OpenStax College, an open-access textbook publisher, introduces its first offering through iTunes -- and hopes the $4.99 charge will allow students to benefit from extras and the business model to grow.
It seems at present that nearly every American college and university is wrestling with the question of whether to offer MOOCs (massive open online courses). There is something irresistibly seductive about the idea of simultaneously reaching thousands of students everywhere in the world, effectively seating them in an infinite virtual lecture hall. Indeed, the idea has taken on such allure that the University of Virginia (temporarily, as it turned out) fired its president, Teresa Sullivan, for among other things not jumping immediately on the online bandwagon.
But is Sullivan’s skepticism unwarranted? And even if it is in a given university’s case, are MOOCs appropriate for small colleges to offer for the world or to license for its students? The MOOC seems much more an extension of the large-university tradition, with its massive lecture halls seating hundreds of students per lecture, than it does of the liberal arts college, with its small, intimate classes centered on discussion. When you look, for example, at Ohio State University’s fall 2009 course offerings, you find freshman-class enrollments of 374 (Form, Function, Diversity, and Ecology), 298 (Introduction to Theater), 541 (Principles of Macroeconomics), and 671 (Introduction to Biology). All these involve students sitting together in a single lecture hall. Many liberal arts colleges have smaller numbers in their entire graduating class.
The MOOC, then, is essentially a high-tech extension of the traditional industrial-age university lecture-hall experience — and one, moreover, with an unproven financial model. Despite the apparent resonance with the traditional university lecture hall, there remain challenges for MOOCs even in the large research university environment.
They do not lead to a widely recognized credential. There is no workable revenue model in place for the startups and institutions that are funding them. While nearly $100 million has gone into MOOC funding, none of the major players — edX, Coursera, Udacity — has a business plan. (Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have pumped $60 million into edX. Coursera has raised $16 million in venture capital. Udacity has raised an undisclosed amount of money from Charles River Ventures.)
But back to the liberal arts college. When MOOCs are regarded strictly as a delivery model that is antithetical to the nature of the liberal arts college, the answer to the appropriateness question posed above is clearly “No.” But strip away the hype about building a college’s “brand” and distributing course material to a global audience and you can find in the technology underlying MOOCs something of great value to smaller institutions.
MOOCs, after all, were originally intended to provide for engagement and collaboration. The first MOOC made use of participatory-engagement tools now familiar to all liberal arts colleges: a wiki, a learning management system, blogs, Twitter, and videoconferencing. And originally, the MOOC was based on four types of activity, all key to the connectivist model:
1. Aggregate, in which students engage with lectures from experts, daily content links provided through a course newsletter, and reading content on the Web.
2. Remix, with students being encouraged to communicate with peers about content and what they are learning, through blogs, discussion boards, or online chat.
3. Repurposing, as students construct or create knowledge.
4. Feed-forward, with students encouraged to publish (and thus share their knowledge) in blogs or other “open” venues.
When it comes to MOOCs and the liberal arts college, then, everything but size matters. Take the "massive" out of "massive open online course” and you have a course delivery program/support model highly useful to liberal arts colleges for outreach and engagement. The media hype over industrial-strength instant delivery to massive audiences obscures the real value of MOOCs: the ability they bring to the smaller institution to respond to articulated strategic needs. Rather than connect your college curriculum to anonymous students who will never come to campus or be granted a credential, consider the opportunity to implement the MOOC platform to address other, very real, strategic needs. Redirect the engagement and collaboration that MOOCs in the connective mode make possible. Create connections to new audiences you want (prospective students) and audiences with which you want to ensure continued engagement (alumni).
The key here is thinking of the MOOC not in the standard way, as asynchronous video lectures and course readings, but in the connectivist way. The connectivist MOOC seeks to provide participatory space. This brand of MOOC is useful for outreach to potential students, creating meaningful connections between motivated high-school students and programs your campus has identified as strategic.
Think, for example, of connecting students in AP calculus courses with your campus’s introductory curriculum as part of the admissions recruitment culture. You can generate innumerable relationships between your faculty, your flagship programs and potential students. You can create spaces where secondary school students can interact with one another as they negotiate their college choice decision. The opportunity here for the small liberal arts college lies in the potential to encourage engaged discussion across networks, thus building awareness of what makes your campus special. Similarly, the MOOC platform and model can be used to deepen alumni relations in the context of lifelong learning.
