Arizona State University is doing something very interesting that we should not ignore

This is an obvious development and one that we will see a great deal more of in the coming months and years. The real ‘innovation’ (though many of us have been arguing for this for a long time and ASU is not the first – it’s just a big one with a big partner) is that it makes it possible to truly disaggregate learning and credit. That’s not quite what ASU is offering, though, just yet. Instead, it is providing learners with the opportunity to take as long as they need, at a much lower cost than a traditional course, without any credential barriers, to gain a ‘real’ university qualification of at least as high a quality as one achieved by traditional means. It that sounds familiar, it should – Athabasca tries to do much the same thing. However, the Athabasca course still comes with a (distant) time limit and it costs roughly ten times a bit more (corrected: in fact, ASU charges $200 per credit hour for the accreditation, so it’s not a brilliant deal even though it is relatively cheap and highly competitive with AU).

In doing this, ASU (with the positively gleeful support of EdX) is contributing to the revolutionization of higher education.  I suspect it, as an institution, doesn’t see far enough ahead yet to fully take on the full implications yet, though some of those leading this probably do get it. The clues are that it seems to think it will contain it by making this an on-ramp to a future degree, it only half-heartedly recognizes that this has to become a full degree in itself, it apparently believes that what it is doing is a MOOC (if the inventor of the term, Dave Cormier, were not very much alive, kicking and doing truly wonderful things he would turn in his grave), and it still requires students to take the course to gain the credit. That’s short term thinking that cannot last very long. It’s straddling the 21st Century but it still has one leg firmly held in the 11th Century. The really interesting next step is that it is pretty much inevitable that ASU and those following this path (and there will be many more) will need to recognize learning achieved elsewhere and by other means too. At that point, assuming this is not an isolated initiative, traditional approaches to higher education are mostly either dead in the water or will have to recognize and nurture the greater value of a higher education, which has little or nothing to do with accreditation. More interestingly, perhaps, they (and the rest of us) will have to actually provide education that actually achieves what it sets out to do, without the crutch of rewards and punishments bound up with the process to keep it going.

We at Athabasca University already have challenge and PLAR processes that can, already, trivially easily surpass what ASU is offering, and leapfrog the coming crowd of competitors on the credit front. I don’t understand why we have not been jumping on that bandwagon with arms outstretched, while mentioning in passing that we have done something better than this for decades (though the idea stretches back to the 19th Century, so it’s not that amazing). AU also has the skills and experience to provide useful online education that could actually help someone achieve credit, whether with us or elsewhere. But, though it could keep us going, that’s likely not where our true sustainability lies. With things like the Landing (and, especially, what it might become) we also have the means to provide the really valuable stuff too – to provide a rich, vibrant learning community that offers both transient and ongoing learning networks for lifelong learning and development that can go far beyond the weird anachronism of courses – and to provide it online. I really hope that we, as an institution rather than a few of us individuals, realize this. If not, things look bleak. Universities are too deeply entangled in society and the economy to go away any time soon so they are not threatened as an institution yet, but they can and must change, if only to compete with one another and the coming wave of commercial competitors. ASU is not providing the answer yet – this is a local solution that makes economic sense for all concerned but that doesn’t even begin to see where it fits in with the big picture – but it is driving in the thin end of a big wedge that will eventually force the bigger changes to come about. 

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I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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