Winter 2016 Bulletin

The Evolving Role of Technology in Higher Education

On September 17, 2015, at the Silver Center of Arts and Science at New York University, Matthew S. Santirocco (Professor of Classics, Angelo J. Ranieri Director of Ancient Studies, and Senior Vice Provost for Academic Affairs at New York University) moderated a panel discussion featuring Kevin Guthrie (President and Co-Founder of ITHAKA), Daphne Koller (President and Co-Founder of Coursera, Inc., and formerly the Rajeev Motwani Professor of Computer Science at Stanford University), and Nicholas Lemann (Henry R. Luce Professor of Journalism and Dean Emeritus of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism). The program, which served as the Academy’s 2022nd Stated Meeting, included a welcome from John Sexton (then President of New York University) and Jonathan F. Fanton (President of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences). The following is an edited transcript of the discussion.


Matthew S. Santirocco

Matthew S. Santirocco

Matthew S. Santirocco is Professor of Classics, Angelo J. Ranieri Director of Ancient Studies, and Senior Vice Provost for Academic Affairs at New York University. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 2009.

Several years ago, when I first became engaged in thinking deeply about technology-enhanced education, I was often asked by faculty colleagues – a number of whom I see in this room today – a question I had asked myself when I assumed this provostial assignment: Why all the sudden interest in technology?

Of course, at one level, there is nothing “sudden” about the use of technology as an adjunct to learning. New York University (NYU), for example, can claim to have been, at one time, a pioneer in this space: from 1957 to 1982, it partnered with CBS to produce the Emmy Award – winning “Sunrise Semester,” a series of televised lecture courses. Viewed for free or taken for credit for a modest fee, these courses were a pre-digital forerunner of today’s MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).

More recently, NYU has offered a variety of online and blended programs, mostly, though not exclusively, at the graduate, professional, and executive education levels. These include: a Masters in Taxation at the Law School; a Masters in Engineering, which annually places in the top ten of online programs in this field nationally; and the creative use of simulations and adaptive learning techniques to rethink the delivery of education in the health professions – to name just a few examples.

Still, despite this historical and current level of engagement, my faculty colleagues were right: there is indeed something new – urgent, even – about our present preoccupation with technology. For better or for worse, the current conversation about technology has been implicated within a broader political discourse on higher education that focuses on the burgeoning costs of attending college, high student debt levels, and faltering job prospects; this is all in an economy in which technology is a negative disruptor for many industries. Will higher education be next? Or will technology save us, increasing access, enhancing efficiencies, and reducing costs?

Even more important – putting these odious financial concerns aside – there is now increasing recognition that technology has a potential impact on all aspects of what we do – not just our scholarly research but also our teaching and mentoring, and not just graduate and professional training but also undergraduate education in the liberal arts. In particular, we are coming to understand that technology is not just an adjunct to learning along this continuum, but that it can actually transform how learning takes place, blurring the distinction between didactic instruction and learning through research, and between the dissemination of knowledge and its production. This could potentially alter the roles of faculty and students in ways that might be unsettling or, conversely, deeply empowering for both.

I want to take this opportunity to recognize the important role that institutional leaders can play in catalyzing constructive conversation and productive action in this space. NYU’s president and provost, for example, charged a blue-ribbon faculty committee to explore the future of technology-enhanced education; by doing this, they signaled not only the importance of the topic, but also that strategic thinking in this area should be guided by our faculty. The committee focused on how technology might help achieve a variety of school and university goals, from improving teaching and learning, our paramount goal, to expanding access, mitigating risk, and even enhancing revenue. It also focused on one other goal specific to our institution: how technology might promote the circulation of students, faculty, and ideas throughout a far-flung but interconnected global network that consists of three portal campuses – in New York, Abu Dhabi, and Shanghai – as well as eleven other academic centers around the world. In short, the relationship between in-person and online education, between “bricks and clicks,” had a particular relevance to our community.

