Napster, Udacity, and the Academy

Fifteen years ago, a research group called The Fraunhofer Institute announced a new digital format for compressing movie files. This wasn’t a terribly momentous invention, but it did have one interesting side effect: Fraunhofer also had to figure out how to compress the soundtrack. The result was the Motion Picture Experts Group Format 1, Audio Layer III, a format you know and love, though only by its acronym, MP3.

The recording industry concluded this new audio format would be no threat, because quality mattered most. Who would listen to an MP3 when they could buy a better-sounding CD at the record store? Then Napster launched, and quickly became the fastest-growing piece of software in history. The industry sued Napster and won, and it collapsed even more suddenly than it had arisen.

If Napster had only been about free access, control of legal distribution of music would then have returned the record labels. That’s not what happened. Instead, Pandora happened. happened. Spotify happened. ITunes happened. Amazon began selling songs in the hated MP3 format.

How did the recording industry win the battle but lose the war? How did they achieve such a decisive victory over Napster, then fail to regain control of even legal distribution channels? They crushed Napster’s organization. They poisoned Napster’s brand. They outlawed Napster’s tools. The one thing they couldn’t kill was the story Napster told.

The story the recording industry used to tell us went something like this: “Hey kids, Alanis Morisette just recorded three kickin’ songs! You can have them, so long as you pay for the ten mediocrities she recorded at the same time.” Napster told us a different story. Napster said “You want just the three songs? Fine. Just ‘You Oughta Know’? No problem. Every cover of ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ ever made? Help yourself. You’re in charge.”

The people in the music industry weren’t stupid, of course. They had access to the same internet the rest of us did. They just couldn’t imagine—and I mean this in the most ordinarily descriptive way possible—could not imagine that the old way of doing things might fail. Yet things did fail, in large part because, after Napster, the industry’s insistence that digital distribution be as expensive and inconvenient as a trip to the record store suddenly struck millions of people as a completely terrible idea.

Once you see this pattern—a new story rearranging people’s sense of the possible, with the incumbents the last to know—you see it everywhere. First, the people running the old system don’t notice the change. When they do, they assume it’s minor. Then that it’s a niche. Then a fad. And by the time they understand that the world has actually changed, they’ve squandered most of the time they had to adapt.

It’s been interesting watching this unfold in music, books, newspapers, TV, but nothing has ever been as interesting to me as watching it happen in my own backyard. Higher education is now being disrupted; our MP3 is the massive open online course (or MOOC), and our Napster is Udacity, the education startup.

We have several advantages over the recording industry, of course. We are decentralized and mostly non-profit. We employ lots of smart people. We have previous examples to learn from, and our core competence is learning from the past. And armed with these advantages, we’re probably going to screw this up as badly as the music people did.

* * *

A massive open online class is usually a series of video lectures with associated written materials and self-scoring tests, open to anyone. That’s what makes them OOCs. The M part, though, comes from the world. As we learned from Wikipedia, demand for knowledge is so enormous that good, free online materials can attract extraordinary numbers of people from all over the world.

Last year, Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, an online course from Stanford taught by Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun, attracted 160,000 potential students, of whom 23,000 completed it, a scale that dwarfs anything possible on a physical campus. As Thrun put it, “Peter and I taught more students AI, than all AI professors in the world combined.” Seeing this, he quit and founded Udacity, an educational institution designed to offer MOOCs.

The size of Thrun and Norvig’s course, and the attention attracted by Udacity (and similar organizations like Coursera, P2PU, and University of the People), have many academics worrying about the effect on higher education. The loudest such worrying so far has been The Trouble With Online Education, a New York Times OpEd by Mark Edmunson of the University of Virginia. As most critics do, Edmundson focussed on the issue of quality, asking and answering his own question: “[C]an online education ever be education of the very best sort?”

Now you and I know what he means by “the very best sort”—the intimate college seminar, preferably conducted by tenured faculty. He’s telling the story of the liberal arts education in a selective residential college and asking “Why would anyone take an online class when they can buy a better education at UVA?”

But who faces that choice? Are we to imagine an 18 year old who can set aside $250K and 4 years, but who would have a hard time choosing between a residential college and a series of MOOCs? Elite high school students will not be abandoning elite colleges any time soon; the issue isn’t what education of “the very best sort” looks like, but what the whole system looks like.

Edmundson isn’t crazy enough to argue that all college experiences are good, so he hedges. He tells us “Every memorable class is a bit like a jazz composition”, without providing an analogy for the non-memorable ones. He assures us that “large lectures can also create genuine intellectual community”, which of course means they can also not do that. (He doesn’t say how many large lectures fail his test.) He says “real courses create intellectual joy,” a statement that can be accurate only as a tautology. (The MOOC Criticism Drinking Game: take a swig whenever someone says “real”, “true”, or “genuine” to hide the fact that they are only talking about elite schools instead of the median college experience.)

I was fortunate enough to get the kind of undergraduate education Edmundson praises: four years at Yale, in an incredible intellectual community, where even big lecture classes were taught by seriously brilliant people. Decades later, I can still remember my art history professor’s description of the Arnolfini Wedding, and the survey of modern poetry didn’t just expose me to Ezra Pound and HD, it changed how I thought about the 20th century.

But you know what? Those classes weren’t like jazz compositions. They didn’t create genuine intellectual community. They didn’t even create ersatz intellectual community. They were just great lectures: we showed up, we listened, we took notes, and we left, ready to discuss what we’d heard in smaller sections.

And did the professors also teach our sections too? No, of course not; those were taught by graduate students. Heaven knows what they were being paid to teach us, but it wasn’t a big fraction of a professor’s salary. The large lecture isn’t a tool for producing intellectual joy; it’s a tool for reducing the expense of introductory classes.

* * *

Higher education has a bad case of cost disease (sometimes called Baumol’s cost disease, after one of its theorizers.) The classic example is the string quartet; performing a 15-minute quartet took a cumulative hour of musician time in 1850, and takes that same hour today. This is not true of the production of food, or clothing, or transportation, all of which have seen massive increases in value created per hour of labor. Unfortunately, the obvious ways to make production more efficient—fewer musicians playing faster—wouldn’t work as well for the production of music as for the production of cars.

