Positive Backlash?

November 19th, 2012

 Late last week, after all the attention given to MOOCs (massive open online courses), something new(?) made the news: a consortium of 10 schools the Chronicle of Higher Ed described as “highly selective” and Inside Higher Ed described as “elite” announced that it would be providing (regular-sized) online courses for credit. Since online courses have been providing college credit for decades — this has been done both by no less estimable schools (Penn State’s World Campus comes to mind) and by larger consortia (like the Educational Technology Cooperative of the 16-state Southern Regional Education Board or SREB), the question is what’s really newsworthy here.

There are several possibilities. One is simply that, in the wake of all this interest in MOOCs, anything they seem to have inspired is more news about them. And news of this new consortium fits. “The elite-branded, massive courses now being rolled out through Coursera and edX have set the stage for the 2U consortium,” says Steve Kolowich in the IHE article, “but the online courses from the consortium will not be MOOCs.”

What will they be then?  “The idea is to replicate not only the content and assessment mechanisms of traditional courses,” continues Kolowich,”but also the social intimacy.” Hmm. In other words, they will be much like the courses that for years have been offered by UMass Online, the SUNY Learning NetworkUniversity of Maryland University College (UMUC), usw.

But wait. What was that about 2U? Maybe that’s the noteworthy bit. What’s that exactly? The Chronicle article notes the consortium will be “using software from 2U, an education-technology company formerly called 2tor.” More than an LMS (it does involve design support and connective tissue for the consortium as well software),  2U does not displace the participating campuses’ own faculty (or, apparently their “highly selective” admissions and pricing), which raises real questions about the howling hyperbole of a headline Forbes came up with for 2u”s role in this venture: “Private Company Solves US Education Problem.”

The fact is that the consortium does need help (if not a national solution) because top-tier schools do so little with online education, or did till MIT and Harvard begat edX and Stanford profs begat Coursera and Udacity. Interestingly, this new top-tier consortium doesn’t seem very clear on why they are doing online ed. The Chronicle piece, which concludes with a bulleted list of the 10 schools involved, is all about how the online courses would benefit their study-abroad students — so much so that, though these remain the principal examples, there is now a correction of sorts: “This article was updated. An earlier version said that the courses were primarily designed for study-abroad students.”

So we have a mixed picture. These schools are offering online courses with paid help and unclear motives (except that others are getting headlines for doing it — why not us?). If they are really doing anything new besides charging more and being pickier about their students than most, it’s hard to say what, so that comments on the IHE article include snipes like “What I don’t get is the spin game and how some of these institutions are recasting or rehashing old programs as something new – and do it with a straight face.”

On the plus side, they’ve redirected attention from those massive open online courses that don’t offer credit (yet) but are mostly free (for the time being) to the online courses that do earn credit, are taught by regular college faculty, and do charge tuition — just like other online courses have been doing for two decades. It’s more the Emperor’s Borrowed Clothes than the Emperor’s New Clothes, but it’s good to see the attention redirected from MOOCs for a moment, almost like a positive backlash to those elephants in the room.

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