It’s the end of the world as we know it … Part 2

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), one of the world’s top-rated universities, has announced its first free course which can be studied and assessed completely online.  An electronics course, beginning in March, will be the first prototype of an online project, known as MITx.

This is the leader column from a recent BBC Report on online learning.  Undoubtedly this is a potentially disruptive innovation in the world of education with 77% of US Companies now reporting that they use online learning  In such a world, universities may turn into clubhouses, where social networking and pure socialisation take place, with learning taking place anytime, anyplace, anywhere in the world, accessing the world’s experts on particular subjects.  Professor Charles Handy foresaw this many years back when he wrote “The Empty Raincoat”.   Here’s a picture of us, when we last met.

Choose Life ... with Charles Handy

Choose Life … with Charles Handy

Handy also talks powerfully about youth as a driving force for change.  My own touchstone for the MIT report and Handy’s observation comes in the form of my 19 year old son Tom, who is studying Computer Sciences in his second year at University.  Tom claims that nearly all his lectures could be handled remotely, making going to University an irrelevance, were it not for the social experience and peer to peer learning.  Whilst he possibly exaggerates a tad, he has spotted a potential future which many universities have not yet embraced.

University - "It's all about the relationships" - with my son Tom

University – “It’s all about the relationships” – with my son Tom Cook

We took the initiative ourselves a few months back, when we partnered with online education specialist Udemy, in the provision of an MBA level online business leadership programme covering strategy, creativity, innovation and change.  Take a free five minute tour of the programme via this LINK.  This is not the only development in this field.  BBC Radio 4 recently featured Coursera, who are offering the same product, but using university lecturers instead of practitioners, with the product leading to qualifications.  Clearly people are moving faster than the average university here.  This is typified by a comment I received from a university lecturer recently when I was called in to develop some Business courses:

This is an exciting time in terms of developing the programme at the University and I think it would be great to have you involved in one way or the other. Your enthusiasm is much appreciated. However, as we do operate within a bureaucratic system these things take a long time to develop and any possible new courses will not start before at best, Sept 2014. I will keep in touch with any progress, good luck with everything.

By the time the University in question gets started, Darwin may well have swung his evolutionary axe!  You can listen to the BBC Radio programme at Zeitgeisters.  Take a look at our curriculum for a pragmatic approach to business leadership where you can drop in and drop out of the lectures at any time you please, as you keep the materials for a lifetime:

Will Universities turn into social clubhouses teaching kids lifeskills whilst they learn their chosen subject from subject experts on platforms like Udemy?  Will this be the end of the ‘duff lecturer’?  Share your thoughts here.  My title gives me yet another excuse to play REM:


About the Blogger:  Peter Cook leads The Academy of Rock – Keynote events with a difference and Human Dynamics – Business and organisation development, training and coaching.  Contact via


6 responses to “It’s the end of the world as we know it … Part 2

  1. Peter – this is a challenging area for universities, and one where I am personally involved. Here at Boston University we are a member of EDx – a consortium that includes both Harvard and MIT – and I am also involved in the online design and delivery of Masters level online courses and programs.

    At BU we have been successfully delivering Masters programs online for almost 10 years. these offerings carry full transferable credits, and are at least as academically rigorous (more so – in my opinion) than our on-campus offerings. They are also priced similarly, and completion rates on our programs are well over 90%. Students receive an identical degree certificate at BU whether they study online or on-campus, and this is recognized by employers.

    Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are very different. they are free, and are a great way to acquire knowledge, but are NOT intended to offer the opportunity to acquire ‘qualifications’. Enrolments are numerically huge – often over 100,000 – and completion rates are very low, often under 10%. Also, although some institutions will offer a completion certificate (for a fee) to those few ‘students’ who finish, this document is currently NOT recognized by the majority of traditional universities, and cannot be used to obtain credits or course waivers.

    Notwithstanding the historical input of Charles Handy, whose book ‘the Empty Raincoat’ inspired me to become an academic (absolutely true !!!), the real issue here is one of managing expectations.

    I absolutely support the initiative that MITx is involved with. My own institution is moving in the same direction, together with a number of other ‘top’ universities, including Harvard and Stanford. However, this initiative is about gaining knowledge, not about gaining am academic qualification, and if they have their way, the completion certificates from these courses are unlikely ever to be recognized by the top universities, even if they designed and offered the courses.

    Steve Leybourne


    • I also enjoyed the Empty Raincoat book Steve and BU are part of the ‘quick’ of the ‘quick or dead’ continuum ! 🙂

      You hit the nail on the head, that knowledge is only part of a qualification. I guess it then comes down to how valuable accreditation becomes or whether the half life of skills dilute the value of a qualification.

      The pace of life ! 😦


  2. Great post Peter. I am sure thing are going to change massively. In the old days you (if you had the money) could go to university, learn some skills, pass your exams, sit in an office and 40 years later still be doing the same job using the same skills or if you are lucky managing people doing the same job with the same skills.

    These days in a lot of skill sets, you are out of date soon after leaving education! Things are moving rapidly. And we don’t really have the time (or need to) do a four year course where 20% is relevant.

    I think there is a real need to learn the skills we are going to need for the next year or so. That will need to be by going on line or to local small social learning environments (I like people to bounce ideas off) where the materials are on line but accessed by the class.

    The Local Learning places could then offer a huge array of course and be ‘tutored’ by people who are experts at learning rather than the subject.

    Teach a man a fact and he can eat for a day, teach him to learn and he will feed himself 😉

    “will not start before at best, Sept 2014” (and I would put money 2014 will turn into 2016) just means a company with a bit of IT knowledge and money to hire some experts will get in before them and we could see Universities go the way of high street music stores.

    Degree courses are broken into Modules (I believe) how long does it take to create an on-line module? Do the next one as people are studying the previous one. Start earning revenue from people who just want to do the modules that have already been developed.


  3. Fascinating – didn’t the Open University celebrate an anniversary lately?
    I’m amazed this seems to have taken so long to get going, considering the speed of web technology development. It now seems to be reaching a tipping point, where universities will be seen as outdated if they *don’t* join in?
    Exceptions will apply – the top Unis will have the exclusivity factor, plus practical subjects, the arts for example, will need the real life interaction – of course lots of theory can still be taught remotely.


    • Yes, the OU did – I have a feature coming out in the Metro re this shortly. That said, the OU have lost their way of late, removing those elements that differentiate themselves. It’s very hard to put these elements back and recapture the audience.

      Agree that top unis will rely on their brands and location as a way of life and more than a degree etc.

      Loads of unis are considering this but as Stephen Leybourne points out, many will be way too late.


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