Beyond the specific "to MOOC or not to MOOC?" question, small college leaders should consider the MOOC platform as a means to establish and sustain collaborative relationships with other institutions. In this context, such a platform can leverage the depth of course offerings available across a collaborative consortium to the benefit of all its members. Here are some examples of consortial collaborations that leverage the advantages of interinstitutional relationships while sustaining the value of the small liberal arts model:
Sunoikisis. Sunoikisis is a national consortium of classics programs that began as an initiative of the Associated Colleges of the South (ACS). In 1995, faculty from the institutions of the ACS met at Rhodes College to discuss the challenges facing classics programs at small liberal arts colleges. Sunoikisis was created to increase the academic opportunities for students at small colleges hoping to study the classics and also to support faculty development. In 2000, Sunoikisis began providing interinstitutional classics courses for students. Since its beginning, Sunoikisis has been exemplary in leveraging technology to create extended curricular offerings across multiple campuses, engaging classics students and faculty at its participating institutions. The Sunoikisis program provides students with a wider range of disciplinary coursework and interaction with student peers and faculty than would ever be possible at a single small liberal arts college. Faculty and students from 35 colleges have participated in Sunoikisis since its inception.
(Between 2006 and 2009, Sunoikisis was administered by the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education, and in 2009 the Center for Hellenic Studies, in Washington, became its primary sponsor. More information is available here.)
New Paradigms. Building on the success of Sunoikisis, the Associated Colleges of the South recently embarked on an ambitious program to connect courses from various disciplines across its 16 campuses, thus broadening academic offerings not currently available at all ACS institutions. New Paradigms seeks to leverage the breadth and depth of a consortium that includes 3,000 faculty and 30,000 students, augmenting regular course offerings on a student’s home campus with faculty lectures from across the ACS delivered via multipoint videoconference technology.
Texas Languages Consortium. Last year, NITLE consulted with five institutions to help them form the Texas Languages Consortium, increasing foreign language options for their students by managing technology, faculty, and student demands. Concordia University Texas, Lubbock Christian University, Schreiner University, Texas Lutheran University, and Texas Wesleyan University are the inaugural participants. Through the programs, students will have an opportunity to enroll for courses in German, French, Mandarin Chinese, and Spanish. Enrollment for the courses is managed through the students’ home campuses. Each university will provide courses through high-definition video conferencing labs with assigned faculty and proctor support.
Small colleges have been successfully developing such creative connections between students, faculty, campuses, and consortia for many years. Clearly, the value of collaboration has long been a component of their strategy. So perhaps the question for them is less when they should offer that first MOOC and more how they can use MOOC technology to continue creating and sustaining their collaborative tradition.
W. Joseph King is executive director and Michael Nanfito is associate director of the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE).
Tasked with assessing our first massive open online course (MOOC) here at U of All People, we have spent the past month temporizing, asking off-topic questions, and whatever else it is that assessment committees do. See Appendix A for suspiciously precise quantitative measurements. Below is a summary of our findings and recommendations, subject, of course, to the whim of the chancellor.
In its proposal, the original MOOC committee decided to retrofit Professor Arthur Treadwell’s Astronomy 101 lecture course, largely because of its huge enrollment (over 250 students) and reputation as an easy A. The “new” course, entitled The Universe Is Ours, consists of fifteen lectures, now copyrighted in the university’s name.
The syllabus and course requirements appear satisfactory, save that the syllabus is the same over-Xeroxed sheet from twenty years ago, and a MOOC has no course requirements. The 15 lectures form the backbone of the course; also, the cranium, pelvis, and tibia. It’s a MOOC: what you see is all you get. In general, the lectures are well-presented, though a few glitches remain that should be corrected in the final version.
Lecture 1: Starts too soon, with Professor Treadwell making a lewd joke to a front-row student identified as “Tiffany.” Tell Tiffany to wear more restrained clothing, or else Photoshop a bra on her.
Lecture 2: Camera angle is off; focuses solely on Prof. Treadwell’s shiny bald spot.
Lecture 3: Audio feed occasionally inaudible; fix lapel mic so that it doesn’t slide down Prof. Treadwell’s chest and make that sucking sound.
Lecture 4: Different professors have different pedagogical techniques, but in this talk, Prof. Treadwell exhibits so little body movement that the lecture hall lights, activated by motion sensors, fade after five minutes.
Lecture 7: Missing. The syllabus reads “Spring Break,” which is a poor excuse.
