Once considered a threat to traditional higher educational institutions, online course offerings now seem to be a defining element in creating and maintaining a world-class reputation in the space. Speaking at the BRITE ’13 Conference, Sree Sreenivasan, Columbia University’s first chief digital officer, discussed how the growing demand for massive open online courses (MOOCs) is disrupting conventional thought around the school’s many programs.
There are several platforms in place already, including Harvard and MIT’s co-created platform edX, and for-profit providers Coursera and Udacity, with the landscape changing daily as colleges and universities around the globe explore digital learning models and test them in larger markets. This past April, Stanford University, a long-time advocate for open learning, struck an agreement to share its proprietary Class2Go platform with edX, GigaOm reported.
Despite the growing number of courses offered online and the increasing appetite for them, the sentiment around online degrees seems to be a different story. As discussed in a US News & World Report piece in late 2012, it is still unclear how far down the road major blue-chip organizations are from universally embracing job candidates with online degrees, although smaller organizations have begun to look more seriously at them. Similarly, many schools themselves have reservations – Columbia being one of them. Administration is reluctant to provide online MBA courses for full credit, stating that a large part of the experience happens on campus and in the traditional classroom setting. Given how quickly online ed has taken hold in the past year alone, Sreenivasan predicted more and more accredited institutions will likely begin to offer full-fledged programs. He explained that the advancement of and increasing accessibility to technology would be a key driver in this space. Columbia, he pointed out, has been involved with online ed since the turn of the century, citing its Fathom project, a learning portal which ran from 2000-2003. He said that its failure to catch on was due to the fact that it was “ahead of its time” and needed people to catch up to, and be able to access, the innovation before it could succeed.
Whatever the challenges, Sreenivasan was adamant that any successful initiative would be rooted in Columbia’s commitment to its brand, claiming that ongoing exploration and testing of online courses would not detract from “the magic that happens in the classroom.” Instead, he expects to optimize how both the digital and physical classrooms operate. How? The same way other big businesses improve their product and services: data. Through the ability to offer classes to tens of thousands of students, educators are able to collect enormous amounts of information on how students interact with courses and online tools. From Sreenivasan’s perspective, it is only a matter of time before digital learning becomes mainstream.
Watch Sree Sreenivasan’s BRITE ’13 talk to learn more about his and other organization’s views on the future of online education.
BY NANDITA RAY