May 14th, 2013
The backlash against MOOCs goes on. Like the ubiquitous acronym itself, the notion of a MOOC backlash is a regular feature in news about MOOCs. Last week saw headlines like “Faculty Backlash Grows Against Online Partnerships,” while education’s digital future, a site created by the Stanford Graduate School of Education, created a page for such articles called “MOOC backlash.”
Nor was it all faculty backlash. Inside Higher Ed, in an article titled “Reins on Moonlighting,” notes that “The University of Pennsylvania is working on new guidelines to limit its professors’ freelance work for online education companies.” While faculty are stepping back, so are institutions.
When faculty are saying no to partnerships with MOOC providers, and even institutions are telling their faculty to say no, the question becomes less what’s happening than why. And that was precisely the question tackled by Steven Kolowich in “Why Some Colleges Are Saying No to MOOC Deals, at Least for Now.” He asked the cognoscenti and got their prognostications: Richard Garrett of Eduventures declaring that “we’re at the early stages of that honeymoon period coming to an end”; Peter Stokes, director of postsecondary innovation at Northeastern University, allowing that these deals “have real costs for the institution,” and “that’s creating a little bit more sobriety about how folks view the opportunity.”
But are we really looking at phases or trends or cycles (beyond news cycles, at least)? Isn’t this something more like exactly what the news stories themselves are about? First we had faculty trying things without consulting their institutions — even as administrations, without consulting their faculty, were inking deals in hopes of seeming ahead of the curve, especially about presumed needed reform and cost control. When faculty were asked by their institutions (e.g., at Duke and Amherst) if they really wanted to do this, they said no. They also said no when they were told to do it (e.g., at San Jose State). And now institutions are stepping in, demanding consultation from their faculty (as in the case of Penn), telling faculty to say no, or promising their faculty that they will say no (as in the case of American University).
Ah … consultation. Devoutly to be wished. But how do we manage that now, especially if it’s going to be about not just the right but the foregone conclusion to say no? There’s already a bit of a backlash to the backlash, something evident in the title as well as the content of Andrew Valls’ “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad MOOC?” He wonders if we’ve too easily and completely flipped the switch, declaring what once seemed an opportunity to be a threat. That’s understandable given all the hype and hyperbole about tsunamis and revolutions, but it may be more reactive than reflective.
Maybe the thing is not to flip from embracing to stiff-arming. Maybe it’s what consultation should be: not about rights (like the right to bear arms or arm bears or whatever) but about reasons, not about global generalizations but about careful distinctions, not about pronouncements from on high but about some willingness to delve into specific cases. The choice is not just thumbs up or thumbs down. You can choose to say no to MOOCs. But you can also choose to think about them — and what they might become.
April 26th, 2013
Some backlash against MOOCs was inevitable. But things seem to be picking up steam. Last week, Amherst, after much wooing (and after saying no to for-profit providers), said no to edX. At about the same time, a post in the Chronicle of Higher Ed‘s “Conversation” blog compared MOOCs to the educational radio shows of the Depression era (and not favorably). Still more recently, a long New York Times piece (the cover story of the Sunday Review section this past weekend) relayed an Esquire editor’s experience of no less than 11 MOOCs (though, like a typical MOOC student, he didn’t complete most of them); turning the tables, he gave the MOOCs grades — e.g., a D for instructor-student interaction. And, noting the tendency of the main MOOC providers to come out of and partner with top-tier schools, the myriad observations on their putative elitism – one article, in reference to Coursera specifically, even called it “contractual elitism” — took an interesting turn last week when educators taking a global view of MOOCs, especially whence they come and whom they (best) serve, accused them of “intellectual neo-colonialism.”
But the MOOCs themselves are a-changin’. I had fascinating evidence of that last Thursday (the 18th), while attending a workshop in Atlanta on “MOOCs and the Public Higher Education System.” Sponsored by the Lumina Foundation, it featured university system leaders from a number of states (California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, New York [both CUNY and SUNY], Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas), as well as an opportunity to interact with three major MOOC providers: edX’s Anant Agarwal, Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun, and Coursera’s Daphne Koller. Accompanying Alexandra Logue, CUNY’s Executive Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs and University Provost, I noted most of the participants belonged more to her pay grade than mine. No more than two attended from each system, and we all fit around one table. So this was serious.
