When massive open online courses (MOOCs) first launched early last year, we had no idea what to expect. And even today—with dozens of global institutions and millions of learners participating—we, as an industry, have so much more to learn as we puzzle out online education. One thing that both supporters and critics of online education agree on is that the MOOC movement has ignited a spirited conversation about the future of higher education.
I am often asked where I see the greatest opportunities for residential campuses to improve and evolve for the benefit of future generations of students. And while I do not have the answers, I know that today’s students want a broad education, taking courses in languages, engineering, history, literature, math and science. They also want to fold in industry experience and international travel. As a result, many educators are now asking probing questions about traditional degree pathways. Should we require university students to obtain a degree in a specialized field? Should we expect students to know at the age of 18 what they want to do for the rest of their lives? Should universities limit their degree programs to four-year spans? Should the concept of a degree as the defining credential itself be revisited? Shifting from this traditional approach may significantly affect the affordability, efficiency and quality of a college education. It might even change the very manner in which universities are structured, as Jeffrey Selingo describes in his book College UnBound. One key to this shift might be the concept of unbundling many of the components that make up the traditional approach to higher education: time, function and content.
First, what does it mean for higher education to unbundle time? While there are substantial benefits to students coming to campus to work closely together with faculty, we can re-examine why four years on campus is considered to be the magic number for a college degree program. My own degree at IIT Madras in the late 70’s was a five-year program, and I still remember the raging debate when they shortened it to four years. Why not imagine an alternative path of life-long continuous education, where students come into college after having taken the first-year subjects through MOOCs or other AP courses, study for two years to experience what my MIT colleague Sanjay Sharma calls the “magic of campus” then enter the workforce to gain real-world skills, taking MOOCs, community college courses or other online courses as needed throughout their career, in place of the traditional final year? I do acknowledge that although two years might be more affordable, it is unlikely to provide the same rich campus experience as a four-year program.
Second, what might it mean for universities to unbundle function? Traditional, four-year higher education institutions do far more than provide an education.Universities are responsible for admissions, research, facilities management, housing, healthcare, credentialing, food service, athletic facilities, career guidance and placement and much more.Which of these items should be at the core of a university and add value to that experience? By partnering with other universities, or by enlisting third parties to manage some university functions, could schools liberate resources to focus on what they value most?
For instance, 2U and Academic Partnerships work with universities to provide certain functions such as admissions, recruitment and placement of students in addition to support services for professors to create online content. MOOC testing technology may help universities by supplying credentialing of skills learned on-the-job or in online courses. Such options unbundle the functions of competency testing and in-class seat time. With this approach, competency takes precedence over in-class seat time. Competency-based learning is a trend that is gaining steam in the nation’s classrooms and is even finding bipartisan support from Congress.
Finally, there is the potential of unbundled content. This practice actually began with the textbook centuries ago when instructors started using course content written by other scholars. Instructors are generally comfortable using textbooks written by a publisher’s team of authors, which they sometimes supplement with their own notes and handouts and those of their colleagues. Professors will have a choice to use multiple sources of content ¾ the key being “choice” ¾ in their lectures and classrooms that best fit the topic or their teaching style, and the learning styles of their students.
No one could have predicted the explosion of interest in MOOCs that has occurred in the past year. Nor can we predict where MOOC technology and research will lead us. But we can examine these innovations and collaborate on how best to use them to transform and reimagine higher education. Success will lie in experimenting with these new concepts, along with many more we can now only begin to imagine.
– Anant Agarwal is currently the President of EdX and also a professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT. He is also a Distinguished Alumnus Awardee for 2014.