The greatest edtech development in 200 years? I hope so…

….the same three-person team of a professor plus assistants that used to teach analog circuit design to 400 students at MIT now handles 10,000 online and could take a hundred times more….

So said Anant Agarwal, the computer scientist appointed by MIT and Harvard this year to head edX, a $60 million joint effort (currently including UC Berkeley and the University of Texas, as well as MIT and Harvard) to stream a college education over the Web, free to anyone who wants it. Their aim, in time, they say is to reach 1 billion students by this means.

MIT's Technology Review has published a business report on Digital Education that includes a piece that asks, is the MOOC the greatest edtech development in 200 years?, and another piece that takes a strangely myopic look at the development of the technology of the MOOC (myopic because it gives not the slightest mention to those who actually synthetized the concept and who coined the term itself). Given that this is in the context of a business report, perhaps the somewhat progressive, left-leaning, anti-corporatist inclinations of many of those involved in the origins of the MOOC simply keeps them below the radar of those writing for the Technology Review. I genuinely hope that is not the case.

However, while my pedagogical sympathies are somewhat closer to the MOOC's prime movers, I also have a lot of admiration for what the big players are doing too. Coursera and Udacity, as well as the likes of edX, are all non-profit social enterprise ventures, and while their pedagogy is primarily a 'knowledge-delivery' model (as opposed to social-constructivist or connectivist model), they are very much part of a broad-based set of developments in education that, I believe, are coalescing into a major storm that will sweep through the structures and assumptions of formal institutional education in the next few years. Of course, there are many other MOOCs out there too: Stephen Downes offers a recent list of international providers.

Agarwal's quote at the top of this piece itself confirms that these big MOOC providers are basically taking the model of delivery straight out of the lecture halls and classrooms of higher education and onto the Web. That's fine, so far as it goes, but it means that much (most?) of the real power of the MOOC as originally defined, namely that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and that learning therefore consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks is dissipated.

That foundation in the pedagogy of the lecture theatre also means, of course, that the big providers are also hoping to find the commercial holy grail of trusted, authenticated and secure accreditation via the MOOC.

Nonetheless, it will be interesting to watch what the effect will be on all those universities across the world currently licensing courses from the big providers. I doubt that they are licensing their own annihilation, as some of the more lurid commentators might suggest; but i do think they are hastening a massive and welcome shift in the centre of gravity in higher education globally.

The MOOC is a development that, like all great innovations, is a culmination of inventions, formations, thinking, experimentations, mistakes and triumphs that came before it; it is also like all great innovations in that it is a game-changer. The game is changing in higher education, and in education generally – of that there is no doubt – and while the MOOC can only be a part of that change, it is a critical part. The MOOC will never be able to cope with all the requirements of learning and of study: there will also be a need, in some disciplines, for lab work, ground work, work in the field, whatever.

So, the greatest edtech development in 200 years? I certainly hope so!