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Will MOOC-hers Overwhelm the System?

In the wake of a dramatic power struggle at the University of Virginia, the potential for online learning to rescue higher education is receiving even greater scrutiny.

This story appeared in the October 2012 digital edition of Campus Technology.

If anyone doubts that MOOCs and online learning will change the face of higher education, he should read the story in The New York Times Magazine about the ouster--and reinstatement--of Teresa Sullivan, president of the University of Virginia. At the heart of the fracas lies a philosophical dispute. On one side, the governing board believes the university needs to make revolutionary changes to position itself for a technologically driven century of education. On the other, Sullivan is inclined to pursue a more conservative approach of incremental change.

The incrementalists edged this particular battle, but the pressure is evidently still on: In July, Sullivan announced a partnership with Coursera to provide a limited number of MOOCs.

But here's what struck me about the UVA ruckus: While the governing board recognizes that higher education is ripe for "creative destruction," it has no real idea what that change might look like. With the launch of comprehensive online course offerings from Harvard, MIT, and Stanford, there was a vague sense among the board that UVA must follow suit, even if the business model isn't really clear. It reminds me of that classic line from The Man With the Golden Gun: "I don't know what it is, but I want my picture taken with it."

But the urgency felt by the governing board is completely understandable--the current model is not sustainable. And the choices facing public institutions are awful: draconian cuts, massive tuition hikes, and a lowering of standards. Among such dire options, online learning offers perhaps the only palatable alternative. It's a potential life raft for institutions where, quite frankly, too many crew members are still rearranging the deck chairs.

In truth, the fact that such a prestigious university as UVA feels it has reached an existential crossroads should give many midtier schools pause. As George Siemens, the founder of the first MOOC, predicted during a speech about transformational change at Campus Technology 2012, "The top tier and elite universities will likely continue to have physical campuses; the midtier levels, on the other hand, are the ones that are going to suffer to the greatest degree."

But with so much uncertainty facing higher education, charting a course through the fog will be tough. I am the first to admit that I have doubts about online learning and its capacity to provide an equivalent--or better--educational experience to young adults. For me, there are still as many questions as answers:

  • Are undergraduate students mature enough to see an online course--let alone a degree--through to completion?
  • How much of the value of a four-year college experience is social, not academic?
  • How do established universities maintain their brand identity and value in a disaggregated education model?
  • Is there a role for midtier schools in an online world of high-quality course offerings from elite institutions?

Maybe online learning is the answer, maybe not. Perhaps it's just part of the answer. Over the next year, Campus Technology will run a series of articles that seek to shed some light on this complex issue. I invite you to help us sift through the angles and arguments.

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