Michael Horn, the co-founder and exec­u­tive direc­tor of edu­ca­tion prac­tice at Innosight Insti­tute, and Clay­ton Chris­tensen, the well-known Har­vard prof and inno­va­tion expert, have a great post on MOOCs that you should read — espe­cial­ly if you are in any way involved in the field of edu­ca­tion. “Beyond the Buzz, Where Are MOOCs Real­ly Going?” appeared recent­ly on Wired.com.

MOOCs? Okay, it’s not yet a house­hold word (or, rather, a house­hold acronym). It stands for “Mas­sive Open Online Cours­es”, and as Horn and Chris­tensen see it, “The ques­tion is not just whether MOOCs are going to dis­rupt tra­di­tion­al edu­ca­tion, but how.”

bigstock-Computer-Technology-Background-1213076In their post, they review what is and isn’t a “dis­rup­tive tech­nol­o­gy” and then explain why it mat­ters who is doing the dis­rupt­ing in any indus­try. (In some ways, con­sid­er this recent post an update to their excel­lent book, Dis­rupt­ing Class, which they co-wrote with Cur­tis John­son.) The focus of the Wired post is clear­ly on the future of MOOCs.

If you have heard of Cours­era, edX or Udac­i­ty, you have heard about the three biggest MOOCs. And, as they note, “Yet inter­est­ing­ly, the big, rep­utable uni­ver­si­ties are the ones lead­ing the MOOC wave.” What makes this inter­est­ing is the fact that, often, those dis­rupt­ing an indus­try are often not the indus­try lead­ers — if (as the authors note) for no oth­er rea­son than dis­rup­tive inno­va­tors are usu­al­ly not “attrac­tive, prof­itable, or pres­ti­gious ear­ly on”.

Why, then, are the big play­ers in edu­ca­tion back­ing MOOCs? It appears, in part, that in this case edu­ca­tors tru­ly have seen the future and are hop­ing to steer their insti­tu­tions for­ward with­out being dragged. Then, too, the authors note that the MOOCs have not been com­pet­ing head-to-head with “their ‘par­ent’ uni­ver­si­ties”.

Read their post and you’ll find that MOOCs appear to be unique­ly com­pe­tent to offer “just-in-time mini-cours­es”. As Horn and Chris­tensen see it, “MOOCs can be much more than mar­ket­ing and edu­tain­ment. We believe they are like­ly to evolve into a ‘scale busi­ness”: one that relies on the tech­nol­o­gy and data back­bone of the medi­um to opti­mise and indi­vid­u­alise learn­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties for mil­lions of stu­dents.” When they say this, they note that they are not see­ing MOOCs as “sim­ply putting a video of a pro­fes­sor lec­tur­ing online”. Instead they envi­sion MOOCs enabling the rapid exchange of infor­ma­tion between the teach­ers and the taught. In this way, learn­ing could soon be “con­tin­u­ous”, hap­pen­ing on-the-job and not removed from the real work­place.

Excit­ing stuff! Are MOOCs the future of edu­ca­tion? No one is sure, but what I expect is some­thing increas­ing­ly bold and pow­er­ful to chal­lenge acad­eme as we have known it for, well, cen­turies. The edu­ca­tion indus­try is too big and too impor­tant to avoid a com­plete over­haul, but what it looks like after its makeover is anyone’s guess. This is a supreme exam­ple of nextsens­ing. Many edu­ca­tors look at MOOCs and feel uncom­fort­able and unclear about their point of view toward this major dis­rup­tion; this is dis­rup­tive ambi­gu­i­ty. The smart ones will recal­i­brate their think­ing to project how best to join and per­haps lead (cer­tain­ly not resist) this trend. This is oppor­tu­ni­ty fore­sens­ing.

Some may see MOOCs as the “Nap­sters of Edu­ca­tion”. That seems like an apt anal­o­gy. True edu­ca­tion­al lead­ers will need to engage in fore­sens­ing or risk becom­ing record stores in an era of iTunes. To any edu­ca­tion­al leader who doubts the immi­nence of all this, I would advise that he or she ask two ques­tions: (1) How soon can we focus on the impact of MOOCs on what we are doing now? and (2) How soon can we align with the pow­er­ful promise of MOOCs? These are the kind of ques­tions you must ask when an unstop­pable dis­rup­tion is tak­ing root but the future path for­ward has not yet been cre­at­ed.

And because these ques­tions are so con­fined to the spe­cial con­di­tions and capa­bil­i­ties of each edu­ca­tion­al insti­tu­tion, there is no book and cer­tain­ly no course that lead­ers will be able to read or take to deter­mine how best to move ahead. Alas, the only way today’s edu­ca­tors will become part of the future of edu­ca­tion is to start think­ing in new ways.

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