Over the last month, journal headlines have been heralding the death of massive online open courses (MOOCs). You could almost hear the sigh of relief from the academy. With Sebastian Thrun himself acknowledging the “lousy” quality of the MOOC product, told-you-so skeptics have been giddily pointing out that Udacity, in its failure to disrupt higher education, is now moving on to vocational training.

Sadly, what audiences are missing is that Thrun’s shift to workforce training is precisely what has the potential to disrupt and severely impact traditional postsecondary education. We at the Christensen Institute have already written extensively about how MOOCs were not displaying the right markers for disruption (see here, here, here, and here), but we became more hopeful as they started to offer clusters of courses. Coursera announced Foundations of Business with Wharton, while edX and MITX introduced the Xseries in Computer Science as well as Supply Chain & Logistics. These moves appeared to map better to employer needs and what we describe as areas of nonconsumption. In their turn away from career-oriented training, colleges and universities have unwittingly left unattended a niche of nonconsumers—people over-served by traditional forms of higher education, underprepared for the workforce, and seeking lifelong learning pathways.

What most people forget when they bandy about the term “disruptive innovation” is that disruptive innovations must find their footholds in nonconsumption. McKinsey analysts estimate that the number of skillsets needed in the workforce has increased rapidly from 178 in September 2009 to 924 in June 2012. Unfortunately, most traditional institutions have not adapted to this surge in demand of skillsets, and as a result, the gap has widened between degree-holders and the jobs available today.

Udacity’s most recent offering of a Big Data and Data Science track illustrates perfectly how the company is establishing its niche in the space that most traditional institutions have been avoiding. This learning track epitomizes exactly the kinds of offerings that we need to see more of from edtech providers in general. And by the way, Udacity is not the only company doing this. Many competency-based providers such as Western Governor’s University (WGU), UniversityNow’s Patten University, and Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America (CfA) are also consulting directly with industry councils in order to understand the exact needs of employers.

Through these direct partnerships, education providers have the opportunity to create a direct pipeline of qualified students/workers for an employer. The key element, of course, is that employers articulate clearly what they need and collaborate closely with online education providers. Through such partnerships, there is the potential to create learning pathways that ultimately obviate brand-name recognition, accreditation, or even the tax status of an institution.

As an example, animationmentor.com is a website that teaches exact skillsets that studios seek. They consult directly with professionals from companies like Pixar and Dreamworks in order to create brief, affordable, and customized curricula for students seeking to enter the industry. The length of the course, the for-profit status of the company, or the program’s lack of accreditation do not matter because in the end, these students have what it takes to work in the industry. Employers have validated this program by drawing directly from this pipeline of students.

The advantage for students is clear: they can take tailored and targeted programs that cover the exact skills for which film, animation, and visual effects studios are looking. And the upside for employers is just as obvious: instead of putting their faith in a student from an art institute who spent four years majoring in color theory, they know that the student from this (perhaps less prestigious) program has the exact skillsets needed for the studio. This unique learning pathway stands in sharp relief to the imprecise recruiting process to which we’re more accustomed.

Our current system of recruiting relies upon transcripts and the signaling effect of a college degree—both of which are not precise enough encapsulations of skills needed for the knowledge economy of our times. It is easy enough, however, to imagine that a company will be able to understand much more readily what a string of seven or eight classes in Big Data and data science will mean as they consider a prospective job candidate.

If a company like Udacity can do a better job of attending to the skills gap and facilitate learning pathways for students that simultaneously build a strong pipeline of qualified candidates for companies, we will soon see that the creation of such programs to meet the demands of the labor market will put enormous pressure on our traditional institutions of higher education.

It is a mistake to dismiss this move toward vocational training. In fact, traditional institutions would be wise to remember that despite their unwillingness to “train” students for the economy, employers are really the ultimate consumers of degree-holders. If alternative education providers are able to deliver prospective job candidates that are just as qualified—if not better suited—for the opportunities at hand, therein will be the validation of these upstart online education providers.

Colleges and universities beware: the pivots and iterations of MOOCs indicate very little about success or failure. The great disruptive potential of online education lies in these untapped connections between education and work.


  • Michelle R. Weise, PhD
    Michelle R. Weise, PhD