"Higher education is being disrupted; our MP3 is the massive open online course (or Mooc), and our Napster is Udacity, the education startup," blogs Clay Shirky, associate arts professor and distinguished writer in residence at New York University.
"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."
Professor Shirky offers a critique of the higher education sector's view of Moocs, and dismisses many of the arguments that are being made in the debate over the free online courses and their threat to traditional academia.
"The fight over Moocs isn't about the value of college; a good chunk of the four thousand institutions you haven't heard of provide an expensive but mediocre education," he writes. "[It] isn't even about the value of online education. Hundreds of institutions already offer online classes for credit, and half a million students are already enrolled in them."
Instead, the fight over Moocs is really about "the story we tell ourselves about higher education", Professor Shirky says. "What it is, who it's for, how it's delivered, who delivers it."
Moocs won't replace traditional universities, he continues, since "anything that could replace the traditional college experience would have to work like one". Instead, Moocs have the potential to "unbundle" higher education, and expand its audience to people ill-served or shut out from the current system, "in the same way phonographs expanded the audience for symphonies to people who couldn't get to a concert hall, and PCs expanded the users of computing power to people who didn't work in big companies".
"Those earlier inventions...started out markedly inferior to the high-cost alternative: records were scratchy, PCs were crashy. But first they got better, then they got better than that, and finally, they got so good, or so cheap, that they changed people's sense of what was possible."
But Aaron Bady, a doctoral candidate in English literature at the University of California, Berkeley, takes issue with Professor Shirky's blog in an essay published online by Inside Higher Ed, beginning with his comparison of Moocs with Napster, the website that, before legal action forced it to change, facilitated the free exchange of music files and helped spark the digital music revolution.
"If you are not impressed with this analogy... you will not be impressed by his argument. And just to put my cards on the table, I am not very impressed with his argument. I think teaching is very different from music; that it is so different as to make the comparison obscure a lot more than it reveals."
He also criticises Professor Shirky's assessment that the academy is going to make the same mistakes as the music industry. "To imagine that Silicon Valley venture capitalists are the only people who see the potential of these technologies requires you to ignore the tremendous work that academics are currently doing to develop new ways of doing what they do."