The morning was devoted to discussion. A fair amount of skepticism about MOOCs was voiced, but so was a sense of pressure — that increasing costs, student debt, and calls for reform meant taking a serious look at MOOCs and what they might do — what you could call the “bite the silver bullet” take. We had a presentation from the public system that had been most in the news about partnerships with MOOC providers — the Cal State System, especially San Jose State University. (Activity in that system and state has been highlighted and heating up in the light of legislative initiatives discussed in a previous post.) The presenter, Gerry Hanley (Senior Director, CSU Academic Technology Services), had actually once been a student of Lexa Logue’s, and she got him to admit that reports of success (about which more anon) were very preliminary and even speculative. Simply put, there is as of yet no decent evidence that MOOCs are effective, either pedagogically or economically.
But that wasn’t the real point of Gerry Hanley’s presentation anyway. He focused on a couple of experiments. One, with edX and focusing on an electronics course with high failure rates, showed more passes, and got big play in the press, even the Wall Street Journal. But this “MOOC” was neither massive nor wholly online. Fewer than 90 students participated, and students showed up for class with the professor, but also had access to lectures and other materials online. Another experiment with Udacity, a remedial math pilot, is still in process, and also far from massive (requiring tuition, formal registrations and assessments like the other). It shows higher rates of retention for now, but it includes intensive mentoring — and, not insignificantly, is cast as the students’ one shot: if they fail, they don’t get accepted to SJSU. That might help with retention, a problem for MOOCs when students have no such gun to their head.
These, needless to say, are not your classic MOOCs.
In the afternoon, as the heads of edX, Udacity, and Coursera were beamed to us via ITV, presenting briefly (they all had technical problems, by the way), and then taking questions, the focus of Koller, Argawal, and especially Thrun was on how much MOOCs were changing. Maybe they needed to be less massive and more interactive. (Argawal called the blend of online and face-to-face “the best of both worlds,” while the touted successes were not any more massive than many on-campus courses), and also less open (I even heard the acronym SPOC — Small Private Online Courses — since, for credit, at least, there had to be formal registration, tuition, identity verification, checks on academic integrity, etc.). What struck me most of all was hearing the term MOOC 2.0 repeatedly from Thrun.
I searched that term online, and one piece I turned up was especially interesting, It was an opinion piece by Ron Legon, the executive director of the Quality Matters, a program that benchmarks online course design. He takes a dim view of what he calls MOOC 1.0; there’s little to celebrate or commend “beyond its proven ability to attract large numbers of students, most of whom never complete.” But MOOC 2.0 courses incorporate the lessons of what might be called “established” online instruction: “…some enrollment restrictions, reachable instructors and facilitators, clarity about fees for enhanced services and evaluation, and more tangible guarantees of credit or recognition for those students who successfully complete.” If that makes MOOC 2.0 sound less MOOC-like, that’s exactly the point — and the rub. Less Massive, less Open, less (wholly) Online, or otherwise not really Courses but more like instructional content (and not real teaching and learning), are such MOOCs any longer MOOCs?
There is no doubt some fluidity to innovations like MOOCs, some expected evolution, But it is interesting that MOOCs seem to be devolving back into more familiar and less striking shapes. Quoth Legon: ”As the MOOC concept evolves, it is becoming more difficult to define a MOOC or distinguish among a growing jumble of similar acronyms that emphasize different characteristics.” His conclusion: “The paradox is that the next generation of MOOCs may no longer possess the features that initially attracted the attention of the public and the media.”
March 28th, 2013
California made big news recently with something even more massive than MOOCs: a legislatively proposed “statewide platform through which students who have trouble getting into certain low-level, high-demand classes could take approved online courses offered by providers outside the state’s higher-education system.” That, at least, was how it was described in a recent Chronicle of Higher Ed article. Predictably, the Chronicle soon published an opinion piece declaring (in its headline) that this was “A Massively Bad Idea.”