The committee’s report, which the university leadership accepted, embraced experimentation along the entire educational continuum, from in-person classes, to flipped and blended courses, to wholly online offerings. Further, taking into account our institution’s organizational complexity, the report advised that one size does not, in fact, fit all; that schools and programs be empowered to experiment; that these experiments be rigorously assessed; and, finally, that the results of this research be disseminated widely. Since the report was issued just a year ago, interest in this area has grown exponentially in all of our schools and on all of our campuses. Significant investment has followed.

From our local experience, one thing is certain: technology is here to stay. Equally certain, however, is that technology is evolving and that we cannot say exactly where it will lead, both within the traditional university setting and in other, nontraditional academic settings. While it remains to be seen whether the use of technology can produce efficiencies (and to what extent), we are starting to see other benefits. Technology has, for example, focused our attention on teaching and learning in all settings, including face-to-face, with greater intensity. It is raising important questions of assessment and research. It has contributed to a robust discussion of the larger goals of higher education, at a time when the value of a degree is being questioned or – even worse – crudely assessed in terms of an economic return on investment. And so the evolving role of technology is the topic of our discussion today.


Nicholas Lemann

Nicholas Lemann

Nicholas Lemann is Henry R. Luce Professor of Journalism and Dean Emeritus at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 2010.

Though I lead a kind of double life as both a journalist and an academic, I hope that I might be able to set the stage by speaking primarily from my role as a journalist. I would first like to suggest an answer to Matthew’s question of why technology is such an enormously popular topic right now. Kathryn Schulz, a colleague of mine, wrote a wonderful book exploring epistemology entitled Being Wrong (2010), in which she argues that human beings are unfortunately addicted to inductive reasoning. This addiction is part of the problem here, particularly for my journalistic colleagues.

To clarify: let us consider today Sebastian Thrun’s Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) in computer science, which he offered at Stanford during the 2011 – 2012 academic year. The course had around 160,000 students sign up from around the world. Many of my colleagues in the press leapt on the event; let me take care here to differentiate between the education press, which tends to do a better job of being more tempered, and the elite opinion press, which typically flits from subject to subject in an overexcited fashion. Around the same time, we were seeing the incredible, sudden rise of a series of big Internet-based companies, including Amazon, Google, and Facebook. Very quickly, these companies built massive audiences and extremely dominant and unshakeable market positions.

As a group, we journalists all wondered, which field will be next to be disrupted? Universities seemed to be a distinct possibility. There is already much hyperbolic rhetoric around the Internet as it is. Further, an overwhelming number of stakeholders in business have an inherent interest in promoting such inflated rhetoric. In part because of these factors, a hasty narrative emerged, alongside a premature conclusion about the role of MOOCs.

These issues, as Matthew pointed out, form only a tiny subset of what we are here to talk about: the intersection of technology and education. Technology was always slated to be the “big disrupter” in higher education. You may have heard this catechism before: Higher education is the only institution in our society that hasn’t changed at all since medieval times. There is incredible inefficiency and emphasis on replication in processes. Economist William Baumol’s service paradox is at work here. Consider how tuition costs are rising, and how academics and graduates cannot get the jobs they were trained for. Compound this with nearly $1.2 trillion of student debt, and technological upheaval seems like a natural solution.

If I can extend this speculation in its most perfervid form: in the future, there will be a radically smaller number of higher education institutions that will be truly global, and the rest will disappear. This change will happen in tsunami-like fashion. I am sure that everybody in this audience has had some conversation at a party or at Thanksgiving dinner during which someone who is not a university employee flings this speculation at you, forcing you to respond, perhaps not patiently. I think the fever has died down recently, but at the time, the speculation ignored a number of important factors.

First, when the panic began, there was already a pre-existing world of online education. There was a disconnect between the speculation over effects of the “new” MOOCs and the real world of online education. Institutions like University of Phoenix and University of Maryland, Baltimore County, along with other big purveyors, had already introduced much of the promise and opportunity that came to be associated with MOOCs. These online universities hosted small-format classes, led by people who were not academic superstars, teaching skills to people who were a long way away from most institutions of higher learning. For example, many military service members who were abroad in Iraq and Afghanistan were taking online courses through these universities. And you may even know some of these tireless instructors, who go home at night after work to grade the papers of their online students.

