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One of the many things I love about my good friend and colleague Josh Kim is his insatiable curiosity about learning innovation in higher education. Another is the generous way he shares what he’s learning and thinking with our growing community. In his quest to understand and shape the direction of learning innovation, he’s brought many perspectives to the surface through his blog in the form of Q&As with bright minds across our ecosystem. He graciously agreed to step out of the interviewer role and become the interviewee after attending his first Coursera conference this week.

My institution, the University of Michigan, was among Coursera’s first group of university partners in 2012. Over the years, Josh and I have talked regularly about what we know about higher ed and what we think will become of our rapidly evolving environment.

Coursera also had an eventful few weeks. Aside from their annual conference, they also made their market debut on the New York Stock Exchange. With a new partnership emerging during a moment of great visibility for online education companies like Coursera, I asked Josh to share his first impressions after the Coursera conference and the critical role that networks play in shaping higher education.

Q: You just attended your first Coursera conference. What are your initial takeaways and, knowing you well, what questions have emerged for you?

A: What seems clear -- and what somewhat surprised me -- is that Coursera is emerging as a nexus in the global conversation about postsecondary transformation.

The conversations that I participated in at the conference were less about the Coursera platform itself (although there were some of those discussions) and more about where higher education will and should go after the pandemic.

The best of these events at the conference were conversations across a diverse group of global institutions. There seemed to be a feeling amongst the conference attendees that we are living through a moment of potentially profound change in higher education.

I say “potential” because much of the talk was about how those of us in the postsecondary ecosystem (educators, leaders, partners, learners, governments, companies, foundations, etc.) can help drive meaningful change.

For me, the change conversations I gravitate towards are around bending the postsecondary cost curve.

It seems as if Coursera is right in the middle of this movement towards increased accessibility and lower costs, as Coursera is trying to figure out how to partner with schools to develop high-quality online learning programs (degree and nondegree) at scale.

In terms of questions, everything that I’m wondering about is around the challenge of how to maintain educational quality while gaining the cost efficiencies of scale.

How might we approach the task of offering high-quality nondegree and degree educational programs while simultaneously driving down learner costs?

What does it mean to provide a relationship-based educational experience and a credential that provides learners with greater job opportunities in a way that does not add to the burden of student debt?

These are all challenging questions, but what is clear is that the Coursera community is one place that folks are coming together to wrestle with potential solutions.

Q: We have collaborated through a number of networks that range from individual-led to university-led to company-led. What do you hope to gain from the Coursera community and, as a new voice, in what areas will you push the community to address some of the most important and challenging questions facing higher education?

A: The best part of working in higher education is, for me, the dense network of colleagues that we develop across the postsecondary ecosystem. The ties between people at different institutions are robust, durable and nurturing.

We depend on these networks to help us figure out how to do our jobs at our home institutions. It is within and across these networks that we think, talk, write and critique.

If knowledge about how to improve our higher education is going to advance, then it will do so within and across our networks.

As a new member of an already established Coursera network of peers and colleagues, I’ve been thinking about how this new network might contribute to my work and about how I can best add value to this group.

From the perspective of my work at my institution, it will be essential to quickly and fully immerse myself in the hard-won knowledge that long-term Coursera partners have built. I have a million and one questions about how to best partner with Coursera and will be looking for answers from folks like you and other academic leaders.

In terms of the research and writing that I do about higher education (much of which is done with Eddie Maloney), the areas that I think I’ll end up relying on the network of Coursera-partnered colleagues and peers are around questions related to quality, scale and costs.

As you know, I’m obsessed with understanding how scaled online learning might bend the postsecondary cost curve. Most of my thinking -- and questions -- on this topic are in the areas of master’s degrees.

Q: Why are networks so important to creating catalysts for change across our higher education ecosystem?

A: At the Coursera conference, I gave a talk about the potential paths forward for the diffusion of low-cost degrees after the pandemic. The framework that I utilized to think about this challenge is one developed by Penn sociologist Damon Centola. Centola has a fantastic new book out called Change: How to Make Big Things Happen.

If we think about the diffusion of low-cost degrees (and particularly master’s degrees) as a kind of institutional (and industry) innovation -- then Centola’s thinking on how change occurs is really helpful.

Centola has found through his research that our ideas about change are mostly wrong. We tend to put too much faith in influencers and thought leaders and too little stock in networks. For Centola, any significant or complex change process is always refracted through the lens of the networks in which decision makers and stakeholders operate.

We don’t necessarily follow thought leaders and influencers, because we see these actors as outliers -- unlike ourselves. Instead, we make decisions in alignment with the movement of the trusted nodes in our networks.

Suppose Centola’s description of how change works is accurate. In that case, it becomes apparent that any individual or group wanting to lead change must pay more attention to the networks in which decision makers are embedded.

This line of thinking can be extended well outside the challenge of low-cost online degree programs. How we think about academic organizational change -- its drivers and inhibitors -- may need to shift to a more network-centered perspective.

James DeVaney (@DeVaneyGoBlue) is the associate vice provost for academic innovation and the founding executive director of the Center for Academic Innovation at the University of Michigan.

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