taking?

Organistions such as FutureLearn, CourseraUdacity and KhanAcademy are investing heavily in the technology, infrastructure and content – and their growth in subscribers suggests they are meeting a need. As they experiment with their various business models there will be adjustments, shifts in market share – and winners (and losers) will eventually emerge. To that extent, they will follow market forces in just the same way as happened with typewriters.

I think the mistake which MOOC detractors make is to imagine that it’s an “either/ or” thing with universities – that somehow they can’t coexist (it has to be MOOCs or universities). I don’t think that’s right – they can coexist. They can even meet a different need – in much the same way as the Open University met the needs of many students who weren’t able to attend traditional universities.

It’s easy to see why MOOCs aren’t universally liked:

  • They pose a significant threat to universities because they operate a different cost model which, at lest superficially, appears to favour the MOOCs at the expense of traditional universities.
  • They are unproven, and long-term success is by no means guaranteed. Since deployment of MOOCs is likely to lead to a reduction in the number of traditional university places, any failure in the MOOC model would leave us with insufficient university capacity – they cannot be simply “turned back on”.
  • They don’t provide the student with any form of face-to-face relationship with a tutor, which many traditional universities believe to be the essential underpinning of their approach.

This last point is a frequently-used one. MOOCs can’t possibly work as well as universities because they don’t offer the same student-tutor contact. I’m sure that’s right, and it’s something which will need to be addressed – the Open University somehow overcame this particular difficulty.

But MOOCs provide some significant benefit:

  • Lower cost structure means they provide more accessible education, and this is surely is a good thing in the context of social mobility.
  • Online delivery means they cut across geographical boundaries.
  • Expert tutors can reach many more students through online content, leading to much greater efficiency.

As someone who regularly addresses students face to face, I feed off them and some of the satisfaction I derive is from that direct contact. I can see that some university professionals would miss that too, and I can imagine that some might be deterred from delivering content via MOOCs specifically because of that. They won’t suit all professionals in the same way as they won’t suit all students.

MOOCs represent a significant disruption in the education system globally. They have the potential to level the playing-field, deliver excellence efficiently, and generally reach far greater numbers of students than ever before. They’re not perfect; they’re not for everyone; they’re not the only solution.

Rather than fighting the technology and metaphorically smashing up the looms, I believe a better approach is:

  • Accept that this approach is coming, whether we like it or not.
  • Identify consequences and deal with them – put plans in place to mitigate the identified risks.
  • Constantly monitor the situation and adapt. It won’t be perfect from the start.


  • Luddites have never enjoyed much long-term success.
  • MOOCs are coming, whether we like it or not.
  • MOOCs are an answer to a problem; they’re not the answer to all problems.


Feel free to comment on this post – I’d be interested to hear your views.
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