An organization with cost disease can use lower paid workers, increase the number of consumers per worker, subsidize production, or increase price. For live music, this means hiring less-talented musicians, selling more tickets per performance, writing grant applications, or, of course, raising ticket prices. For colleges, this means more graduate and adjunct instructors, increased enrollments and class size, fundraising, or, of course, raising tuition.

The great work on college and cost-disease is Robert Archibald and David Feldman’s Why Does College Cost So Much? Archibald and Feldman conclude that institution-specific explanations—spoiled students expecting a climbing wall; management self-aggrandizement at the expense of educational mission—hold up less well than the generic observation: colleges need a lot of highly skilled people, people whose wages, benefits, and support costs have risen faster than inflation for the last thirty years.

Cheap graduate students let a college lower the cost of teaching the sections while continuing to produce lectures as an artisanal product, from scratch, on site, real time. The minute you try to explain exactly why we do it this way, though, the setup starts to seem a little bizarre. What would it be like to teach at a university where a you could only assign books you yourself had written? Where you could only ask your students to read journal articles written by your fellow faculty members? Ridiculous. Unimaginable.

Every college provides access to a huge collection of potential readings, and to a tiny collection of potential lectures. We ask students to read the best works we can find, whoever produced them and where, but we only ask them to listen to the best lecture a local employee can produce that morning. Sometimes you’re at a place where the best lecture your professor can give is the best in the world. But mostly not. And the only thing that kept this system from seeming strange was that we’ve never had a good way of publishing lectures.

This is the huge difference between music and education. Starting with Edison’s wax cylinders, and continuing through to Pandora and the iPod, the biggest change in musical consumption has come not from production but playback. Hearing an excellent string quartet play live in an intimate venue has indeed become a very expensive proposition, as cost disease would suggest, but at the same time, the vast majority of music listened to on any given day is no longer recreated live.

* * *

Harvard, where I was fortunate enough to have a visiting lectureship a couple of years ago, is our agreed-upon Best Institution, and it is indeed an extraordinary place. But this very transcendence should make us suspicious. Harvard’s endowment, 31 billion dollars, is over three hundred times the median, and only one college in five has an endowment in the first place. Harvard also educates only about a tenth of a percent of the 18 million or so students enrolled in higher education in any given year. Any sentence that begins “Let’s take Harvard as an example…” should immediately be followed up with “No, let’s not do that.”

This atypical bent of our elite institutions covers more than just Harvard. The top 50 colleges on the US News and World Report list (which includes most of the ones you’ve heard of) only educate something like 3% of the current student population. The entire list, about 250 colleges, educates fewer than 25%.

The upper reaches of the US college system work like a potlatch, those festivals of ostentatious giving. The very things the US News list of top colleges prizes—low average class size, ratio of staff to students—mean that any institution that tries to create a cost-effective education will move down the list. This is why most of the early work on MOOCs is coming out of Stanford and Harvard and MIT. As Ian Bogost says, MOOCs are marketing for elite schools.

Outside the elite institutions, though, the other 75% of students—over 13 million of them—are enrolled in the four thousand institutions you haven’t heard of: Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College. Bridgerland Applied Technology College. The Laboratory Institute of Merchandising. When we talk about college education in the US, these institutions are usually left out of the conversation, but Clayton State educates as many undergraduates as Harvard. Saint Leo educates twice as many. City College of San Francisco enrolls as many as the entire Ivy League combined. These are where most students are, and their experience is what college education is mostly like.

* * *

The fight over MOOCs isn’t about the value of college; a good chunk of the four thousand institutions you haven’t heard of provide an expensive but mediocre education. For-profit schools like Kaplan’s and the University of Phoenix enroll around one student in eight, but account for nearly half of all loan defaults, and the vast majority of their enrollees fail to get a degree even after six years. Reading the academic press, you wouldn’t think that these statistics represented a more serious defection from our mission than helping people learn something about Artificial Intelligence for free.

The fight over MOOCs isn’t even about the value of online education. Hundreds of institutions already offer online classes for credit, and half a million students are already enrolled in them. If critics of online education were consistent, they would believe that the University of Virginia’s Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies or Rutger’s MLIS degree are abominations, or else they would have to believe that there is a credit-worthy way to do online education, one MOOCs could emulate. Neither argument is much in evidence.

That’s because the fight over MOOCs is really about the story we tell ourselves about higher education: what it is, who it’s for, how it’s delivered, who delivers it. The most widely told story about college focuses obsessively on elite schools and answers a crazy mix of questions: How will we teach complex thinking and skills? How will we turn adolescents into well-rounded members of the middle class? Who will certify that education is taking place? How will we instill reverence for Virgil? Who will subsidize the professor’s work?

MOOCs simply ignore a lot of those questions. The possibility MOOCs hold out isn’t replacement; anything that could replace the traditional college experience would have to work like one, and the institutions best at working like a college are already colleges. The possibility MOOCs hold out is that the educational parts of education can be unbundled. MOOCs expand the audience for education to people ill-served or completely shut out from the current system, in the same way phonographs expanded the audience for symphonies to people who couldn’t get to a concert hall, and PCs expanded the users of computing power to people who didn’t work in big companies.

Those earlier inventions systems started out markedly inferior to the high-cost alternative: records were scratchy, PCs were crashy. But first they got better, then they got better than that, and finally, they got so good, for so cheap, that they changed people’s sense of what was possible.

In the US, an undergraduate education used to be an option, one way to get into the middle class. Now it’s a hostage situation, required to avoid falling out of it. And if some of the hostages having trouble coming up with the ransom conclude that our current system is a completely terrible idea, then learning will come unbundled from the pursuit of a degree just as as songs came unbundled from CDs.

If this happens, Harvard will be fine. Yale will be fine, and Stanford, and Swarthmore, and Duke. But Bridgerland Applied Technology College? Maybe not fine. University of Arkansas at Little Rock? Maybe not fine. And Kaplan College, a more reliable producer of debt than education? Definitely not fine.

