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Monday, 17 June 2013 19:45

And the next biggest Net-enabled disruptor will be...


MOOCs: massive, open online courses. And that's according to no lesser personage than Bob Metcalfe, widely recognised as the co-inventor of ethernet and the formulator of the prediction on networking now known as Metcalfe's Law.

In a panel session at a conference organised by NetEvents last month at the Computer Museum in Silicon Valley to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the invention of ethernet, Metcalfe was asked: "What's the biggest surprise you think we're going to see in the next three to five years, coming out of the telecom space?"

"The most exciting surprise, I think, is going to be MOOCs," he said. "Education is about to be disrupted. Most of us in this room probably got educated along the way, and that whole thing is about to get [disrupted] ... like iTunes did to music."

And for the doubters who had "serious questions about the loss of interpersonal contact between the teacher and the student," Metcalfe had an answer. "Here's how I handle those," he said. "It goes back to the invention of another bad idea, the BOOC, the B-O-O-C, which is today spelled B-O-O-K. It was obviously a very bad idea. Because before books we would sit around the campfire and we would hear the story directly from the storyteller, but now we have these damn book things. You've read The Great Gatsby, but you've never met F Scott Fitzgerald. That's a problem. So the MOOC is really a bad idea."

One consequence of MOOCs, Metcalfe suggested, was that "education is not going to occur between the ages of five and 22 anymore. Education becomes a lifelong learning thing." He conceded that MOOCs are not yet very good at supporting either interactions with the instructor or between students but suggested these problems will be solved.

MOOCs are gaining momentum in Australia. In March Open Universities Australia launched Australia's first MOOC platform, It already has a good selection of courses on offer. In the US things are much more advanced. In November 2012, the New York Times declared that 2012 was "The Year of the MOOC."

Last month US web site Inside Higher Ed released a compilation of articles on MOOCs, the MOOC Moment, reflecting "long-term trends and some of the forward-looking thinking of experts on how MOOCs may change higher education."


There's an interesting and useful post on MOOCs on the US New Enquiry web site, by Aaron Bady, which would suggest that the momentum behind MOOCs in the US is considerably greater than in Australia. He says the word MOOC was first coined in 2008 by a set of Canadian academics "who needed a term to describe the experiment in pedagogy they were putting together," and that in the last year, the MOOC concept has "gone from a rather singular experiment in connectivist and distributed learning to a behemoth force that we are told and retold is reshaping the face of higher education."

Behemoth it is not in Australia, not yet at least, but it will certainly have some synergies with another trend that is emerging in IT: self-learning, driven in part by the rise of open source technologies. Peter James, managing director of cloud service provider Ninefold, told me recently that, with the increasing use of open source languages like Ruby On Rails, many software developers were self-taught. "Many of the people we see don't have computer science degrees. Their IT skills are community taught and they are passionate about learning. They learn through community based programmes, they go to meet-ups and they are passionate about learning," he said.

I've taken a couple of MOOCs, one in networking technologies that was very good - the lectures were well-structured, well-sequenced and well-presented - and one in information security that was not so good - massive reading lists (which seems to defeat the purpose) and lots of short videos of dubious value simply extracted from classroom presentations.

It is of course early days for MOOCs and for large-scale online education in general, but there seems no reason to believe that the Internet will not disrupt online education to the same extent that it has disrupted the music, news and retailing industries and is now disrupting the video entertainment industry.

MOOCs are free, but somebody has to make the investment so they will likely become simply one component of an online education industry. The better courses are likely to be put on by those educational institutions that have seen the writing on the wall and have realised that they must gain experience and establish a reputation in the online world if they want to survive the inevitable disruption.

The author travelled to the Ethernet 40th anniversary conference as a guest of NetEvents.

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