Are MOOCs A Disruptive Innovation?

5 Mar

Disruptive innovation as defined by Clayton Christensen:

“Generally, disruptive innovations were technologically straightforward, consisting of off-the-shelf components put together in a product architecture that was often simpler than prior approaches. They offered less of what customers in established markets wanted and so could rarely be initially employed there. They offered a different package of attributes valued only in emerging markets remote from, and unimportant to, the mainstream.”


Are the MOOCs a disruptive innovation that will, in the coming years, compete with and make the traditional universities obsolete? Some people certainly think so. The cost of attending college has been rising dramatically more than income, student loans are higher than credit card debt, drop-out rate is not going down, and college students are not finding jobs upon graduation. All these factors have led to many asking if a college degree is even worth spending time and money on.

If it’s education that I want, isn’t it easier and much cheaper to take courses using free MOOCs, which are putting lectures of renowned professors online, available for anyone to watch? Why spend thousands of dollars on a degree that doesn’t lead to a decent job? This is a fair question, but the answer is not straightforward.

Why MOOCs are considered disruptive
College costs are skyrocketing. Many colleges are very selective. There are limited seats available and the number of applicants is huge. Relocating to a different city to attend a traditional college has its costs too. On the other hand, MOOCs admit anyone who wants to learn. Period. They increase access to great content, and it’s free or costs a fraction of the cost of attending a traditional college. Though the dropout rate is extremely high in MOOC courses, about 90% compared to about 43% for traditional universities, the number of students graduating from a MOOC course is still very high. It is possible, at least in theory, that most of the students sit at home and learn without spending much money while the traditional colleges shut their doors because there are no students to teach. In short, MOOCs appear to solve a real problem.

MOOCs’ value proposition
The value proposition of MOOCs is access to great content for general populace and low cost. However, great or at least good, content has always been available on the Internet for free. The only thing people needed was to search the Internet. So the value of MOOCs comes from the fact that the best universities and professors are bringing the best lectures to the masses. The MOOCs are also helping instructors flip the classroom by asking students to go through the lecture before coming to the class. A hybrid course helps colleges cut costs too. A person, anywhere in the world and motivated to learn a subject or a topic, can just go online and learn without any hassle and monetary cost. It’s an incredibly convenient and inexpensive way to learn.

Is great content enough for learning?
I don’t think so. Motivation to learn is far more important than content. A highly motivated student will search and find good content on the Internet or the library. And learning is primarily a social endeavor. Learning in a classroom (even a virtual one) helps motivate students and physical proximity to other students and teacher helps encourage discussion and thinking. Learning about diverse opinions and perspectives from a group of students is a more enriching experience.

Issues with large-scale online courses:

  • Requires self-motivated students
  • There is hardly any accountability in the absence of grades (that the students value)
  • The grades/credits are not accepted (yet) by most traditional colleges
  • Employers do not value an online degree as much as a traditional one
  • No real loss on dropping out
  • No encouragement to work hard or not drop out
  • No personalized feedback on progress (except automated grading and feedback)
  • Academic dishonesty in absence of supervision
  • No requirement to write long papers

Do people go to colleges only for access to great content?
Again, I don’t think so. People go to traditional colleges for a number of other factors:

  • To earn a degree/credential
  • Become independent
  • Learn about the world
  • Have a social life and enjoyment
  • Have an enriching college experience
  • Develop soft skills
  • Discuss and learn from diverse perspectives
  • Participate in sports and other extra-curricular activities
  • Build personal and professional network
  • Find opportunities for jobs and other interests

As long as people value these factors, the colleges will continue to thrive. And that … might just be a good thing!

Related readings
Massive Open Online Courses — A Threat Or Opportunity To Universities?
The Professors’ Big Stage
The Trouble With Online College

2 Responses to “Are MOOCs A Disruptive Innovation?”


  1. The Revolution That Wasn’t: Part 2 | In the Arena - January 28, 2014

    […] Meanwhile, I stand by my take on MOOCs two years ago – Are MOOCs A Disruptive Innovation? […]

  2. Are Moocs disruptive, interesting or just marketing? | About Education, Economics and Policy - March 7, 2013

    […] Are MOOCs A Disruptive Innovation? ( […]

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