* * *

Udacity and its peers don’t even pretend to tell the story of an 18-year old earning a Bachelor’s degree in four years from a selective college, a story that only applies to a small minority of students in the US, much less the world. Meanwhile, they try to answer some new questions, questions that the traditional academy—me and my people—often don’t even recognize as legitimate, like “How do we spin up 10,000 competent programmers a year, all over the world, at a cost too cheap to meter?”

Udacity may or may not survive, but as with Napster, there’s no containing the story it tells: “It’s possible to educate a thousand people at a time, in a single class, all around the world, for free.” To a traditional academic, this sounds like crazy talk. Earlier this fall, a math instructor writing under the pen name Delta enrolled in Thrun’s Statistics 101 class, and, after experiencing it first-hand, concluded that the course was

…amazingly, shockingly awful. It is poorly structured; it evidences an almost complete lack of planning for the lectures; it routinely fails to properly define or use standard terms or notation; it necessitates occasional massive gaps where “magic” happens; and it results in nonstandard computations that would not be accepted in normal statistical work.

Delta posted ten specific criticisms of the the content (Normal Curve Calculations), teaching methods (Quiz Regime) and the MOOC itself (Lack of Updates). About this last one, Delta said:

So in theory, any of the problems that I’ve noted above could be revisited and fixed on future pass-throughs of the course. But will that happen at Udacity, or any other massive online academic program?

The very next day, Thrun answered that question. Conceding that Delta “points out a number of shortcomings that warrant improvements”, Thrun detailed how they were going to update the class. Delta, to his credit, then noted that Thrun had answered several of his criticisms, and went on to tell a depressing story of a fellow instructor at his own institution who had failed to define the mathematical terms he was using despite student requests.

Tellingly, when Delta was criticizing his peer, he didn’t name the professor, the course, or even his institution. He could observe every aspect of Udacity’s Statistics 101 (as can you) and discuss them in public, but when criticizing his own institution, he pulled his punches.

Open systems are open. For people used to dealing with institutions that go out of their way to hide their flaws, this makes these systems look terrible at first. But anyone who has watched a piece of open source software improve, or remembers the Britannica people throwing tantrums about Wikipedia, has seen how blistering public criticism makes open systems better. And once you imagine educating a thousand people in a single class, it becomes clear that open courses, even in their nascent state, will be able to raise quality and improve certification faster than traditional institutions can lower cost or increase enrollment.

College mottos run the gamut from Bryn Mawr’s Veritatem Dilexi (I Delight In The Truth) to the Laboratory Institute of Merchandising’s Where Business Meets Fashion, but there’s a new one that now hangs over many of them: Quae Non Possunt Non Manent. Things That Can’t Last Don’t. The cost of attending college is rising above inflation every year, while the premium for doing so shrinks. This obviously can’t last, but no one on the inside has any clear idea about how to change the way our institutions work while leaving our benefits and privileges intact.

In the academy, we lecture other people every day about learning from history. Now its our turn, and the risk is that we’ll be the last to know that the world has changed, because we can’t imagine—really cannot imagine—that story we tell ourselves about ourselves could start to fail. Even when it’s true. Especially when it’s true.

74 Responses to “Napster, Udacity, and the Academy”

  1. Dan Blaker Says:

    Excellent perspective, but you’re missing something important: MOOCs will never catch on, culturally, with the very students you argue they serve. The appeal of MOOCs for incoming freshmen is directly proportional to the odds that they will meet a ton of new people in class and have sex with some of them.

    Put another way, nobody has ever cried with elation upon securing tickets to see one string quartet instead of another string quartet.

  2. Clay Shirky: “Napster, Udacity, and the Academy” | The Kinetic Museum Says:

    […] Read more » Napster, Udacity, and the Academy Clay Shirky. […]

  3. Niall Says:

    I’m participating in a MOOC at present. There are a few short video lectures. Most of the learning and assessment is peer to peer and a peer is anyone who happens to enrol. There are situations where peer-peer is enough for instance in continuous professional development or where you need some outside opinions on a possible project. To reach a goal, however. a tutor (whether professor or grad student) who can guide the discussion certainly helps.

  4. Jason Says:

    Mr. Shirkey-

    I found your article wildly inspiring. Thank you.

    Mr. Dorn-

    You cite the increase of awarded degrees as a sign of productivity, but — and I’m honestly asking you as the expert, not chiding you — isn’t it much more likely that the root causes of the minimal increase in degrees awarded is owed to the combination of the obscured costs of and easier access to financial aid? Not to mention a lowering of admissions standards? If that’s correct, the recent increase in degrees awarded only points to a further denial of the oncoming reality described by Mr. Shirkey.

  5. Jerry Neumann Says:

    Clay–thanks for the post.

    Part of the reaction to the moocs is, as you would expect, denial. And denial brought about by fear. In this case, imo, the fear is warranted.

    There is an aspect of a college–college used in the sense of a community of scholars–that is not now replicated online. Your experience at ITP is probably a good example: the unplannable arising of ideas from the interaction of disparate points of view. As NYers we are familiar with the fermentation of ideas in the Jane Adams/Richard Florida vein, but it’s unclear that the same critical mass of intellect could be assembled to support innovation in specific subsectors like, say, agriculture or social software design without the physical university.

    The problem with unbundling is that low-volume, high-value activities are often supported by high-volume, low-value activities. In the old recording industry model where a band only had three good songs every two years but needed to sell thirteen to put food on the table, unbundling the LP is disastrous. In the university, unbundling the teaching of the 101 classes from the top-of-the-pyramid intellectual work may render the latter uneconomic. And if you believe, as I do, that the bleeding edge work eventually manages to improve society as the ideas become operationalized, then perhaps fear is the appropriate response and denial, while not constructive, is understandable.

    The interesting corollary with the media: the New York Times I grew up with has become uneconomic, but nothing has replaced it at the same level of quality. So while the mass of newspaper readers do better economically by reading free news of sufficient quality, the gradual rise in quality that a true Disruptive Innovation would bring has not appeared and does not seem to be imminent (you may disagree with this last .)

