Could Coursera Become as Prestigious as Harvard? This Expert Thinks So.

Big changes are coming to higher education, and those changes will be bigger and more disruptive than many college leaders realize as online education grows in both size and prestige.

That’s the view of Arthur Levine, in a new book called “The Great Upheaval: Higher Education’s Past, Present, and Uncertain Future,” which he co-wrote with Scott Van Pelt, a lecturer and associate director of the Communication Program for the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

Levine has been a player in shaping education for decades. The positions he’s held include president of Teachers College at Columbia University, president of Bradford College and most recently, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation—which just changed its name to the Institute for Citizens & Scholars.

The book looks back on Levine’s long sweep of experience, and uses trends he’s seen firsthand to encourage people to think differently about what might be coming next.

One area that needs a fresh definition to fit the times, he argues, is what it means for higher education to be equitable.

“Our current definition of equity is that we offer all students the same resources,” he says. “That makes sense in the industrial world in which the measure of achievement and progress in higher education is time [spent in class]. But in the global digital information economy, we're moving toward an era in which time will diminish in importance. And what we'll see is a growing focus on outcomes.”

And that means that just because different students are offered the same access to a certain kind of experience, such as, say, an online format they may not be ready for, that won’t necessarily lead to fair outcomes, he adds. Students “have very different needs,” he says, “and we want to allow the same opportunity to achieve the outcomes we set for education.”

Meanwhile, the growth of online programs could change the role of reputation and prestige in higher education. Major online-learning platforms, including Coursera, are pushing colleges to offer more online degrees these days. As more students turn to these degrees for their credentials, they may come to see these corporate platforms as the provider of learning rather than worry about which college is the one behind the scenes doing the teaching, Levine says.

“The world we're heading into is provider agnostic,” he adds. “It doesn't matter if I learned what I learned at Harvard. It doesn't matter if I learned what I learned at Coursera. It doesn't matter if I learned it on Wikipedia. It doesn't matter if I dreamed it last night. What we're talking about is: Have you achieved the outcome?”

EdSurge recently sat down with Levine to learn more about his new book for this week’s episode of the EdSurge Podcast.

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