Our Napster is Udacity: Quality Doesn’t Beat Access
Clay Shirky’s essay on MOOCs has made the best case that I’ve seen on why the MOOCopalypse is coming. At Georgia Tech, we’ve used an analogy about universities and higher education as being like Borders. Borders went under quite quickly, in the face of Amazon.com and Kindles. But there are too many differences in that analogy, e.g., Borders and Amazon sold the exact same product. Shirky’s essay hits home. Napster wasn’t better than CD’s, but it was free and easily accessible. Napster was shutdown, but only after the damage was done. Expectations changed, and the mechanisms were then established to create the legitimate, for-cost iTunes Store (and Pandora and Last.fm and…) which put the final nails in the CD’s coffin. The key lesson is: Access was more important than quality. Shirky’s suggestion is that, once established as being available and acceptable, then MOOCs (even when they’re not free, after Udacity, Coursera, edX) could put the nails in the university coffin.
It’s been interesting watching this unfold in music, books, newspapers, TV, but nothing has ever been as interesting to me as watching it happen in my own backyard. Higher education is now being disrupted; our MP3 is the massive open online course (or MOOC), and our Napster is Udacity, the education startup.
We have several advantages over the recording industry, of course. We are decentralized and mostly non-profit. We employ lots of smart people. We have previous examples to learn from, and our core competence is learning from the past. And armed with these advantages, we’re probably going to screw this up as badly as the music people did.