November 27th, 2013
Last Thursday and Friday Daphne Koller of Coursera and Anant Agarwal of edX gave keynotes at the 19th Annual Sloan-C Conference on Online Learning. (Sebastian Thrun of Udacity gave the most talked-about keynote at the 18th.) It was a good way to check the progress (or lack thereof) of the major MOOC providers. Most of their moves here lately have been lateral. If you believe Slate’s rather hyperbolic headline “The King of MOOCs Abdicates the Throne” (subtitle: “Sebastian Thrun and Udacity’s ‘pivot’ toward corporate training”), one of the big three has basically left the field. That article in Slate is actually based on another in Fast Company — “Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun, Godfather of Free Online Education, Changes Course” — and it was interesting to see some of the things Thrun is quoted as saying there emerge as subtexts in the keynotes of Koller and Agarwal. (This also gives me a slightly different angle than that taken by Tony Picciano in his already published remarks on the Koller and Agarwal keynotes.)
One important source of news about MOOCs of late has been San Jose State University, where faculty have been pushing back on the administration’s interest in trying out MOOCs and MOOC variants. Some of the experiments went south, with students using Udacity performing less well than those in traditional courses. This gave impetus to faculty senate actions sanctioning the administration and requiring faculty approval for such experiments, and that of course is notable and newsworthy. But so is Thrun’s reaction (in the Fast Company interview) to the poor performance: ”These were students from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in their lives. It’s a group for which this medium is not a good fit.”
That’s at odds with much of the MOOC-boosting talk about extending reach and access. At the Sloan Conference, both Koller and Agarwal were careful to show pictures of students from India and Africa, getting access to higher education they would otherwise have to forego. But the pictures were freeze-frame instances: this was recourse to the anecdotal, and the anecdotes were incomplete. Agarwal concluded his presentation with the story of Claude Mukendi of South Africa, whose access to college instruction was blocked by poverty and family tragedy, notably the death of his father. But it was an unfinished story. Claude was now taking college courses thanks to edX, but to what end?
Surely it’s too soon to tell, with MOOCs so new. But the fact is that the presentations of Koller and Agarwal were prepared as a spate of stories appeared, not just of Thrun’s “abdication,” but of the limited reach of MOOCs. There’s mounting evidence that MOOCs are more about extending the educations of the already educated. One example, a story coming out of an international conference on international education, was headlined “International Reach of MOOCs Is Limited by Users’ Preferences,” and cited Allan Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education, as saying that the international students he spoke to “understood that they could enroll free in courses from top universities, but they still wanted the college experience on a campus, even if it wasn’t at Harvard or Princeton. ‘People would rather spend $250,000 in U.S. than take a free course from Stanford,’ he said.” And Torbjorn Roe Isaksen, Norway’s minister of education and research, noted the potential of MOOCs to reach globally but noted that it was largely unrealized because “data from companies that provide MOOCs show that most of those who enroll in the courses have already completed degrees and are looking to further their learning.”
That was precisely the point of a study released last week with the headline “MOOCs Are Largely Reaching Privileged Learners, Survey Finds.” Focusing specifically on Coursera, and coming out the day before Koller’s keynote, the study found that “”more than 80 percent of the respondents had a two- or four-year degree, and 44 percent had some graduate education.” This was found to be true of international students as well. The conclusion? ”The individuals the MOOC revolution is supposed to help the most—those without access to higher education in developing countries—are underrepresented among the early adopters,” according to the study’s six authors.
This is the demographic drift that has sent Thrun after corporate e-learners, apparently, and while Koller and Agarwal never abdicated access as a high mission, they were scrambling to acknowledge uses that brought them closer to the already college-going if not the already college-educated. Both extolled the virtues of blended learning — of using MOOCs and MOOC platforms to supplement conventional college instruction. Koller used the “best of both worlds” line that is now standard for positive descriptions of blended learning. And Agarwal even went so far as to define “improving on-campus learning” as one part of the 3-fold mission of edX (the other two being “extending access” and “facilitating research about learning”). For her part, Koller (who, being the corporate as opposed to the open source MOOC provider, got much snarkier comments on the twitter backchannel) acknowledged that so many college-educated participants argued for the importance of MOOCs to “life-long learning,” and she cited a lecture by Christian Terwiesch of Wharton who said that MOOCs (specifically Coursera) should pursue a “blue ocean” strategy — i.e., should go after untapped education markets rather than compete with traditional higher ed offerings.
