Digital innovation is causing a ripple effect throughout higher education. Faculty members from presidents down ponder the future of their institutions and their teachings in a world populated by MOOCs, systems burdened by operational costs, and schools beleaguered by inadequate enrollment figures.

William G. Bowen, former president of Princeton University, recently asserted that online learning can reduce costs while keeping educational outcomes buoyant. That is, if faculty and administration will acquiesce to the torrent of advancements rapidly coming their way.

Regarding the decision academics face about whether to involve themselves in new approaches now, Bowen states, “it would be highly desirable if the academic community were seized of this issue and addressed it before ‘outsiders’ dictate their own solutions.”

Perhaps it is too late. A number of institutions have already committed to ready-made fixes from third-party organizations. In 2011, Arizona State University, in partnership with Knewton, furtively introduced computerized math courses for roughly 4,700 of its students.

Jennifer M. Morton, an assistant professor of philosophy at CUNY’s City College, suggests that standardization of education through MOOCs will rob underclass students of the chance to interact with their peers and pick up social cues that will assist them in the world that awaits them after graduation.

Morton portends the likely emergence of a caste system within higher education, saying, “The Ivies are not suggesting that their students rely on MOOCs; San Jose State and CUNY are.”

Inherent in this discussion is a pervasive uncertainty as to who stands at the helm of digital innovation in higher education. Some institutions have asserted definitively that they will arbitrate their own forays into the digital realm, while using offerings from upstarts as stopgaps. But, for the institutions that seem poised to embrace digital resources while overlooking faculty input, perhaps there is a chance to change course toward a manageable balance between instruction and Internet.

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