Creative Destruction: the Economist on MOOCs

Can the Internet do to education what videotapes, television, radio and the post office could not?

I do all sorts of things online: news, network, Netflix, read, write, research, etc.  But I still like my Economist in my hands.  And since I don’t get it in the mail until Monday afternoon, you may have already seen the pieces on MOOCs in the June28-July4 edition.

With a leader, a Briefing, and a story on Brazil, there is much to enjoy.  As usual, the treatment includes recognizing the effects technology and the Internet have had/are having on many industries, embracing technology for scalability and cost savings, and looking at what some leading organizations are doing.  MOOCs might help as an alternative to higher costs and deeper debts.  The problem of credits counting toward useful degrees remains, but is beginning to be addressed. And so on.

Perhaps the most jarring note to higher education administrators and faculty was the comparison to the newspaper industry, with massive bankruptcies, closures, and job losses.  The Brazil article notes that there are large, coordinated efforts with some real success, many in a “hybrid” fashion combining online and in-person course work and discussion.

Perhaps most interesting was the ad in between the two stories.  The ad was for the The Great Courses ( DVD on “mastering differential equations” – 24 lectures from a professor from Boston University who happens to be former president of the Mathematical Association of America, winner of several teaching awards, with 14 books and over 100 scholarly articles to his credit.  Courses are also available on the Civil War (from a University of Virginia professor with seven books from university presses, incl. two from Harvard Univ Press); and other highly-decorated faculty on the history of European art, world religions, behavioral economics, Russian literature, and much more.

Twenty years ago, in an article “Ivy League Courses fro the Price of a Video,” the New York Times extolled the virtues of choosing the very best teachers at the best schools and making their lectures available to anyone with a VCR:

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, one of the company’s clients, says, “These tapes are outstanding, the teachers are brilliant and the educational value of the material is excellent. It’s like going back to class with the best teachers I ever had.”

The cost for the courses, ranging from $90 to $250, is about one- tenth of what a student would pay in tuition to follow such a class at an Ivy League school. However, the tapes do not lead to any recognized university credit.

(Wait, what’s that math – how much was Harvard’s tuition 20 years ago?)  Ted Kennedy and the New York Times loved The Learning Company (as it was then called), but universities survived.   Since that article, Netscape,, Google, wikipedia, and many others have transformed the landscape of nearly every industry.  It will be great fun to watch higher education as we know it struggle to evolve.

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