The University of California at Berkeley is joining edX, which was recently formed by Harvard University at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to offer MOOCs, or massively open online courses. The Berkeley announcement comes a week after Coursera, another provider of MOOCs by elite universities, announced a major expansion. In the announcement from edX, the three members are now referred to as the "X Universities." In a statement explaining the choice of edX, Robert J. Birgeneau, the chancellor at Berkeley, specifically noted the nonprofit model at edX. "We are committed to excellence in online education with the dual goals of distributing higher education more broadly and enriching the quality of campus-based education. We share the vision of MIT and Harvard leadership and believe that collaborating with the not-for-profit model of edX is the best way to do this," he said.
A distance learning group is raising an alarm about a change to Pell Grants in a Senate appropriations bill for fiscal year 2013 that, if signed into law, could cut the need-based grants for students taking online classes. A provision in the bill, which would increase the overall Pell Grant next year, would stop allowing students taking online classes to claim room and board expenses, as well as "miscellaneous personal expenses," as part of their cost of living when applying for Pell Grants.
Currently, Pell Grants take all forms of expenses into account for all students, whether they're commuters, residential students or enrolled in online or distance learning programs. Students would still be able to use those expenses when applying for student loans or other forms of financial aid. "It is hard to understand why the cost for a student’s living expenses are not allowable if the student takes online courses, but would be allowable if that same student were to commute to campus to take the same courses in a classroom," wrote Russ Poulin, deputy director for research and analysis with the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.
In this month's edition of The Pulse podcast, Rod Murray discusses how to manage your social media portfolio with the help of "If This Then That," as well as Apple's new podcast app. The Pulse is Inside Higher Ed's monthly technology podcast, produced by Murray, executive director of the office of academic technology at University of the Sciences. Find out more about The Pulse here.
A group of companies and higher ed groups on Tuesday announced a project aimed at expanding Internet capabilities at rural colleges and universities across the country. The project, called AIR.U., would increase the broadband available to those institutions and their neighbors by harnessing the unused frequencies, called "white space," of defunct television channels. The partners in the deal, which include Microsoft, Google, the New America Foundation and the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (among many others), are billing the project as an altruistic effort to "[upgrade] broadband offerings in those communities that, because of their educational mission, have greater than average demand but often, because of their rural or small town location, have below average broadband." The first networks are expected to come online early next year.
At celebration of land-grant universities, Bill Gates and others tell campus leaders they must use financial aid and new technology to maintain the Morrill Act's emphasis on student access and agricultural education.
Recent events at the University of Virginia following the decision of the institution's governing board to remove its president after only two years in office have brought to light some questionable claims that have been animating educational reformers lately.
In a statement justifying the Board of Visitors’ decision, the Board’s rector, Helen Dragas, asserted that U.Va.’s president, Terry Sullivan, was unwilling to make the kinds of changes necessary at a time when universities like Virginia are facing an “existential threat.” The times, Dragas claimed, call for a bold leader willing to impose “a much faster pace of change in administrative structure, in governance, in financial resource development and in resource prioritization and allocation” than was Sullivan. “The world,” Dragas believes, “is simply moving too fast.”
Dragas’s comments echo those of many reformers who believe that new technologies are producing “disruptive innovation,” forcing universities, which are supposedly conservative by nature and controlled by faculty who are invested in outmoded ways of doing things, to transform themselves to meet the needs of the 21st century.
The claim behind this is, quite simply, that new technologies have alone made it possible to transcend the “traditional” campus model. Whether through new learning technology on campus or through distant online education, technology will cut costs, improve access, and completely reframe the foundation of the American academy: tenure, shared governance, and the centrality of brick-and-mortar classrooms and flesh-and-blood faculty.
The problem with this refrain is that it ignores the importance of ideas and politics. As Mark Blyth of Johns Hopkins has written, disruptive innovation is not just a technological act, but one in which new contexts enable people with pre-existing ideas for reform to push their pre-existing agenda. In short, ideas can be used to determine what gets defined as a crisis and what gets defined as the appropriate solution.
In this case, the constant iteration of “disruptive innovation” provides an aura of inevitability to issues that are to be worked out on the ground through politics, on the one hand, and through decisions by specific colleges and universities, on the other hand. There is nothing inevitable about how new technology is used, what its goals are, and who will control it: these are all matters that some one -- or some group -- will decide.
The refrain of disruption is misleading. It suggests that the “traditional” college is on its last legs, when this is far from being the case. In fact, there is nothing inherently disruptive about new technologies. At their best, as the New York Times's David Brooks rightly notes, new technologies can improve colleges by allowing teachers to be more effective within classrooms.
At their worst, new technologies will be used to replace the human dimension of education with machines. But those are choices that we, as citizens, policy makers, and members of the academy are free to make. Change may be inevitable, but the direction and meaning of change are not.
For decades critics of higher education have sought to limit the centrality of the liberal arts -- and the humanities in particular -- in the American college curriculum. For decades, critics of higher education have sought to eliminate tenure and reduce shared governance to make universities more accountable to managers. For decades, critics have sought to rely on market-based ideas both to fund universities and to determine which programs are worth funding. None of these criticisms relied on new technologies. They were present in the 1970s and 1980s.
What we are really seeing is not necessarily a moment of disruptive change.
Rather, those who are already hostile to the academy are invoking the idea of disruption to convince the rest of us that the changes they desire are inevitable.
The new technologies are an excuse; the reality is that many of the changes being imposed on universities across America -- and exposed in the debates at the University of Virginia -- are not about technology and disruptive innovation but about those who have a particular vision of American higher education and want to see it happen.
In short, it’s about politics and values, and there’s nothing inevitable about those.
Johann Neem is associate professor of history at Western Washington University. He received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Virginia in 2004.