The gist, apparently meant to be comforting, is that MOOCs are out to augment rather than replace what is being offered in the higher ed sphere. Examples of the research that would improve learning did not seem hugely impressive: Agarwal showed a graph of how quickly students stopped attending to video lectures in over 30,000 viewings as “impressive proof” that the ideal video lecture should not exceed 6 minutes; and Koller extolled the virtues of machine grading and peer grading (the former encouraging a video-game-like interest in retesting for a higher score, the latter getting students to apply and so more deeply experience evaluative criteria). But anyone who thinks this reconfiguration of MOOCs as more supplemental and augmenting means their days as disruptors are over should read about MIT’s new strategy for using edX in its campus based courses. According to the article (mostly an interview with Agarwal) in Inside Higher Ed, “An education from MIT may soon involve a freshman year spent completing online courses, two years on campus and a fourth ‘year’ of continuous education.”
October 15th, 2013
The story of MOOCs is not a single story. Once touted as higher ed’s own singularity, there’s nothing singular about MOOCs any more. They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, openness and course-ness. And the point that they’re all over the place (in all senses) has been made ad infinitum. So why do we feel like we’re going around in circles about whether they’re a good thing or a bad thing (as if they were one thing)?
Some of this is the familiar pattern of action and reaction, so regular it has begun to feel like the tick tock of a pendulum. My last blog post — “Skepticism Abounds” — took its title from a report on a survey of faculty and administrators regarding online learning generally and MOOCs in particular. The same day, in the same source for that report (Inside Higher Ed), came a piece from the president of the American Council on Education (ACE) meant to be reassuring. Titled “Beyond the Skepticism,” it noted that there were indeed reasons to be skeptical, that “it hasn’t taken long in many quarters of our community for acclaim to accede to skepticism, and excitement about MOOCs to fade amid charges of excessive hype.” But not to worry: ACE will vet these MOOCs and decide which are worthy of credit. No sense here that faculty might be skeptical about that independent vetting — certainly independent of said faculty.
But the naysayers have their own organizations, and now they’ve gone “meta”– combining no fewer than 65 organizations into one coalition. No longer limiting their protests to a vote here (from the Rutgers faculty) and a letter there (from the San Jose State faculty), they have the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education. Its first report, subtitled simply “Profit,” warns against the entrepreneurial aspect of MOOCs and online learning, which got the attention of the Chronicle of Higher Ed, Campus Technology, and Inside Higher Ed. According to that last, “The report ties the current state of higher education to industries that have recently experienced economic downturns. The unregulated growth of ed-tech companies is described as a boom-and-bust cycle similar to the dot-com bubble that burst in the early 2000s, while rising student loan debt burdens and default rates are compared to the factors that led to the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis.”
That’s painting with a broad brush, but that’s done equally artfully by both sides. A defender of MOOCs, James G. Mazoue, promises to explode the “myths” about MOOCs in the latest EDUCAUSE Review, but as a counter-argument it’s really my-straw-man-meets-your-straw-man. The “myths,” framed as statements like “It’s All About Money” or “MOOCs Are Inherently Inferior,” are phrased as the kind of absolutes we’d know to mark False on a True-False test even if we knew nothing about the subject. Of course there exceptions to those statements, we think. In fact the real problem is that most MOOCs are themselves exceptions, one-offs and stand-alones, not curricula or integrated parts of a larger plan. Go ahead, just try to generalize about them. Or even try to frame expectations about them. Wait… Could that be a problem? Could that, right now, be the problem?
Problems or not, MOOCs were for so long (or at least loudly) framed as a solution, and there it really is all about money, even and especially if the O-for-open means both accessible and free. The problem is that higher ed currently works on an increasingly expensive and possibly unsustainable business model, especially in these days of shrinking public support. This is something William G. Bowen treats with remarkable candor in “The Potential for Online Learning: Promises and Pitfalls,” which appears in the same EDUCAUSE Review as Mazoue’s myth-busting article. What Bowen has to say on the subject is quite bracing — and worth quoting at length:
Faculty members understandably fear job losses, as Professor Albert J. Sumell, at Youngstown State University, cogently and sympathetically explains in an article aptly titled “I Don’t Want to Be Mooc’d.” Although there are ways of minimizing such risks of job loss (e.g., by redeploying faculty to higher-value tasks and by teaching more students), we have to be prepared to contemplate shifts in faculty ranks—both in overall numbers and in composition. We also have to recognize the implications of such possible changes for graduate education and for what is called “departmental research.” John Hennessy, at Stanford University, is one of the few leaders in higher education willing to be brutally candid in talking about such subjects.
