I Felt the Earth Move Under My Feet and It wasn’t Carol King Singing

In the last 4-5 years, there have been three events after which I felt the landscape of post-secondary education move beneath my feet. These noteworthy developments heralded and legitimized new assumptions, new rules, and new players.

The first was StraighterLine’s announcement of its initial offering of 40 of the most popular, in demand, lower-division courses in the country at very low prices. Many traditionalists scoffed, writing this off as yet another low-quality nuisance that would be eliminated sooner or later, one way or the other. But the scoffers missed the critical elements that founder Burck Smith and his colleagues had included. Not only had McGraw-Hill — noted for quality course development work — developed all of the StraighterLine courses, but the American Council for Education (ACE) had reviewed them and recommended them for the award of academic credit. As a result, StraighterLine could offer low-cost courses recommended for credit to individual learners without any accreditation or certification oversight, thus vastly improving the chances of students transferring to accredited schools with StraighterLine credit. This new pathway to approved learning was a big deal.

The second was when MIT and Harvard announced a joint venture in MOOCs called “edX.” As a charter member of the MIT Open CourseWare Advisory Board, I had watched the Open Education Resources movement grow dramatically since 2001. But it always seemed to be a back room event, not commanding front page attention from the education and regular press. But the arrival of edX signaled a new era in which elite institutions were getting into the global open courseware game with MOOCs and certificates. Instantly, free and open online courses — massive or not — were legitimized and heralded in policy forums as well as the press. It is hard to overstate the legitimizing effect that this event had for encouraging new forms of delivering course content and learning assessments as well as for online learning overall.

The third event took place just recently in mid-June when Starbucks and Arizona State University (ASU) announced a major contract/partnership to educate Starbucks’ associates thru ASU’s online BA programs. This was great branding for Starbucks, sending the message that they believe making it a great place to work means strong financial support for all employees’ education. How long before there are Starbucks seminars where people discuss Plato while sipping latte across the country? It was also great for ASU, further illuminating President Crow’s vision for the 21st century university he has been developing for more than a decade.

In each of these examples, the breakthrough, the moving of the earth, is not to be found in the contracts’ fine print, or even the educational/employment assumptions that underlie them. The breakthrough is that these things happened at all. With StraighterLine, edX, and now Starbucks/ASU, we have concrete examples of a new legitimate assumption for ways that colleges and employers can work together to improve the lives of their workers/learners. Now that the door is open to massive workforce learning plans, there will be more and more with ever-newer models and modalities for delivery.

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