Undercover Economist

What Oxbridge can learn from YouTube

The British educational establishment should ignore online open courses at its peril

A couple of years ago, I showed my daughters a video put online by the Khan Academy, which has become famous as a pioneer in open-access education. The video was an amateurish but charming explanation of basic arithmetic. We had fun but the girls were not transformed into mathematical prodigies. Their mathematical education remains the sole responsibility of a rather traditional school in North Oxford. The only thing YouTube has taught them is how to draw manga cartoons.

That experience would not surprise the British educational establishment. Massive Online Open Courses (Moocs) are all the rage but the top universities seem to regard them as mere amusements, unlikely to threaten traditional methods, which may be costly but are exclusive and of excellent quality.

The vice-chancellor of Cambridge university, in a speech in January, said that online courses would “challenge the nature of higher education” but that they would not change what happened at Cambridge.

Educational expert Karan Khemka seems to agree, explaining in this newspaper’s comment page that the Mooc approach would eventually improve higher education, but “through incremental change rather than massive disruption”.

I am not so sure. Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School has become famous for his explanation of how “massive disruption” tends to happen. A new technology appears, and it’s cheap and cheerful. Examples: small hydraulic shovels when the standard was large cable-driven mechanical diggers; small steel mills devoted to melting down scrap metal; slow, low-capacity hard drives in a world of mainframe computers. The dominant players in the industry look at the upstart technology and ignore it. This isn’t just a case of snobbery: their customers don’t want the new cheap technology either. They are already paying for a high-quality product that fits their needs perfectly.

The cheap technology is embraced by new entrants, who supply a totally new customer base. Construction companies didn’t want cheap, weak hydraulic shovels but landscape gardeners did. And then, of course, the new technology got better and better. Eventually it overtook what the incumbents had to offer and, despite all their advantages, they had absolutely no idea how to make or deploy the upstart technology that had become the state of the art.

My colleague Michael Skapinker has dismissed Clayton Christensen by providing a (perfectly reasonable) list of the ways in which a face-to-face learning experience beats a YouTube lecture hands down. It is most unlike Michael to miss the point.

Of course, a few online videos, chat rooms and multiple choice questions pose no threat at all – for now. Why go online when you can receive expert tuition in small groups, receive an exclusive stamp of achievement on your CV, and still have time to get drunk with the future masters of the universe? Online courses have little to offer current students at the world’s top universities.

That is why they are such a disruptive threat: if Oxford and Cambridge ignore Moocs now, what happens when the digital component of education has evolved to become indispensable?

If “content on demand” isn’t a killer application, then the ability to measure each student’s progress and tailor courses accordingly may well be.

The wise move has to be to follow MIT and Stanford, and indeed the UK’s Open University, embracing Moocs not for what they offer now but for what they might one day become. It is time for the UK’s greatest educational establishments to learn a few lessons themselves.

Also published at ft.com.