Lecture 10: Prof. Treadwell seems oddly morose and disappears in the middle of his talk, re-emerging from the wings a few minutes later, bleeding from his left ear.
Lectures 11-13: Repeatedly, Prof. Treadwell exclaims, “Now listen up, ’cause this’ll be on the final!”— when in fact the MOOC has no exams.
Lecture 15: For the final talk in the series, we suggest at least a smattering of applause, rather than the profound silence at the end of this lecture, followed by Prof. Treadwell’s coughing fit.
Is Prof. Treadwell really the best person for this trial course? If too late to change, perhaps provide a body double or a guest lecture by someone in the theater department.
What about trying other departments? Not the English department, which is impossible to deal with, but maybe art or psychology.
If MOOCs at other universities are so “open,” what’s to prevent us from adapting (or adopting) some of those lectures?
Through content licensing, the MOOC may eventually generate real income. U of All People can sell the course back to the university (U of A P), in the process charging students per tuition credit. To become a three-credit course, the MOOC may be augmented to include:
* a Kindle textbook download.
* discussion forums, with slave or adjunct labor to monitor chat rooms.
* quizzes and assignments, peer-scored. Tout it as part of the learning process, and put the bastards to work. If successful, can be applied to all other coursework.
* that final exam that Prof. Treadwell keeps referring to, overseen by enough adjuncts to avoid paying anyone full-time rates. May be replaced by student peer reviewers (see above).
* MOOC student data forms that we can peddle to marketing firms.
Without course requirements or grades, who cares? But if we push the MOOC as a graded, three-credit course (see above, under Monetization), we need some safeguards in place, or at least something more than a lame honor code. The IT group at U of All People has recently developed its own proprietary software, Gotcha, to deal with student plagiarism and copycat Scantron issues. To date, it has caught 100 percent of the student body.
We could use a good slogan, though the PR department’s “If they can do it, so can we!” sounds too defensive. “At U of All People, the Future Is MOOC!” sounds too much like “moot,” but if no other options, maybe O.K.
We might also develop an alternative acronym to MOOC, something friendlier and more intimate-sounding, though "Mega Enrollment Seminar Series" may not be the way to go.
Given a modest investment of time, energy, and money, U of All People should be able to put forth a MOOC to rival its sister and brother and even cousin institutions. But first, fix that camera angle so we don’t have to stare at Treadwell’s bald patch.
David Galef directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University. His latest book is the short story collection My Date With Neanderthal Woman (Dzanc Books).
The American Studies Crossroads Project, an early web pioneer that enabled instructors to share online teaching materials and stories of how they had used them, has been archived and closed -- made irrelevant, its founder says, by the "swiftly moving stream that is the Internet." Randy Bass, a professor of English and associate provost at Georgetown University, said that its core idea -- being "a single knowledge-building, field-forming virtual community" for scholars and teachers in American studies -- "no longer has a role in the distributed and ubiquitous environment of the Web."
Many professors worry about students who use various devices in class not to take notes, but to keep up with Facebook and Twitter. Henry Kim, a business professor at Canada's York University, has gone beyond just banning students from using their laptops for non-class activities. As The Toronto Star reported, he requires students to pledge to -- if asked -- reveal if fellow students' web browsers are open to social media or other non-class-related material. He then can have eyes throughout the class.
Clay Shirky and Jay Rosen have popularized the phrase “People Formerly Known as the Audience” to describe the evolution of contemporary media consumers from mere listeners or
viewers into interactive and demanding participants. A similar redefinition of roles is emerging in conversations about the consumers of massive open online courses. With a student-faculty ratio of, in some cases, 150,000: 1, the teacher of a MOOC may well struggle to define his or her relationship to an audience of course-takers who do and do not resemble traditional "students."
In a recent Twitter exchange, media scholars Siva Vaidhyathan and Cathy Davidson debated the question of whether people enrolled in a MOOC are accurately described as “students.” @CathyNDavidson asked, "Are they really all 'students' or merely 'registrants'?" She later referred to Coursera’s total number of "course users" – but also described a Coursera course on bioelectricity as having "11,500 students."
Coursera, Udacity and Khan Academy themselves consistently refer to their participants as "students." Udacity’s website, for example, promises: "At Udacity we put you, the student, at the center of the universe." Only edX uses the term "learners" instead.
