By Virginia Sapiro, Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences and Professor of Political Science

What do you need to know about MOOCs*? You need to know that you need to know about MOOCs.

Or, at least, you should inform yourself about how the opportunities, challenges and, yes, threats posed to higher education are changing rapidly because of new developments in information technology and how higher education can use information technology.

If your understanding of “on-line education” is that is involves streaming your lectures for anonymous students to watch passively in their pajamas, and then take exams on line that will be graded by unknown TA’s and lecturers, you are quite a bit out of date. As information technology programming is becoming more sophisticated and “smarter,” the capacity for us to use it to reach and challenge students in new ways, and even more individually than we can now in classes that have more than a handful of students is growing. We used to talk about education as what happens “in the classroom,” then we expanded our horizons to education “beyond the classroom.” Now, the relationships among location, place and education are being shattered and reformed. It is no longer as easy to identify the parties and roles in our relationships of teaching and learning.

There are many ways to think about the potential and directions of technology-facilitated teaching and learning. Here are two crude buckets: First, how might we use information technologies to work with Boston University students, conventionally defined, in different, useful, valuable ways? How might we stretch our capacities and impact as educators using these technologies? What, in other words, might be the role of information technologies in a high quality residential university experience? Second, how might we leverage our skills, knowledge, and accomplishments to reach out beyond –perhaps well beyond – the students who have matriculated at Boston University to have even more impact on education and learning around the world?

These are the questions that the Boston University leadership is asking us to consider now. Will we help to create the frameworks by which educators at the great research and teaching institutions like ours will deploy these technologies or will we work to play catch-up with the leaders? We can’t make believe it will all go away, or leave education unchanged. But will we be principals in creating the future, or wait for it to happen to us?

Be assured that no one who knows anything about higher education thinks that an institution like Boston University will be able to save money (i.e. do the same thing more cheaply) in pursuing our core missions by using the new information technologies. It will cost. And it appears that the leaders in developing MOOCs are struggling to create the business models that will make those enterprises means to create new revenue streams.  For the ABC’s of what MOOCs are and how they are developing, I recommend a new (and continually updated) piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, What You Need to Know about MOOCs.

Much of this discussion at Boston University today is being funneled through a Council on Educational Technology & Learning Innovation (CETLI) that includes faculty, staff, and administrators. You can find the CETLI website at  The CAS members of CETLI include Azer Bestavros (co-chair, CS), Catherine Caldwell-Harris (PS), Bennett Goldberg (PY), Eric Kolaczyk (MA), Kevin Lang (EC), Beth Loizeaux (co-chair, EN and Associate Provost for Undergraduate Affairs), and Rick Murray (EE). The website includes information about the Council and its activities, a call for proposals for seed grant projects, a blog, and useful readings and resources.  Beth Loizeaux and Azer Bestravros will do a presentation on the Council and the call for proposals at the March 20 CAS Faculty Meeting. I’m especially interested in seeing proposals that will improve our gateway courses.

Where will all this go? Who knows? But somewhere. So let’s try to steer rather than just go along for the ride.

Virginia Sapiro,  Dean of Arts and Sciences

Boston University

*Massive Open Online Courses