The land-grant institutions of 2023 will look very different from those familiar to us today, the brick-and-mortar institutions focused on the agricultural and mechanical arts. A decade from now, these institutions’ services must be extended to every corner of their states by a virtual presence that complements the current flagship institutions. We will see full extension services providing both conveniences to the virtually served citizens and improved online educational opportunities through leverage of an already-existing physical infrastructure.
The vanguard of outreach and service in higher education is the development of Massively Open Online Courses, or MOOCs for short. These large-scale courses are seen, rightfully, as a powerful tool to improve the global outreach of a university, and to give higher education access for those disadvantaged and driven students from around the world. Achievement of this goal has been seen in the early offerings of edX, Coursera and others.
The original policy goal set forth in the design of the Morrill Act (1862), which created land-grant institutions, was the desire to provide educational opportunity for the ‘industrial classes’ (‘middle class’ would surely be the politically expedient wording today) — the farmers, machinists and engineers — and in many ways, the profile of MOOCs are well suited to match this goal. In order to better accommodate these diverse groups, who keep vastly different schedules and geographies than more traditional students, the self-directed timelines of MOOCs offer a backbone to continued education.
Land-grant universities, especially those with well-developed extension services, are equipped to provide a physical laboratory/anchor space, which is now one of the greatest challenges of MOOCs. The extension service of Iowa State University (ISU), for example, maintains and operates 20 regional extension offices providing a physical point of contact for the ISU land-grant system within an hour’s drive of each service community. By coupling MOOCs with in-person physical instruction resources and support, land-grant universities can pave the way for hybrid extension services into the next decade.
Land-grant universities (and their extension services) that are aspiring to lead the nation must co-opt MOOCs as tools needed to maintain relevancy and continue to increase their impact in the communities they serve. By the end of this decade, land-grant universities should be fully integrating MOOCs to serve their mandated constituency of the industrial classes in providing lifetime education in the applied sciences and arts. By embracing this nascent outreach technology, the land-grant universities of 2023 will be best serving their populations with convenient, lifelong learning opportunities — exactly what they were developed for.
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