Nevertheless, it’s an idea that’s catching on. In the March 27th issue of Inside Higher Ed, the top headline was “Economies of Online Scale,” a story about statewide systems in New York and Florida that will presumably improve on the California idea by being more organized, by offering not just aggregations but single-source conduits of online ed. Not content with online courses from a number of institutions on a number of platforms, each will provide one unified system, either through one institution (in Florida’s case, the University of Florida) or through one platform (Blackboard in the case of SUNY). Why? The single most telling remark comes from SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher: “I think the problems the country is trying to solve simply cannot be solved one institution at a time.”
SUNY is in fact planning to “allow up to a third of the credits for certain SUNY degree programs to come from outside institutions, including MOOCs,” according to Zimpher, and apparently the system is in talks with Coursera, a company whose careful affiliation with the nation’s top tier institutions of higher ed was the focus of an exposé/critique in IHE just days before, an article titled “Coursera’s Contractual Elitism.” But that elitism is not a problem from Zimpher’s perspective; on the contrary:
Being able to bring in credits from courses taught by professors at more elite institutions – Stanford University or Duke University – could help improve student perception of a SUNY education to being much more than a “degree of convenience,” the chancellor said.
It can be vertigo-inducing to look at problems and solutions from the heady heights of massive courses and vast systems, of one-ring-to-rule-them-all platforms and status-seeking outsourcing. If the issues are ones of teaching and learning, of access and degree-completion, it might be good to look at things from the bottom up no less than the top down. What works in all modes of college teaching was documented by Chickering and Gamson decades ago in the seven principles of good teaching, applied by Steve Ehrmann to online ed in the Flashlight Project that documents successful teaching online. Basically, and this is hardly counterintuitive, what works is lots of interaction and feedback.
These are not the distinguishing features of online instruction getting play in the news these days. Instead, we have fundamentally presentational (“sage-on-the-stage”) instruction in huge courses with no real feedback from or interaction with the instructor; the results are predictable: appalling completion rates in courses taken mostly by people who are not college students and taught by professors whose own institutions wouldn’t give credit to them (as noted in a year-end retrospective on MOOCs). Most faculty involved, as a recent survey of MOOC profs in the Chronicle revealed, are “professors with no prior experience with online instruction.”
If this feels like a bandwagon to jump on — and Bill Bowen’s thoughtful commentary “Walk Deliberately, Don’t Run, Toward Online Education” is full of cautions – it might be good to review the lessons of two decades of successful steady growth in online education. If the extant online offerings, MOOCs excepted, seem “fragmented” — the problem underscored in the “Economies of Online Scale” article — it may be because they were developed in ways the stay close to the course goals and established policies of the institutions offering them, and there may be something to that. Bigger isn’t always better, especially when what’s good happens at precisely those levels of interaction that scaling up pares down.
March 12th, 2013
I’m beginning to think that MOOCs, at least conceptually, are like Rorschach blots, good for getting commentators to divulge their fundamental premises about the means and ends of higher learning. Case in point: Thomas Friedman’s recent NY Times op-ed “The Professors’ Big Stage,” with its very title invoking the “sage on the stage” some of us thought higher learning had risen above. Like Friedman’s January piece “Revolution Hits the Universities,” it has generated a lot of anger among academics.
Richard Wolff, professor emeritus, says the revolution heralded in the earlier op-ed is about as revolutionary as the ”transition from hamburger to ‘hamburger helper.’” ”Thomas Friedman has as much credibility on education as I do on dunking a basketball,” writes John Warner, a visiting professor who gives his piece the frank (and, frankly, apt) title “An Ad Hominem Attack Against Thomas Friedman.” Carolyn Foster Segal, another emeritus, accuses Friedman of “contradictions, shallow thinking — and an error in basic arithmetic.” (Oddly, the error is in favor of Friedman’s argument: he mistakes a 60-90% improvement in the pass rate as improvement by 30% when the pass rate has actually improved 50%.) And Rebecca Schuman, another visiting prof, accuses Friedman of proposing an “über-oligarchy” where only “stars” have a shot at the “big stage.”