    The interesting question to me is not whether moocs will disrupt the university by providing a lower cost, lower quality alternative, but whether there is a Disruptive path available where quality improves beyond its current level. Is an invisible college feasible?

  6. Steve Platt Says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful piece…. have been waiting to read on this subject from those that can best define the issues. We know the brick and mortar assault is coming, what is most fascinating is to learn of the early and enduring themes. Enjoyed the post and sharing to my minions.

  7. CL Says:

    Clay, this is a thought-provoking piece, especially the comparisons between MP3s and MOOCs, but I believe its arguments revolve around a couple of straw men.

    You cite the recent op-ed piece by Mark Edmundson: “Edmundson focused on the issue of quality, asking and answering his own question: ‘[C]an online education ever be education of the very best sort?’ …Now you and I know what he means by ‘the very best sort’—the intimate college seminar, preferably conducted by tenured faculty.” You then go on to explain that people who make these types of arguments are really “…only talking about elite schools instead of the median college experience.”

    But nowhere does Edmundson say that “the very best sort” means “elite schools” or “tenured faculty.” He does explicitly say this: “With every class we teach, we need to learn who the people in front of us are. We need to know where they are intellectually, who they are as people and what we can do to help them grow. Teaching, even when you have a group of a hundred students on hand, is a matter of dialogue.” Now, I happen to disagree with Edmunds that such a dialogue is not possible in an online course – small online courses are in fact very conducive to in-depth dialogue. But the point is, he is defining the “best sort” as smaller courses facilitated by a teacher – and that teacher could be a tenured professor at Yale, or an instructor at an affordable community college. It seems to me that Edmundson is considering the “median college experience” (or at least not discounting it), whereas your piece seems quite dismissive of learning that occurs everywhere but in the elite schools (or in MOOCs generated by elite schools).

    Having set up the straw man that “the best sort” means elite schools like Yale, with huge lecture sections and small discussion groups taught by underpaid grad assistants (as described in your article), you then compare that straw man to the MOOC format.

    The second straw man is the idea that criticism of MOOCs is equivalent to criticism of online courses in general: “The fight over MOOCs isn’t even about the value of online education. Hundreds of institutions already offer online classes for credit, and half a million students are already enrolled in them. If critics of online education were consistent, they would believe that the University of Virginia’s Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies or Rutger’s MLIS degree are abominations, or else they would have to believe that there is a credit-worthy way to do online education, one MOOCs could emulate.”

    You’re right, the fight is not over online education generally, it is about MOOCs particularly. An online course with 25 students and an instructor checking in and monitoring progress, answering questions, reshaping curricula – in short, engaging in a dialogue with the students – is not the same as posting lectures online and testing 100,000 students on them. One can be a critic of MOOCs and also be a supporter of online education. One does not “have to believe that there is a credit-worthy way” MOOCs can operate, if one believes that credit-worthiness (“the best sort”) stems from classes being small enough to maintain a dialogue with the instructor.

  8. Western Dave Says:

    Community colleges deliver good value for cheap, usually in a handcrafted way that MOOCs can’t or won’t. Where do you see CCs in the future?

  9. pond Says:

    Here are 2 points I wish you had addressed in this post, that mark the traditional college campus apart from the MOOC:

    1. Buildings – the physical campus with facilities, classrooms, and dorm rooms, and their maintenance – add considerably to the cost of the traditional college. I wonder how those costs compare to the salaries of the instructors?

    2. Student interaction. You noted that after those great lectures at Yale, you and your fellow students went off to smaller discussion groups led by TAs. Not so well paid were these TAs, you note. But those discussion groups were composed of extremely bright, motivated students bringing different backgrounds and points of view to the table, apart from whatever the TA might offer. Alone with my PC, I can watch the lecture, read the assigned materials, take online quizzes and tests – but I remain alone and lack the encouragement and challenge of competing students, most of whom are brighter than I.

    Both these elements (the physical campus and the present student body) are missing from the MOOC by definition. Eschewing the buildings brings down cost. Something like G+ Hangouts could be arranged for study groups that would in some way recreate the study group or discussion group.

  10. critic Says:

    The cost of college is rising because of declining state support for public higher education (which 75-80 percent of college students attend). This isn’t a natural trend, its a political one we can correct.

    Yes, we deliver a course to 1000 people over the internet, but is that a good class? Is that anonymous, technology based education the direction we want to move as a society.

    Realistically, there will always be real colleges because rich people like them and can afford to keep going there. The question is what we offer everyone else. Do we increase support for our state universities to provide the opportunity for high quality education to everyone, or do we just give up and say “oh, just take classes over the internet, that’s just as good, we promise”?

  11. Marc Canter Says:


    Rocking he house as usual – right on!

    This moment reminds me of meeting Red Burns and turning her onto Director. The world is changing very quickly, and as Kevin Werbach says (above) “The disruptive aspects are just getting started.”

    That’s what we learned about the spread and evolution of multimedia authoring tools.

    And who would have thought that a long haired educational researcher up in Canada – Stephen Downes – would have created so much disruption – so quickly?

    My own experiences at teaching at CWRU – one of those ‘formerly elite’ schools at the cusp of mediocrity – taught me that you can video record the lectures – but us outliers have to be reminded to censor our behavior or else they’ll ‘take down’ the recorded lectures cause we use the “f” word – or referred to “dudes who need to grow a pair of balls” – too often!

    Little did I know that my two years of ideas, dashboard containers (as a solution to distributed social networks) or trans versus inter – disciplinary studies – would head into the trashbin – just cause I’m a “foul mouthed cranky old bastard!”

    I”m sure they thought they were teaching me a good lesson – but the last laugh will be on them!

    This whole story telling metaphor really works – which reminds me of when David Weekly, Micky Kapp and myself went into Warner Music to try and explain MP3’s to them. OMG! But that’s another story to tell – l8r.

