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.