I could go on, but there’s a neat symmetry to this too-small sample, and it gives me enough to make a MOOC point. Wolff is right: Friedman is one of those “hyper promoters” of change, and it’s not hard to take him or the MOOCs he extols down a notch or three because of the hype factor. But the argument for change is never just an argument that a particular change is good; it’s also that what it represents a change from does in fact need improvement.
This is where the attacks on Friedman show their own vulnerability. MOOCs may not be all he cracks them up to be, but academia-as-we-know-it is no great shakes either. Take Schuman’s ”über-oligarchy” remark: ”What Friedman proposes is nothing less than the creation of an über-oligarchy that is even more exclusive than the current state of academe—which is already elitist enough, thank you very much.” Warner, the other visiting prof, goes after Friedman by tallying “the big, obvious wrongs on Friedman’s record” on other scores but doesn’t discount the potential of MOOCs, saying, “I think it’s inevitable that MOOCs have a role to play in making education accessible. I also embrace the potential of technology to provide access to a greater diversity of thinking and give voice to differing opinions.” That seems oddly deferential for an ad hominem attacker.
The emeriti, as you might expect, take the long view. Segal sees MOOCs — or the likelihood of falling, Friedman-like, under the spell — as a chronic academic fascination with change for its own sake: “Academicians often fall prey to magical thinking; at my former college, each time we hired a new provost (10 in my 16 years), we were certain that this was the one who would be our savior.” Wolff, who taught economics at U Mass Amherst for 35 years, makes the heart of his critique a still broader historical view, saying Friedman “wastes no time pondering all those past technological changes with the potential to free human beings from mind-numbing drudgery that have left us working longer and harder than ever.”
So, whether we’ve been down this road before, or we’re worried about being stuck on an access ramp, the road itself seems to be in pretty bad shape. Whatever else they present as, MOOCs seem to be assuming the status of a critique, not of what they can do, but of the way things are.
February 19th, 2013
“Associated with the role of technology is a new discussion regarding the ‘unbundling’ or ‘disaggregation’ of teaching functions,” Thomas A. Angelo and James JF Forest wrote in 2002. No longer so new, that discussion has been renewed with new force by the advent of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and their variants (MOOC blends using “flipped classroom” approaches and the like). While we haven’t seen a single verifiable pedagogical or business success from such approaches so far, we have seen enormous investment and even more hype. So we have to ask: what does the disaggregation of teaching-as-labor mean for academia when the teacher is no longer primarily responsible for either the instructional content or the evaluation of student work, and the academic institution may no longer even provide the platform?
An answer of sorts came is now yesterday’s news. The Wired Campus blog of the Chronicle of Higher Education offered a compelling headline on February 18: “Professor Leaves a MOOC in Mid-Course in Dispute Over Teaching.” The professor in question, Richard A. McKenzie of UC Irvine, told the students that he would no longer be teaching the MOOC on microeconomics he was leading, which had nearly 37,000 enrolled. He had complained to those students that “fewer than 2 percent have been actively engaged in discussions.” Notable exceptions to the general lack of activity were a fair number of complaints that McKenzie was asking for too much work. “I will not give on standards,” he responded, “and you also should not want me to, or else the value of any ‘certification’ won’t be worth the digits it is written with.”
The real point of interest here is that the course, offered through Coursera, will go on without McKenzie. The dean of distance ed at UC Irvine reported that he and others “felt that the course was very strong and well designed,” and so the professor was really not necessary. A little like the Google driverless car, which not so incidentally MOOC pioneer Sebastian Thrun had quite a hand in, a course can apparently be well-built enough not to need an instructor at the wheel.
