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Say that the leadership from a liberal arts institution of higher learning and a scaled online learning platform provider should get together to discuss a potential partnership.

What might they talk about?

Here, I'm taking an expansive view of liberal arts institutions, one that covers all residential colleges and universities that require students to progress through a broad liberal curriculum to graduate. The scaled online learning platform providers that I have in mind include Coursera and edX. FutureLearn, Udacity, Udemy, Canvas Network and others are also sometimes mentioned as online learning platforms designed to serve students at scale.

I propose an agenda covering five topics, three of which are opportunities and two of which are challenges.

Opportunity No. 1: Advancing Liberal Arts Learning

Any partnership between a liberal arts school and a scaled online learning platform providers must -- ultimately -- be built around a commitment to strengthen the liberal arts model of higher education. These partnerships cannot (solely) be about the development of new revenues. Instead, the goal of these partnerships should be to leverage experimentation in online education at scale to advance "traditional" teaching and learning.

It will be difficult for individual colleges and universities to accomplish this goal on their own. Fortunately, partnering with Coursera and/or edX is not only about getting access to an online learning platform designed to operate at scale. Partnership with edX and Coursera comes with access to a community of practice. EdX lists 60 charter member colleges and universities, and many more additional nonprofit institutions, on its site. Coursera lists 225 partners, with over 50 university partners in the U.S. alone.

Any discussion of a partnership between a school and edX or Coursera should start, I think, with how these networks of institutions are learning together to advance liberal arts learning. There is a conversation to be had about the relationship between online courses aimed at hundreds (or thousands or tens of thousands) and the intimate and relational-based mode of teaching and learning that is a hallmark of the residential, educational experience. These two modes of instruction, one intimate and one at scale, should not be viewed in opposition. There are ways in which each can advance the other by lowering costs and improving quality. The conversation to be had is how to bring these two methods of teaching and learning into alignment.

Opportunity No. 2: Noncredit and Nondegree Programs

The fastest-growing segment of the postsecondary market is noncredit-bearing and nondegree-granting online certificates and other programs. The question is, will these programs be limited to skills-based certificates, or is there room in this market for a more liberal arts-based approach?

On the one hand, we know that there is an enormous global demand for lifelong learning. The first part of the MOOC experiment, post-2012 until 2020, proved that learners would participate in free (or very low cost) open online educational offerings. However, what we learned from the first phase of MOOCs is that free open online learning is not financially sustainable (at least on its own) in the long run. There needs to be a balance of nondegree/noncredit online courses that learners will pay for schools to continue investing in online learning at scale.

Learners will pay for skills-based online certificates in topics such as data science, programming, machine learning, etc. Can noncredit and nondegree online programs move up the value chain to encompass rigorous educational opportunities in areas such as critical thinking, analytical and quantitative skill development, communication, and leadership? The value of a liberal arts education is that it trains students to not only get that first job after graduation but to adapt and evolve to a lifetime of productive work and contribution. A liberal arts education teaches one how to think and to continually learn, skills that will become increasingly important in an age of smart robots and global competition.

The conversation here between leaders of liberal arts schools and leaders of scaled online learning platform providers is about the opportunity for a distinctively liberal arts approach to noncredit and nondegree programs.

Opportunity No. 3: Funnels and Pathways Into Degrees

We are in the middle of a shift in the traditional admissions funnel. I'm mostly thinking of master's programs, although I could see how this change will eventually move to the undergraduate level. This is a shift from a funnel built on advertising and marketing to one built on learning. In the past, colleges and universities were forced to spend ever-increasing dollars on digital marketing and advertising (think Google keywords). The future belongs to the integration between noncredit online programs and credit-bearing (residential and online) degrees.

Within the next few years (I expect this change to come fast), applicants to master's programs will no longer be screened by test scores or transcripts. Instead, qualified applicants will be discovered (and admitted) based on their noncredit online programs' performance. When accepted, these newly enrolled students will receive credit for completing the online certificates, lower their overall tuition cost and decrease the time to graduation. Schools will benefit by getting a better prepared and more diverse set of learners, as noncredit online programs are both globally accessible and better predictors of subsequent performance than test scores or prior grades. (At least I believe this will prove to be true -- but there is research to be done.)

The conversation here is about how noncredit and degree programs are not substitutes but complements. This is a concrete example of how scaled online learning and intimate residential learning can work together to benefit both learners and schools.

While there is much to discuss around these three opportunities, there are also significant challenges to any relationship between a liberal arts school and a scaled online platform provider. Here are two that we might discuss:

Challenge No. 1: Online Degrees at Scale

Coursera and edX are moving quickly -- and successfully -- into degrees. This is an exciting development, as online degrees at scale can bend the educational cost curve. There are real questions and concerns on liberal arts campuses, however, about how to bring intimacy and rigor to any scaled online degree program.

Liberal arts institutions know how to offer high-quality degree programs. We have been doing this for many years. The challenge is how to provide degree programs that are affordable to students while also being financially sustainable for institutions. That is a hard problem and getting more difficult each day. Leveraging digital platforms to scale online degree programs may be one solution for driving down costs while maintaining quality. Creating these programs to build on the core strengths of a relational-based educational philosophy, one defined by rigor and intimacy, will be exceedingly difficult.

Liberal arts institutions would love to make online degree programs more affordable and accessible while also bringing in the tuition dollars necessary for long-term financial sustainability. Getting to this goal will hard. We should discuss how to go forward.

Challenge No. 2: The Long Game

The second challenge that leaders of liberal arts institutions and leaders of scaled online learning platforms might want to discuss is the long game. Today, edX has over 34 million learners on its platform, and Coursera has over 76 million learners. What edX and Coursera do is not only provide a platform in which online learning can scale, they also aggregate a user base of global learners.

Should liberal arts colleges and universities depend on platform providers such as edX and Coursera to reach the global learner population? What is the risk to schools of being tied into these partner ecosystems instead of going their own ways to build their own branded college and university platforms and global educational brands? Do schools that invest in partnerships with edX and Coursera risk commodification of their educational offerings? How do colleges and universities differentiate their institutional brands when they are among many institutions on a platform?

These are difficult discussions about long-term strategy. These questions do not argue against partnering with platforms such as edX and Coursera. I'd argue that the best way to answer these questions is to experiment and partner -- but to do so with eyes and ears wide-open.

The conversation that liberal arts schools have with scaled online learning platform providers should be around the colleges and universities' concerns and goals. The liberal arts are about asking questions, thinking critically and discovering how to be an active participant in shaping one's future.

Partnering with platforms such as edX and Coursera will be one way to create the liberal arts higher education of tomorrow.

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