Back to the Future: How College Classrooms Can Compete With MOOCs

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Fareed Zakaria, TIME’s editor at large, opened the TIME Summit on Higher Education on Thursday evening in New York City by reminding his audience  that “eight of our top 10 universities in the world are American.”

Yet, America’s perch is not secure, he cautioned. Change is inevitable and threats to the continued excellence of American higher education are very real, from cuts in research funding to the rise of massive online open courses (MOOCs) to increased global competition in science and technology.

So how do we keep our colleges and universities at the forefront of this rapidly evolving  landscape?  Zakaria invited the summit’s first panel—Condoleezza Rice, former U.S. Secretary of State and professor at Stanford University; Norman Augustine, retired chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin; Mitch Daniels, President of Purdue University; and John Holdren, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology—to lay out some of the critical issues in education.

Zakaria launched the discussion by noting that up till now,  the method of university instruction hadn’t changed much since Aristotle. But with the advent of low-cost or free MOOCs,  we are  “achieving scale on an unimaginable level. Hundreds of thousands of people able to take a single course but also customization on a scale that’s unimaginable.”

And, businesses will adapt to the new  technology and accept online classes as qualifications for employees, said Norman Augustine. The name of the school doesn’t matters as much as results. “If you ask me what school most of my colleagues went to, I don’t have the faintest idea. That question is what do they contribute?”

He joked that though his answer might not be very popular among academics, MOOCs could easily be the future. “The test will be, what do people learn and what do they know,”  he said.

Where does that leave the universities that are supplying the brain power behind these online courses? Sure, lots of lecture classes can be taught online and that could help cut the cost of a degree. But Condoleeza Rice pointed out that video lectures can’t create the kind of environment that produces Silicon Valley level innovation—for that, she said, students need to be in a classroom with a professor.

“It’s an ecosystem,” said Rice. “It’s undergraduates, graduate students, in a university that has a long history of encouraging faculty to do this work, and then money, and then most importantly, people who are not afraid to fail.”  She believes that kind of  environment is why Stanford has become a leading incubator for innovation and startup  ideas  that “don’t stay within the walls of the university. They make their way out to application and into the commercial world.”

Mitch Daniels, former director of the Office of Management & Budget under president George W. Bush, agrees. But given the resistance to the continual increases in tuition, he said universities must show a  high return on investment. For Daniels, that means classes  must pass what he calls the pajama test: “What are we going to do at Purdue University so that 10 years from now brilliant young people will choose to pick up from where they are and move [to Purdue] for four years or more and spend a lot of money? What value are we going to add, and how are we going to prove we’re adding value?”

For Daniels, that means creating a university that has lots of “hands on” experiences hard to replicate from home. Those changes aren’t so easy to make: Daniels likened it to an old neuroscientist joke: “How many psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb. The answer is just one, but the bulb really has to want the change. So that’s higher ed.”

Plus, maintaining our current model of education—where universities bring basic research, applicable research and studies in the humanities all under one roof—is extremely expensive to maintain, and tuition prices get higher and higher as government funding drops. Daniels has frozen the tuition at Purdue University for the next two years, but not all universities can do the same. When Zakaria questioned whether the investment was really worth it, Holdren responded with a resounding “yes”: “It may be an expensive model, but it works extremely well. And the rate of return is extremely high.”

But where will that investment come from?  How do universities manage shrinking budgets and still do the basic research that is the underpinning of the entire system? For more  on the thorny questions of funding, check out Friday’s live stream of the TIME Summit on Higher Education panel on the cost of academic excellence at 9:10am, here.