But MOOCs were supposed to be distinct and revolutionary; a superstar thinker like Michael Sandel could give his popular Harvard course “Justice” to a person living in a village in Kashmir with an Internet connection. This is a wonderful opportunity.

The model involved the top academics in a field producing curriculum material that was mass-distributed. Meanwhile, the direct contact with students was completed by lesser mortals – unknown academics and teachers – who would meet with their students personally in smaller groups. But this describes the old world of textbooks, lectures, and discussion sections, as well as the new world of MOOCs. So, the suggestion that everybody suddenly for the first time in history had direct access to the thoughts of the topmost people in the academy simply isn’t true.

Ultimately, this conversation leads to a series of related economic and political questions in higher education: Do you like the status quo and want to preserve it? Do you see change as threatening? Do you believe in research universities, or do you believe research universities, including tenure, academic freedom, and nonskills courses, should not exist, and that this tech revolution can be a sort of pretext for getting rid of them? But I propose this discussion is not very useful for our purposes today. Instead, as a teacher, what I find most interesting – and what I most want to hear about from my colleagues – is how developments in technology might improve teaching and learning. Can technology help elevate the importance of teaching in the university environment? Can a synchronous online class feel like an intimate seminar, without interruptions? Finally, without a crack team of brilliant Stanford coders, and little ability to customize or modify an online hybrid course at the individual, school, or university level, what will it take for an online course to become truly successful?


Kevin Guthrie

Kevin Guthrie

Kevin Guthrie is President and Co-Founder of ITHAKA.

I always feel quite a bit of trepidation on panels such as this one, when I sit alongside distinguished academics. I am not a professor, and in that sense I am an outsider, but I have spent twenty years working at the intersection of technology and higher education. I was fortunate enough to help co-found JSTOR with Bill Bowen. Currently, in my role at ITHAKA, I help realize our mission, which is to address exactly some of the issues that Matthew just raised. For one, how can we help support education and have it be more accessible to more people at lower cost? (This was the original founding mission for JSTOR.) At ITHAKA, we offer three services: JSTOR, the digital library, forms the operating enterprise. We also deliver Ithaka S+R, an area of research and advisory services focused on issues of online learning and the evolution of technology’s impact, both on scholarly communications and on teaching and learning. Finally, Portico is a community-based digital archive.

My remarks today are sourced from studies completed at Ithaka S+R, including a randomized control trial that compared learning outcomes in a hybrid course with face-to-face learning. I am going to highlight some of the outcomes from a more recent study we did in collaboration with Coursera through the University of Maryland system.

First, however, I am going to talk a bit about markets, since many of the forces described by Matthew revolve around costs and cost recovery. I also want to ground my remarks in some definitions, since with new innovations come new terms – like MOOCs or online learning – that have different definitions for different people. In light of this, a crystal-clear definition of context strikes me as quite important. Let us distinguish between several “markets” for online course delivery, defined by the nature of the suppliers and users. To illustrate, a MOOC like Coursera is a direct-to-consumer offering, or a “B to C” offering, because the institution or professor creates an online course on a learning platform that is then delivered directly to students all over the planet. The other market would be made up of services provided by one institution to another – business to business, or B-to-B – to use the commercial vernacular. In this context, that would be a situation where a professor affiliated with an institution creates an online course on an online learning platform that is delivered through another institution to registered students.

