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Slumping Tsunami

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.

“Innovation Exhaustion”

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.

MOOC Monsters

June 25th, 2013

Blind monks examining an elephant

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.

More Morphing of MOOCs

June 7th, 2013

spout of water caused by dropletThe 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.


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.

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.”


scaling graphicCalifornia 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.


A MOOC Point

March 12th, 2013

the first of the cards from the Rorschach inkblot testI’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.




Centrifugal Forces

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.


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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