CD's replaced cassettes, and they in turn have been replaced by MP3's. GPS's replaced printed maps, and they are now being replaced by cellphones, which also happened to have replaced pay phones and many other products.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 courses.
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 particular.
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 State University. ************************************ -- 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 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org