Is Curiosity Enough?

From an opinion piece in the Chronicle, Doug Guthrie, Dean of the Gearge Washington University business school writes,

In our haste to join the academic alphas, many of us are forgoing the reflection necessary to enter this new medium. Our resolve to act swiftly belies the serious nature of this next phase of higher education’s evolution. There are critical pedagogical issues at stake in the online market, and MOOC’s have not done nearly enough to deal with those concerns.

I’ll start by saying that I agree. But this wouldn’t be a post without something more. While I know that Coursera (and the others) aren’t living up to the standards set forth in our on campus online learning programs, they are breaking new ground that will transform the way we deliver, consume, accredit, design, and accept learning. My colleague, friend, and fellow co-director in the Penn State Center for Online Innovation in Learning, Kyle Peck told me, there is something important about embracing our natural sense of curiosity. He heard that while visiting Duke and listening to one of their executives talk about one of the reasons for participating in the MOOC run — that Duke itself embraces and promotes a culture of innovation and curiosity. I love that … and here is a real reason why — I know we do very innovative things here at Penn State, but I am not sure if we take risks based on natural curiosity that can push us beyond where we’ve been. Where have we been? We’ve built some of the best publishing tools in higher education, we’ve constructed some of the most interesting physical spaces in higher education, and we do it at a scale that is hard to ignore.

But with that said we don’t think about spaces that let us reach 100,000 …

Why should we be impressed that an online course can reach 100,000 students at once? By celebrating massification, advocates of Coursera elevate volume as the chief objective of online learning. Is that truly our goal in academe?

Why am I impressed? As an educational technologist I am impressed because Coursera and the others give me a chance to learn — not by taking one of their courses, but by having a sense of how they deliver to that many. Our course management system is getting pounded this week as students flock to it to take finals. As I write this, there are close to 85,000 students here at Penn State with at least one course in that system. It operates at scale, but could I add a single section of 50,000? No way. I am extremely curious about how that gets done.

I am also curious about how we can take what we know about designing learning for our online audiences and scale that. Without Coursera I couldn’t get a group of 20 highly placed people to gather around a table and engage in conversations that we all laughed about no more than six months ago. These environments can be real opportunities to engage ourselves in new conversations — to engage our creative spirits to really make a difference. If we can challenge the traditional delivery space of our institutions instead of propping it up we can fundamentally change the ways higher education is delivered, assessed, and viewed. My thought is if we aren’t joining these conversations we are in for a very bumpy future.

No doubt MOOC’s will lead to innovations in the online delivery of education, just as the Internet brought about innovations in delivering news content. Yet already institutions have started down the path of the print industry by not broadly envisioning how best to deliver and customize the material and leverage the power of real-time data.

And that is what is so damn exciting about where we are with this. We are being called on to lead a conversation on our campuses like never before! I’ve watched industries be disrupted by the Internet and technology — music, movies, news — and they all laughed at the movements even as they were being steamrolled. Is this our Napster moment? Perhaps. If it is I am going to act on my curiosity to figure out where the future is headed and build on the momentum Coursera and the others are providing.