Many a student is in debt for having obtained an education at Columbia University. And many more are barred entry altogether. For the majority of young people who ever dreamed of studying here, a competitive admissions process, financial and geographic barriers, as well as the obvious challenge of physically accommodating more than 25-30 thousand students on campus annually, have kept them from doing so. But all that may be changing.
This semester saw the enrollment of over 100,000 people in just three courses taught by top faculty at the Columba School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Beyond Columbia, in the last twenty months, over five million students, in almost every country, have registered for courses at the world’s best universities. And they’ve managed to do so mostly for free, on e-learning platforms like Coursera, Udacity, and edX.
The emergence of massive open online courses, or “MOOCs,” raises many questions about the future of higher education. The Morningside Post speaks with Sree Sreenivasan, Columbia’s first Chief Digital Officer, to try to answer some of them. What follows is a condensed and edited version of the interview.
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The Morningside Post: Before we get into MOOCs, a lot of our readers want to know what exactly it is you do around here. What is a Chief Digital Officer?
Sree Sreenivasan: My main job is to help the university think through how to use social, mobile, and digital media in better, smarter ways. Eventually there’ll be no such thing as a Chief Digital Officer because every academic will be digital. It doesn’t mean everything will be online, but they’ll use technology and blend it with the instruction. As for MOOCs, no technology has ever developed this quickly in academia; not electricity, not the telephone, not the Internet. My role is to help Columbia navigate this in a strategic way, without panicking.
TMP: What accounts for the university’s decision to essentially give away three of its courses on Coursera?
Sree: There are several reasons. The first is to learn from this MOOC technology what we can do for our in-house students. The second is to spread knowledge around the world; is there a way we can touch people around the world who otherwise would not be able to come here to Morningside? Another reason is we’re trying to understand what all the fuss is about, and I don’t think you can do that unless you actually get in the fray and try it out. And then finally, each of these courses is a great reputation and brand builder for Columbia.
TMP: How is what’s happening now different from Fathom [the short-lived e-learning portal Columbia spearheaded in 2000]?
Sree: Fathom was ahead of its time. People didn’t know that you could actually learn anything on the Internet. This was before Ted Talks, before YouTube, before Wikipedia. Broadband wasn’t yet common. Now, look what Sal Khan has done with math and art history. My ten-year-olds know that if they want to learn something, they can go on YouTube and Google and search for it. That’s the culture they’re growing up in.
TMP: Thomas Friedman calls MOOCs “revolutionary.” He’s argued that “nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty.” Do you share his enthusiasm about the potential impact of MOOCs on development?
Sree: I like Tom. I’m a fan of his work, but you have to be careful when you say nothing can lift more people out of poverty than a MOOC. It’s not more important than having clean water, a roof over your head, and access to a fourth grade class (rather than a post graduate class). Framing MOOCs in this way turns off people that might otherwise be willing to give it a try, because they’ll say, “Well how can anything be that great?” I believe you should under-promise and over-deliver. So, I do share his enthusiasm, but I don’t share his hyperbole.
TMP: Could MOOCs one day fulfill the signaling function college diplomas currently do?
Sree: I think it depends on how they grow. I have no doubt that Microsoft would love to get a list of the top hundred top natural language processing grads in Professor Michael Collins’ Coursera course right now, and they would pay both Columbia and Coursera a lot of money for it. There are ways in which that’s going to happen, but we don’t know yet.
TMP: If anyone can take a Columbia course online, put it on their resume, and have it be recognized by employers, what does this mean for the value of a Columbia degree?
Sree: I have a Columbia degree, so I am very keen not to diminish its value. MIT has been giving away open courseware for years and I don’t think it’s had one less person apply to MIT. If anything, these MOOCs are going to serve as advertising for Columbia, and already they have. We’ve only done them for a few weeks now and already we’ve seen many inquiries coming in from students around the world. A student sitting in some country who had never thought of applying to Columbia might say, “Oh look, this is what they do for free. Imagine what they’ll do for $50,000.”
TMP: And how will MOOCs affect lower-tier schools?
Sree: This is one of the concerns; that MOOCs will become like digital textbooks. You don’t need a thousand textbooks on the same topic. There are a few star textbooks and the rest teach the textbook. That is effectively what is going to happen, so unfortunately some institutions may be left behind.
TMP: Any final thoughts?
Sree: Look, you’re interviewing me in front of the Museum of Dead Technology [a collection of obsolete technology in Sree’s office]. These are things that people made bets on, and they thought that this would be great. You can imagine writing a story in 1989 and describing this really ugly thing [Sree examines an early prototype of the mobile phone] that would never fit in a pocket and saying, “This phone is so terrible.” And then fast forward to the iPhone. That’s the lesson for all of us: We just don’t know, and even so-called experts don’t know.
This museum teaches me to be very careful about predicting anything. I have a box full of this crap.