Reversing the Odds

Boston University’s Digital Learning Initiative.

January 29, 2014

In the coming disruption of the higher education ecosystem, the odds are not in favor of traditional Universities.

As management guru Clayton Christensen argues in his celebrated book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, incumbent organizations often fail to adapt to innovations due to their entrenched culture and more traditional client base: this is why Kodak lost the digital photography market and newspaper circulation was wiped out by the Internet.

According to Christensen, the best way for big organizations to harness the potential of these transformational moments is to set up separate, small and agile “spin-off organizations.”

Boston University’s Digital Learning Initiative (DLI) was conceived as an example of the kind of nimble spin-off that Christensen prescribes, with the mission “to spearhead the University’s most innovative projects in online learning.”

Reporting directly to the University’s Provost, the DLI has taken on the development of the initial set of BU’s edX MOOCs, and the administration of a University-wide grants program to encourage and support innovative faculty-driven initiatives in digital learning.

We are making good progress towards launching the first set of BU MOOCs in the Fall of 2014: “War for the Greater Middle East, ” a course that analyzes America’s involvement in the Middle East and its significance for the rest of the world; “Alien Worlds,” a course on astronomy and the discovery of planets; “The Sounds of Poetry,” a journey through the syllables, lines and musicality of poetry; and “Baseball Analytics,” a course on data-driven analytics structured around baseball performance metrics.

Given our start-up nature, we seek constant engagement with the needs of our various “customer” constituencies (students, faculty, Deans, administrators etc.) and adapt our priorities accordingly.

Over the course of the first three months of the DLI’s existence, we have realized that relatively few of our faculty are currently thinking up grand, headline-grabbing new ideas for changing higher education -- most are understandably busy with classes and research. Furthermore, and consistent with the observations of Clayton Christensen, most Deans and faculty do not share a sense of urgency about the upcoming changes.

A number of BU faculty are, however, eager to experiment with incremental changes in their teaching: to capture some of their lectures and flip their classrooms, for example, or to experiment with blended courses that combine online and face-to-face meetings.

In common with many other universities, the infrastructure for supporting such faculty activities at BU is fragmented at best. Moving forward, one of the most important projects of the DLI is to help the University decide on the best way to organize resources that assist faculty in their experimentation with 21st century teaching methods, perhaps by merging some of the existing resources and putting in place new resources as needed.

The infrastructure necessary for all these new experiments is expensive. MOOC production costs considerable money (without clear revenue expectations at the other end) and flipping one’s classroom usually adds to demands on technology and faculty involvement.

The price of delivering a high quality residential education is already very high; many of the current residential teaching innovations might lead to only further cost increases, which must be offset by additional revenue.

Accordingly, another DLI goal is to help the University develop appropriate cultures and incentives for Schools and Colleges to become more entrepreneurial on this front.

The odds may not be in favor of the traditional University, but traditional wisdom is still apt: fortune, as the saying goes, favors the brave.

And now is the time for bold questions:

  • What is the role of both on- and off-campus active (e.g. project-based) learning in improving the student experience?
  • How can high quality online programs help subsidize residential learning innovation?
  • What are we learning from the experiments in massive online course delivery?
  • How do those lessons inform existing learning sciences and impact the residential campus experience?
  • How can MOOCs and digital learning help strengthen possible regional and interdisciplinary cooperation?
  • What are the best practices for building accessible, remixable, learner-centered content and curricula that correlate with meaningful metrics of students’ agency, resilience and success in life?

We are excited to engage with these queries and their complex answers. In communication with several of our counterparts at other educational institutions, we are thrilled to be collectively drafting the blueprints for Universities of the future.

Chris Dellarocas ([email protected]) is the Director of Boston University’s Digital Learning Initiative and a Professor of Information Systems at Boston University’s School of Management. Romy Ruukel ([email protected]) is the Associate Director of Boston University’s Digital Learning Initiative.

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