"Average is over"

Today’s Thomas Friedman column notes the growing craze at major universities for massively open online courses, or MOOCs: “The Professors Big Stage”.

Clayton Christensen, the Harvard Business School professor and expert on disruptive innovation, gave a compelling talk about how much todays traditional university has in common with General Motors of the 1960s, just before Toyota used a technology breakthrough to come from nowhere and topple G.M. Christensen noted that Harvard Business School doesnt teach entry-level accounting anymore, because there is a professor out at Brigham Young University whose online accounting course is just so good that Harvard students use that instead. When outstanding becomes so easily available, average is over.

The theme of the column is that education must change, because:

We demand that plumbers and kindergarten teachers be certified to do what they do, but there is no requirement that college professors know how to teach. No more. The world of MOOCs is creating a competition that will force every professor to improve his or her pedagogy or face an online competitor.

Most great teachers are not at Harvard. It does seem possible that a ratchet effect will kick in, making free online courses better and better, until bad college professors must change their game. There is a visible lack of institutional quality assurance on most college courses.

On the other hand, there already is a strong competition among college professors in textbook authoring. We haven’t seen a ratcheting effect, with better and better textbooks. Instead, we’ve seen textbooks metastasize with unneeded features, supplements, and cumbersome licenses. MOOCs are free, for now, so maybe they’ll avoid the pressures that affect the textbook market.