Figure 1

I offer these two marketplaces as illustrative context for this discussion because the behaviors and outcomes differ depending on the approach. For example, there has been considerable discussion and criticism of MOOCs because of their low completion rates. But completion rates have an entirely different meaning in an institutional business-to-business context than in a direct-to-consumer offering. Whether students finish courses matters far more for registered students paying tuition at a university than for individual students taking a course online for free over the web. For the purposes of this discussion, I am going to focus on how technology can be used within an institutional learning environment. Figure 1 shows a simple representation of these marketplaces, which are defined by who are the suppliers and who are the consumers, and whether they are individuals or institutions. The first thing to note is that most of the initial attention has been focused on the supply side – the left side of the diagram. Professors love the idea of being the instructor for thousands or hundreds of thousands of students. And institutions, by joining Coursera or edX, have rushed to become the providers of courses used by students all over the world. On the right side of the table – the demand or consumption side – nearly all of the attention has been focused on serving individual unaffiliated students, represented by the lower right quadrant. The area of focus for my remarks is the blue box, where institutions are using technology or tools created elsewhere to teach registered students, either on campus or online.

As ITHAKA’s mission is about helping higher education make a transition with technology, I am focused on the institutional context. How does a particular group of institutions use these new technologies to improve their ability to deliver teaching and learning, and hopefully at higher quality and lower cost? There has been a variety of studies in this field, but we need more data on the learning outcomes associated with online learning and technology tools on campus. We have hosted – with Bill Bowen’s lead – a rigorous, randomized control trial of a statistics course on a number of public university campuses.1 Other studies have shown that there has been no difference between the learning outcomes delivered in a hybrid environment versus those delivered in a face-to-face environment. To be clear, there are studies – including rigorous, academic studies – that have produced different results. In sum, the research has not been not conclusive, but significantly, there are examples in which the use of technology online in the classroom has delivered equivalent or better learning outcomes.

In one study, we enlisted faculty volunteers in the University of Maryland system to teach courses on the Coursera platform. They could teach the entire course or choose to take a segment of the course and teach it on campus. The study was designed to measure both impact on learning outcomes and impacts on cost of using externally developed courseware in hybrid courses. Was it possible for faculty to use on their own campus tools and content that were built and developed elsewhere? What were the outcomes going to be like? The study was rigorous; in some ways it resembled a case study, in others it was more like a controlled trial. Generally, the learning outcomes were very similar between the two groups. Moreover, hybrid formats used less class time, because students were finishing much of the work online in between classes, which were, in turn, reserved for more focused interactive discussions. The implication, then, was that these classes would cost less to teach.

Generally speaking, the University of Maryland faculty who participated in the study were very enthusiastic about their experience teaching courses in this way. They enjoyed getting exposure to different perspectives from faculty teaching Coursera courses; the exposure allowed them to augment their experience, and gain flexibility in the use of face-to-face time with students. Some of the faculty were eager to help students replace the costs of textbooks. Challenges were evident, as well. The Coursera course method wasn’t always a good fit for how faculty wanted to teach students, or it didn’t match the level of knowledge their students had. There were also technical problems, given that the technology was often difficult to incorporate into on-campus learning management systems (LMSs).

In sum, this study showed that there is reason to be optimistic that it is possible to improve learning outcomes while simultaneously addressing some of the cost issues at hand. Even if that is the case, however, when put together with other research Ithaka S+R has conducted, it is evident there are a number of important challenges in the institutional context that must be overcome if institutions are to take full advantage of new learning technologies to improve learning outcomes and/or lower costs. The challenges break down into those that can be addressed at individual institutions, and others that are likely to require cross-institutional coordination, or at least cooperation.

Figure 2

The first institutional challenge is, I would argue, an overblown notion, just one part of the broader discourse: the notion that faculty do not want change and are resistant to it for its own sake (see Figure 2). Although of course there are some faculty who want to keep doing things the way that is familiar to them, in our work we have found faculty are enthusiastic and want to use technology to teach their students better. The single greatest area of resistance among faculty is largely linked to a justifiable desire to provide a customized learning experience for their students. They need to be able to tailor platforms, content, and teaching tools to work for their students and they want to own the course experience for them. Right now, many of the platforms don’t provide this.