The plain fact is that a combination of fiscal and political realities will continue to put inexorable pressure on the economic structure of higher education in the United States, especially in the public sector. Although an intelligent reexamination of tuition policies and financial aid policies can be of some help, I do not think there is any way to avoid thoroughgoing efforts to raise productivity—both by reducing the “inputs” denominator of the productivity ratio and by raising the “outputs” numerator.
Bowen really does explain something here: why the discussion of MOOCs and alternative modes is getting such attention — not least of all from administrators — even without solid successes or a proven business model. (Speaking of sustainability, giving it away is not a long-term option either, as everyone knows.) Costs are exceeding the power of institutions to control or students to bear. Change is already happening, in other words, and it is carrying away treasured ideas of equity and mobility. As the New York Times pointed out earlier this year, important studies are documenting the extent to which the educational gaps between the rich and poor are worsening, widening. MOOCs, especially in their current state — where so often the “sage on the stage” just becomes the “doc on the laptop,” as Cathy Davidson puts it – aren’t yet a fix, much less a cure-all. But they might be a crack in the wall. And the choice is not the false dichotomy between accepting or resisting change; the best choice, the third path, might be resolving to give it the right direction.
September 6th, 2013
“Skepticism Abounds” was the short bit before the colon when, last week, Inside Higher Ed sent out news of its Gallup poll on faculty attitudes towards online learning — both the article and the survey itself. (It was billed as a survey of attitudes on technology, but the focus was really online instruction.) The overall picture was still dimmer than the pretty dim view painted last year by the (also IHE-sponsored) Babson surveys, titled “Conflicted: Faculty and Online Education” and “Digital Faculty: Professors and Technology” (blogged about here and there). The surveys then and now differ in method and focus (about which more anon), so this is a little apples-and-oranges, but the difference between them feels like a shift from anxious ambivalence to dug-in resistance. The question is why — why a year of moving ahead in time seems such a step backward in faculty attitudes.
Well, what a year it has been: the Year of the MOOC, as we have seen it called in the NY Times and elsewhere. Dominating the news about online education, MOOCs have not been faring well of late. There’s been a pronounced backlash, even complaints about “innovation exhaustion” and “MOOC fatigue.” Compelling recent examples include concerns from those actually offering MOOCs. In one case, a dean at UC Irvine reaffirmed MOOCs’ outlier status with a MOOC on zombies; as he said by way of explanation: ”In a way, I feel that the MOOC conversation has been hijacked by the fact that they look like academic courses and people are trying to give credit for them.” That “hijacking” posed a different problem for a Princeton prof offering a popular sociology MOOC; worried about franchising or some form of co-optation, he just stepped away, as a recent Chronicle article recounted, quoting him as saying, “I’ve said no, because I think that it’s an excuse for state legislatures to cut funding to state universities. And I guess that I’m really uncomfortable being part of a movement that’s going to get its revenue in that way. And I also have serious doubts about whether or not using a course like mine in that way would be pedagogically effective.”
When you have earnest and erstwhile MOOC advocates voicing such concerns, we’ve really hit the trough of disillusionment in the hype cycle. And this is relevant to those surveys because of a “horns effect” — the devilish dark side of the halo effect. It’s a kind of guilt by association, a tendency to broad-brush online ed with the taint of MOOCs and their problems with faculty buy-in, completion rates, and pedagogy.
That said, the news from the Gallup survey is grim all around, going from bad (half-way acceptance by those who have done online) to worse (general skepticism from those who haven’t). Surveys, by their very nature, thrive on points of contrast, and whereas those Babson surveys last year contrasted faculty attitudes with those of administrators (who seemed comparatively bearish and bullish on online learning respectively), the current survey does lots of disaggregation among faculty groups — depending on where they teach, what teaching modes they’re familiar with, etc.
