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'F' Is the New 'A'

Given the crisis in education, more universities should be willing to undertake innovative experiments--even if they ultimately fail.

When San Jose State University announced in July that it was "taking a breather" from its Udacity pilot so it could analyze the results, the media seized on the news as if it were proof that MOOCs were an educational failure. More disturbing perhaps was the glee with which the news was greeted in some quarters.

The overreaction to San Jose State's announcement is depressing, because it means that we still don't get it. MOOCs didn't appear on the scene bent on wanton destruction. Rather, they are a reaction to--and a product of--a system that is failing.

This story appears in the September 2013 digital edition of Campus Technology. Click here for a free subscription to the magazine.

At the Campus Technology 2013 conference in Boston in July, keynote speaker Adrian Sannier said that he wasn't sure whether he should be depressed because MOOCs are threatening to destroy the centuries-old tradition of higher education or because they might fail to do so.

Sannier, a former CIO at Arizona State University, recognizes that the status quo is simply not an option. Yet too many educators see in the San Jose results only the possibility that they have dodged another bullet.

They're wrong. Ultimately, MOOCs may not be the solution to the problems facing higher education--in fact, it would be astonishing if anyone nailed it in Version 1.0. But schools like SJSU that are testing variations of the concept discover new things every day. They are learning what works and what doesn't, and ultimately they will have a bigger say in what happens next.

On the other hand, those schools that hope to ride out the storm or, worse, fight a rearguard action have lost sight of their missions. Administrators and faculty at these schools are placing their own interests before those of their students. How else can you justify graduating students who lack the skills to get a job in a 21st century marketplace even as you saddle them with a life of debt?

It is our collective responsibility to find a way forward. That's why I applaud the approach taken by SJSU. The school is simultaneously testing two different concepts and--mirabile dictu--taking the time to analyze the results.

By applying what it learns to future pilots, perhaps San Jose State will find a winner. Maybe it won't. It's the nature of innovation, and we need more of it. During his closing keynote at CT 2013, Malcolm Brown, director of the Educause Learning Initiative, addressed the importance of innovation in higher education. "Cultures of innovation are cultures of learning," he said. "Value the good failure. 'F' is the new 'A.' Failure is not a thing to be afraid of." It's too early to grade the SJSU pilot with Udacity, but on effort they get an old-fashioned "A."

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