The New York Times just invoked Thrun and his MOOC on AI in an editorial, which begins, “Stanford University ratcheted up interest in online education when a pair of celebrity professors attracted more than 150,000 students from around the world to a noncredit, open enrollment course on artificial intelligence.” But the editorial, titled “The Trouble with Online College,” goes on to note grave problems with retention and completion, and generalizes these problems to online instruction generally: “Online classes are already common in colleges, and, on the whole, the record is not encouraging.” The record consulted focuses wholly on community colleges, and just in two states, with special emphasis on the especially vulnerable students in remediation. This focus on underprepared students may highlight the consequences of under-preparation, but it hardly serves to indict a mode of instruction for college students generally.
Still, negative takes on online ed are hardly helped by this latest debacle with MOOCs. Bad as it would be to say the emperor has no clothes, it would be still worse to say the clothes need no emperor.
February 5th, 2013
It’s a revelation to realize that all the recent, highly hyped moves by MOOC providers, which some see as revolutionizing universities, rely so much on the traditional forms and appurtenances of higher ed: the branding (especially of elite colleges involved in enterprises like edX and Coursera), their more well-known or telegenic faculty (lecturing as in days of old), the tests they use to approve credit (the latest: MOOCs to pass CLEP tests), and the institutions themselves (for which MOOCs can serve as a gateway drug in projects like MOOC2Degree).
And maybe revolutionizing the core functions of higher ed is not the best ambition to have. Such revolutions have been foretold before; the highways are littered with their wrecks. Those as old as I may remember that television was once supposed to be the irresistible juggernaut; they may even remember the fate of Sunrise Semester, a collaboration between CBS and NYU that died in 1981. A relative, The Mind Extension University, as well as attempts to offer credit via public television have done no more to displace higher ed. As for online ventures that were supposed to redefine universities, their name is legion, and they include (among the bigger names) AllLearn, Fathom, and the US variant on Britain’s Open University. Just as with ventures like edX and Coursera, major/elite universities were involved then too. Fathom was Columbia’s baby, and Stanford, Oxford, and Yale were behind AllLearn. NYU had a venture called (what else?) NYUOnline that failed. Spawned by the excitement around the dotcom bubble, these things have come and gone.
They’re ancient history, largely forgotten in the current discussions of MOOCs. And they may have important lessons to teach, given the shared reliance on the old instructional paradigm of highlighting the lecturer rather than the learner, of putting content and coverage before collaboration and reflection. But maybe some lessons actually have been learned, if not by excited lookers-on like Tom Friedman, then at least by the providers themselves. Maybe the claims and plans of those earlier failures are one reason why today’s MOOCs began more gingerly, nibbling at the edges, neither charging tuition nor offering credit at the outset. Carefully open about what they might become, they keep changing partners and purposes. We’ve seen ACE consider endorsing credit for MOOCs; we’ve seen MOOCs partner with public institutions like UT and Cal State to address such issues as the cost of higher ed and the problem of remediation; and now we’re seeing MOOCs used as test prep.
In other words, nibbling at the edges brings MOOCs ever closer to core functions, and one fascinating example is the prospect of freshman comp via a MOOC. In “Here a MOOC, There a MOOC: But Will It Work for Freshman Composition?” Karen Head, an assistant professor in the Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Literature, Media, and Communication, approaches that prospect with salutary skepticism but real resolve. Though the course will not be offered for course credit, it is committed to grappling with some formidable questions, notably, “How do we evaluate writing assignments in a course with potentially thousands of enrolled students?” And though it has the resources of the Gates Foundation and Coursera at its proposal, Head sees these as mixed blessings, particularly in the constraints imposed on the project.
We’ve just seen spectacular justification for her unease at the same institution: Inside Higher Ed (in an article titled “MOOC Mess“) reported yesterday that Georgia Tech had to suspend a Coursera course offered there because of crippling problems, a MOOC (ironically) intended to provide instruction in how to design online instruction; the Chronicle, in its take on the snafu, noted that “design flaws and technical glitches” had made the course (titled “Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application”) “an Internet punch line.”
So there are growing pains. But you could say the same of the journalistic blogs that have redefined (if not eliminated) the newspaper industry. That Georgia Tech experiment in making a MOOC the place where 1st-year college composition happens is well worth watching, however things bode at present.