Another challenge that we found, through our studies and interviews of faculty, is how starkly different the view of higher education can be from different perspectives. Consider the views of research universities and elite colleges on the “business of the institution,” versus the views of parents or legislators. The former may believe the institution’s main role is knowledge creation; the latter will claim that the primary role of the institution is teaching the next generation of students. This gap between how the institution sees itself from the inside and how important constituents regard the institutions from the outside makes finding common approaches difficult.

Governance presents another set of challenges. The rapid changes brought by new technologies complicate decision-making processes. For instance, technology favors scale, which shapes decisions about teaching context, decisions that used to be fundamentally or exclusively owned by faculty. Once an online teaching platform is introduced, those decisions move up from the faculty member to the department level, and then up to the college, university, and maybe even cross-university levels. Where these decisions were once easily handled individually by a faculty member in a face-to-face environment, in the context of new technology, they get stretched horizontally across traditional areas. This makes decision-making and coordination around these areas much more difficult. In a time of fast-moving change and evolution in higher education, the decision-making apparatus needs to be paced appropriately.

Through my observations and conversations with people about shared governance, tensions between faculty and administration seem to revolve mostly around a fundamental disagreement about the nature of the problems facing the institution, more than it is an argument about the best ways to address them. Is there in fact agreement that we need to develop less expensive ways to deliver high-quality education? Rarely will you hear a faculty member say, “I’m trying to figure out how to implement my course so that I can both improve learning outcomes for our students and reduce the costs associated with delivery.” My point here is not to criticize this position; it is simply to observe that it is the case. Faculty are not expected to think about ways to do their jobs “more efficiently.” In fact, they are purposely protected from having to consider such matters. If we need to identify more cost-effective ways to deliver instruction, we are going to have to engage our faculty to develop those approaches. The answer is not to get rid of faculty; the answer is to help and support the faculty to use technology both to improve and lower the costs of instruction and learning.

When thinking about the potential for reducing costs, one cannot avoid the reality that many aspects of the infrastructure at higher education institutions are either fixed, or profoundly inflexible. Even if opportunities for reduced faculty instructional time can be found, it is quite difficult to realize those savings in static institutional environments. So much is already invested in the infrastructure. The calendar is established. Students accumulate credits. Faculty teach a measured number of credit hours. These realities reduce the ability of the institution to realize the savings, because so many of the costs are either fixed or seem immovable.

Beyond these internal institutional questions, there are cross institutional issues to consider as well. One important area relates to data and privacy. The trail of data that is left by students working in online learning platforms provides an opportunity for continuous improvement; the data can be used to inform and update the systems. Commercial learning platform providers are collecting these data and will use those data, just as Google uses search data, to improve the systems that support instruction. Any enterprise working on the web will be harnessing and collecting data and analyzing it to get better at providing their particular service. An institution that achieves scale in this environment, as MOOCs are attempting to do, has an enormous amount of data with which to improve that system.

One thousand individual higher education institutions, all collecting data on each of their individual sets of students, will not have access to sufficient data to improve systems at rates comparable to an enterprise that has access to geographical data. It could prove to be increasingly difficult for these institutions to provide learning outcomes that are comparable with such systems. It may therefore be necessary for institutions to share anonymized student data or develop other ways to ensure that systems can be improved based on feedback from learners. Protecting student data privacy will be a key issue here. Universities and colleges will be appropriately cautious about the privacy issues around student data. They will move slowly – compared to commercial firms – in their willingness to use data to improve systems. Frankly, institutions whose core mission involves improving learning outcomes are at a disadvantage if they are not moving quickly to use those data.

A final issue/cross-institutional barrier I would like to address is intellectual property. Who owns the online course once it is created? If a course has been created at one institution, can the faculty member who created it leave and take it to another institution? The faculty member has done most, if not all, of the intellectual work and content creation, but he or she may not have been able to build the course without support from the institution and its instructional technologists for the platform. Does the faculty member own it, or does the institution? Does the platform provider who created the platform own it? This is important not just from the standpoint of payment; this is also an issue of control and persistence. If I am a faculty member at an institution and I want to use technology tools or content created elsewhere, I have to make an investment to use these materials in my course. But first, I need to be assured that these materials will be available in subsequent semesters.

