Only 10 Universities in the world! You are kidding me…or not?

“In 50 years there will be only 10 institutions in the whole world that deliver higher education”. With this assertion to Wired last year, Stanford University professor and Udacity creator, Sebastian Thrun stirred up controversy in University circles.

Perhaps a year ago, Thrun statement sound a bit exaggerated. Perhaps he was swept up by the excitement produced by the birth of massive open on line courses (MOOCs) and their platforms, Coursera, Udacity, edX, and other MOOCs providers. Only in a year high-quality professors offered hundred of high-level courses. Now, these professors from top-ranking Universities are available on line to students from all around the world.

Nowadays, at the end of May 2013, Thrun’s declaration may not be so excessive. Of course, we still don’t know how much these massive on-line courses will change the education landscape, and “there are plenty of skeptics” as The Chronicle of Higher Education in its special page about MOOCs states. But, something is already happening in USA’s University system that raises questions about the future of teaching, the value of a degree, and the effect of technology on how colleges organize. And other Universities in the world are carefully observing the situation and waiting for answers.

Last 29th of April, a group of Professors in the Philosophy Department at San Jose State University wrote an open letter to Michael Sandel, a Harvard professor whose MOOC “Justice” is one of the courses offered by HarvardX. The problem is that San Jose State University announced a contract with edX to integrate this Harvard on line module as part of their curriculum. This means that San Jose professors should use edX materials as base of their own courses and they accused their administrators to “replace faculty with cheap online education”. Peter J. Hadreas, chair of the Philosophy Department in San Jose State thinks that appealing to Mr. Sandel directly is the best way to “spark a public conversation about the possible unintended consequences of superstar professors’ working with edX and other MOOC providers”. The consequence was that a group of Harvard Professors from the powerful Faculty of Arts and Sciences have written a letter to the FAS Dean, Michael D. Smith, requesting “a formal, sustained, and structured faculty discussion on these issues” where they can express their concerns about this situation which “range from faculty oversight of HarvardX to the impact online courses will have on the higher education system as a whole”.

So, perhaps Thurn’s prediction will become real when small and worse financed Universities and colleges, not being able to compete with free courses from some of the world’s most exclusive universities, decide to join them as subsidiaries. The consequences of this change in the way higher education institutions organize themselves are not yet clear but, surely, they will reshape the University sector. It is not a mere question about quality or Professor academic freedom. Not even the core topic is who has the responsibility to design modules and curriculums. It is about the future of higher education industry and how all this quality educational resources, easily attained in a cheap way by thousands of students, will change the business.

For many academics around the world perhaps this controversy is not relevant. But for a regional University in the public Spanish higher education system, it could be more relevant. You know, when you see your neighbour’s beard burning, put yours to soak. Thus, in the current situation of budgetary restrictions in Spain, the pressure from the European Union to cut deficit, and the Government plans to reorganize public services, it may be a good time to reflect about our own sector. It maybe consider not only as public service but also as an industry integrated in a global framework where decisive decisions are taken far away.

References:

“What You Need to Know About MOOCs”, The Chronicle of Higher Education, http://chronicle.com/article/What-You-Need-to-Know-About/133475/

“Faculty Backlash Grows Against Online Partnerships”, The Chronicle of Higher Education, http://chronicle.com/article/Faculty-Backlash-Grows-Against/139049/

“Why Professors at San Jose State Won’t Use a Harvard Professor’s MOOC”, The Chronicle of Higher Education, http://chronicle.com/article/Professors-at-San-Jose-State/138941/

“Harvard Professors Call for Greater Oversight of MOOCs”, The Chronicle of Higher Education, http://chronicle.com/blogs/wiredcampus/harvard-professors-call-for-greater-oversight-of-moocs/43953

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