    BTW my own efforts to train and create on-line jobs for normal people – will be distributed as a MOOC! First Day’s course =

  12. The challenge posed by Udacity « Andrew Taggart Says:

    […] Clay Shirky that the time is right for a massive disruption of higher education. In his blog, “Napster, Udacity, and the Academy,” Shirky explores how higher ed content is–like music after what’s been dubbed the […]

  13. I patiti del web « ilNichilista Says:

    […] Poi la guerra resta guerra, la politica politica, e la democrazia – checché voglia l’altra retorica imperante, quella della democrazia digitale facile e per tutti, for dummies verrebbe da dire – democrazia. E le rivoluzioni, quelle che Internet sta iniziando davvero, restano magari confinate a lunghe, introvabili analisi (introvabili sui media italiani, con sempre le solite poche, virtuose eccezioni) d’oltreoceano (esempio, la bellissima riflessione di Clay Shirky sul rapporto tra digitale e istruzione avanzata). […]

  14. Marianne Doczi Says:

    Clay, you have provided a very insightful analysis of both why university leadership is in denial about the impact of MOOCs, and why this denial is going to lead to tears. Something I have not yet seen from any academics analysing (??) the growth of MOOCs.

    I live in Melbourne, Australia and did Professor Werbach’s course in Gamification. It was fantastic and I didn’t feel that I was being short changed by not being at lectures. Of course I would have loved to have asked him questions but I was paying zero so I accepted that I couldn’t. But the learning, the sense of community, the challenges and rewards were great.

    Like all great disruptions, MOOCs are having a small effect now but to assume that they won’t grow or move into different forms is insane, particularly coming from universities that are supposed to be about critical thinking and development of new knowledge..

    In Australia The Conversation, which is a public daily website for academics to write about current issues, did a series on MOOCs. Almost to a T, they compared the best of in-person university learning with the worst of unline learning. They (a university President) called MOOC learners “dabblers” so they patronise and insult because they cannot conceive that people like me find value in online learning. They also didn’t have any business, management or marketing professors commenting??? A puzzle given that it’s a business model innovation.

    MOOCs will surely evolve. It costs $2,500 approx to do a semester unit at a Melbourne university. MOOCs currently cost nothing but what if someone approached a Coursera or a Udacity and proposed a blended model. Online lectures as of now but moderated online discussions, marked assignments and two in-person group tutorials, for $1000, and provided by accredited local academics. And a credentialised assessment certificate. I think both students and employers would respond to these kinds of qualifications. So there are business models in the making which will disrupt the current university models. Perhaps more quickly in the US and the UK because of the rising cost of tuition combined with declining opportunities to have careers that enable one to pay back the debt.

    It remains one of the puzzles of the early 21st century that neither newspapers and universities, both industries run by and full of talented, critical thinkers and analysts, people who have their eyes on the new/news, will be known for not having “seen it coming”.

  15. Dan Jelski Says:


    I enjoyed this article, and I think you’re more or less on the money. But old institutions don’t just die, they simply morph into something smaller and in a different form. The New York Times, for example, is gradually becoming a web page. My dad’s travel agency has turned into Expedia.

    And so it is with colleges. They won’t be anywhere near as big or as important as they have been, but they’ll still be around, and lots of students will still attend them.

    I’ve written two articles recently that expand on this subject. The first is “Walmart State College”,
    and the second is “A Free College Education for All”

    They’re both consistent with your point of view, but different enough that you and your readers may find them interesting.

  16. Bob Says:

    Of course with string quartets, at least, there is value for the performer above and beyond being paid. The performer has the opportunity to develop their skills through performance, practice and reflection. So do I as a teacher. While I suspect that MOOCs are likely to be highly valuable additions to the published repertoire of knowledge, I’d be concerned that we may lose something if we herald the ‘best MOOC in widget theory’ with the result that students gravitate towards that single view. I strongly feel that in some disciplines, at least, the disciplines of teaching can enhance the teacher’s own knowledge, reflection and curiosity. I’m unconvinced at the moment that a great MOOC is necessarily a challenge to a good traditional course. The outcomes will be rather different. Using MOOCs as prompting resources for discussion is all very well, but those discussions will be most productive when guided by a teacher knowledgable in the subject matter and course goals. The solution then starts to look more like the Open University than ‘teaching a thousand’ and the OU has its own tutors with their individual strengths weaknesses and views in the mix. The ‘teach a thousand’ published elements start to look like simply filling the same space that set texts used to fill, regardless of schedule-tweaking.

  17. David Lewis Says:

    I think two things about MOOCs are key in the short term.
    1. They have the capacity to get better fast and they will.
    2. This time next year getting credit for MOOCs will be easy and lots of our students will be doing it. They will take more of the free courses and fewer of our courses. They will end up getting our degrees, but will save a semester or a years tuition. Some institutions will be able to fill those slots, but not all.

    In the long term Clay is right.

  18. Disruptive Tech via the Experts | All MOOCs, All The Time Says:

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  19. Lampwick Says:

    Great essay! But your Latin motto at the end is gibberish: “Things which don’t last, it is impossible.” You want Quae non possunt non manent. changed, thanks! -c

  20. Julia Thornton Says:

    Excellent article. If I may engage in a little more prognostication, you have not yet connected the mobile revolution with the falling transaction cost of information that is behind MOOCs and other parallels you mentioned. There is also a demand for learning to be “at elbow” while you work. This means a revolution in the idea of a “course” as something you formally do, an idea MOOCs are still tied to. I find it interesting to speculate about how digital open education can inform informal and incidental learning in any setting. That truly requires new design of education not just new design of course delivery. Even better when we get to ‘no interface’ educational delivery.

  21. Dan Says:

    One thing not noted is the number of us who are taking advantage of the MOOC model who are not “traditional college students” in any sense of the word. I’ve got a large group of acquaintances that regularly take a course, or two, at a time, and we’re all long past the 18-21 year old bracket. Most of us already have degrees, some of us have advanced degrees. The online, and free, model allows us to enroll in a class that’s simply something of interest – an area of knowledge that we want to explore. I suppose it’s, in some ways, like taking an adult ed class at a local college, but with more options, and hopefully more qualified (in many cases) instructors, and, let’s face it, free or inexpensive. We’re not interested in the certification, we’re not interested even in taking the exams, other than as a personal evaluation – the classes have become a way of inspiring us to explore, read, and write about something that otherwise might remain on the backburners of our lives.

