MOOCs won’t disrupt Higher Education, employers will

Last week I wrote a post on ‘students as customers’ in the context of a more corporatised, commoditised Higher Education market. It was interesting then to see another post today discussing the emerging trend of employers dropping requirements for degrees as part of their recruitment criteria, instead selecting candidates

based on merit, rather than credentials, often by assessing candidates with psychometric testing or other performance based tests

This caught my attention for two* reasons. Firstly, it returned my thoughts to the student as a customer, and the likely increase in their willingness to leave the Higher Education system (or not engage in it at all) if it is not meeting their expectations – in this case employability. Secondly, it made me reflect on the role of MOOCs, not as a replacement for a degree, but as a potential perceived indicator of merit in a landscape where a degree is no longer a necessity.

Last week I completed my second MOOC (out of four I’ve started, which I’ve been told is a pretty good completion rate) called Design Thinking for Innovation. Unlike some MOOCs I’ve started, this one was an excellent combination of theory and application to my own context, and which incorporated a peer assessment of my application of the theory to a real-life scenario. High-powered academic stuff? No. Did it require me to take some theory and demonstrate that I could appropriately select a tool and apply it to my own workplace. Absolutely.

The question for me is the extent to which a combination of smaller, informal/semi-formal MOOC-like studies like this one might one day be one component of a genuine alternative to some degrees in the eyes of a significant number of employers. I emphasis the some as there will no doubt be plenty of registration boards (health and education for starters) who will take much longer to change their philosophies (for very good reasons) to a more flexible model – and some may never change at all. This is where the whole ‘MOOCs will destroy Higher Education in its entirety‘ line doesn’t add up to me, but I do wonder if there is a subset of degrees that are much more at risk than others.

There are plenty of shorter sub-degree constructs already floating around in addition to MOOCS – Coursera ‘Specializations’, MicroMasters, Exit Awards and underpinning them concepts like LRS-driven Personal Data Lockers and the perennial Badges – all designed to lower the investment (in terms of time and money) for students, to increase choice, and to put ownership of the evidence of participation in the hands of the customer. The unknown is how long it will take for enough organisations/professions to drop their degree requirements for new hires and consider these smaller learning activities as being of worth – something which may take time given the amount of pedagogically hideous ‘Video-Video-Video-Quiz’ style, didactic, declarative knowledge-assessing MOOCs in the market (in contrast to my recent and very ‘applied’ Design Thinking MOOC experience).

As MOOCs gradually climb up the ‘slope of enlightenment‘ it is likely that it will be external factors determined by employers that dictate whether they will ever properly make it to the ‘plateau of productivity’, or if they will fizzle into obscurity while waiting for the world to accept their validity. The article in The Conversation sums it up nicely:

The question is whether these few companies are outliers or the forerunners of a new trend of preferencing merit over qualifications.

WUsed under Creative Commons license thanks to evision1-01hat role MOOCs and their associates might play in this world is a follow on question, but I can’t help contemplating a world where many generalist degrees have collapsed through lack of demand, and a new dominant model emerges for attaining this elusive concept called employability – as well as who the winners and losers will be along the way. When I do this my mind turns back to the early 2000s, and this piece of social commentary created by the Billboard Liberation Front during the dot-com collapse**. I hope that all Australian Universities can innovate and evolve quickly enough to meet the changing expectations of both students and employers – the thought of what players would emerge to dominate in the ‘land of the dead’ of Australian Higher Education is somewhat terrifying.

* Note that I did have a third thought when I read this, namely whether or not Universities should start offering courses like this one to help increase their graduates employability – not touching that one with a ceremonial mace.

** No, I’m not suggesting Amazon have any plans for taking over Higher Education, but then again who knows.