UC-Berkeley jumped onto the online bandwagon today, joining the edX initiative along with Harvard and M.I.T. In doing so it become the latest in a growing roster of elite American universities committing to offer so-called Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) to the world, free of charge, and to give succesful students some kind of certificate / letter / attestation of what they have learned.
There are many important lessons of the MOOC phenomenon, among them the key role that selfish intentions play in the creation of virtuous outcomes. Until recently, free online resources were mostly provided by universities operating from a sense of social obligation or mild curiosity. M.I.T. put its course materials online, called it Open Courseware, and watched as millions of people logged on. Yale, Carnegie Mellon and others did important work developing free courses of varying degrees of sophistication. It was all interesting and promising, but never quite important, at least not in the way MOOCs seem to be. Other elite schools freely ignored the Open Educational Resources movement without garnering any attention or concern.
But once Stanford and M.I.T. kicked off the MOOC phenomenon last fall, generating enormous enrollment numbers and publicity to match, the dynamic clearly changed. What we see now, with the recent Coursera expansion and today's edX announcement, is a group of university leaders acting to maintain their status and position relative to their strongest competitors. As a motive force, that is about 1,000 times more powerful than curiosity and social obligation. The bumbling board of visitors at the University of Virginia may have let their panicked emails about UVA's online presence into the public record, but I'm quite sure leaders at every other elite institution in America are asking similar pointed questions about the future of higher education on the Internet and where their institution will ultimately stand.
And that's great. If status anxiety is what it takes for America's world-leading colleges and universities to legitimize the idea of high-quality, low-cost online higher education, then I'm all for status anxiety. Better Coursera and edX than college football, financial aid policies that benefit rich students, and clever methods of gaming the U.S. News rankings.