January 23rd, 2013
I was struck by a recent blog post by Cathy Davidson (of Duke U and HASTAC), and not just because it opens with this slide, the one she opens all her presentations with here lately. “That gets people’s attention,” she says. I’ll bet.
But what has to be at least as attention-getting is the title of her blog post: ”If We Profs Don’t Reform Higher Ed, We’ll Be Re-Formed (and we won’t like it).” That, too, is bracing, but is it really up to profs to reform higher ed? That’s a question worth asking, since the problems Davidson lists are pretty formidable: that college educations are highly desirable but hard to get into, hard to pay for, hard to complete. This has lots of venturesome ventures and for-profits lining up to say their feet will fit the glass slipper, but how realistic is that really?
Something similar is happening in a recent “manifesto” released by (or at least under the auspices) of the American Council on Education. The manifesto (full title: ”Post-traditional Learners and the Transformation of Postsecondary Education: A Manifesto for College Leaders”) concludes by calling for ”a bottom-up entrepreneurship” that occurs from within. Too many distractions (disruptions?) are being brought to bear from without, or so says a recent article in Inside Higher Ed on the manifesto and its author, Louis Soares: “Much of the conversation about innovation in higher education is occurring outside of the academy, Soares said. He would like to see that change.”
That sentiment is not hard to share, no more than the author’s conviction that “post-traditional” (read “adult”) learners represent a great (and largely) unfulfilled need on higher ed’s agenda. What may be a little harder to affirm is the ability of college leaders to re-set their agenda thus — or re-set it period. That may even be behind the way, according to the IHE article, “ACE issued a disclaimer with the report, noting that it reflects the views of Soares, and necessarily those of the council.”
There’s a certain tilting-at-windmills angle to these calls for higher ed faculty or administrators to fix the problems confront them. These are problems of cost and economy, shifting demographics, cultural change and value — things “outside of the academy.” To be sure, there are plenty of calls for change — and responses to them — coming from outside as well. So many, in fact, that if change is conceived as some sort of single (unitary if monolithic) construct, it also seems a juggernaut, creating that feeling that you either get on board or get run over.
This is not to say that standing still or sitting on your hands is a good idea. It’s not even an option. But when exhortations seem to suggest there’s one right way to go — and you need to head off in it — there’s a wonderful curative. You just need to think about how all-over-the-place current attempts at reforming or reinventing college seem to be. A moment that crystallized this for me was when a high-level CUNY administrator listened patiently to the description of what a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) was (with a nod to retention problems, shuffles toward credit and credentialing [and monetizing all that], far-flung demographics, etc.). “If that’s a solution,” he asked, “what problems does it solve for us?” Good question.
An answer of sorts is the latest update in who’s jumping on the MOOC bandwagon. “Public Universities to Offer Free Online Classes for Credit,” The New York Times reports, though the new wrinkle is really that a commercial venture, Academic Partnerships, will recruit students for the free course for a share of the tuition they pay if they continue with the degree. Described as “a bold strategy” in the Times article, this try-then-buy ploy, with a commercial partner brokering that, is transparently more about marketing than pedagogy. Innovation as bait: doesn’t this return us to Davidson’s slide and the questions she provokes with it?
January 9th, 2013
The Sloan Consortium has announced the new Babson survey of online education — the 10th annual. (Tony Picciano posted on this yesterday, sharing the executive summary; this post is more of an attempt to read past the latest gains (and losses) to what the long-term trends seem to be.) The survey report is titled “Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States,” but the kind of “changing” heralded in the title turns out to be more a matter of changing by inches than any changing of direction. In a time when discussions of higher education (and not least of all the role of online ed within it) are marked by calls for radical change –”reinvention” and “revolution” — the report of ten years of change seems an account of (even a rationale for?) incrementalism.
