From the Editor
College - Outside the Box
Anne Wujcik — Friday, June 22, 2012
I received an announcement of an event to be held Monday at the Lincoln Memorial to celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the Morrill Act, which established the land grant colleges that now form the backbone of America's public university system. The heads of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Association of Public Land-Grant Universities, and the National Academy of Sciences will join with 100 college presidents (in full regalia), leading members of congress, three former U.S. Secretaries of Education and the current Librarian of Congress to call for our elected officials to turn their attention to higher education.
It's hard to imagine Congress and the President dealing with something like land grant colleges in 1962, as the Civil War ground away. The people gathering at the Lincoln Memorial will call for a bipartisan commitment to renewed support for higher education, includes expanding college opportunity, increasing support for research and modernizing and broadening access to knowledge.
There's no question that higher education has suffered a lot during the economic downturn. States began cutting higher ed budgets several years before K-12 education faced its own cuts. All but the top of the top tier schools are finding it difficult to attract research funding and top-flight faculty. Endowments are shrinking and students are beginning to question the value of a degree when it means taking on $100,000 or more in debt.
I'm all for a robust higher ed system. But I also think that the current cost of higher ed, even at the community college level, may already be forcing a restructuring of the market. Clearly lots of people are thinking about the issue and a lot is happening right now.
The Gates Foundation recently gave a $450,000 grant to the League for Innovation in the Community College to support and pilot a national consortium of leading community colleges and online universities to support underserved and low-income adults in attaining a postsecondary credential-in less time and at lower cost-without leaving their home community.
Made up of the University of Massachusetts Online (UMassOnline), Pennsylvania State University (Penn State World Campus), the University of Illinois-Springfield (UIS), and Coastline Community College . Learning First will work to increase Coastline Community College's capacity to serve students following a unique 1-2-1 partner articulation and concurrent enrollment model.
Increasing the capacity (and quality) of the community college system could go a long way to making higher ed more accessible to more people. Designing a program that involves dual enrollment at the community college and with online university partners seems to be worth exploring. If well-structured, the community college can support students who may find online unfamiliar and need help developing successful online behaviors.
More out of the box is edX, a partnership between Harvard and MIT, will offer online courses to anyone who wants to sign on. The courses will use the MITx technology, initially designed to offer noncredit, online versions of MIT courses. The MItx platform incorporates video lessons, embedded quizzes, immediate feedback on student work and online labs. The two institutions are each committing $30 million in institutional funds, grants, and philanthropic gifts to capitalize the venture. edX courses are supposed to be as rigorous as any course Harvard or MIT offers face-to-face. They will not be offered for credit, but in some courses it will be possible to earn a "certificate of mastery," for a fee.
Anant Agarwal, director of MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and one of the pioneers of the MITx online prototype, will be president of edX. Agarwal recently noted that the first online course from MITx, offered earlier this year, had more students than the entire number of living students who have graduated from the university. He anticipates that the courses being launched in the autumn will have at least 500,000 student - and probably many more.
Of course, edX is not the first or is it alone in the space of MOOCs (massive open online courses). There are several efforts with roots at Stanford, including Cousera, which currently hosts courses from Princeton University, Stanford University, University of California, Berkeley, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, and University of Pennsylvania. (Most of the MOOCs are pretty heavily into computer science and technical topics, but Cousera has branched out into the Humanities and Social Sciences with a course on American poetry and Greek and Roman mythology, among others.) And speaking of massive, there's Udacity, which grew out of a free Stanford course on artificial intelligence which attracted some 160,000 students.
The Gates Foundation also awarded $1 million to MIT to use edX courses in partnership with colleges serving low-income students. The grant focuses on helping colleges that serve low-income students teach an official course based around MITx materials, using the "flipped classroom" model. Students will watch the edX video lectures for a computer-science course on their own times and use traditional classroom time at their own institution to collaborate and dig more deeply into the content under the guidance of a teacher.
A tipping point has been reached. For now, at least, these online courses are taught by top talent, which is a big part of the attraction. But each success pushes the camel's nose a bit farther into the tent. Why pay if I can get all this for free? Part of the answer is that these are not credit-bearing courses or programs designed to deliver a degree. And credentials matter. But with all that going on with competency-based learning and in the badging sphere, it will be possible before too long to demonstrate that you've picked up the skills and can demonstrate mastery and application to real-lie situations. Quality also matters. The professor delivering the course may have a national reputation, but did he or she get the technical support needed to turn the online course into something other than a badly recorded lecture series. That part can be fixed, for sure, but it will cost money and take time and effort. So how long will offerings like this remain free? And which institutions might this model most threaten? It's too early to tell much right now (and remember that this in not higher ed’s first venture into online education), except that there is a sea change coming.