A Defining Moment for Online Learning

I have a list of moments when I knew something big was happening. The first was in the exhibit hall at a geeky conference when I saw the Mosiac internet browser for the first time and immediately knew that the information industry was about to blow up. Next was the moment I bought my first music from the Apple store. I knew I would never return to vinyl or CDs. The same when my first book came instantly on a Kindle or my first car arrived from Uber. The change was instant and there was no going back... ever.

I had a similar moment last week after a meeting with Rick Levin, the former President of Yale and the new CEO of Coursera. At the request of Al Gore and John Doerr, Rick traded his impressive office in Woodbridge Hall for a desk in an open office in Mountain View, California and an adjacent conference room covered with notes on a white board. As I walked out of the building after two hours with Rick and his colleagues discussing the second version of the MOOC I teach with Holden Thorp called What's Your Big Idea? I knew the debate was done and my colleagues would have to get over it -- online education is not going away.

Why did this revelation come last week and not last spring when we launched our MOOC for the first time to an audience of tens of thousands? If the initial response didn't convince me the 900 discussion forums in over ten languages should have done the trick. Still, the last ten years in academia gave me pause. Online education in general and MOOC's in particular challenge activities that have taken place for centuries in the most prestigious universities in the world. Our great universities are among the most durable institutions in or society for a reason (of the 85 institutions in existence since 1522 including the Catholic Church and Britain's Parliament 70 are universities). They are unique, attracting a remarkable array of financial and human resources as a result of their culture of community and consensus. But the elements of academic culture that have enabled universities to stand the test of time also make them understandably conservative. Consensus does not come easily and more often than not yields minor tweaks not fundamental change.

My hesitancy to "drink the MOOC Kool Aid " grew out of my experiences as a relatively new participant in the academic enterprise. I understood well the forces standing in the way of the changes online education suggests. First, there is natural skepticism, the same skepticism that questioned the importance of the PC and the Internet at their inception. But a more powerful impulse is also at work. Universities are communities of scholars that function primarily by consensus and abhor the idea of winners and losers. Anyone who has ever suggested that a department or even a center at a university be eliminated knows how quickly academics will rally to protect their own. The changes that online education suggests will inevitably result in less classroom lectures (with high quality carefully produced online lectures taking their place) and more interactive classroom experiences that seek to apply and amplify the big lectures. The status quo will be disrupted to the advantage of some (good lecturers whose institutions have the budget to create high quality video productions) and to the detriment of others. This kind of change where assets are reallocated and roles are redefined rarely occurs as a result of consensus because those who perceive themselves as disadvantaged are reluctant to agree.

But a countervailing force is also at work. For many, online education is no longer what we call in the commercial world a "nice to have." It is a "need to have." Although the prestigious colleges and universities are here to stay and will react to online education as a way of improving the educational experience, according to Bain and Company as many as a third of the colleges and universities in the United States are operating in an unsustainable financial model. The value of their degree and the relevance of what they teach are in question. Online education will be an important part of the path to viability for many of these institutions and will therefore not be an option but a necessity.

Still, market forces and consumer behavior take longer to impact academia than other institutions. Academic tradition, arcane processes and the drive to consensus are all hard to overcome. That's why Rick Levin's decision to join Coursera is so important. No longer is online education led solely by a group of young professors from Stanford or entrepreneurs with no academic credibility. Neither is it any longer merely an experiment between elite institutions with little to lose if things don't go well. Instead, a respected academic who is generally considered one of Yale's most successful leaders has voted with his feet and joined the movement. As a result, online education has acquired a sense of inevitability and the conversation will change from are MOOC's a fad or a temporary aberration to how can online education enhance the education we offer students in the classroom and how can we export what we learn to the rest of the world.