Of MOOCs and Metrics

Lessons about management and more.

September 17, 2015

As I and others have written in this blog recently, we can learn many things about learning from MOOCs. We can also learn many things about management in higher education from the people who have made possible the massively scaled aspects of learning in MOOCs.    

About three years ago, I was driving home from Cambridge, Massachusetts to my home outside of Boston. Just a few months earlier I was commuting from my position at Harvard Law School, but now I was commuting from edX, an online learning company (founded by Harvard and MIT) headquartered just down Massachusetts Avenue at MIT. The traditional, portrait-lined halls of Harvard Law School are only about a mile and a half from the futuristically infinite corridors of MIT, but the two have usually been worlds apart. The car ride I was about to take was an object lesson in how our initial reactions to the insights from industry need to be tempered, and how we can learn from our colleagues in the more practical worlds of software and computer science.

My passenger was Rob Rubin. He is someone I had met years before on the commuter train. Rob was founding VP of Engineering at edX. He came to edX after a successful career as the engineer who guided the creation of actual products that people actually use. 

In spending time with Rob, he constantly used terms in day-to-day conversations like “lean” and “agile,” which I had only vaguely heard about earlier from tech-minded friends. “Agile” in particular was a term that stuck with me. An agile project is one in which a complex development process is broken down into pieces and groups. The entire lifecycle of creating something new as seen through an agile lens is described as “iterative” and “incremental.”

Ideas such as “inspect and adapt” are used when individual groups working on elements of a project report to the full working group on their progress. This allows for multiple recalibrations as the project moves forward. An agile project is collaborative, transparent, and, simply, more productive. In contrast, in academia, even faculty members involved in large administrative processes often find themselves alone in their offices doing their work, or playing the role of the lone “sage on the stage.” From the business world, and in particular from the software world, I have to come to see that we can be more agile. 

Rob also uses what he calls “soft metrics” to measure success on his projects. These include how much pairing team members do to get work done together (good), how many jokes are told among team members (good), the number of people distracted by something else on their laptops during meetings (bad), lateness to meetings (bad), and even the number of high fives given (the more the better). From a friend, he borrowed another metric that he shared with me on this car ride home. He measures the number of waves he both gives and gets on each car ride. The software business is a hard-charging world, and Boston drivers in particular are not known for their courtesy. Bostonians charging hahd in their cahs around Hahvahd Yahd generally lead to few waves. To get past this mindset, Rob sets a metric for himself of a total of 10 waves either by him or to him on a car trip.

I admit to being amused at the time by this attempted application of a metric to kindness. How can the justness of my driving or my kindness as a person be measured? My classical liberal arts training and my social science and law graduate work transported me to conversations about justice and kindness from Aristotle to Buddhism to the Hebrew and Christian Bibles to Nietzsche to Comte. I was having this conversation in my head driving down a winding Cambridge street when I missed an easy opportunity to let someone into traffic. Sometimes, measuring one’s actions, while somewhat reductionist, is simply better than abstractions.

Rob, who is soon slated to join Microsoft as a Senior Director in the Learning Experience Team, is far from the only example of such an agile fellow traveler in the world of academia. Daphne Koller, the co-founder of Coursera, brings the same real-world focus and agility to the leadership of her company. As this certified MacArthur Foundation genius describes her research, she uses “probabilistic models and machine learning to understand complex domains that involve large amounts of uncertainty.“ Few industries provide more uncertainty than higher education at this point in history. The ground has shifted under MOOCs hundreds of times since she started Coursera. With great agility, she has inspected and adapted her company’s course. She brings this skill set with her to the MOOC world, and her insights from her scholarship as a Stanford professor have guided her company to extraordinary heights with a limitless future potential.

The company has produced MOOCs that some 15 million people have signed up for,  producing learners who have added overwhelming value to the world. Coursera has also produced things like Specializations that bring very practical value to their learners in their career pursuits, and very much needed revenue and massively scaled brand awareness to their university partners.

In my view, the focused, productive worldview represented by such practical-world infused leaders as Rob and Daphne is what is needed in higher education right now. But others are following a different and counter-productively extreme path. Based on what I read in my email and on social media over the past few weeks, a shudder ran down the collective spine of many American university professors when the University of Iowa named a non-academic as its new president. That university’s board of regents signaled that they see in this corporate turnaround specialist the skills that are needed in this transformational time in higher education. I do not know nearly enough about the decision in the Iowa case to do anything more than generally comment, but I gather that the regents did not believe that a traditional academic could perform in the current environment as well as someone coming from the business world.

Here is what I would suggest to future presidential search committees. The higher education market is something like a trillion dollar industry, and having someone with a business background is tempting as budgets and competition tighten. But education does not merely produce widgets. What universities do – as one past university president put it so elegantly – is to create the future. Iowa’s newly named president was once a senior executive at the conglomerate once called Kraft General Foods, all owned by a tobacco company once called Phillip Morris. Students are not products, in the same way that Kraft General Foods sold products or its former parent company once sold cigarettes. After you consume a slice of Kraft’s “pasteurized prepared cheese product” (as the label calls it), all that is left is the useless and wasteful plastic wrapper. After a university produces a student, what is created is something that will continue to produce value to that person and to society for a lifetime. It takes someone who has lived in that world and helped create the future to, um, “kraft” the future world of the university.

In practical terms, I call on executive education groups to create boot camps for people like university provosts and deans, who generally come from the Ph.D.’d faculty ranks.  Teach them some things like basic agile techniques. Teach them about the endless spreadsheets and project plans that will take up their lives for their 12-month positions, with no summers off again, ever. Teach them to build and work in dynamic, functional teams. Teach them how to manage massive, multi-year projects and to send people on their way to do their tasks with a clear sense of mission and purpose. Arm them with the tools of industry, but draw them from the ranks of academia. 

In many ways the rise of online learning and MOOCs in particular are forcing this kind of change. Decanal and even departmental meetings are occupied by conversations about external faculty compensation, ownership, and upselling – and  not in bad ways. MOOCs are kick-starting these conversations, but, as I said earlier, we need to do more to prepare leaders. There should a structured way for university leaders to get outside business advice, and not just from a board. It is often about balancing the mission of free and open, and residential and virtual, and somehow making it all work out. And when it works -- at places like Coursera, especially of late, and perhaps soon at HBX and other places -- it can be quite beautiful.

MOOCs are our cousins – our mutant cousins, but our cousins – in higher education.  Like cousins, they are us-adjacent, but not quite us. We can still learn from them, in their us-ness/not us-ness, about how we teach and how students learn. MOOC’s success in bringing education to the entire world in a remarkably short period of time was brought about by people like Daphne and Rob. They have an agile focus on process and know how to scale things up from local to global in the shortest possible timeframe. With an infusion of their skills and energy, we can adapt our often overly deliberative processes in higher education to the rapidly shifting ground on which we are trying to stand and move forward.

Akiba J. Covitz is Executive Director of YU Global: Yeshiva University Online.  He previously served as associate dean for faculty development at Harvard Law School, vice president for university partnerships at edX, and senior vice president for strategic relationships at Academic Partnerships.  Before all that, he recalls a simpler time as a professor who could simply drive home from work while thinking about the notion of kindness in Book II of Aristotle’s Rhetoric.


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