Disruptive innovations mean higher education leaders must rethink what they do best.

Ethan Benatan, Contributor

June 28, 2013

4 Min Read

Inside Eight Game-changing MOOCs

Inside Eight Game-changing MOOCs

Inside Eight Game-changing MOOCs(click image for larger view and for slideshow)

I don't have a business background -- nonprofit higher education has been my whole career -- but if there ever was a time when we could avoid thinking about the business side of our work, it is long gone.

By "business side," I don't mean making a profit. I mean running an organization that knows what it does (and does not do) and that relentlessly pursues efficiency, excellence, and success -- not only in academics but across the institution.

It takes a lot of organizational discipline to be great, whether you are operating for profit or not. Jim Collins has championed this thinking for years, and he puts it better than I ever could in his short monograph on the topic.

[ Kaplan uses gamification to gain a competitive edge. Read Kaplan Expands Gamification Of Online Courses.]

In this spirit, I want to apply a key business concept to what we do in higher ed, particularly higher ed IT. Reading Keith Fowlke's column here a few weeks ago, I reflected that the discussion about how to serve students begged the very serious question: What is it we actually do in higher ed to earn our living? What do we produce that is worth paying for? In classic business terms, what is our "value chain?"

This question may sound simple, but I don't think the answer is. For one thing, there are a lot of different answers -- we are a diverse bunch of institutions and we serve an extremely diverse group of learners. The simplest -- and most misleading -- answer is that we fill students' heads with knowledge. While it is true that students do (and should!) come out knowing more than they did going in, I don't believe that this is an important part of our value chain. If we could pour knowledge into someone, why would anybody pay for college? Most of the information you can get in college is available for free -- and was already there long before MOOCs hit the headlines.

I don't think we can "teach" anything worthwhile. What we can do is create an environment in which learning thrives. If we confuse these things, we risk missing something very important about our value chain. One of the most astonishing statistics about MOOCs comes from a study of Coursera MOOCs (or xMOOCs), noting that about 70% of MOOC students in the study had already completed a degree. What is going on here? I can only guess, but it looks like the college degree led to enrollment in the MOOC, rather than the other way around.

So these questions -- what it takes to create a great environment for learning, if and how that is being changed by technology, and how we might respond -- are at the center of the MOOC debate and the much-hyped (and very possibly real) disruption of higher ed.

I think I see an important component of our value chain at work here: We help people develop the capacity and drive for lifelong learning. That's a mouthful, and while you may see something like it on the websites of selective liberal arts schools, it isn't featured nearly enough in our public debate. Nonetheless, it is central to what it means to be "educated," and the vast majority of schools work hard to achieve it. We need more of this thinking in our public discussions about the disruption of education. Too often this core value shows up only in the guise of a backlash defense of historical models, a form in which it is too easily dismissed.

So here is a challenge for technology. We can scale -- we're great at that. We can make things cheap and easy and consistent. Most important, we are connectors -- we connect people with each other and with information. How do these gifts add value to education? How is that different, depending on the type of institution?

At Marylhurst we focus on educating adults, with small classes and lots of discussion. It's not about content transfer; it's about the act of learning. But half our classes are online; many of our students study part-time and have full-time jobs and families; and many live time zones away or serve our country overseas. Connecting with each other is much harder for them than it is for a 19-year-old full-time student living on campus. For us, one way IT supports our value chain is by bridging barriers of time and space to allow full participation for students (and faculty) who may never meet face-to-face.

This has been a shallow dip into a deep pond -- I hope we'll be able to explore it together in the comments, and I am hoping to touch on it at the upcoming EDUCAUSE Sprint, where I'll be presenting with fellow higher ed CIOs Tracy Futhey and Tracy Schroeder.

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