University Tech Leaders Talk Impact of MOOCs

Chief Information Officers from over 40 colleges and universities around the country gathered for a panel during The Higher Education Technology Forum in San Diego last weekend to talk about the impact massive online open courses are likely to have on higher education. The conference, organized by Consero, was an invitation-only event that looked to pose and answer questions about technology and higher ed.

The MOOC panel included among the participants three CIOs whose schools made important decisions about participating in the MOOC movement. Gayle Barton’s school – Amherst College – recently voted down a partnership with the non-profit edX consortium. David Baird’s Wesleyan University makes use of services provided by the popular for-profit MOOC platform Coursera. While Patricia Schoknecht’s Rollins College has indicated that it will be offering massive online open courses, they’ll do it using their own in-house platform.

“When I started last July, online education was the last thing on my mind,” Barton said. Amherst is a small liberal arts college in Amherst, Mass., known for small class sizes and faculty-student research collaboration. Yet after Amherst was approached first by 2U (formerly 2tor) and then Coursera, she felt responsible to investigate other options. She approached edX, the non-profit started by MIT and Harvard, that so far supports a relatively exclusive club of a dozen universities, as well as Udacity, which like Coursera is a for-profit company. 2U offers a cloud-based online education platform that allows schools to charge tuition.

“Those of us working on it felt that edX was the best fit because of their focus on very high quality courses and helping people do that,” Barton said. She figured Amherst needed the help coming up to speed on online education. In addition, she thought it would be valuable to get access to the assessment and analytics tools built into the edX platform.

MOOCs put schools – and their CIOs – in a tight spot. Actively or passively supporting MOOCs, or even offering some independently or on a third-party platform, could serve to undermine the message that a college degree from their own institution is worth as much as $50,000 in tuition a year. Yet schools that fail to embrace MOOCs risk getting left behind – and risk allowing other schools to set the agenda.

It’s a dangerous position to be in, especially if the free courses available to everyone eventually become viewed the same way as traditional college courses are now.

Yet Wesleyan, a private university in Middletown, Conn., is willing to take the risk, Baird said. “We decided we’d be better able to position ourselves if we’re involved than if we’re standing on the sidelines.”

Wesleyan president Michael S. Roth was in the process of closing a deal with Coursera when Baird joined the university in August. Although Wesleyan also consulted with faculty as part of the decision-making process, the deal was cut over the summer when many professors were away, Baird said. A six-week course on The Language of Hollywood recently wrapped up, and the film studies professor who offered it is so enthusiastic he plans to do it again in the fall.