I hope you won’t mind if I provide an historical anecdote to illustrate the importance of this kind of sustainability. Back in 1995, in the early days of JSTOR, there were no license agreements to govern the environment about how people could use a book or a journal. There were copyright laws in place, but the delivery of content in physical form was largely untethered. You purchased a book, or a journal, you took delivery of it and you owned it. You took responsibility and assumed the costs for its care, but you also were able to use it in whatever ways you wanted (subject to copyright law). Today, an electronic version of a book or journal is connected to the network. A content provider could turn off access at any moment, and in that instant all readers would no longer have access. Since our access to material suddenly depended largely on the institution’s choices, a whole licensing infrastructure for content had to be built to govern those relationships and ensure reasonable and persistent access and availability of the content.

Nothing like this infrastructure or rule book exists for teaching and learning online. We are in a Wild West environment in which both rules and the ownership of teaching content are unclear. This is yet another reason why it will take time and effort to help these technologies take off within institutions. So it is not just resistance from faculty, or fear of new technologies, that stands in the way of wide acceptance of new forms of instruction. There are a number of important practical institutional and cross-institutional challenges that need to be overcome for these learning technologies to thrive and reach their full potential.


Daphne Koller

Daphne Koller

Daphne Koller is President and Co-Founder of Coursera, Inc., and was formerly the Rajeev Motwani Professor of Computer Science at Stanford University. She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 2014.

I will be focusing on the one part of the picture that my esteemed colleagues did not talk about, which is the direct-to-consumer aspect of online courses. Our vision at Coursera, which we established in early 2012, is a world in which anyone, anywhere, can transform his or her life by accessing the world’s best learning experience. Today, I would like to highlight a number of discrete aspects of this vision statement.

Perhaps one of the most important aspects is the “anyone, anywhere” phrase: this is the access component of what we are trying to accomplish. If we are speaking from institutions like Stanford, or Columbia, or NYU, we serve a very privileged minority of people who have this amazing opportunity to go and study with some of the world’s best scholars. There are a great many people all over the world who will never have access to anything remotely comparable to that kind of opportunity. These are people who are, currently, non-consumers of education, many of whom would benefit tremendously from this potentially transformative experience. At Coursera, we are trying to come up with a way to provide not the exact same opportunity that a Stanford or an NYU student would have, but at least something that nonetheless might have potentially transformative effects.

Coursera launched in 2012 following the (aforementioned) Sebastian Thrun – led MOOC as well as two other Stanford MOOCs, in machine learning and in databases, released at about the same time. This catalyzed the Gartner hype cycle2 around MOOCs; as The New York Times announced: 2012 “was the year of the MOOC.” We were supposedly going to completely disrupt education. Somehow a narrative emerged – that in fifty years there will be ten universities total – that we neither espoused nor supported. Then came 2013, and people realized that a year had passed, and yet universities were still in business! The next unfounded conclusion was that MOOCs must have failed.

Right now we are gradually gaining an understanding what these courses can and cannot do, including their impact outside of the university setting. When Coursera started, we had four university partners, thirty-seven courses, and two hundred thousand learners left over from the Stanford courses held in the fall of 2011. Today, we have 127 partners on six continents, offering courses in ten different languages. Through our selection of nearly 1,300 courses, we are offering an education to over fifteen million learners in every single country around the world. We have registered over two million course completions, with learners watching over 13,500 years of video. Our university partners include top private as well as public institutions, both in the United States and abroad: for example, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Stanford, Michigan, Washington, and Virginia as well as top institutions in many countries, including Switzerland, China, Singapore, Taiwan, Australia, France, Korea, and Germany.

Who are the learners that we serve? For one, only 30 percent of our learners are in the United States and Canada; 9 percent are in Latin America, 27 percent each in Europe and Asia, and 4 percent in Africa. We have learners in every single country around the world, including North Korea: a few months ago we discovered some enterprising North Korean learners who have somehow accessed the platform despite state censorship and limits on Internet use. Another point of pride for us at Coursera is that between 38 and 40 percent of our learners come from emerging economies.