Some things are mildly encouraging (though hardly counter-intuitive), like the way familiarity breeds the opposite of contempt for online: those who have taught online are over three times more likely to believe online ed can achieve the same learning outcomes as face-to-face instruction, and the confidence heightens with every step closer to home, so that this is even more true of courses in one’s field, and still more true of “the classes I teach.”
The general distaste for MOOCs reflected in the poll may stem from a lack of familiarity, but the distaste and disbelief surely shows. Over three-fourths of faculty thought the press had overhyped the value and potential of MOOCs — as did nearly three-fourths of technology administrators. That was one of the few points they were that close on. In a semi-scary divergence, tech administrators were twice as likely as faculty to agree with statement “MOOCs make me excited about the future of academe.”
But nobody’s all that excited, and that goes for online learning generally. Of all faculty, just over 20% agree that ”online courses can achieve student learning outcomes that are at least equivalent to those of in-person courses,” and nearly 50% disagree — this despite the long-standing and growing body of research that there is in fact comparability, a body so longstanding it has come to known as the “no-significant-difference phenomenon,” one trumped by a more recent meta-analysis concluding that online works actually slightly better that face-to-face, and blended learning better than both. So we have a situation where faculty opinion not only seems overwhelmingly negative, but overwhelmingly at variance with evidence-based research, something that is supposedly the stock-in-trade of faculty opinion.
And yet this is really an invitation to miss the real point, which is not to decry subjectivity (might was well lash the waves and chain the wind). Here’s the burning question: who made face-to-face teaching the gold standard anyway? Isn’t the preponderant, inescapable, in-your-face evidence that of enormous variations in quality and efficacy in all kinds of teaching — in-person, online, and, yea, even in MOOCs? Is the goal to make online or other modalities as much like the status quo of current classrooms as possible? Really?
That being a rhetorical question (with a transparency bordering on sarcasm), the most telling commentary on the poll — invited by Inside Higher Ed and cited in the article that announced the poll – was really about the essential irrelevance of the points of comparison. And this was put beautifully, compellingly, by Cathy Davidson:
We should all be thinking of more interactive, human, creative, student-centered ways of teaching that help prepare students for the current world where, since April 22, 1993, anyone with a connection to the Internet has the capacity to think an idea and then communicate it to anyone else with a connection to the Internet. That is, for the first time in human history, we have a power of connection and a responsibility of connection that is instantaneous and global. Yet we are still teaching students as if that power did not exist, we are doing little to train them (or ourselves) for the harrowing and inspiring (both) powers of this world. Having a ‘doc on a laptop’ (my phrase for the video equivalent of the ‘sage on the stage’) yap at you from a computer screen does not prepare you for a digital world any more than a lecture course. BOTH need new paradigms, new thinking of everything from what we mean by teaching, what we mean by learning, how we help students integrate subjects that have been separated by our educational system for the last 150 years, and how we move away from standardization to iterative, customized, collaborative, and creative thinking.
August 16th, 2013
The ”Campus Tsunami” promised in David Brooks’ year-old prophecy that MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) would disrupt and transform higher education seems to have hit a seawall of sorts. A headline that sums up the sea change nicely appeared in last week’s Chronicle of Higher Education: “The MOOC ‘Revolution’ May Not Be as Disruptive as Some Had Imagined.” (Actually, of course, the headline riffs off another hyperbolic metaphor from another NY Times columnist: Thomas Friedman put out “Come the Revolution” on the advent of MOOCs about the same time as Brooks’ piece in 2012, then did a follow up, “Revolution Hits the Universities,” in early 2013.)
It’s important not to exaggerate the extent to which exaggerations miss the mark. There has been real growth of MOOCs in a fairly short time. (An interesting illustration is an interactive MOOC map showing which MOOC providers got traction where and when — all over a time span of not too much more than a single year.) That growth notwithstanding, something has changed, and it’s sort of a good news/bad news situation.
The good news is a checking of external pressure that seemed to promise the outsourcing or corporatization of higher ed. The most famous/notorious instance was a proposed bill in California, SB 520, which would have legislatively required the acceptance of MOOCs for credit accumulation and progress toward the degree. After blowback from faculty unions and faculty generally, the bill has been shelved. Fear and faculty backlash focused on much beyond that bill, of course, and there have been other instances of stepping back and standing down, notably action by accreditation agencies not to accept outsourced online instruction.
