I am in Charlottesville at for my son’s college orientation at the University of Virginia. To some extent, recent events surrounding the forced resignation and reinstatement of the University’s President relate to MOOCs (massive open online courses). Yesterday, the University of Virginia announced a new collaboration that would facilitate the offering of MOOCs, according to today’s Daily Progress.
As background, many of you may be aware that the University of Virginia had a recent controversy concerning its President. (I am not taking sides.) The Rector of the University, Helen Dragas, who leads its Board of Visitors, recently forced the President to resign, coincidentally at a time when Ms. Dragas’ term on the Board was about to expire. There was a significant backlash, including nearly unanimous opposition by the faculty. In an almost unprecedented move, on June 26, 2012 the Board reappointed Teresa Sullivan as President, and a few days later the Governor reappointed Helen Dragas as Rector.
Many had objected to the manner in which Ms. Sullivan was forced out. Indeed, it was not until June 21, 2012, eleven days after Ms. Sullivan resigned, that Ms. Dragas issued a categorical statement as to the grounds for termination, which was published in the Daily Progress. One of the specific grounds identified by Ms. Dragas related to MOOCs :
The changing role of technology in adding value to the reach and quality of the educational experience of our students. Bold experimentation and advances by the distinguished likes of Stanford, Harvard, and MIT have brought online learning into the mainstream, virtually overnight. Stanford’s president, John Hennessy, predicted that “there’s a tsunami coming”, based on the response to online course offerings at Stanford (one course enrolled an astounding 160,000 students). Michigan, Penn, Princeton, Yale, and Carnegie Mellon are all taking aggressive steps in this direction.
According to the New York Times on May 2, 2012, the course Ms. Dragas referred to was an online course on Artificial Intelligence offered by Stanford Professor Sebastian Thrun. The article further discussed a number of initiatives relating to distance learning that have been spearheaded by elite institutions.
Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Wednesday announced a new nonprofit partnership, known as edX, to offer free online courses from both universities… Stanford, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan announced their partnership with a new commercial company, Coursera, with $16 million in venture capital.
It turns out that a deal had been in the works for UVA to partner with Coursera, according to today’s Daily Progress, and that deal was announced yesterday. UVA President Teresa Sullivan was quoted in today’s Daily Progress: “These classes will expand the university’s role in global education…. They will in no way diminish the value of a UVa degree, but rather enhance our brand and allow others to experience the learning environment of Jefferson’s Academical Village.” Initially Coursera will offer five courses from various schools within the University.
Coursera is but one platform for MOOCs. Sebastian Thrun, the Stanford professor responsible for the massive Artificial Intelligence online class, and two other roboticists founded Udacity because they “believed much of the educational value of their university classes could be offered online. A few weeks later, over 160,000 students in more than 190 countries enrolled in our first class, ‘Introduction to Artificial Intelligence.’”
The mission of Udacity, as expressed on its website, describes the benefits of MOOCs:
We offer courses from the top universities, for free. Learn from world-class professors, watch high quality lectures, achieve mastery via interactive exercises, and collaborate with a global community of students.
The recent MOOC initiatives described above support the idea that a tsunami is indeed coming, and elite universities are jumping on the bandwagon. The question remains whether online courses pose an existential threat to institutions of higher learning, or whether they serve to expand the global reach and brand of those institutions. If a student can learn from the brightest minds, for free, how important will it be to attend a university? Will the value of experiences associated with physically being there justify the high cost of higher education?
Somehow, I have faith that the University of Virginia, and other great universities, will remain relevant, and that our tuition payments will provide value. But it will be interesting to watch this play out…