Nibbling at the Edges

February 5th, 2013

StillLifewithMouseIt’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.


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