The bad news, if you want to look at it that way, is on the order of “be careful what you wish for.” If, in the face of pressure from legislators and entrepreneurial would-be “partners,” you want to see higher ed institutions take things into their own hands, there are signs they are doing that. The California bill that went away was shelved because it was no longer needed. According to Inside Higher Ed‘s take on that, the bill’s sponsor, Democratic State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, will hold off now that the California publics, stirred to action, may well do for themselves what his bill had proposed to do unto them:
… Steinberg is waiting to see the results of new online efforts by the state’s three public higher ed systems – the California Community Colleges, California State University and the University of California. The public college systems are working to expand their online offerings internally and without outsourcing their students to ed tech start-ups with little to no track record offering for-credit courses.
Similarly, the call for a serious look at MOOCs and the like seems to be coming increasingly from within rather than without, if more from the top brass than the grass roots. These expressions of interest are cautious but also committed. The title of a commentary on MOOCs that Michael M. Crow, president of Arizona State, did in a recent issue of Nature, is to-the-point: “Look, Then Leap.” And then there’s this title of an article provoked by a recent memo: “Get Used to Sharing Digital Content, Says U. of Texas at Austin President.” What effect such directives from on high will have on resistant faculty remains to be seen.
July 11th, 2013
The rhetoric about and around MOOCs seems to have moved to a new place in the past week or so — with the obvious but still necessary proviso that the term “MOOCs” is less and less about what it stands for [Massive Open Online Courses], more and more a kind of shorthand for disruptive innovation in higher education. As such, the term almost always appears in the plural, connoting not one thing but a variety of flavors, many of which are not, in fact, massive, or open, or entirely online, or even courses in a standard, stand-alone sense.
It is with respect this fuzzy construction that we have reached a new stage, not so much (or not just) of further fuzziness, but of what Dan Greenstein, of the Gates Foundation, recently called “innovation exhaustion“–noting that “innovation exhaustion comes out in an obvious and growing frustration with MOOCs.”
Some of this is reflected in new waves of faculty backlash, spawning headlines like “Could Professors’ Resistance Derail Online Learning?” (which, not atypically, confounds MOOCs and online learning generally). But this, too, has changed. There is, after all, more than grumbling and the occasional op-ed piece. Academics are getting organized. I had reported earlier on the Committee on Institutional Cooperation’s position paper about avoiding the corporatization major MOOC providers seem to represent. There is also Association of American Colleges and Universities and the faculty-led Campaign for the Future of Higher Education, the former decrying the MOOCs’ amplification of higher ed’s “least productive pedagogy” (lectures/testing), the latter fearing doing “serious damage to a generation of students by just throwing them into MOOCs” — both cited in a recent Inside Higher Ed piece called “Beyond MOOC Hype.”
That article likens the trending perception of MOOCs to certain points in a Gartner hype cycle — going from from a “peak of inflated expectations” to a “trough of disillusionment” — and a lot of that also has to do with practical, economic considerations: the failure of a viable, sustainable business model to emerge, the fact that, for all the hype, there’s very little market penetration, the recent survey showing that just 4% of the American public had any real familiarity with MOOCs.
That, of course, is not the real or full story, even from an economic angle. The business case for MOOCs rests not on their viability, either financially or pedagogically; it rests on their potential as an alternative to an increasingly unworkable business model for traditional higher ed — afflicted by rising costs, declining public support, steep(ening) tuition, ballooning student debt. In a piece this week called “MOOCs and Economic Reality,” Clay Shirky noted that
MOOCs represent a change in expectations among our clientele that cannot easily be contained in traditional structures. For as long as students and their parents have nervously scanned tuition bills, they’ve asked themselves “Isn’t there another way to do this?” And for that long, the answer has been “no.” Now, for the first time, the answer is “maybe.”
That bright and shining “maybe” may be behind the reason that, as Forbes noted yesterday, Coursera has another $43 million in venture capital. It could also be why foreign competitors to the likes of Coursera are emerging, as the Chronicle noted at the end of last week. There’s lots of investment in something that has yet to show return on investment. And though investors have sometimes been wrong, even spectacularly, it’s fair to suppose there’s some serious thinking behind this flow of funding and activity.
