How I’d Spend $800 Million
How I’d Spend $800 Million

Imagine if higher education had an additional $800 million to spend on its most pressing collective challenges. How might we spend that money?

That’s nowhere near enough to eliminate student debt, nor enough to ensure that small, regional and urban colleges aren’t under pressure to eliminate departments and majors. Those are governmental problems.

Still, it’s a lot of money, and used wisely, it might make a huge difference.

Of course, we shouldn’t count our chickens before they hatch. There’s a good chance that the $800 million might not materialize in whole or at once.

Payments, even in cash, often extend over time. And sometimes something happens, and part or even the bulk of a payment never takes place.

Then, if the money does appear, Harvard and MIT will face a quandary: to expend the money as needed, until the funds disappear, or create a permanent endowment, paying out $4 or $5 million a year, which is not a huge amount of money -- which might encourage the new nonprofit to be unambitious and focus on a series of small projects or conferences or visiting fellows.

Then there are other temptations that can quickly deplete a bank account: expending large sums on a building (or two) or infrastructure or, God forbid, administrators.

Were I on edX’s governing board, what would I do?

Step 1: Reckon with the past.

I think edX’s leaders need, as a first step, to level with their stakeholders. Explain, without hesitation, what worked, what didn’t and why. You don’t need to be a historian to recognize that a public accounting is in order. If we are collectively to move forward, we need to grapple with the past. Higher education is not good at reckoning with failure, in part because it means pointing figures and admitting mistakes. It’s not simply that edX failed to find a truly successful business model. Its mission wasn’t clear. As the ed-tech consultant Phil Hill put it, “EdX’s strategy, meanwhile, has been ‘to throw spaghetti at the wall.’”

The single biggest question that needs to be asked is this: Why is it that the edX partners -- which include the most highly ranked universities in the world -- weren’t able to create a nonprofit open learning endeavor that could successfully compete with for-profits?

Step 2: Ask what’s needed next.

The edX consortium as a whole needs to identify the big challenges that the nonprofit might address. Even with $800 million, it’s not possible to boil the ocean. But some issues certainly stand out:

  • The uneven preparation of high school students for college.
  • The concentration of Black, Latinx and students from low-income backgrounds in the least resourced, least selective institutions.
  • Inadequate advising, learner support and other student services at many colleges and universities.
  • Achievement and equity gaps, especially in math.
  • Underrepresentation of specific groups of students in highly selective colleges and certain high-demand majors.

My advice: think big, be focused and don’t squander precious resources in areas unlikely to pay off. Don’t fund a hodgepodge of faculty interests. Don’t try to influence educational policy (leave that to Gates, Lumina and the Aspen Institute). Don’t offer fellowships or sabbaticals. Don’t fund local innovators. Don’t waste money on in-person convenings or training sessions.

Above all, don’t reinvent the wheel. Let other initiatives study the science of learning or develop ed tech or conduct learning research.

And don’t invest in new technologies or platforms to support online learning when we know that they key to successful online instruction has more to do with instructional design than AR/VR, artificial intelligence or other cutting-edge educational technologies.

Step 3: Do something major.

If the new nonprofit is to make a genuine difference, its founders must identify realistic problems that such an entity could solve and then focus laser-like on those problems.

Here are some possibilities:

  • Create summer academic experiences for students from underrepresented groups at hundreds of colleges and universities. These experiences should involve mentored research, intensive seminars and other high-impact practices.
  • Fund development of high-quality interactive courseware for use in the 25 most popular foundational classes that receive over a third of undergraduate enrollment. And make the courseware’s assets -- tools, readings, activities and assessments -- available for free and allow instructors to use and alter these assets however they wish.
  • Work with high schools to create truly effective early-college experiences with an emphasis on closing equity gaps.
  • Address one of the biggest barriers to student success in this country: the difficulties that community college students face in trying to transfer -- misaligned curricula, uneven preparation, mind-set issues and poor advising.

In a different forum, I’ve offered my personal reflections on edX and my disappointment that the MOOC provider wasn’t able to achieve its initial goals: to find sustainable ways to make learning of the highest quality widely available at low or no cost.

What’s past is past. Now is the time to look forward by reaffirming edX’s founding vision: to create a cross-institutional collaborative that will address higher ed’s biggest challenges: access, affordability, equity and attainment.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.



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