In the past few years, higher education has moved online with breathtaking speed. Harvard and MIT’s EdX have led the way, but Stanford’s Coursera is quickly emerging as a rival. It announced today that it has added 12 more universities to its list of participating institutions, among them Johns Hopkins, Duke, UC-San Francisco and the École Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne.The University of Virginia, however, is perhaps the most interesting of the group. Last month’s leadership controversy at UVA made national headlines when the university’s Board of Visitors forced President Theresa Sullivan’s ouster under less-than-clear circumstances. As the rationale for the move slowly coalesced, it became clear that the dustup was over certain board members’ beliefs that UVA was falling behind competitors, especially in the fast-growing online learning movement. As it turns out, Sullivan had been making plans to boost the school’s online presence all along, according to reporting by the Washington Post:
U-Va. Rector Helen Dragas, who leads the governing Board of Visitors, thought university leaders had ignored the Internet at their peril, like the music industry and media companies before them. In the months preceding her attempt to oust Sullivan, Dragas had read various articles about a coming online “tsunami” that would upend higher education, e-mailing one to a board colleague under the heading “why we can’t afford to wait.”As it turns out, university leaders weren’t waiting.Officials from U-Va.’s Darden School of Business first contacted Coursera in April, after learning that the Silicon Valley start-up had attracted venture capital and was expanding from Stanford to other top-tier universities, according to Milton Adams, the university’s vice provost for academic programs. A Darden delegation visited Coursera in early June, a few days before Sullivan resigned.
As most observers note, there are still a number of kinks to be worked out. Most glaringly, neither Coursera nor EdX has found a way to monetize the system. Classes are currently offered free of charge, and students receive certificates, but not course credit. Some doubt that such programs will ever be revenue-positive for the universities that host them.Of course, universities aren’t the only organizations that have trouble “monetizing” their presence on the web. Newspapers and magazines continue to reel from the consequences of the shift to online. University structures are going to change and the cumbersome administrative bureaucracies are going to be hollowed out.Many administrators probably think that getting online is a way to avoid the necessity for a major reconfiguration of American higher ed. When they talk about “monetizing” their presence online, they are talking about raking in enough money for cheap online courses that they can subsidize the creaking status quo.No dice. Online ed will accelerate rather than retard the transformation of American higher ed. Education needs to be cheaper and higher quality than most of it now is; there is no way universities can meet that demand without fundamental change.