  22. AKMA Says:

    Perhaps your prominence, and Kevin’s, will help move the shopworn ‘MOOC vs real education’ argument out of hysteria and toward productive possibilities.

    Your emphasis that ‘This isn’t about replacement’ may be the pivotal element in the argument; people for whom the digital transition involves replacement of beloved (and admirable!) institutions and processes, such people will have great difficulty seeing that a change in the ecology will entail adaptation from everything in the system, without necessarily entailing the extinction of everything that went before.

    Ironically, it’s the participants in the ecosystem that refuse to acknowledge that anything has changed, that are most at risk.

  23. Charlie Lloyd Says:

    Where does learning happen?

    Can we measure the quality of learning? Where does learning happen?

    The best learning is a collaborative, experiential process. It is not just listening hours, but processing hours that make the difference. At the elite colleges this happens outside lectures in small seminars led by competent, enthusiastic, underpaid postgrads and perhaps in workgroups of students with time and space to take advantage.

    In my experience of the bottom end of the British university sector the collaborative learning is a random affair. Seminar groups are huge, they can be led by a part time underpaid researcher with no expertise in the subject but with availability at the right time. Student led workgroups can be brilliant re-inforcing the lecture/seminar learning by providing real insight for those taking part, most often they are not. It depends on chance, the greater the financial and physical stress students face the less likely they will find brilliance.

    The real revolution is yet to happen. Real learning could move out of the physical, financial space of existing colleges into self organising social media spaces which are far cheaper and provide a far richer collaborative learning experience.

    The only thing keeping the present structures in place is the need for aspirants to be presented with a graduation ticket allegedly providing entry to a richer middle class life. The drive for the system to produce more and more of these tickets has led to their devaluation. What future for the current structure is there when ‘graduation’ becomes a worthless asset and high quality learning happens somewhere else?Where does learning happen?

    Can we measure the quality of learning? Where does learning happen?

    The best learning is a collaborative, experiential process. It is not just listening hours, but processing hours that make the difference. At the elite colleges this happens outside lectures in small seminars led by competent, enthusiastic, underpaid postgrads and perhaps in workgroups of students with time and space to take advantage.

    In my experience of the bottom end of the British university sector the collaborative learning is a random affair. Seminar groups are huge, they can be led by a part time underpaid researcher with no expertise in the subject but with availability at the right time. Student led workgroups can be brilliant re-inforcing the lecture/seminar learning by providing real insight for those taking part, most often they are not. It depends partly on chance but the greater the financial and physical stress students face the less likely they will find brilliance.

    The real revolution is yet to happen. Real learning could move out of the physical, financial space of existing colleges into self organising social media spaces which are far cheaper and provide a far richer collaborative learning experience.

    The only thing keeping the present structures in place is the need for aspirants to be presented with a graduation ticket allegedly providing entry to a richer middle class life. The drive for the system to produce more and more of these tickets has led to their devaluation. What future for the current structure is there when ‘graduation’ becomes a worthless asset and high quality learning happens somewhere else?

  24. Ideas to Tinker with this Week « Tinker On Says:

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  25. Napster, Udacity, and the Academy | Clay Shirky « Things I grab, motley collection Says:

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  26. brad jones Says:

    Nice post. A little early to say where any of the recent technologies (MOOCs included) will leave things on the evolution/revolution spectrum. The focus tends to be on degree level Higher Ed in a US context. Higher Ed has its poorer cousins adult & vocational ed (Community Colleges in the US, technical colleges, further education, VET in various other countries), which are increasingly facing identity crises & are articulating into or overlapping with higher ed, & face similar cost structure & delivery dilemmas. Many complementary issues are in flux as well – particularly assessment & ultimate award credibility (as per Haggie above, but also include different ‘certifying ‘ bodies, more granular certification – reflecting the MP3 model, & even to the more recent ‘badging’ approaches. And when we look at the needs of the developing areas – the Indias, Chinas & Kazakhstans – they have the needs for practical education & training, but lack traditional schools & teacher number infrastructures, & will be unlikely to take decades to follow western models when other options may exist with a more immediate ROI. I suspect they may leapfrog to newer technologies that generally upskill & educate the numbers rather than aim for an idealistic elite pinnacle. For my money, as well as necessary debates such as above, I’d be monitoring other educational sectors (schools as well), competency approaches, & the potential energy of countries with educational imperatives quite different to the US. Higher Ed may well see the cutting edge of new approaches, but the radical changes may be at implementation in other sectors & geographies – &, in an increasingly smaller world, with ultimate implications for the Academy.

  27. Les Schmidt Says:

    Excellent distillation of both the context of MOOCs the clear delineation of what they are and aren’t. If MP3 and the PC (remember, the mainframe guys thought it was a toy) have taught us anything it is that pioneers take a lot of arrows in their backs, but ultimately their passion to push the boundaries will lead us to new “state”. The challenge for many of the MOOC debates (not this one, thankfully) is that the proponents begin to breathe their own exhaust so rapidly and excessively, that it’s difficult to have a calm rational discussion about the topic.

    There ARE some things about MOOCs that are noteworthy in their present form and there are plenty of deficiencies. (Sidebar: one deficiency is the name…it doesn’t need to be “massive” to be a part of the discussion.) I’m anxious to get past the early stages of the hype cycle and getting to the part where we take the deficiencies of higher ed (including MOOCs) and apply our brightest minds to solving them.

  28. Arthur Shelley Says:

    I believe you are right about the trends and MOOC popularity is inevitable. Like ANY product, some will be done well and others poorly.

    I find the biggest impact variable not discussed in this piece is the desired outcomes of the learning participants themselves. If they WANT to learn they CAN get a lot out of even a poorly delivered program. If they “just want a piece of paper” to add to the CV (without putting in the effort), they severely limit what they get in terms of learning. I assume employers will be reticent to acknowledge MOOCs until “graduating” participants prove their value through demonstrating the capabilities they get from them.

