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MOOCs Ain’t Over. Till They’re Over …

Over the last month, journal headlines have been heralding the death of massive online open courses (MOOCs). You could almost hear the sigh of relief from the academy. With Sebastian Thrun himself acknowledging the “lousy” quality of the MOOC product, told-you-so skeptics have been giddily pointing out that Udacity, in its failure to disrupt higher education, is now moving on to vocational training.

Sadly, what audiences are missing is that Thrun’s shift to workforce training is precisely what has the potential to disrupt and severely impact traditional postsecondary education. We at the Christensen Institute have already written extensively about how MOOCs were not displaying the right markers for disruption (see hereherehere, and here), but we became more hopeful as they started to offer clusters of courses. Coursera announced Foundations of Business with Wharton, while edX and MITX introduced the Xseries in Computer Science as well as Supply Chain & Logistics.

These moves appeared to map better to employer needs and what we describe as areas of nonconsumption. In their turn away from career-oriented training, colleges and universities have unwittingly left unattended a niche of nonconsumers—people over-served by traditional forms of higher education, underprepared for the workforce, and seeking lifelong learning pathways.

What most people forget when they bandy about the term “disruptive innovation” is that disruptive innovations must find their footholds in nonconsumption. McKinsey analysts estimate that the number of skillsets needed in the workforce has increased rapidly from 178 in September 2009 to 924 in June 2012. Unfortunately, most traditional institutions have not adapted to this surge in demand of skillsets, and as a result, the gap has widened between degree-holders and the jobs available today.

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