It may be that we are not only too conventional in our thinking about the delivery of higher ed but also too conventional in our consideration of its clientele. As Len Sherman recently pointed out in a blog post (with the possibly punning title “Whither Higher Education?“), whether or not MOOCs work for traditional college students is not, really, the question: ”In the long term, resistance from incumbent stakeholders will eventually be overcome by two large and powerful constituencies poorly served by today’s status quo: the 70% of US adults who do not have a college degree and the large number of employers challenged by a skills gap in the recruiting marketplace.”
These are of course external constituencies as far as higher ed is concerned, un(der)served because higher ed hasn’t made serving them a priority. But there may be an even more interesting reason that, for all the MOOC hype, there’s so little MOOC bandwagon in higher ed: Sherman points to a “significant faculty skills gap that constrains many colleges and universities from gaining widespread buy-in to exploit emerging technologies.” This not only exists but is likely to persist because
graduate students pursuing a career in academia typically get limited formal guidance on general teaching skills, let alone tutorials on emerging technologies to digitally enhance their classrooms. On most campuses, there is simply too little opportunity and incentive for junior or senior faculty to lead the charge on pedagogical experimentation.
Too true. And it is surely one great reason why, in this particular case as well as generally, disruptive innovation tends to come from the outside. Greenstein is right — higher ed’s reaction to all the MOOC hype is “innovation exhaustion.” But the exhaustion comes not from actual innovation, just from hearing about it so much. In the current near-vacuum of transformative change, innovation itself will likely largely continue to come from forces outside (or at best on the fringes), even if their outsiderhood is held against them.
June 25th, 2013
Much as I love the parable of the blind monks and the elephant (see the accompanying image), there may be an even better metaphor for what’s going on with MOOCs. Two weeks ago there was a remarkable essay in the Chronicle titled “Why We Fear MOOCs.” (Given the MOOC-saturation of the media, anything about MOOCs that sticks in the head more than a week is remarkable.) It begins with a definition of monsters taken from anthropology. Monsters fascinate and terrify, not because they’re utterly alien, but because they inject the known with the unknown, the familiar with the uncanny (turning the living into the undead, the man into the wolf, and so on).
I confess that one reason the article came (back) to mind was that I went to the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers last night. (It was part of the Bryant Park Summer Movie Series.) It actually improved the MOOC-monster analogy for me. So much of the movie is trying to figure out what’s going on, reading signs that something’s awry (that a boy thinks his mom’s not his mom, that nobody goes out to eat any more) and coming up with this or that hypothesis (a contagious neurosis and other allegorical suggestions that we’re losing touch with what it means to be human). Ultimately (spoiler alert!) it turns out that seed pods are growing and hatching doubles that are passionless but persistent, at least at propagating. The most memorable scene in the movie has our beleaguered hero looking down on the town square full of people early in the morning — too early. Trucks come in loaded with the pods, and the changed citizens bear them off to neighboring towns.
This is what made me recall the article, or rather where it went from the monster analogy. Mary Manjikian, the author of ”Why We Fear MOOCs,” saw two major points of hybridity, both upsetting the idea of “going to college”: that MOOCs messed with the idea of a “residential campus,” and with set time frames like semester-long courses.
True. But the trucks with the pods put me in mind of stuff people seem to find a lot scarier than not having their kids hang out in dorms and take classes in standard terms. If MOOCs represent an invasion — and that is in fact a metaphor that has been popping up here and there – the creepy thing is trying to figure out if people and things are what they say they are. Like the hero of Invasion, who can’t trust people like the gas station owner or the police chief to be themselves, do we know who’s who, who’s in charge? This is in a fact what’s been fueling the faculty backlash — something nicely summed up and reviewed in a recent New York Times article. Though the article’s title (“Online Classes Fuel a Campus Debate”) seems to suggest it’s the mode of delivery that’s the problem, the real issue is control: ”On many campuses, faculty oppose the spread of MOOCs, angry that their universities joined in with little consultation, undercutting the tradition of shared governance.” But that could be changing: “Now a new discussion has begun about whether universities should collaborate to develop and share their courses and technology, rather than working with outside providers.”
In other words, it’s the fear of alien invasion and especially corporatization that seems to be frightening folks. It’s not the online aspect. Notably, a gathering of global online educators said they’ve been doing MOOC-like stuff all along, the idea being that they just didn’t get the attention that the investment of a lot of venture capital did. And a gathering of chief academic officers didn’t object to MOOCs, just MOOC providers: “Universities in Consortium Talk of Taking Back Control of Online Offerings” the headline read. It’s not change we oppose, the provosts were saying. It’s the change-agents coming in from the outside and taking over our stock and trade.
