I’m not sure where MOOCs go from here. I’m just thinking “aloud.” One way to think about this is to explore the question: “What purposes do traditional top tier universities serve?”
Well, traditional top tier universities:
1) Assess quality: In a world without perfect information, hiring from Harvard and Berkeley can be used as a proxy for hiring “high quality” workers.
2) Establish networks: And in a world without perfect information, we hire the people we know. Universities allow us to quickly and efficiently form friendships. Alumni organizations serve to indoctrinate a shared identity and reinforce and rekindle those friendships. Business school is almost entirely geared build around the idea of getting drunk with as many past, present, and future leaders as possible.
3) Training in skills employers need. This is patently untrue. Every day I read another article about the skills gap between what employers are hiring for and what universities are producing. Top tier computer science programs such as Berkeley and lesser-known CS programs like Harvard chose to teach computer science in ancient languages no longer common in industry because they believe they should be teaching you “how to think.” Marketing classes at Haas (the #3 ranked undergraduate business program in the US) taught nothing at all about performance marketing, analytics, or search – despite being driving distance from the epicenter of the revolution in online advertising over in Mountain View. Nor did they teach much about the science of national TV advertising – a medium 50 years old when I was attending.
So what MOOCs could potentially do – is identify own-able, brand-able, defensible verticals in which they can specialize. Codecademy or OneMonthRails for coding. Someone else for web design. someone else for growth hacking. etc. Just saw a great company – Bloc – that uses this word that has been out of circulation for a generation – “apprenticeship.” I think this is a really interesting concept because it implies a specialization in something where you’re actually doing real work, but under the supervision of someone more experienced.
A generation ago, I think it was normal for artists and bakers and mechanics to do apprenticeships in the field before they set up their own shop. But as we moved to a society that pushed for everyone to get a four-year-university-degree, we lost this idea. We did internships that were short, resume-building stints where it was hard to learn much. Internships at big firms like Microsoft became glorified recruiting boondoggles with little or no real learning happening. But as we move to an era defined by the Thiel Fellows and college-dropout-CEOs, and the Minerva project, Khan Academy, and Udacity all getting into traditional degree-granting, society is opening up to the idea of non-traditional education.
I can envision a future with highly specialized brand-name “certificate programs” that teach real-world skills with a project-based approach. One of the best things about OneMonthRails for me was the project based approach. And taking that a step further, I can see an apprenticeship – where you really are expected to start producing quickly, while still under supervision – as the next step toward real “vocational” training for information-workers. It’s a good step toward satisfying the apparent skills gap between what today’s universities are producing and what companies are hiring for.