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There is sometimes a moment in admittedly poorly written TV shows when a character says something seemingly totally absurd, along the lines of “If we just put a blonde wig on Jack, Mr. Roper will never know the difference.” The next line will be – or should be – something like: “Wow, I never thought those words would come out of my mouth.” As the world of higher education has rapidly transformed over the last year, we have all found ourselves in just that situation many times over the last year. That line that would have been previously absurd, but that keeps showing up on our admittedly poorly written scripts at work, is:

“How can we make this endeavor financially viable?”

A year ago, I was associate dean at Harvard Law School. There is no place that pulses with tradition like Harvard Law. It is also home to some of the most gifted teachers on the planet. It is the school that trained our current American president, the person who ran against him in the last election, as well as world leaders in the arts and letters, industry, etc.

That kind of success comes for a reason. The education there has been changing with the times, thanks to truly visionary deans and professors. That said, of course, the classrooms are still being peripatetically paced by in-person teachers. This form of education absolutely works for the few elite who can get into Harvard Law and its ilk and I certainly hope and presume that it will never go away. Finding a way to scale it up for the masses, on the other hand, seemed to be an insurmountable challenge.

From that privileged perch, I watched as these audacious new creatures that came to be called MOOCs caught fire on the interwebs. They seemed to be consuming all available oxygen. edX had been created, alongside Coursera, Udacity, and others. The idealism of those movements, with the promise of educating the planet for free, was utterly compelling. Here was just the way we had all been looking for to scale up the beauty that is Harvard and Wellesley and Duke and Wesleyan.

As I contemplated whether to join this movement, what compelled me to leap was a singular question, but one that I honestly never thought I would ask myself:

“What is my obligation as a teacher?”

In the past, I simply taught, and was lucky enough to win many teaching awards. But I had never been taught to think about what my teaching goals were. Now, with the new data generated by the added scale and perspective that MOOCs and other new learning technologies offer, I could formulate my questions more clearly.

  •  “Is my obligation,” I asked myself, “to be the best teacher I can be to the people attached to the butts in my classroom seats?” Or, especially for those of us who have been privileged to live and work in the richest groves of academia, is the right question:
  • “Do we have an obligation to bring the beauty of what we have to the broadest possible audience?”

I chose to pursue an answer to the second answer, so, I leaped – all of two miles – down Massachusetts Avenue from Harvard to MIT, where edX is headquartered. MOOCs are truly extraordinary but something was still missing. It was another question that came to my mind in the admittedly poorly written sitcom of my life. It was something that I never thought my character would say (and it had nothing to do with why Chrissy was replaced in season 6):

“How can we make this higher education endeavor financially viable?”

Sure, I had budgets in my career to construct and follow, but endowments and ever-rising tuition revenues were (usually) flowing and, if the idea in my head was good, the money was (usually) there to make it happen. But here were schools spending a fortune in both actual dollars and opportunity costs on producing these MOOCs, for which people were rapidly getting used to paying exactly and precisely nothing.

Coursera and others are moving progressively and energetically toward sustainability, but, with the rapidity of change in higher education these days, it was clear to me that was needed was the kind of academic/industrial partnership that works when bringing a cancer-curing drug or even a very useful product to market. I saw this with Sanjay Sarma and the RFID at MIT. Such ideas start in professors’ minds. Those professorial minds are free to wander productively because of the whole super-structure of higher education. The school gives the professor time to pursue the idea, but, at a pivotal point, private companies come in with the capital and systems needed to bring the product to market.

We are at that pivotal point with the idea of online education. What is needed is a corporate partner who can allow universities and professors to focus on what they do best, which is to educate, and allow the corporate partner to focus on what it does best, which is to scale and monetize.

And thus I found myself recently getting off a plane after meeting with leading professors and administrators at a top American private university in my new role at Academic Partnerships. Two rows ahead of me was a guy, clearly a salesman, with an embroidered shirt on that identified him as a vendor for RFIDs. I now often find myself knocking on the doors of leaders at universities and – with apologies to those who hated “Three’s Company” admittedly annoying yet catchy theme song – I am often told that “we’ve been waiting for you.”

In the case of RFIDs, a leading professor at a leading university came up with a leading idea. It was incubated in the sheltering cocoon of the ivory tower. He and his colleagues then partnered with corporations to bring it to market, benefiting the university financially, and spawning an entire industry. Colleges and universities now find themselves in a similar situation. What is produced in the academy has real value. People around the world want it. Let’s get it to market. More importantly, let’s use the proceeds from that process to maintain and strengthen the usefulness and the real beauty of American higher education.

Akiba J. Covitz, formerly Associate Dean for Faculty Development at Harvard Law School and Vice President for University Relations at edX, is now Senior Vice President for Strategic Relationships at Academic Partnerships.

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