The Future is Now.

News goes viral within minutes after a story’s gone public. For instance, some blame the David Brooks column and a handful of WSJ articles for firing abruptly University of Virginia’s (ex-)president, Teresa Sullivan, last June. But the university’s rectors said it was Sullivan’s slow reaction to online education that caused her the job. According to a recent post by Aaron Bady, a UC Berkeley PhD student, The MOOC Moment and the End of Reform, this case can be reconstructed by looking at how the resignation was engineered by the university’s rector and vice rector from emails that are “FOIA-ed via the student’s paper at UVA.” From reading these emails, Aaron Bady in his blog said that one would feel a sense of speed generated by the overwhelming citations and repetitions of articles sent and forwarded to one another. Articles by WSJ and NYT, and recently the New Yorker, are brought to the subject line of faculty listservs to push forward an agenda of change. In a meeting of UVA deans and vice presidents, UVA’s rector said:

“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.”

In a world “moving too fast” in terms of technological development and the society’s reaction to new innovations, universities and higher education institutions are “called” to react faster to change, as if change is always necessary. Questions, concerns, complaints, frustrations, anger, and even hatred are being thrown around the departments in universities where the legislation is pushing for reform. The fear for changing education models to the emerging MOOC-like structure is constant regardless of the disciplines.

Just about two weeks before finals week here at St. Cloud State, the university’s online education and distant learning taskforce requested to conduct a roundtable discussion with a student organization I was chairing at that time with hopes to gather students’ comments and concerns with the existing online learning structure (at SCSU). Among some questions that have been regularly brought up is the worry that online education may not deliver the kind of rigor a traditional brick-and-mortar classroom could offer. Students and faculty alike are somehow both for and against MOOC-like delivery method — they like the idea of open-access education, but are concerned about the quality of the learning experience.

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Haven’t heard it? Let’s say it once more.

But according to the Berkeley PhD candidate this struggle is not new. The MOOC model has been around since 2008, when Stephen Downes and Georgia Siemens delivered their first massive open course from University of Manitoba to thousands of students worldwide. By the Internet’s terms, four years is a long time. Perhaps Bady was right, the MOOC moment was already too late. Despite the hype on MOOCs today, online education is already changing the way higher education does its business. Knock, knock, has anyone forgetten about the pioneer of online degrees, the University of Phoenix?

On May 3rd of last year, David Brooks began his column “The Campus Tsunami” with this:

“Online education is not new. The University of Phoenix started its online degree program in 1989. Four million college students took at least one online class during the fall of 2007. But, over the past few months, something has changed. The elite, pace-setting universities have embraced the Internet. Not long ago, online courses were interesting experiments. Now online activity is at the core of how these schools envision their futures.”

And Bady wrote:

“There’s almost nothing new about the kind of online education that the word MOOC now describes. It’s been given a great deal of hype and publicity, but that aura of ‘innovation’ poorly describes a technology—or set of technological practices, to be more precise—that is not that distinct from the longer story of online education, and which is designed to reinforce and re-establish the status quo, to make tenable a structure that is falling apart.”

What we are worrying now seems to be yesterday’s problem. While we are worrying about the future, the future is now! As academics and education leaders, we need to come together to figure out ways to cope with the change rather than arguing over the necessity of the change. The solutions may become clear as soon as we see MOOCs as opportunities instead of problems. Like it or not, huge fundings have gone into developing and improving MOOCs and students from all over the world are quickly becoming citizens of the MOOC mansion. This, however, doesn’t mean that we are giving in to new technology. No, we are not forced to change. We adapt to what our students need because this is simply the mission of higher education.

No matter how universities and colleges look like in 10-20 years, if they are still around, the purpose of higher learning should remain interested in putting students first. How things look like in the near future can be very different. But as long as we keep our eyes on the wheel, we will arrive at the same destination as intended.

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