The New York Times reported this week that the “Battle of the Titans” in online learning is heating up as Harvard and MIT created a new partnership called edX, offering free online courses from both universities. MIT had already announced its online learning project and offered its first course, Circuits and Electronics, to 120,000 students. Not to be outdone, Stanford, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan also announced a new partnership to offer open online courses.
As all of this unfolds, one cannot help but compare these very early developments in online course development to the athletic universe in higher education where the B.C.S. controls post-season play and reserves revenue distribution to the chosen few. A professor who teaches online courses in Canada may have summed up what has concerned me as the titans extend their influence across the globe. His quote: “But if I were president of a mid-tier university, I would be looking over my shoulder very nervously right now, because if a leading university offers a free circuits course, it becomes a real question whether other universities need to develop a circuits course.”
Exactly! It makes little sense to me for the mid-tiers such as Boise State to attempt to replicate the work of the titans. Nor does it make sense to sit idly by as more and more free courses offer our students alternatives to our more expensive offerings. Instead, we should be reviewing our curriculum and its offerings very carefully and identifying ways our students can access these free online courses, with the appropriate oversight and mentoring by our faculty, thereby reducing the time and effort that is required to offer the same courses in the traditional, labor-intensive and more expensive fashion on our campus. At a time when governing boards are questioning tuition increases and state legislatures are cutting back on appropriations to higher education, here’s a way for universities and colleges to benefit from the open source coursework movement and save significant resources for other priorities in keeping with our missions and roles.