Great. So the MOOC providers may be galvanizing rather than transforming the inertia-ridden sphere of higher ed. But there’s a part of me that can’t shake one point: what closed down the farm stand at the movie’s outset? Nothing grew faster than those seed pods.
June 7th, 2013
The changes MOOCs go through continue, some characterized and perhaps even caused by faculty backlash, with the latest wrinkle in that being the widespread consternation over multi-state, multi-campus deals with Coursera, deals on which a lack of faculty consultation led to what Inside Higher Ed called “Faculty Surprise.”
However understandable, such faculty reaction is tinged by irony: increasingly, MOOCs look less innovative and disruptive. I had commented on the growing “modesty” of MOOCs in an earlier post – how they were less massive, less open, less wholly online, less courses than stashes of “stuff”–but that commentary was not so good as that of Martin Weller, who blogs as “The Ed Techie” (and whom Joe Ugoretz put me on to — thanks, Joe). Noting how MOOCs have become the online bits of some blended learning (not very new) and the e-learning content for some campus-based learning (no more new), Weller, in a post with the wry title “You Can Stop Worrying About MOOCs Now,” writes,
None of this is bad…. It’s just not very exciting. And it certainly doesn’t warrant the coverage it gets. Can you imagine if Coursera had launched as a provider of elearning content to universities? I don’t think the media would have been as willing to reprint their every press release and promote them so uncritically. So it’s been a smart game to push the ‘future of education for everyone’ line, but surely that game is up now?
That’s a rhetorical question if you think you can stop worrying, but some worry that you can’t. There’s a fascinating line of thought now about MOOCs: far from being innovative, they are counter-innovative. For one thing, there’s a sense that there’s nothing new about them, whether you trace them back to the proto-MOOCs of years past (like TV’s “Sunrise Semester”), as Randy Riddle did in “MOOC Pre-History” (thanks to Jessie Daniels for that one), or you cite “The Pedagogical Foundations of Massive Open Online Courses” as Scott McLemee did in “The MOOC Synthesizer” (Moog, I get it — but it’s also about the MOOC as Synthesizer).
A still more fascinating take on MOOCs as counter-innovative takes on their purported homogenizing influence. An editor of the Christian Science Monitor asks the question “Are MOOCs making education a monoculture?” He certainly has (and quotes) one answer in the open letter from the San Jose State faculty to Harvard (and MOOC) prof Michael Sandel: “the thought of the exact same social justice course being taught in various philosophy departments across the country is downright scary – something out of a dystopian novel.”
This week, Patrick Deneen published an article titled “We’re All to Blame for MOOCs” in the Chronicle Review that came to a similar conclusion, with a twist you can tell from the title. “Higher education is more monocultural than ever before,” he writes; what’s more (and more important), the fact(?) that what was touted as the democratization of higher ed is really its flattening is our fault. We have tolerated and even abetted the decontextualization of knowledge, creating a line of logic that has its logical conclusion in Clay Shirky decrying the locally produced lecture as an “artisanal product”: the future we have paved the way to is the standardized lecture (in really high production video).
A more nuanced analysis by Michael Feldstein (thanks again, Joe) considers MOOCs as the latest development in the evolution of the “course as product.” More than (mere) textbooks, more than (mere) platforms, MOOCs are “forcing us to begin to articulate the value instructors add—both that they can in principle and what they are adding in practice today in large survey courses under the conditions that they are often taught.” It is in this light that something in today’s news – something already blogged about by Tony Picciano - -seems so interesting, and the title of the Chronicle article almost says it all: “MOOC Students Who Got Offline Help Scored Higher, Study Finds.” But let’s allow little more than the title: “On average, with all other predictors being equal, a student who worked offline with someone else in the class or someone who had expertise in the subject would have a predicted score almost three points higher than someone working by him or herself,” according to the MIT research team.
Counter-innovative or no, this is is hardly counter-intuitive. More and more, MOOCs, as they morph, look less and less like tsunami-starting disruptions, more like somewhat new or at least slightly differently-shaped (and shape-shifting) pieces of the vast puzzle of teaching and learning that we have trying to put together for so long. And will for a while yet, I wager.
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.