    As John Holt stated some time ago… “Learning is not the product of teaching. Learning is the product of the activity of learners.”
    Thanks for an insightful and important argument.

    For context:
    I am an independent learning facilitator (as opposed to a teacher of content) and practice my art through a range forms including face to face classes in a “traditional” MBA, remote learning through Open Universities Australia, corporate workshops and leading voluntary free mentoring communities. All three are very different learning/development experiences, with different outcomes (I guess some would argue different “quality”). I LIKE the face to face interactions better, as we can engage in insightful dialogue and explore the concepts. However, as you state this limits who can access the opportunity.

  29. David McBride Says:

    Above, Andy Lester wrote:

    One aspect of the MOOC that doesn’t scale yet: interaction with an instructor.

    If you only have one instructor, then unless you can capture and replicate the frequently asked questions (and answers), this will be problematic.

    I’m not up to speed on current thinking on MOOCs; my first introduction to the term was via Clay’s Educause video from last week. Not having checked, I assume that people are already looking at how best to provide facilities for peer support between students taking a course — assuming that such mechanisms aren’t reasonably mature already.

    With that context, here’s my possibly useful thought: would it be possible to design a system that recruits the students you’re currently teaching, so that would serve as willing and capable demonstrators for the next iteration’s intake?

    For example, you might achieve this by making it a requirement for passing a MOOC to serve as a demonstrator for the next run-through? Perhaps you could even go a step further, and also require that students assess those serving as demonstrators for the class after that?

    We effectively try to do something akin to this already — using graduate students, rather than undergraduates, to assist with the marking of work and the teaching of material in tutorial sessions.

    But as any teacher worth their salt will attest, it is difficult to convincingly teach a subject without a strong understanding of it. Perhaps we can take advantage of this?

    I confess: I also find the notion of a world where everyone teaches attractive, if only because of the shifts in the perception of teaching that could bring about.

    Pessimistically I also worry: is everyone capable of learning a topic or trade also capable of teaching it?

  30. Reno J. Tibke Says:

    -Profound revolution in human education: Awesome.
    -“MOOC” being the best name/acronym we can come up with: Weak.

    What’s that sound like, anyway? As in “mook?” That’s a pejorative term for a frat boy dude-bro, right? Go ahead, Urban Dictionary that. Or is it like an Italian “c” resulting in a homonym for “mooch?” That would be a lovely irony.

    What about OEO – Open Education Online (pronunciation: oh-eee-oh)? Or, MIT’s “OCW” has kinda nailed it, so what about a variation on that? How about anything other than MOOC! Who’s in charge of this? Can someone email Sal Khan or get all media & coverage people to just stop it or crowdsource this or something?

    MOOC is not clever, it’s super lame.
    Come on, people – branding is important!

    -Reno at

  31. Thinking and Doing | Matt Welch: Pragmatic Academic Says:

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  32. Siva Vaidhyanathan Says:

    Right on for 90 percent of this, Clay. But you should trash the whole MP3 thing at the beginning. Almost nothing is like the 1999 music business — not even the 2012 music business. It’s a significant category error.

  33. Clay Shirky says xMOOCs = OCW + Cohorts « Mike Caulfield Says:

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  34. Saurabh Hooda Says:

    Absolutely riveting article Clay.
    No one can deny the great future of online learning. People with their interests clashing against online learning will surely try to play it down but it’s impossible to suppress something that people want and love.

    The stats that you’ve put are from US universities – very developed education system in a developed country. But think about countries where education is still a distant dream. There are millions of hungry learners from other parts of the world who just want this revolution to happen asap. Online learning will revolutionize the way people think and communicate. It might (and I hope it will) create learners, scholars and new breed on entrepreneurs from remotest part of the world.

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  36. Neven Jovanovic Says:

    Thanks for the article. If you want to say in Latin “Things That Can’t Last, Don’t”, you should correct what you’ve written to “Quae non possunt manere, non manebunt”, or, less clearly, “Quae non possunt, non manebunt” (“things that can’t, won’t last”), or even slightly ridiculous “Non mansura non manebunt”. Check the grammar (for individual words) e. g. here: . Looking forward to first MOOC in Latin, Neven

  37. Kevin Werbach Says:

    Magnificent insights as usual, Clay.

    A few points to add, from my experience teaching a MOOC (Gamification for 80,000) and being involved at an Ivy League school that is actively engaged with Coursera. What the music industry didn’t have were professors. 98% of faculty at the top-tier schools can completely ignore the MOOCs (for now), and they will still attract the greatest collection of intellectual and pedagogical talent ever assembled. And *none of them will have to quit their day jobs (for now).* In music, the artists would have all gone with Napster, but they were under the thumbs of the labels.

    Which leads to my second point. No one appreciates how fast this is happening. (Including the Silicon Valley community, which is making the same mistake of focusing on the elite schools.) It has only been a year, and the MOOCs are light years beyond the Thrun/Norvig and Ng experiments that everyone still points to. The disruptive aspects are just getting started. As you point out, the stable parts of higher education have a decent shot at still being around in recognizable form in the 23rd century. The unstable parts could tip in 2013 or 2014.

  38. Ketil Says:

    Fraunhofer, not “Frauenhofer” 🙂 Fixed, thanks -c

  39. This weeks links (2012-11-12) « Visible Procrastinations Says:

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  40. Jeff Nugent Says:

    “Non Potest Quae Non Manent” sounds like a great title for the next book…for which you already have the prologue.

    Really enjoyed this post…intrigue, history, confirmation, insight…as fascinating as it is unsettling.

  41. clay Says:


    The thing that seems to me to differentiate MOOCs from iTunes U and other ‘Access to the lecture’ platforms is the linking of the idea of a course that takes place at a certain time (including ending at a certain time), certification of the results, and, of course, massive scale.

