Go to Top

With Forced Resignation of UVa President, We See the Biggest Impact of MOOCs

We also believe that higher education is on the brink of a transformation now that online delivery has been legitimized by some of the elite institutions.

      – Rector Helen Dragas announcing the forced resignation of UVa president

Traditional, new and social media has been awash in articles and discussions about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), often describing their potential to disrupt or transform higher education. These discussions proliferate despite the lack of revenue plans and the low course completion rates. In fact, early demographic data indicate that the majority of students in MOOCs are professionals in the software industry – hardly the target audience for those seeking a change in how we education degree-seeking postsecondary students.

While these limitations of MOOCs might suggest that the movement is an overhyped fad that will fail to deliver the changes hoped for or feared by observers, I think we just observed the most significant effect of MOOCs this past weekend.

On Sunday the University of Virginia forced the resignation of its president Teresa Sullivan – a widely respected executive with only two years in her position. When is the last time a high-profile university president has been removed after such a short period of time? As Jeff Selingo and Kevin Carey pointed out in a Twitter discussion, it was Jeffrey Lehman leaving Cornell University in 2005 after two years. In both cases the reason offered was a fundamental difference in philosophy or approach between the outgoing president and the Board of Trustees / Visitors.

While there are different reasons offered for the sudden departure of the UVa president, one of the reasons offered illustrates the real impact of the current generation of MOOCs on traditional higher education institutions. As Rector (essential the chair of the Board of Visitors) Helen Dragas explained (emphasis added):

Nevertheless, the Board feels strongly and overwhelmingly that we need bold and proactive leadership on tackling the difficult issues that we face. The pace of change in higher education and in health care has accelerated greatly in the last two years.  We have calls internally for resolution of tough financial issues that require hard decisions on resource allocation. The compensation of our valued faculty and staff has continued to decline in real terms, and we acknowledge the tremendous task ahead of making star hires to fill the many spots that will be vacated over the next few years as our eminent faculty members retire in great numbers. These challenges are truly an existential threat to the greatness of UVA.

We see no bright lights on the financial horizon as we face limits on tuition increases, an environment of declining federal support, state support that will be flat at best, and pressures on health care payors.  This means that as an institution, we have to be able to prioritize and reallocate the resources we do have, and that our best avenue for increasing resources will be through passionate articulation of a vision and effective development efforts to support it. We also believe that higher education is on the brink of a transformation now that online delivery has been legitimized by some of the elite institutions. [snip]

The Board believes this environment calls for a much faster pace of change in administrative structure, in governance, in financial resource development and in resource prioritization and allocation. We do not believe we can even maintain our current standard under a model of incremental, marginal change.  The world is simply moving too fast.

The issue to board members was not the existence of MOOCs or other forms of online education (and note that MOOCs are only a part of a changing landscape of educational delivery models); the issue is the legitimacy of online delivery among elite institutions by the very public and financial support of MOOCs and open education in general. Consider that the presidents of Stanford, MIT and Harvard have all come out publicly and forcefully declaring the value and potential of online education. The new president of MIT led the development of the MITx project. The president of Stanford has publicly supported the “flipped classroom” and described the tsunami of new educational models that will hit higher education. The president of Harvard described how edX “will enable us to advance both those purposes [increase access to education and to strengthen teaching and learning] in ways we could not previously have imagined.”

In a joint discussion of EdX by Harvard and MIT officials, the edX president stated:

“Together, MIT and Harvard are tackling the educational issue of our time: exploring how technology can really improve learning, and at the same time expand access to education around the world. [snip]

The courses we offer on edX are going to be Harvard hard, MIT hard,” he said. “They’re going to mean something.”

Prior to 6 months ago, the biggest and easiest argument against the power of online education was that it would never provide the quality of face-to-face education. This line or argument, self-reinforced by traditional institutions, kept many collegiate presidents and boards from considering whether major changes were necessary or feasible in higher education. Now that the elite of the elite – Stanford, MIT and Harvard – are publicly extolling the value and quality potential of online education, and are willing to invest tens of millions of dollars, this argument has been de-legitimized. The easy fallback position is gone, and now presidents and boards are forced to encourage or lead “a much faster pace of change”.

Are MOOCs the answer to change in higher education? No, there is no single answer and online education is not appropriate for all situations. But MOOCs have changed the assumptions and discussions at the executive and board level, and complacency or even gradual change is no longer acceptable. That is the real transformative power of the current generation of open education.

, , , , , , , , , ,