How Should Your University Respond to edX?

The first thing we should all do is encourage discussion about edX. This is big, important,and exciting news. Faculty get excited about ideas, and the edX announcement  contained some great ones.

May 2, 2012

The first thing we should all do is encourage discussion about edX.

This is big, important,and exciting news. Faculty get excited about ideas, and the edX announcement  contained some great ones. 

Connecting massively online open education to research into effective pedagogy and use of digital technology for all learners (including face-to-face and blended) is very exciting.  

The press release notes that:

"MIT and Harvard will use the jointly operated edX platform to research how students learn and how technologies can facilitate effective teaching both on-campus and online. The edX platform will enable the study of which teaching methods and tools are most successful. The findings of this research will be used to inform how faculty use technology in their teaching, which will enhance the experience for students on campus and for the millions expected to take advantage of these new online offerings."

So edX is a terrific opportunity to engage the campus community in a discussion what comes next in higher ed, and how we can leverage the affordances of a digital, networked world in our strategic planning.

The second thing we do is refrain from all of us jumping on the MOOC / edX bandwagon.  Admiring and being inspired by the commitment of MIT and Harvard is one thing, copying the edX model is another deal entirely.   

The question we all need to ask ourselves are:

What investments can we make (in attention, time, and dollars) that will have positive impacts on quality, cost, and access?

Any investment should be judged on the impact against all three of these goals.   It is not enough to achieve an ROI on quality or cost or access - a smart investment should ideally benefit all three.  
Many times that investment will have nothing to do with a technical initiative, but increasingly to hit all the legs of this quality, cost, and access stool the investment will have some digital component. 

Higher ed is an information services industry, one in which costs are driven by people.  In-person services (like dentistry or string quartets) do not scale well.  (See Baumol's cost disease).

Investing in a MOOC may be a great strategy to improve access.  And the people behind edX are talking about utilizing the project to improve quality (for the core traditional matriculated degree and face-to-face students).  Reducing costs for Harvard or MIT students, at least initially, does not seem to be a goal of edX.   

Can we imagine digital initiatives that would simultaneously improve the quality of learning (however defined), lower costs per students, and allow more learners to access higher ed?   

Perhaps we can move more aggressively to blended learning models, where precious classroom time is supplemented by online lectures, formative assessments, collaboration, and labs.  Blended learning would perhaps allow us to better utilize our high fixed cost assets (classrooms and labs), while increasing quality (class time for debate and discussion), and lower overall costs by permitting more students to be admitted (increased overall productivity).  (This is certainly what the evidence from the National Center for Academic Transformation  seems to indicate).  

Or maybe we can find signature programs on our campus, areas of true expertise, and decide to offer online and low-residency programs that would allow a world market to participate in the degree programs.  The local demand for your specialized expertise, the thing that your campus is better at than any other campus, might not be strong enough to justify a new degree program.  But online and low-residency programs can capture demand from everywhere.

Finding ways to simultaneously improve quality, reduce costs, and increase access is never easy.  For too long we have thought of these three elements as essentially in opposition.  Do one, and you can't do the others.  The experience of other information industries should demonstrate to us that this goal is attainable.  (The growing e-book ecosystem comes immediately to mind).  

MOOCs and edX might be one answer, but perhaps not the best one for the rest of us. (Or maybe it is?)

What conversations about edX have you been part of?


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