Our learners are about 40 percent male and 60 percent female, though this split varies a lot by country. In the United States, the split is about 40/60, whereas Scandinavian countries are split 50/50. India’s learner demographics skew toward the male. The twenty-five- to thirty-five-year-old age group forms, by far, the biggest node of the distribution. Our learners are not traditional college students. Most of them have finished whatever formal education they are likely to have, and they are likely never to go back to school again. Around 55 percent of our learners are employed full-time, and those who are not represent a tremendous opportunity for service. Seventy-five percent of our learners have at least a bachelor’s degree; 25 percent of our learners do not, and that 25 percent of fifteen million is still a very large number of people.

Next, let’s discuss motivations, because this helps us understand our audience. We completed a learner’s segmentation based largely on U.S. data. However, the same patterns carry through worldwide, with slightly different proportions. There is a group of learners looking to MOOCs as stepping stones toward a traditional educational experience; in taking a MOOC, they feel they will increase their chances of doing well in college. Worldwide, this percentage of learners sits at 28 percent. These are distributed among high school students who are looking to better prepare for college by learning what discipline they want to study, or by increasing their skills. The others are currently in college and are looking to supplement their education with high-quality offerings that might not be available at their current academic institution. This is particularly common in emerging economies like India and China, where the vast majority of students are not in top-notch academic institutions. A large subset of these learners is taking introductory STEM courses.

Despite the hyperbole about whether Coursera will substitute for traditional undergraduate education, we do not see people using Coursera in lieu of undergraduate degree work. We do not see people taking courses, accumulating piles of certificates, and showing up to an employer saying, “I don’t have a degree, but I have these certificates instead.”

The next subset of learners is the enrichment learners, who form 25 percent of our population in the United States. These are adults taking courses alongside their working lives. There is a peak in learners in their mid-thirties, and another peak around ages of fifty to seventy. These learners take courses that are all over the map: art history, astronomy, policy, governance, environmental science. They do it purely for the pleasure of learning.

The final, and by far the largest, group of learners that we have in every single country are the career skill-builders. They form over half (52 percent) of our learners. These are people who are working adults, or who want to be working adults. They are using these courses to upgrade their skills and then, hopefully, rescale themselves within their jobs. The courses that they take are largely focused in three areas: business, technology, and data science. They also take health science and engineering courses. All these investments are career-motivated.

We recently surveyed our learners, and asked them if they were benefiting from the courses, and in what way. Users listed a whole range of different benefits. Tangible benefits include getting a promotion, finding a new job, and starting one’s own business. There are then smaller, less tangible boons, like being better equipped for one’s current job or improving one’s candidacy for new job positions down the line. In terms of educational advantage, people report more abstract gains, including being able to finally decide one’s field of study (a high school student, for example, can learn what it means to study psychology, before deciding if he or she wants to pursue this field in college). A significant fraction of learners say that they can walk into college with MOOC credits that allow them to waive prerequisites, which, I think, is a fine way to reward hard work done before college begins.

Since it is important to put faces to these stories and make them concrete, I am going to give two anecdotes about our learners; these are my favorites out of our repository of hundreds. The first is about Kehinde, who is from Lagos, Nigeria. Kehinde was one of the lucky ones in Lagos because he worked at IBM as an engineer, a good position that is not that easily obtained in Lagos. However, he wasn’t very happy with it because he thought he could do more. He took courses with us on strategy, management, psychology, and entrepreneurship, and then made the very brave step of leaving his cushy job to found a startup. Based on what he learned, he was able to found the startup successfully. His company now employs ten people, full-time. Kehinde still has a problem in terms of hiring, because there are not a lot of qualified engineers in Lagos, given that the quality of the local education is rather mixed. He chooses to use these MOOCs to address his hiring and training needs, which is the only way, he says, he can develop talent on a low budget.

