The internet is happening to education

“How did you go bankrupt?”
“Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”

I’ve been involved in higher education for fifteen years. Most of that has been as a faculty member, researcher, and (to a lessor extent) administrator. While fifteen years seems like a short period of time, in the language of the internet, it is a lifetime.

The past decade alone has seen the rise of Google. Web 2.0. Social media. The development of the learning management system. Online learning has gained the attention of top tier universities. Students have traded in textbooks, first for laptops, then for tablets and smart phones. Content has been opened by universities around the world. Many, many classrooms have seen hundreds of thousands of dollars in technological face lifts. Wired internet has given way to wireless. Desktop software has given way to the cloud.

During this period of rapid transition, nothing prepared me for the now over-hyped Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). Stephen Downes and I ran our first MOOC at University of Manitoba in 2008. Dave Cormier joined in and promptly coined the term “MOOC”. The idea was simple: create an open, distributed learning experience…one that reflects, rather than fights, the internet. Since then, we have run numerous MOOCs on a variety of topics, including: personal learning environments, the future of education, connectivism, and learning analytics. Students of our MOOCs have since designed and run their own. We’ve development our pedagogical model and the software that we used to run these courses steadily over the past four years.

Then Stanford, 2011, happened. Then Coursera. Then EDx. Then an insane amount of hype. Rarely do educational ideals jump into mainstream media. MOOCs did, in a big way, with coverage in local and national newspapers, radio, and TV. I can comfortably say that I have never seen a trend in higher education spread as quickly or become as widely discussed in popular culture as MOOCs.


Change does not follow a continuous or smooth trajectory. It happens in fits and starts. Or in the language of Hemingway, “gradually. Then suddenly”. Information fields such as newspapers, journalism, and scholarship have experienced stunning change. Essentially, the internet, along with the power it redistributes to end users, has happened to those fields. After years of predications, and decades of false starts, change, it appears, has come to the university.

Education impacts all aspects of society. Part of this impact is felt in the development of a skilled labour force. Other impacts can be seen in the ideals of an equitable, humane, society. Still others are seen in the growth of knowledge that permits humanity to discovery new particles in physics or to land a rover on Mars. The centrality of education in society makes it an ideological battle ground. There is a familiarity to education that comes from the long acquaintance of primary, secondary, and post-secondary experiences. Because we have all experienced education, it is something personal, something about which we feel entitled to comment and pontificate.

I’ve sat in far too many lectures where the presenter pulls up that cliche slide: “this is the industrialized education system” “it looks just like it did 200 years ago”. The view that education is the same as it was 200 years ago is a gross oversimplification. Content, curriculum, peer review, library systems, IT infrastructure, and pedagogy have all changed dramatically. Yet even with the change HE has experienced, there are camps that are eager for more significant, more fundamental change. These camps include entrepreneurs, frustrated students, parents overwhelmed by tuition, and governments trying desperately to scale back the expenses to produce an educated citizenry.

The pent up, frustrated, demand for change in a system as personal as HE produces a zealousness to embrace almost any concept that holds potential for change. This potential has in the past come through the use of television for instruction (and prior to that, radio), or web 2.0 and social media for a new end-user empowered learning model. As each wave of hype dies down, a type of cynical disillusion settles for the survivors of another cycle of false hope. With MOOCs, we are today seeing the most recent instantiation of desire for change, for revolution.

Bill Gates supposedly stated some variation of “change is overestimated in the short term and underestimated in the long term”. I think higher education is at the edge, primed for significant change. My interest, however, is in understanding the fundamental source of that change. Tool-based views of change last about as long as a tool lasts. Getting to the essence of a transition requires deeper exploration. Change in higher education is not only about the tools we use.

With this xEducation book we want to explore what is the change that underpins the new technologies and tools. What is being ignored in the current stampede for MOOCs, tablets, alternative assessment, online learning, and numerous other drivers? My view is that we are witnessing a rare period where society alters how it creates, shares, and disseminates knowledge. The university’s main currency, its main product, is knowledge. As new things are done with knowledge, university’s face pressure to adapt to knowledge’s structure and flow. When we strip away MOOCs and whatever new trend will cause consultants and keynote speakers to fall into states of joy and glee, we find that we are standing on a platform of knowledge that has been shifting for decades.

Our thesis with xEducation is that the internet is happening to higher education and that successful universities of the future will be those that find ways to generate value for its many stakeholders that go beyond content provision and teaching. What exactly that value proposition is remains unclear. On the one hand, content and (recorded) lectures can easily be shared with limited costs. The internet scales content exceptionally well. The human, social, processes of learning don’t scale. Research doesn’t scale (yet). Regional and national economic value generation doesn’t scale. In these spaces where scalability does not work well, universities will likely find their new roles in society. Over the next six months, we’ll explore and test this thesis and place the discussion of higher education reform on a firmer foundation than the latest tool and popular hype.

We invite your comments, suggestions, and critiques.

10 thoughts on “The internet is happening to education

  1. An excellent, thought-provoking piece – such a shame that senior universitiy administrators are probably not going to read it! I agree that a key problem which we need to solve in online learning is scaling the human, social interactions to the same degree as the scaled delivery of content. You will probably recall, in the 1990s (which I was first doing online learning), content delivery was actually quite hard – university where I worked didn’t record lectures and distribute online, there was limited bandwidth (and no easy services) for what we now take for granted in terms of desktop broadcasting, getting books physically to learners was hard. What we tended to do was focus on good constructive discussion around the content we could distribute and the results were very positive. The changes recently to systems, networks and content production have, I think, made the majority of universities now think that online learning is possible but, as you say, have not worked out scaling the interaction.

