From The Chronicle of Higher Education, Monday, March 25, 2013.
I Don't Want to Be Mooc'd
By Albert J. Sumell
CD's replaced cassettes, and they in turn have been replaced by MP3's.
GPS's replaced printed maps, and they are now being replaced by
cellphones, which also happened to have replaced pay phones and many
other products. There are lots of examples, but the outcome is the
same: New products replace older products, and those older products
become obsolete. The new products are better or cheaper or more
appealing to consumers. It is not just how capitalism works; it is
also why it works.
That dynamic is the wheels on the metaphorical car of the market
system. Sure, some people are made worse off as a result, but the
benefits to consumers and other producers generally far exceed the
costs to those who are hurt. In the end, society as a whole is better
off, and the car keeps moving forward. As for those who lose their
jobs, well, they can go back to school to get trained with new skills
and eventually find another job that is more relevant to the current
needs and desires of society.
That's a description of creative destruction, and basically how I
have always taught the process to my students. More than that, I have
always believed it to be true. But in the case of MOOCs (massive open
online courses), I've allowed myself to hold onto some doubt.
No one knows for sure how popular MOOCs will become or exactly how
they will alter higher education. However, given the current
trajectory, it seems inevitable that, at some point, college students
will have the option of taking a course with a person in a classroom
or as a MOOC for an equivalent number of credits.
The MOOC option will not offer the same experience, students may
not find it as enjoyable, and they may not learn as much, but it will
be available at a fraction of the cost of the in-person alternative.
Many students will choose the MOOC, and no one should berate them for
it. It is a very rational decision.
When the MOOC is a viable option, it will probably not significantly
affect most large public research and elite private institutions.
Those institutions sell more than an education or a degree; they offer
a college experience and a level of prestige that will not diminish as
a result of online courses. Some institutions will benefit from such
But at smaller, lower-ranked institutions like mine-those typically
with a city rather than a state in their names-MOOCs present a
greater concern. Cost is a more important factor for our students in
deciding whether and where to enroll. We would see decreased
enrollment and tuition revenue, and without an unexpected increase in
public support, we would be forced to further reduce the number of
tenure-track faculty positions and/or compensation to current faculty
members as a result.
Which is just another example of creative destruction: Something that
is more appealing to consumers is offered that makes the older product
obsolete. But this time, I am that older product. So I ask myself,
will society as a whole be better off as a result? I know what the
economics textbooks say, and I know what I have always told my
students. But it is a lot easier to believe in a theory when it is
about the world in general, rather than about your world in
When I talk about creative destruction with my students now, I am not
quite as dogmatic as I used to be. I tell them that there are
exceptions to every theory. I do not tell them that I hope that I am
one of them.
Albert J. Sumell is an associate professor of economics at Youngstown
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244