The growth rate in online enrollments (9.3%) is the lowest reported over the ten years of surveying. And the growth is not really due to institutional change. On the contrary, traditional academic culture takes pretty much the same dim view of online instruction it always has: “Only 30.2 percent of chief academic officers believe their faculty accept the value and legitimacy of online education. This rate is lower than the rate recorded in 2004.” This significant lack of progress notwithstanding, growth continues because students seem to be voting with their feet, although strategic work on new ways to walk and new things to walk to seems minimal.
This is most striking when we look at the most publicized change in online instruction, the advent of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). The survey finds that under 3% of institutions have MOOCs while under 10% are planning to do anything along those lines. Most (over 55%) are undecided, while nearly a third (32.7%) say they have no plans for MOOCs.
It is of course no surprise that something so new as MOOCs would seem a far way from gaining acceptance, but the incremental change in perceptions of “traditional” online instruction does not bode well for dramatic changes in acceptance of new modes of teaching and learning, whether they be MOOCs or anything else. Even at institutions where online instruction exists to the tune of fully online programs, faculty acceptance peaks at 38.4% (as compared with that overall figure of 30.2% quoted above). A majority of academic leaders believe lower retention rates are a problem for the growth of online instruction, and those who believe a major reason is a lack of discipline on the part of online students has actually gone up from over 80% half a decade ago to 88.8% today. (This is another finding that does not bode well for MOOCs, by the way.)
What really makes this lack of change striking is that other battles seem almost won. The long-standing debate over comparability, for instance: it turns out that a substantial majority of academic leaders believe online education is “as good as or better than” traditional instruction. But a second glance is that the gains have been gradual and indeed incremental. “In the first report of this series in 2003, 57.2 percent of academic leaders rated the learning outcomes in online education as the same or superior to those in face-to-face. That number is now 77.0 percent.” Actually, a wider look at claims of gains seems to follow this pattern: “When this report series began in 2002, less than one-half of all higher education institutions reported online education was critical to their longterm strategy. That number is now close to seventy percent.” Over a ten year period, critical gains of that kind amount to about 20% — in other words, gains of about 2% a year.
Whether small, steady gains amount to dramatic changes in the long run is perhaps one of those things determined by the eye (and patience) of the beholder. What is clear is that change the press is fond of hyping with headlines about Campus Tsunamis and Revolutions are to be taken cum grano sails. As Emerson once said, “The years teach much the days never know,” and we should be grateful for the longitudinal view these ten years of surveying represent.
December 20th, 2012
It’s been a big year for MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), indeed the Year of the MOOC. No one has done a better omnium gatherum of what the year has brought in the way of MOOCs than Audrey Watters. Her excursus on “The Year of the MOOC” reminds us just how new a phenomenon the MOOC is, at least as it has come into focus in the public eye. Watters gives a timeline of what happened when: in January, Sebastian Thrun, after his famous success with an AI course enrolling over 150,000, announced Udacity, the first of the entrepreneurial MOOCs; MITx opened enrollment in February; Coursera launched in April; in May, Harvard joined with MIT and MITx became EdX, which Berkeley joined in July, etc.).
At least as usefully, Watters offers (just below that timeline) “The Forgotten History of MOOCs,” a reminder that all these headline-grabbing moves (mostly at/by elites that had heretofore done little with online education) were preceded by other epochal experiences in open online ed. The real ur-MOOC was a 2008 course called “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge” offered by Stephen Downes and George Siemens; practicing what it preached, the course, taken by a score of University of Manitoba students for credit, was also available free and online, and a couple thousand signed on.
As Watters notes, Downes has since distinguished between “cMOOCs” — those holding to the connectivist principles of that first course — and “xMOOCs“; the latter are not just massive but massively resourced, entrepreneurial, and, for better or worse, the focus of the most attention. Pundits like David Brooks and Thomas Friedman have seen them as the disruptors and even saviors of higher ed, but analysis of enrollments suggests that most of the people taking them are not college students but professionals in the field, other adult learners, and especially international lookers-on. Most who offer them don’t offer course credit, and most of those who take MOOCs don’t complete them. (Tony Bates, drawing on Downes’ distinction between cMOOCs and xMOOCs, notes “current xMOOC completion rates of 10% or less.”)
