Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Research Universities and Online Learning - Is the MOOC the best we can do?

A few years ago, while attending the regular circuit of distance education and online learning  conferences, I started to feel a little uncomfortable coming from a traditional research university. At the time I was serving as the CEO of UMassOnline and for many years had developed a strong identity with research universities. Perhaps I was simply being observant, or perhaps I was being a little hypersensitive, but virtually every message that I was hearing seemed to indicate that research universities were irrelevant to the discussion on high access, low-barrier online education necessary to meet the watershed of educational need in the United States. Most the the underlying messaging, seemed to be that the cost structures at research universities were excessive and the cultural norms led to inflexibility.  In short, research universities are too costly to run to be affordable and their cultures bias against doing much about it.

Although these points were first pressed home during a conversation with Burke Smith from StraighterLine in 2009, they were somewhat catalyzed during at the 2010 NUTN (National University Technology Network) Summit in Colorado Springs. During a break between sessions, I asked Chris Geith from Michigan State University if she thought that we provided any unique value to students who choose to study with us online. I was asking if she thought that we provided anything of value to compensate for our relatively high prices and tendency toward inflexibility with students.

To shorten the story, this exchange lead to asking similar questions to a lot of folks, and eventually to formal presentations at the 2012 Sloan-C annual meeting (with Phil DiSalvio, Christine Geith, and Wayne Smutz) and the 2012 NUTN Summit (with Christine Geith).  At NUTN a small group met and discussed the question,
 "Just what is it that a research extensive university brings to online learning that is unique, valuable to students, and that other types of institutions are not well equipped to provide?"
Christine and I were joined by colleagues from
  • Colorado State University
  • Cornell University
  • Fort Hays State University
  • Michigan State University
  • Penn State University
  • Virginia Tech University
and following the meeting we prepared a short article for EvoLLLution under the title What do Research Universities Uniquely Bring to Online Education?  I raise this because we got an interesting comment asserting that Christine and I should not be making a distinction between research universities and “alterntive education providers" (Coursera, Udacity, Kahn, etc.).  Part of my response was, “It is up to the Research Universities to ask the question, “What do research universities uniquely bring to Online Education?” Perhaps, for some, Coursera is their answer, or at least part of their answer for now.”

This is the first time that I thought about it this way. Up to this point I was strongly oriented to thinking that the unique value research universities can provide would be tied directly to our unique mission of combined research, service, and teaching. But, perhaps MOOCs are one of the unique things (elite) research universities bring to the online learning table. If so, why the elites, why now, and why have they generally been so slow to adopt more traditional forms of online learning?

Although I am going to pursue these questions during the next week or so and consider if "the MOOC is the best we can do," I do want to return to the research, service, and teaching mission of research universities. Christine Geith and I, along with Phil DiSalvio and Wayne Smutz,  poked at this at NUTN and Sloan and it seemed to resonate.

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