Conflating MOOCs with Money

I posted last week about the UVa fiasco and asked a question: Faced with diminishing government support, what IS the answer for public institutions of higher education who want to exist in 10 years? I got no takers. I’ve searched online this week for possible answers from folks who are outraged at what happened (For what it’s worth, I’m among them). But all I’ve seen so far is a defense of why radical change to make more money is WRONG, and things should continue as they have been, progressing slowly, but no one seems to say where they should progress TO (pardon my ending preposition).

Let’s be grownups. Barring an all-out commitment by the government to revitalize its funding for higher education, alternate revenue streams need to be tapped to keep public institutions alive and relevant without slashing programs. Absent that happening, the UVa Board’s alarm about finances is not without merit. It is the panic-driven and naive philosophy, however, that MOOCs will somehow save them fiscally that is the problem. They are succumbing to a very seductive notion about online learning. They cite Sebastian Thrun’s talk at DLD, and a few NY Times and Chronicle articles, in the flurry of emails obtained per FOIA by the Cavalier Daily.

The inability to resist this seduction is a symptom of the fact that few educators reside on the BOV. If you are mostly business people, in today’s justifiably fear-based business environment, you are going to hang your hat on some articles in the Chronicle, some lectures on YouTube, and Frank Rich’s editorials more than on the input of the very competent digital educators you just might have on the payroll.

Conflating MOOCs with money for an institution is simply not borne out in fact. When you are Stanford, or MIT, or Harvard, MOOCs become a logical extension of the brand. They are not bringing revenue in. They are, for all intents and purposes, awareness-drivers, keeping those brands in the marketplace wrapped in a relevant “online learning” package.

I’m not qualified to comment on whether Udacity, or Coursera, or edX are effective learning environments. I’m not an educator. When I saw the students in West Africa who are engaged in DS106 setting up labs for Udacity, I saw the amazing potential of MOOCs on a global scale. There is true value in that. But their value is not, at least to date, to funnel revenues to their institutions (In the case of Coursera and Udacity, those brands have led to startups that sever ties to the University from which they were born, forming alliances, but not being run or directly accredited by the institution that spawned them).

That’s why UVa’s conflation of MOOCs with revenue is so puzzling to me. I guess Helen Dragas wants to attract a “star” faculty member to use the UVa name to begin a MOOC and then take the money with them in a startup?

The other elephant in the room is how little internal teaching and learning technologies departments in public higher education institutions seem to matter at the BOV level. Neither UMW nor UVa has a CIO or an educational technologist at the Cabinet level. If information technology and online learning is so darned important and transformational, who are the INTERNAL voices speaking to the University leadership about them? Why are the Boards getting more information from outside voices rather than from their own boots on the ground?

Our own Jim Groom, and DTLT, to my knowledge, have never spoken directly with the BOV. Yet, you’d be hard pressed to see a group getting more consistent national (and international) coverage on UMW’s activities than that group. I can only wonder if UVa’s Board is similarly deaf to the voices within their own institution. Why are our own teaching and learning technology folks invited to speak at TED, but not to the BOV?

But that speaks to acknowledging technology’s importance to the mission of teaching and learning, not to this issue of keeping the institution alive financially. I don’t know what the answer is for that. But, I think that if CIOs and educational technologists were given an unmediated voice at the table of leadership, we may tease that answer out a lot more quickly.

Until that day, it looks like the anxiety-provoking media coverage about “the latest web thing that the cool schools are doing” speaks louder to these business-types than the actual business of teaching and learning, and that’s pretty darned sad.