3 Questions for Coursera’s New Academic Strategist, Quentin McAndrew

Quentin McAndrew is one of those alternative academics that everyone around higher education seems to know. She is widely admired for her leadership role in advancing digital and online learning innovation across the postsecondary ecosystem. It was therefore big news when Quentin announced that she was leaving her role as Assistant Vice Provost & Executive Director, Strategic Transformation and Academic & Learning Innovation at CU Boulder to join the leadership team at Coursera as their Academic Strategist. Quentin graciously agreed to answer my questions about her new gig, navigating an alt-ac career, and the future of higher education.

Q1:  Tell us about your new role at Coursera? What made you decide to make that move from your previous position at CU Boulder?

Thank you for the kind introduction and for inviting me to answer your questions, Josh. It’s always a pleasure to trade ideas with you.

As Coursera’s Academic Strategist, I have a double role: first, to contribute an academic, strategic perspective to Coursera’s mission, and second, to work with university colleagues to envision innovative programs and the future of our field. The role draws on my background in higher education and my experience designing and implementing programs delivered on Coursera. At Boulder, we launched two degrees on Coursera with features like performance-based admissions and modular coursework, and a portfolio of almost 200 open courses and Specializations. I also authored my own course on the platform. Hearing from learners about their personal experiences—the course has over 100,000 enrollments from over 165 countries—drove home the impact that is possible through a global platform like Coursera. The degrees expanded that impact to a programmatic and institutional level that was really exciting to see.

Those of us from higher ed who work in online innovation share a commitment to access, a belief in the power of education to change lives, and a deep sense of the urgencies that drive our inclination to innovate. The role at Coursera is a front-line opportunity to serve that mission at scale, to help advance the efforts of a dynamic community of educators, innovators, universities, and students around the globe who share in a common, humanistic—and ultimately optimistic—vision for our future.

Q2: Your career has followed an alternative academic (alt-ac) path, with work both inside and outside of universities. What advice might you give to those with a PhD who are thinking about how to navigate a non-traditional academic career? 

As we all know, there’s no clear path to that “alt-ac” future from the PhD. I started with a BA and MA from Stanford in English, and then entered the private sector. Eventually, I became a stay-at-home mother and volunteer. I went back for a PhD at Boulder later than the traditional student. I always knew I was an “alt-ac” candidate.

My PhD is in nineteenth-century American literature, copyright law, and the history of the book. I’m an archivist—far afield from the cutting-edge of online learning and the future of higher education. Six years ago, I took a random chance to learn how to create a MOOC. I barely knew what a MOOC was, but I knew about the evolution of the book; the printing press is itself a technology of scale. I was inspired to take on the intellectual and creative challenge of designing a MOOC, to see what I could do within the formal considerations of a new delivery platform. Everything else followed from that moment.

Which brings me to my advice: there is more than one path to success, and sometimes the best route is not on the map that you think you’ve been given. Take risks. Teach online and with technology.  Take pains to understand the business of higher education. Move outside your discipline and look for unexpected experiences that speak to you, and remain alive to the possibilities that those opportunities provide.

Q3: You and I have talked often about the potential to leverage scaled online learning to bend the higher education cost curve. The challenge is always quality. How do we in the higher education ecosystem create a high-quality yet low-cost degree? What should those of us who work at colleges and universities be doing to create a future in which our students receive high-quality educations, while also avoiding the high levels of student debt that so many graduates must now contend with?

The degree isn’t going anywhere, but the ways that universities are called to serve their students are changing at a rapid pace. The attention on micro- and sub-degree credentials is important, as is the newer attention to alternative degree pathways and stackability. Reimagining the degree isn’t just about unbundling; it’s also about expanding outwards–creating an ecosystem of on-demand, differentially priced learning opportunities that enable students to reach their potential at every moment of their lives.

Technology can help foster a high-quality experience at scale through features like live sessions, video office hours, and tools that allow learners to build community and connect with their peers around the world. The cloud opens up scaled projects and assignments that are freed from the limitations of personal computing environments. Automated grading frees instructors to focus on teaching.

These are useful, even revolutionary, technologies, but it is still the human at the heart of the machine that drives quality. We do ourselves a disservice if we forget that universities have centuries of experience deploying technology to enhance learning. Chalk is a technology. Universities already have the wherewithal to be brilliant within the forms of scale, and to deliver exceptional learning experiences to the world; our mission should be to empower that brilliance and make it accessible to learners everywhere.

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