The UVA Controversy: Change as a Moving Target

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

It’s hard to disagree with John Eger’s[1] take on the significance of the UVA president’s resignation and reinstatement. The message is change — or else. But this is precisely the problem — a definition of change that everyone agrees with is nice, but is it useful?

In my mind, change, per se, is not the issue. In fact, every leader in higher ed has embraced change via technology. Teresa Sullivan is no exception. However, in her case, the pace of change at the University of Virginia[2] seems to have been the thorn.

Still, in Sullivan’s case, I’m not sure if speeding up the incremental pace would produce the kind of change that edX and Coursera represent. These MIT/Harvard and Stanford MOOCs (massive open online courses) have apparently set a new standard for change that is a radical departure from the incremental. The incremental model is appealing because it seems to satisfy the majority of professors[3]. Those who want to change while maintaining business as usual can have their cake and eat it, too. They can go blended, which is another way of saying that they can change without really having to change. They can continue to base their instruction in F2F (face-to-face) pedagogy and satisfy the demand for change by adding bits and pieces of the latest rage in technology. Post your syllabus and course schedule online, add a whiteboard to your F2F lectures, replace a percentage of your lectures with online activities, allow students to contact you via email — and, presto, you’ve changed.

But the question remains: Is this enough, and, perhaps more importantly, what exactly is “enough”?

Do we attain “enough” by placing a greater percentage of course work online? Adding more whiteboards? iPads? Clickers? Incorporating mobile devices into the instructional mix? Using more social media such as blogs, Facebook, Twitter? Expanding learning and teaching media to include teacher- and student-generated videos?

Herein lies the problem. No. All of these and more of it — even at a faster pace — doesn’t move us any closer to enough. Classrooms overflowing with the latest gadgets and online activities can come close, but they can never be enough. Change demands something more.

The problem is in our definition of change. It has changed — or, more accurately, it’s still evolving. And the significance of the edX and Coursera phenomenon is that it has pushed the envelope for change into a new dimension. And the key to this dimension is the disruptive standard. This means that, regardless of pace or quantity of change, if it is nondisruptive, it is not enough.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the assembly line technology that produced the Model T in record numbers was disruptive. It lowered prices to the point where middle-class Americans could afford to own automobiles. In education, a disruptive technology is a radical transformation of not only the medium for learning but the population of learners, too. In higher ed, this means a switch from classroom-based to completely online learning and from traditional to nontraditional students. The force behind the disruption is equal or better service that’s cheaper and widely available, and this translates to access for the vast population of students who were previously shut out from the student pool.

What passes for change in most colleges and universities is blended learning, which is nondisruptive by definition. Because of the F2F attendance requirement, the population of students remains constant. It includes only those who can afford to be on campus to attend F2F classes — i.e., traditional students.

Ironically, edX and Coursera aren’t completely disruptive. They’re somewhere in between. They’re disruptive in the sense that they open the door to large numbers of nontraditional students, but they’re nondisruptive because these students don’t receive official academic credits. Thus, although the courses are free and accessible, they aren’t equal to counterparts taught in F2F or blended classes. To earn MIT, Harvard, or Stanford credits that count toward degrees, students must still show up on campus. Despite her comment that edX represents “a transformational new partnership in online education,” MIT President Susan Hockfield nails the innovation to the nondisruptive traditional classroom: “The campus environment offers opportunities and experiences that cannot be replicated online. EdX is designed to improve, not replace, the campus experience.”[4]

These semi-disruptive platforms are, I believe, transitional. In time, they will become truly disruptive. For now, however, their value is in the light they shine on the obstacles to disruption. Arguably, the biggest problem is certification. Despite all the technological advances, certification remains a bottleneck. Higher ed engineers can continue to use the latest technology to add more lanes to their freeway, but if they all eventually merge into a single lane, their efforts are wasted. This, essentially, is what’s happening. Universities are ultimately certifying agencies, and in this one area, they don’t have a technological answer. The certifier is still a flesh-and-blood professor, and the rate at which s/he can evaluate student performance determines class size. This rate of certification seems immutable, like the speed of light, a natural law built into schooling — an insurmountable barrier that forever limits the potential for technological innovation.

But like all barriers, this, too, is destined to be broken. MOOCs, pioneered by George Siemens and Stephen Downes at the University of Manitoba, have shown the way to disruption, and it’s paved in a redefinition of teaching, learning, and content. Their definitions are derived from and based on the upstream realities of the virtual learning environment — not imported from downstream traditional practices.

Downes provides a coherent and landmark definition[5] of MOOCs, and it hangs on the awareness that content is open-ended and ultimately owned by everyone, including students. This means that students as well as teachers determine content. This concept of openness is the first “o” in MOOC, and it’s arguably the most important because it determines not only what is learned and who is responsible for teaching and for learning, but it also provides insights into the certification process.

In their MOOCs, Downes and his colleagues understand the pivotal role that peer-to-peer or student-to-student interactions play in learning and teaching. Thus, students must actively participate in learning forums and construct their own personal learning environments and networks. The hubs created by the course facilitators in conjunction with the students’ networks form the course medium, and the interactions among all the elements represent the pedagogy.

In this context, learning is a function of peer feedback in the form of comments on posts in social media forums. These comments can be geared to rubrics that define the quality of learning. Thus, students can learn to apply standards to determine the quality of their peers’ works. This peer evaluation process could be shaped to serve a certification function.

As it now stands, the issue for higher ed is whether these peer review procedures are workable and valid. If yes, then the bottleneck disappears and the way is open for disruptive MOOCs. For the time being, the answer is no.

In fact, peer evaluation has a long history in schooling and training, and professors in certain fields have been finding that the web is perfectly suited for it. This topic has a rich research history so I won’t go into it here. I’ll close with the comment that the future is in disruption, and it will drastically alter the face of higher ed, making it accessible to vast numbers of people who are now excluded.


1. John M. Eger, “What the UVA Squabble Tells Us About Higher Ed for the Masses,” HuffPost 27 June 2012.

2. Charlie Tyson, “Sullivan Resignation Spotlights Long-running Debate About Online Education,” Cavalier Daily, 21 June 2012.

3. Steve Kolowich, “Conflicted: Faculty and Online Education, 2012,” Inside Higher Ed, 21 June 2012.

4. “MIT and Harvard Announce edX,” MIT Media Relations, 2 May 2012.

5. Stephen Downes, “‘Connectivism’ and Connective Knowledge,” Huffington Post, 5 Jan. 2011.

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