Washington — Arguing that free online courses could be “a piece of the solution” to challenges facing higher education, Education Department officials held a conference on innovative technology on Monday that brought together college leaders and officials from companies offering massive open online courses, or MOOC’s.
The conference, called “Innovation to Drive Productivity in Postsecondary Education,” was hosted by the agency and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to discuss technology’s increasing influence on higher education. The 175 attendees included ed-tech industry leaders like Andrew Ng, co-founder of Coursera; university representatives; and leaders from nonprofit organizations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
During the opening address, Arne Duncan, the U.S. secretary of education, asked meeting attendees to work together to come up with concrete ideas for the department on how to increase college-completion rates and postgraduate employment using technology. He added that the department needed to shift its focus from college access to college completion, and to consider how education technology could play into that transition.
Mr. Duncan said MOOC’s present a “pretty interesting innovation” to allow college students to take high-level courses at little to no cost. He met with the leaders of the MOOC platforms Coursera and Udacity on a recent bus tour. “There are pros and cons to all of this, but this was not happening four, five, six years ago,” he said. “Is there one magic solution? Of course not. Are those kind of opportunities a piece of the solution? I absolutely think they are.”
Mr. Duncan then fielded questions from conference attendees on topics such as college-completion metrics, increasing numbers of international students, and creating incentives for high-tech innovation.
The symposium was closed to the news media after Mr. Duncan’s speech, and the day was set to continue with presentations by leaders of various high-tech education projects.