Experimenting with the Future of Higher Ed at CU Boulder

How much boldness is required in order for colleges and universities to successfully navigate the current uncertainty?

Dr. William Kuskin, Professor of English and Faculty Director for Innovation in Online Education at the University of Colorado at Boulder, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to discuss why higher ed needs to start experimenting in order to find its online future faster.

How the CU Boulder MOOC Experiment Began

William and his colleague Robert Erickson were at the Hague for a Coursera Partners conference when Coursera announced its business degree with the Gies School of Business at Illinois. The two men were flying back to Denver when they got stuck in Houston. Instead of waiting for a flight, they rented a car and drove from Houston to Boulder. It’s a thousand mile drive, so they had plenty of time to start talking.

They agreed that MOOCs upended a lot of assumptions about university style education. The MOOC didn’t just challenge the efficiency of the large lecture, but it also started to ask things about why we have a semester system and three-credit courses. 

“If we were to just teach content,” William said, “we could break it down into much smaller, more modular units. Then we began to think about cost and pricing, and we both felt that our students drove the learning in our MOOCs.”

The Three Pillars

Thinking about all these things, William and his colleague came up with three pillars. 

  1. Learning belongs to the learner. A great teacher can put great things out in an understandable way, but ultimately it’s the learner’s motivation as to whether they want to pursue a degree or simply a sequence of courses that meet some need. At universities, we still believe students will shift life according to our physical plant. But if we unpack that a little bit, we realize that people’s motivations are deeply entwined with their moment in life. So the timeframe belongs to the learner too.
  2. How can you justify an admissions process? If we weren’t hamstrung by classroom size, why would we put any kind of obstacle in front of interested students? That question brought principled resistance. People really felt, “Hey, a university degree should have some kind of barrier to entry. We can’t have everybody just coming in.” But why not?
  3. We need an enrollment process as automated as Coursera is in the noncredit world. That proved very difficult for the university because universities have a lot of apparatuses that have been working for years in a paper context. CU Boulder really had to automate a lot of its registration and identity provisioning.

“When we think about disruption,” William said, “the three spheres I’ve laid out — learning, admissions and enrollment services  — each are equally important to how you’re going to run a university.”

Why is a Sense of Discovery at the Institutional Level Important?

At CU Boulder, the provost described William’s MOOC as a test particle and an experiment. His vision of it is that this degree has ferreted out obstacles and problems within the university. It’s also been a test particle for Coursera. 

Take admissions, for example. It turns out that people do self-select. People do enter into a course, they experiment, they realize they can’t do the work and they withdraw. That’s as it should be. You should have a chance to test the product and figure out if you can work with it or if you need to go somewhere else.

The MOOC is also a reminder that universities have always been disruptive. Disruption is part of the university research mission. Faculty fundamentally are trained to come to a field, figure it out, and make a disruptive move. Disruption does not belong exclusively to Silicon Valley capitalism. Disruption is part and parcel of the way faculty think, and it’s what staff at a university and administrators want to be part of. They want to be part of changing people’s lives and of making a better educational system.

It is critical that universities participate in the cutting edge of digitization because universities should always be owning the power to change the world for the better. That change needs to be in concert with the way the world is changing overall. As we encounter and realize greater technology, it’s incumbent upon universities to seize that and not allow third party vendors to own the claim that they’re going to change education. 

Universities evolve continuously. We change. We own the change. It’s part of us. If we don’t remind ourselves of that, then we degrade our own abilities.

Next Steps for Universities Looking to Explore and Experiment

The university does need to change, there’s no question. That change doesn’t have to be seen as an external threat, which is going to undermine the great and noble traditions we’re all involved in. The university can change as a matter of its own research project, as its own continual thinking about how it helps people make their way through the world.

“We can do that by partnering,” William said, “and we can do it by reflecting on who we are.”

The world is changing right before us and no one understands the ultimate direction that it’s going. Nevertheless, we can chart our own course within that process of change. We can own the change and that can lead us to great places.


This post is based on a podcast interview with Dr. William Kuskin from CU Boulder. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.