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Archive for May, 2013

100 things you can’t do with a MOOC

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I got the title to this blog from a comment at a recent meeting of university presidents in Calgary. Such meetings can be a bit dull: take 50 or so mostly white, middle aged, grey-haired, mostly male presidents gathered in the Fairmont Palliser, and you have a recipe for, at best, a good bridge competition. This one turned out to be a lot better than anticipated however (another win for low expectations).

The theme of the meeting was engagement of the university with its communities. Again, not an event that you dare miss, since we all think we are pretty darned good, and I have written before about how universities are shameless self-promoters. I am also reminded about the maxim: if you have to brag about your prowess, you are likely over-compensating for some inadequacy in the same.

But this was different. We heard from the Mayor of Calgary: interesting bloke, worth listening to if you get the chance, from others involved in community development, and then some small group discussions, which I normally hate, but I went with the flow.

By way of introduction, we were each asked to talk about what our university does with regard to community engagement, and what came out rather spontaneously was an amazing array of activities that each of the very diverse institutions described, such as involvement with First Nations’ communities, and all manner of economic, social and cultural endeavours with diverse populations and issues.

For KPU of course, engagement with our communities has always been fundamental to our mission and to our future: so much so that we take it for granted and probably do not talk about it as much as we should. Certainly our Vision 2018 Strategic Plan, to be launched in June, will include direct reference to our relevance and to our focus on ensuring all students link their studies to the real world.

I talked about Acting Together, our CURA project working with South Asian communities in Surrey, about our Horticulture program and its deep connections with its industry, the School of Business with its many partnerships with local employers, and the Chip and Shannon Wilson School of Design, the name of which speaks volumes about its impact on our economy. There are so many small and large links between what KPU teaches and what is going on locally and globally.

Anyway, after going around the table, our group’s convener Sheldon Levy from Ryerson University came out with the pithy comment about MOOCs, and I found it very apt.

MOOCs (massive open and online courses) are the hot new thing in universities (or maybe, just maybe, their glow is starting to fade). Developed in Canada as a force for radical change in how we can build knowledge and understanding through the connections afforded by the Web, it quickly became a cheap trick by elite institutions to say “look at us sharing online with hundreds of thousands of people just how smart we are, though of course you still can’t actually be a student because then we wouldn’t be elite, and hold on a minute, while we work on how to make lots of money out of this”. The fuss has been galling, even though I am a big fan of using technology to increase the richness and reach of education.

Like anything, if it is too good to be true, it almost certainly is, and most MOOCs are simply ways to patronizingly shovel out content, and they bear no relation to the original intent. You would think universities would be smarter not to fall into such traps, but they do, so the wealth of small and important interactions between the campus and the community shared at this meeting reminded me of the real power of higher education.

It also reminded me, my previous comments notwithstanding about what a dull lot we may look like, of how extraordinary the presidents are. One is humbled (just to focus on the BC contingent) by the eloquence of a Stephen Toope in both official languages, the quiet insights of George Iwama, the passion of Ralph Nilson, and (my favorite from this meeting) the clear and authentic voice of Andrew Petter. His participation in the closing panel of the meeting was inspiring. He is of course the architect of “The Engaged University”: the strategic vision for SFU, my alma mater.

This document is worth a read for the way it achieves that rare balance between being high-falutin’ and yet useful: between being aspirational and very direct. And Andrew has a way of talking about the future of his university without the bombast and banality that go with rankings and money, but with an obvious personal commitment to engagement that positions SFU uniquely among the research universities in BC and the rest of the world.

We’ll be launching our Vision 2018 in the next few weeks, so I am going to have to find my own voice to convey a similar but unique identity for KPU, not just for its own sake, but for what it can contribute to the health and happiness of our communities.