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Why This Traditional Academic Welcomes MissionU

Why experimentation and competition is good for our liberal arts institutions.

March 29, 2017
 
 

Did you catch Jeff Young’s EdSurge article about MissionU?  

If you missed it - go ahead and check it out. 

Actually, you should just plan to read everything that Jeff Young writes. The hiring of Jeff Young was the second smartest thing that EdSurge has done, the first being the recruiting of the amazing Allison Dulin Salisbury to serve as EdSurge’s Director of Higher Education Strategy. (If you don't believe that we will all be working for Allison one day, then you have not met Allison).

But back MissionU. What do you think?

The idea of MissionU is that a few really smart young people participate in a year long program specializing in either data analytics or business intelligence. (At least to start with). 

Classes will be mostly online - with a mix of asyncrhonous and synchronous learning.  The year is divided into 4 quarters, with each quarter having a 3-day in-person residential kick-off.  Cohorts of students live in cities to facilitate monthly meet-ups and internships that MissionU arranges.  

The first quarter is called Foundations - which focuses on " structured projects to develop the 8 essential hard skills that are needed to succeed at any 21st century job.” The second quarter is Discovery, which I gather is more about the soft skills such as communication and critical thinking.  In the third quarter of the program - called Specialization - students work in small team to complete projects.  The last quarter - Work Experience - is just what it sounds like.

The twist in all this is that students don’t pay to attend MissionU.  Well, I guess they do pay rent and food and other living expenses, but tuition is free.  Rather, MissionU graduates agree to pay 15% of their income for 3 years after they start making $50,000 per year.  

In his EdSurge article, Jeff Young quotes Bryan Alexander as saying about MissionU  (Jeff describes Bryan as a "a futurist, consultant, and close watcher of higher education trends” - how would you describe Bryan Alexander?)

What Bryan said was that:

"Traditional academics are going to hate this with a passion.  It’s the exact opposite of what they see the undergraduate experience being about.”

Jeff Young also has a great quote from Gardner Campbell of Virginia Commonwealth University about MissionU.  Any article that has quotes from both Bryan Alexander and Gardner Campbell, who everyone also knows and has the deepest respect and admiration, is bound to get noticed and read in our edtech community.

Anyway, Bryan is never wrong about anything - at least since I’ve known him.  But in this case he is wrong about one traditional academic.

That traditional academic is me.  And I love the idea of MissionU.

Why do I think MissionU is great? Mostly because I think that any time that anyone is experimenting in our postsecondary space that we should be happy.  Adam Braun, the 33 year-old driving force behind MissionU, sounds to me like a really smart and passionate guy.  He is creating a new model with MissionU that should appeal to both employers and those who want to get those cool data analytics and business intelligence jobs.

The other reason that I’m excited about MissionU, speaking as a traditional academic, is that I don’t think that the MissionU model threatens the traditional liberal arts school in the least.  If anything, experiments like MissionU force those of us traditional institutions to up our game.  

Today’s high quality liberal arts institutions must find ways to evolve at faster rates than we have historically known how to change.  Competition in the postsecondary marketplace, be it competition for the best students or competition in ideas about what higher education should be, forces everyone to improve.

Besides, I am not worried that new players like MissionU will substitute for the best liberal arts schools.  Adam Braun graduated from Brown University in 2006, having concentrated in Economics, Sociology, and Organizational Management. The education that Adam got at Brown is what enabled him to conceive and execute something as potentially amazing as MissionU.  My guess is that there is a good chance that Adam and his partner will be very happy if their offspring end up attending Brown (or maybe another great school like Brown), rather than skipping the liberal arts college experience to matriculate instead at MissionU.

Who knows, maybe I’ll be wrong.  Blockbuster wasn’t worried about Netflix - even passing up a chance to buy the DVD-by-mail startup for $50 million back in 2000. Today, Netflix is worth a cool $63 billion. 

Whenever I find myself unworried about a new postsecondary model or new competitor, I always think of what those discussions would have been like at Blockbuster circa 2000.

Still, all my experience points to the conclusion that players like MissionU will only strengthen the position of our really great liberal arts institutions. 

What a liberal arts school offers - what Adam Braun got in his education - is the time and space to learn things that the market may not value today. Rather, there is an ability to learn about how all parts of the world work and fit together.  A chance to learn how to learn, which is different than learning how make an effective presentation or create a compelling spreadsheet. That 4-year discovery process of a liberal arts education can’t be replicated in a 3-month Discovery quarter, even at the best job-skill focused programs.  

At the same time, I think that those of us at incumbent institutions can learn a great deal from the experiential learning opportunities offered at places like MissionU. 

We are indeed witnessing at our best liberal arts colleges a renewed investment in active and experiential learning, with lots of resources and attention being devoted into providing our students the intellectual tools and hands-on lived experiences necessary to thrive in an ever-more competitive job market.  

The emergence of options like MissionU is actually part of a much larger story of postsecondary education change. While I have all sorts of worries about prices, student debt, the erosion of public funding, adjunctification, and the economic viability of many tuition institutions - I am also excited about all the advances in teaching and learning that are coming fast and furious on our campuses.  

What do you think of MissionU?

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