The other striking example I have is of Scotty from Alabama. No one in his family ever went to college. Scotty was a star student in high school and got a full scholarship to go to the University of Texas at Austin, but because no one in his family thought this was a good idea, he ended up declining the offer. He became a taxi driver instead, living paycheck to paycheck, barely making ends meet. One day, he was laid off, and he had no resources as a backup. Within a matter of months, he lost his home, his wife, and eventually custody of his thirteen-year-old daughter because he had no place for her to sleep. He promised himself that if he ever emerged from that period of disaster, he would make sure that it would never happen again.

Eventually, he found a job as a horse groomer. When he got back on his feet, he Googled free college credit. We don’t provide free college credit, but Coursera nonetheless came up in his search. He started taking courses because he wanted to gain confidence in his push to go to college. He took a number of courses, and ended up doing really well. This inspired him to make a successful application to college. He is now an English major at Arizona State University and the first person in his family to attend college. At the age of forty-five, he is back in school, and was recently inducted into the honor society.

I hope these anecdotes give a sense of the people that our technology can reach. How do we best help these learners, particularly the career-oriented ones? These are the 52 percent of people who need focused job skills to help them move forward in life. We created specializations that offer learners a focused skill – whether in data science or business foundations from Wharton, or digital marketing from the University of Illinois – to gain a rung in their careers. These skills are practical, valuable credentials in the workplace. We are hearing that 75 percent of employers say that they will consider the completion of MOOCs in their hiring decisions; when learners post these credentials on LinkedIn, recruiters start calling them. If you look at the National Security Agency (NSA) site listing for the data scientist position, completing the Johns Hopkins data science specialization through our MOOC is one of the entry criteria that they accept for that position. In response to a demand for data scientists, the Singaporean government, one of the world’s most forward-thinking governments from an educational perspective, chose to pay the certificate cost for anyone who completes the data science specialization. The government only pays for completion – not for learners who start the courses then decide to drop out. For the low price of $800, the government can train a full-fledged, functional data scientist, and can recoup that $800 from taxes on that data scientist’s first paycheck. Malaysia has now followed suit.

These flexible micro-credentials that we are making available via these specializations can also be aggregated into larger units. We are running a fascinating experiment at the University of Illinois, which recently created the first “stackable” graduate degree. This means that the degree is disaggregated into specializations: you can complete one specialization or two, but if you complete six, and you satisfy the admissions criteria, you have earned an MBA degree. I particularly love this because part of the issue with degrees is that, in some cases, 90 percent of the degree is worth absolutely nothing in the marketplace, whereas each specialization has distinct value for a career. For instance, if you complete the digital marketing specialization, you can go and run Facebook campaigns. If you want a complete degree instead, you can work toward it, using digital marketing as one step. The specializations fit different needs for different people.

Most university presidents will tell you that the mission of their university is the creation and dissemination of knowledge. Most research universities do an absolutely phenomenal job with the creation of knowledge. But in terms of the dissemination of knowledge, track records are more mixed. Certainly we disseminate knowledge by writing papers, which some people read; that increases the overall body of knowledge worldwide. However, the potential for dissemination of knowledge is so much greater than just teaching the few dozen or hundred people who show up to our on-campus classes. As we consider the compositions of the missions of our great universities, I believe we shouldn’t just focus on the creation of knowledge, but also on maximizing the dissemination of knowledge so that people like Kehinde, Scotty, and many others can benefit from it.

As H. G. Wells once said, “History is a race between education and catastrophe.” The dissemination of truly great education is what humankind needs to win the race.

© 2016 by Matthew S. Santirocco, Nicholas Lemann, Kevin Guthrie, and Daphne Koller, respectively

 

ENDNOTES

 

1. http://www.sr.ithaka.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/sr-ithaka-interactive-learning-online-at-public-universities.pdf.

2. For a brief explanation of the Gartner hype cycle, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hype_cycle.

To view or listen to the presentations, visit https://www.amacad.org/techinhighered.

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