Touted as forces of disruption, they have themselves been disrupted, changed in telling ways. In addition to an impressive list of elites (including Princeton, Duke, Stanford, and Johns Hopkins), Coursera has been gathering unto itself an impressive stash of venture capital, and so has also been the focus of most of speculation (sometimes more than speculation) about the monetizing of MOOCs. Besides having their openness as well as their free-ness questioned (see “How Open Are MOOCs?“), these putatively free and open courses have been harnessed in interesting ways — to institutions using them for credit, to grants and experiments. They are part of a move to “Freelance Professors,” and even a move from “MOOCs to MOCCs” (Mid-Sized Online Closed Courses).
The tide has turned in another way: an increasing number of commentaries and analyses are highly critical of MOOCs. Much of this turns on the appeal the represent to the advantaged, to those that already have learned how to learn (essentially as autodidacts). This is not just the theme of “The False Promise of the Education Revolution,” the lead/cover story of the latest issue of the Chronicle of Higher Ed, but of recent articles in The Atlantic, The Economist, and others. (The lead-in to the article in The Economist –”creating new opportunities for the best and huge problems for the rest” — seems the soundbite least likely to be embraced as a slogan by the xMOOCs.) Some critiques have a distinctively dystopian flavor, like “The End of the University as We Know It,” in the January/February 2013 issue of The American Interest.
All this said, MOOCs remain the most potential-rich instructional resource to come along in a long time, perhaps since the invention of the printing press, and it would be unwise to presume that this year has seen that seam played out or diluted beyond recognition. The potential of MOOCs to offer a newer, richer instructional content in dramatically scalable ways may be the biggest thing to hit higher ed since textbooks, even as it opens new possibilities for new kinds of interactions between student and instructor, student and student, student and content. That potential is no more fully realized than it is exhausted. Expect better (if not bigger) things to come from these Massive Open Online Courses.
November 29th, 2012
A colleague sent me a very interesting article. (Thanks, Bruce.) “Coursera will profit from ‘Free’ courses“ its title declares. That’s not entirely new news. I noted some time ago that a freedom of information request had made the Coursera contract an open book, complete with 8 (count ‘em, 8) ways of monetizing its Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). But this piece, actually linking to the contract, enumerates and describes the ways, and speculates on more ways to make money from MOOCs with other, better(?) business models.
The discussion includes news that commercial learning management systems like Blackboard and Desire2Learn are jumping on the MOOC bandwagon. The idea, suggests the article (drawing on thinking about possible business models gathered at quora.com), is that the MOOCs from these commercial providers would function as loss-leaders or teasers — a taste of online instruction that would make users/learners want more (and pay for it).
None of this is surprising. With Coursera investing $22 million in venture capital (and it has been around less than a year), it is going to want to make that money back sooner or later — and sooner rather than later. It could do that through corporate sponsorship, certifications, partnerships (like its rival edX has already forged with the UT system), and so on.
One particularly compelling business model outlined in the article is the “freemium-to-premium” approach:
Freemium – Where you split the learning options along the lines of Bloom’s Taxonomy and make free those courses that target “Knowledge & Understanding” learning outcomes but charge a premium for those follow-on courses that target higher cognitive skills like “Applying, Analyzing, Synthesizing, Evaluating and Creating”.
What’s especially compelling about this is that, if you know your Bloom’s Taxonomy, the split between remembering (at the bottom) and analyzing, evaluating, and creating (at the top) is actually a spectrum, ideally a continuum, and you shouldn’t put walls — especially paywalls — between the learning objectives/opportunities.
Another configuration, designed less with profits and more with pedagogy in mind, would be a grand and glorious variant on the flipped classroom, where the instructional content is contained (and consumed) in something MOOC-like, but the critical inquiry and individualized, point-of-need instruction happens in a cozier, more interactive, and (yes) more traditional classroom environment. I’m not sure how you’d wring profits from such an arrangement, but I think we all can see how it could help make effective learning happen. And isn’t that the real point of courses, however massive or open or profitable?