    Like you, I don’t think that this leads to the creation of a new undergraduate-level degree. This isn’t about replacement. Instead, I think that some sizable population of the 18 million students enrolled in college this year are going because they want to learn skills they need for a job, and away from the upper reaches of elite colleges (which will become *more* elite in this scenario), I think there will be large-scale re-articulation of what those students pursue and how they pursue it.

    As for “the end of higher education as we know it”, those last four words provide too much interpretive room to be very useful as a point of disagreement. I haven’t and wouldn’t make a claim like that, for that very reason.

    Instead I’ll say that the economics of higher education are so cross-subsidized, and so resistant, even at large colleges, to scaling up, that the new questions MOOCs propose to answer and the old questions they propose to ignore make them considerably less integrateable into the current system than, say, Open University was.

  42. Andy Lester Says:

    One aspect of the MOOC that doesn’t scale yet: interaction with an instructor.

    Example: I’m taking Stanford’s CS193P iOS programming class through iTunes U. It’s great content, well-presented, I’m learning and it’s gratis. However, there’s no teacher to turn to when things get tough, or need more than the single broadcast lecture. Surely Norvig and Thrug didn’t have office hours for 23,000 students, just as I can’t turn to CS193P prof Paul Hegarty to help me understand the iOS table view controller lifecycle.

  43. Sherman Dorn Says:


    I guess I take “experimental” in a much looser sense. The discontinuity argument you are making makes less sense in the bigger context in my head: the postwar expansion of community colleges, expansion of online learning, expansion of professional fields as undergraduate majors, expanded adjunctification, regular reconfiguration of workforce-development programs in community colleges, recent transformation of many former undergraduate-only state institutions to research institutions, creation of national student markets by many formerly regional places (e.g., Vanderbilt), and the expansion in for-profit higher ed. And that’s just in the U.S., not counting Open University, Australian universities’ expansion in SE Asia, etc. At the macro scale, what this institutional-type invention has given us is differentiation of higher education, an expansion of the purposes of higher education, a bigger repertoire of stories people tell about higher education (to use your metaphor).

    I think what MOOCs will give us is further differentiation rather than destruction — if access to information and lectures in a package were to give us unbundling of college, we would have seen that with iTunes U and its variants. And while I’ve enjoyed watching Walter Lewin, Leonard Susskind and others lecture, I don’t think we’ve really seen much unbundling, or at least apart from the autodidact we haven’t. Certainly MOOCs, iTunes U, and the internet more broadly has made audodacticism easier. But it’s a pretty hard path. I think the exact nature of such differentiation is impossible to predict, but I can imagine the creation of a new undergraduate-level degree corresponding to MOOCs in the same way that the Bachelor of General Studies is a response to student “swirling.” And institutions will use the idea in other ways, too.

    Right now, MOOCs are on the first upward slope of a hype cycle. Maybe you’re right, and this will eventually end higher education as we know it. I suspect the truth is going to be much more interesting and complicated.

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  45. Brian Says:

    So, if non-elite education becomes something very different from elite education, will the demand for elite education increase or decrease? If we revert to something closer to the pre-WWII (or even pre-WWI) college system, will the price of Harvard and Swarthmore go up or down?

    Even before MOOCs came along, I often wondered why so many people seemed to see no difference between the lecture-and-grad-TA model you describe at Yale, and the seminar-with-full-professor model at SLACs like Amherst, Williams, etc. If the elite universities are now forced to structure their labor systems more like those of the elite SLACs, it might not be a bad thing (least of all for those who’d like tenure-track jobs). But somehow that seems unlikely. What do you think?

  46. clay Says:


    I think where we differ is in believing in the generally experimental nature of higher education. I think that the normal case has in fact been remarkable conservatism around form rather than goal. The Open University has been a remarkable and interesting experiment, but it hardly fits any kind of “general” case.

    About cost disease and efficiency, I disagree (unsurprisingly) with Cowen’s analysis. I think that recorded music is a partial substitute for live, but only a partial one. Live playing of string quartets for constant quality and audience size has in fact undergone exactly what Baumol said it would. What Higher Ed has never had is something substitutable enough to matter (unlike music.)

    What MOOCs hold out is roughly what recorded playback, a partial substitute for an expensive good. If this analysis is correct, than the squeezing of the stone that the academy has been doing (moderate increases in diploma production at decreasing quality and price) will be nothing compared to the coming substitution.

  47. Dr Johan du Toit Says:

    This is a lucid, timely, and powerful distillation of looming portents for education.

    Thank you for crystallising it for others.

  48. Sherman Dorn Says:

    A few thoughts:

    On the main argument: MOOCs are experimental, but so has higher education been in general, as long as you look at where students really ARE. (Open University, anyone?) MOOCs are part of the post-WW2 history of higher ed, not a sudden break.

    Also on the main argument, but more on the Baumol-disease argument: The proportion of Americans in their late 20s with a college diploma rose in the last 6 years from 28-29% to around 33%, after more than a decade of stagnation, at the SAME time that state funding of public higher ed (where most students are enrolled) dropped precipitously. Even with tuition hikes, the total revenue per FTE has dropped at the same time that graduation looks like it increased. That looks like increased productivity to me.

    Arcane stuff: How can you mention the (quite false) classic Baumol case of music performance when you had just debunked it earlier in this post? As Tyler Cowen pointed out years ago, the proper unit of analysis is LISTENING hours, not the hours that a cellist puts bow to string in the performance. And with MP3s, it is hard to argue that the cost per listener-hour has done anything but plummeted.

    We have cost issues in higher ed, but I wish someone would start the conversation with reality.

  49. Jana Says:

    Very educational – no pun intended. I hope lots of folks read this. I agree – my fear is they’ll use their clout to disallow any credit for taking these classes and you’ll still have to use their system to get a degree. The good side is thousands of people will have access to lifelong learning. Let’s hope!

  50. Haggie Says:

    As these programs grow, I think there will be a split between people with formal degrees from traditional colleges and a new type of “graduate” that will have attended one or more of these online education programs, but instead of a “degree” on his or her wall, will have a portfolio of work that serves as their virtual degree.

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