By Jim Shimabukuro
In response to the explosive trend in higher ed toward open online courses (OOCs), Berkeley’s executive committee for online education published* the university’s plan for change. As a strategy, it’s an echo of similar guidelines across the country and the world. However, what distinguishes it from all the rest is intelligence. It’s obvious that the committee has done its homework and understands the deeper implications of online education.
The plan has two standout elements. The first is a flexible approach to defining “online” education:
- certificate and graduate degree programs that are in high demand
- undergraduate gateway and hybrid courses that increase available capacity and enrich learning for our on-campus students
- “public good” courses that we will typically offer for free to a wide audience as a community service and as a proven approach to exposing potential students to outstanding Berkeley faculty
- development and sale of online educational content that can be deployed by other institutions or organizations
Of these, the fourth is the breakaway, and it implies a deeper understanding of how the current flood of open online courses and platforms might play out. That is, in the coming weeks and months, the key to OOCs may be the way client institutions integrate the courses into their programs. In the end, the value of courses may be in their unbundled state rather than in their current bundled, all-in-one platforms. For example, as unbundled content, OOCs could serve course designers from institutions around the world who would pick and choose parts from different courses — from the same or different colleges — to construct unique course mashups for their students.
This mashing process is familiar to educators who have been doing it with textbooks and multimedia for years. The big difference is that they now have anytime-anywhere access to content provided by some of the top teachers in the world. Furthermore, that content is open (not the same as free) or mashable as well as recorded and available in various digital media. This content could be sold in creative packages to institutions everywhere. This OOC-based business model may be the virtual extension of publishing in the 21st century.
The second element is a vision of integration that implies, once more, a clear awareness of the process of change. Unlike the vast majority of colleges, Berkeley understands that the current practice of “bolting” online programs to traditional onground platforms is a transitional phase. The ultimate shape of viable programs is a work in progress, and no one knows for sure exactly what it will be. The one certainty, however, is that “online methods will ultimately transform our traditional teaching program and we need to begin to systematically align our administrative and support functions to meet the changing needs of online and traditional programs.”
“Systematically align” is a euphemism for change, and when applied to staff and leaders, it means to educate or to keep on top of current trends and developments from as broad and as deep a perspective as possible. In short, this isn’t a time for panic and bandwagon decisions, and this is definitely not a time to sit still, pout, or cling to tradition. At Berkeley, the leaders realize that the future is their responsibility and that it can’t be passed off to others, outside experts or entrepreneurs, or borrowed from other institutions. And a critical part of that responsibility is to think — inside and outside the box.
Pre-online models for education are no longer adequate, yet that is all we have for now. The challenge is to draw a clear distinction between the old masquerading as the new and the genuinely new, between the new as a “bolt on” to the old and the new as an entirely different model that fulfills the promise of online technology. Leadership is critical in times of tumultuous change, and at Berkeley, the leaders have stepped up.
* “Principles of UC Berkeley’s Online Education Strategy,” UC Berkeley NewsCenter, 24 July 2012. (Note: This link may be temporarily broken.)
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