Today, the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors will meet for the unenviable task of evaluating whether or not they made a colossal mistake. Their task is made more difficult by the fact that they have, in fact, made a colossal mistake.
In the past two weeks, it has become clear that President Teresa Sullivan has the overwhelming support of the tenured faculty, adjunct faculty, administration, student body, and the alumni. The Board should reinstate her immediately, and Rector Helen Dragas should resign. Probably for a clean slate, the whole Board should resign.
I care deeply about this particular issue for two reasons, first because UVa is my alma mater, where I received a fabulous undergraduate and graduate education, and second because the conflict at The University (as we call it) hinges around the role that online learning will play in the future of the university. UVa is rocking in the turbulent wake of the growth of online learning.
Dragas’ position is “We have to do something now.” What that “something” is, is totally unclear. It might be helpful for Dragas and her advocates to go back and watch the press conference for the launch of EdX, the non-profit digital learning collaborative founded by Harvard and MIT. EdX is a very promising idea, but it was clear from the launch conference that they really don’t know exactly what EdX will be. In some ways, they don’t have much more of a clear plan than UVa does.
Here’s the difference, somebody gave Harvard and MIT $60 million dollars to play with. If you have $60 million dollars, go ahead and get started doing crazy things.
If you don’t have $60 million dollars, and you are a brand new president, maybe go ahead and take a couple of years to build trust, to think carefully about the opportunities and challenges of online learning, to build community support for it (remember MIT has had 10 years of work on Open CourseWare), and watch some early adopters find new paths and fall off cliffs.
Sullivan is spot on when she says that online learning is “surprisingly expensive, has limited revenue potential and unless carefully managed can undermine the quality of instruction.” Virginia has very little chance to compete in revenue generating ventures when so many powerful forces (Harvard, MIT, Hewlett, Gates) have made such a profound investment in Open Education.
Virginia has an extraordinarily talented teaching faculty, and I very much hope they’ll contribute to the global network of Open Educational Resources and Courses that will emerge over the next few years. But that contribution will most likely be a gift from the servants of the University and taxpayers of Virginia to the world and not a source of revenue.
Despite the damage that Dragas and her colleagues have done, The University of Virginia is one of the world’s great institutions of higher learning, and the alumni, faculty, administration, and students will come together and weather these storms. Wahoowa.
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