    Three possible answers:

    First, we might see the development of algorithms that can manage a lot of the online discusson, both responding to questions where possible, but also trying to connect one student to another (prompting student B to answer A). Such algorithms can, already (as at Huffington Post), manage discussion to exclude flames and abuse and non-effective comments (and this will also be needed). The algorithms won’t be teachers but will help teachers manage the workload so their interventions are the most productive.

    Second, we probably need stronger focus on peer learning networks which we already know are predictors of successful study but which are not well scaffolded and supported (perhaps because they work when truly informal). If you look at the operations of a MMORPG or other very large online interaction space, peer support is essential — perhaps we will have less teachers and more student mentors (who might discover that teaching is the best way to learn).

    Third. sadly, we might see a return to content-oriented learning simply because (as you note) the costs involved are so much cheaper and we might need to go through a period of excessive didacticism before rediscovering that its what you do with the content not the content itself that matters.

    • Needs to be read by senior administrators, yes. George, please consider putting together a version of this that we could publish in our journal, Planning for Higher Education, in January. The January–March issue is on “Change + Disruption = Transformation,” and our senior campus leaders would benefit from a clear presentation focused on effects on their jobs.

  2. When we talk about “scaling up” in many domains, it usually means to make much bigger. It seems that in education, scaling up means to make much bigger, without a significant increase in the resources. Hence, a lecture for 30 students can easily be scaled up to a lecture for 300 students without a significant increase in resources – once the initial capital costs for a larger lecture theatre are paid for.

    The holy grail for digital education is to provide an enriched learning experience for many students, on-line, without having to scale up the resources to the same degree. If al we want is the sterile, 300 person lecture/MCQ learning experience that too much of our educational system currently relies on, scaling up is fine. However, if we want the enriched experience that makes our students smile with a furrowed brow and go away thinking, that takes social interaction. Not only does it take social interaction, but it takes quality social interaction. I have yet to experience any quality social interaction that scales up. I don’t see MOOCS as an answer for a better quality education, only more of what we currently have.

  3. Great initiative, great blog, important pointers.

    “The university’s main currency, its main product, is knowledge” – good point.

    Yesterday I was at a think-tank (yet another one) with the purpose to redefine Unisa’s business model for a digital and (more) open future. The central question was: how will our core business change in the next five years?

    The initial conversation raised issues such whether we should focus on undergraduate education which currrently is 93% of our student population and qualification mix, or whether we should reach out to the ‘unreached’, whether we, as a distance education institution should play in the field of research-intensive universities, etc.

    Towards the end there was amazing consensus that
    * we are in the business of knowledge and ways of knowing (therefore encompassing teaching, learning, research)
    * the Internet has changed and is challenging our basic assumptions about knowledge and ways of knowing
    * massification is central to our mission. The Net and developments in MOOCs, etc provide ample opportunity for massification
    * our value proposition will not be content but the mediation of learning, our brand and accreditation. The Net changes all three – mediation of learning, the robustness of our brand and assumptions and regimes for accreditation
    * we cannot be everything to everybody. In a developmental state, we will have to make some strategic choices.
    * going digital is not a choice. Full stop.
    * flexibility and agility of systems and processes are non-negotiables. Amen.

    Like you say: some things don’t scale well. Some things do. Change, it would seem, does not care about scale…

  4. First time on your blog, and I agree with a lot of your thoughts. I especially like your point about how tools alone cannot bring about a true transformation in education. Tools are like the branches of a tree. They may provide us with the fruit that we eat, but without strong roots, the branches will wither and die. Tools are a means for allowing change, but without a centralized, deeply rooted catalyst for change, they will drop off the market one by one. In education, we need to get a grasp of the big change that needs to occur, and then search for the tools that enable us to make that change, not the other way around.

  5. George,

    Although I am focused on Corporate Learning, I have been following you closely since participating in the cMOOC LAK11. I believe that Corporate Learning is on the edge of the same cliff as Higher Ed and how Higher Ed reacts will affect the future of Corporate Learning. That cliff is about the end of controlling knowledge. Bonnie Stewart wrote a great piece ( about how the Church controlled knowledge but lost that control to the printing press. Academia picked up that control but will now lose it to the Internet.

    The key part of the concept of MOOC is in the word open. xMOOCs seem to only have it half right (half is much better than none not sufficient). They have the open access but based on your reviews they missed open participation. The cMOOC concept of scaling up learning by putting content creation into the hands of the participants is what makes it truly revolutionary.

    It is interesting that a lot of conversation now about xMOOCs is about assessment. It makes sense that they will use Pearson testing centers to “validate” their branded content. Without that, they are putting their product (their brand) at risk. The problem with assessments is that there isn’t clarity around desired outcomes to test against and so assessment becomes a check the box activity and isn’t related to learning at all. cMOOC participation reminds me of Harold Jarche’s call to narrate work (, but in this case participants are narrating learning. Perhaps narrating learning can be a much more robust alternative to assessment especially since in the current marketplace of ideas you are judged by your ability to articulate your experience rather than by the ability to take a test.

  6. I think that you’re missing a significant chunk of the value proposition that a university offers: it’s community. Knowledge doesn’t exist in an instructor’s head, to be poured over and into students’ ears. Universities bring people together so knowledge can be shared, chewed, reflected, twisted around and, well, hopefully you get the idea. The currency of universities is knowledge THROUGH bringing people together. A MOOC does that quite well. I suspect, though I’ve only been in one MOOC, that cliques form based on whatever criteria bring people together outside of MOOCs. The challenge is to develop a pedagogy that manages a MOOCs social experience.

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