MOOCs, outsourcing, and the cloud: Where are institutional missions?

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“A year ago, I could not have imagined that we would be where we are now,” she said. “Who knows where we’ll be in five more years?” ask Ms. Koller, a representative of Coursera, the most utilized of the MOOC options so far.

In 2009 I asked a similar question, but from a different perspective. In a memo on cloud computing as it was then just emerging for higher education, I cautioned that while sure to be a part of our future for which we should plan thoughtfully, outsourcing initiatives that directly affect institutional missions should be centralized and ultimately tested against the question of at what point dependency on external vendors could render the institution unable to exercise its missions. (The article can be found on this landing page.) Not only would it be important to have the right hand know that the left hand is doing — and interpose either “administration” and “academic” sides of the house for the hands, or even different colleges and departments — but it behooves senior administration to keep an eye on the store overall.

With the push toward MOOCs, we may be at a point where asking that question is no longer academic. It is one thing to outsource food services or even the bookstore, but one of our three principal missions is another. When Ms. Koller says it, she is saying it from the perspective of a for-profit company that imagines the myriad ways in which to deploy the Coursera platform to monetize academic content. Licensing would appear to the main means by which the company links the institutions to the money. And from her perspective, why not? It is the business model of choice since Microsoft bet on it with its software and Apple did with iTunes and was the only issue of real import that the F.T.C. acted on in closing its anti-trust investigation of Google just last week (reasonable terms for telephone patents).

There is a potential slippery slope, however, because combined with the other headlines of the day — alternative careers for historians and new models for MLA publishing — it should not take long before Coursera not only negotiates licenses with academic institutions but with intelligent, savvy, marginalized trained faculty, i.e. the Ph.D.s who do not get the tenure track jobs. If a critical mass of learning moves towards the MOOCs model, I am not sure who among that crowd will have the last laugh, but administrators, from presidents to deans and departments chairs and traditional faculty, will probably not be amused.

We — higher education — really need to be thinking very carefully about these developments. First, as is noted in the article in which I made the initial suggestion about centralized planning and foundational thresholds, the contract is king. What are the terms exactly? They have been published and are available for everyone to see. What impact do those terms have on not merely the bottom line of our colleges and universities but on our sense of obligations as a not-for-profit institutions of teaching, research and outreach in U.S., if not global, society? Higher education is the most important public good we have. In the name of meeting this year’s fiscal budget, let’s not throw its future to the wind.

Please note:
I have long advocated for a much fuller deployment of technologies to teach, learn and do outreach. I am most definitely not against distance education or MOOCs per se. But I am for making them rich, dynamic experiences (not just passive learning, which is more or less what the MOOCs model suggests so far) between and among different cultures, peoples and societies of learning. I have always hoped that they would be fully integrated into existing models of colleges and universities. By not taking that initiative soon enough, and by not looking careful about how and why before we leap, our graduate programs may be training a generation of independent contractors and our institutions will become unable to hold onto the institutional structures that house our ideals, that legally claim “academic freedom” and which have been the foundation of the greatest public good in our history: not education as means to infuse the free market with skilled workers but the education of citizens in a democratic republic.

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