At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, home of edX, on-campus students are evidently not yet sure whether MOOC learners should be considered fellow nerds. A graphic that appeared in the MIT student newspaper The Tech in its first issue of September asked: "MIT’s First Online Course: How Did the World Do?" The question was answered with a chart that traced not only the number of registrants, but "number of students who looked at the first pset [problem set]," "number of students who received at least 1 point on the first pset," "number of students who looked at the final exam," etc. The overall numbers had been released by edX, but the MIT students’ more detailed framing of the information in the context of their own familiar parameters of success suggests an effort to grapple with the question of whether course registrants were comparable to "real" MIT students.
How to refer to MOOC participants is not a trivial issue of nomenclature to most faculty, for whom the role of "student" carries specific expectations shaped both by our own experience as students, and the personal and professional expectations attached to our current roles. At a minimum, a student is someone for whose education you have assumed some personal responsibility. You have a vested interest in your students’ progress, and your own success as a teacher is related to their success at mastering the course material you have designed. You are, to varying degrees depending on your institution, attentive to their needs: you are available during office hours, you answer their e-mails, you write them recommendations, you may offer individual mentoring and support. Above all, you notice if they are learning, and adjust your presentation of material if they are not.
It is not hard to imagine that the almost subliminal expectations triggered by the "student" role may work against the presumed efficiency of the MOOC model. The kind of dedicated and innovative teachers typically drawn to MOOCs will find it very difficult to ignore the demands of online learners who act and feel like, well … students. Their best students may e-mail them with questions, seek their advice on further study, ask for recommendations or job referrals, perhaps even travel to campus in hopes of meeting them. To ignore such requests would go against the grain of a lifetime of membership in the academy, where "paying it forward" requires helping your students as your professors helped you. But responding to even 1 percent of those taking a MOOC could mean interacting with 1,000 students.
Some promising models for non-instructor-based interaction are emerging. These include crowdsourcing or automation of grading, using grad students or alumni volunteers as online discussion leaders, or having centralized course materials supplemented locally by individual instructors. These approaches may create scalable opportunities for feedback, and are in many ways more consistent with the student drive toward peer-to-peer, customized learning than the kind of broadcast lectures that are currently the foundation of many MOOCs. Nevertheless, we should not underestimate the degree to which a sense of connection with an individual instructor, one who models the project of intellectual inquiry, is a key dimension of many students’ motivation. A charismatic instructor of many students is likely to feel the pressure of that desire for connection.
Faculty and administrators will need to be very clear, therefore, about how far faculty should go to meet such student expectations, and how this new work will be valued by the institution. Does this interaction come at the expense of time spent with on-campus, tuition-paying students? At the expense of the instructor’s research agenda? The high visibility and positive PR associated with MOOCs could quickly backfire if a large and media-savvy audience is disappointed in, for example, the tenure outcome of a popular online professor who has published less than his or her peers.
MOOCs have become a flashpoint for discussion of higher ed because they represent an easily graspable, almost parodic version of what was previously invisible: elite university education. They have a unique power to drive public perception of the entire sector. We all have a stake, therefore, in how they define, or redefine, such key terms as "students," "faculty," and "courses." If we allow the word "student" to lose its primary meaning as a person formally engaged in learning through enrollment in a school or college, a person toward whom that institution and its faculty assume some responsibility, then we undermine the case for colleges and universities as the place where students go to meet their educational goals. Similarly, recent reports that Cambridge Graduate University was claiming as “faculty” various eminent professors whose online lectures are freely available on the web remind us that if we do not insist on reserving the term for continuing instructors who are hired to teach the students of a specific college or university, we may erode public understanding of a quality institution’s dependence on a stable, dedicated faculty.
Finally, it is important to recognize that what distinguishes a "course" from a set of lectures -- regardless of which is face-to-face and which is online -- is the difference between a mere broadcast of information, and a mutual commitment by teacher and student to a pedagogical relationship that is supported by a larger curricular structure and institutional mission.
It seems clear that the spaces, formats, and media in which higher education is offered may change radically in the coming years. We will certainly need to adjust our terminology to keep pace with these changes. We must not lose sight, however, of the central axis around which all education revolves. Classroom walls may disappear as predicted, lectures may go the way of the dodo bird, but what will still define education is the presence of (a) a teacher, (b) students, and (c) a set of agreed-upon goals that they work toward together.
Alison Byerly holds an interdisciplinary appointment as college professor at Middlebury College, where she also served until recently as provost and executive vice president. While on leave in 2012-13, she is a visiting scholar in literature at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her bookAre We There Yet? Virtual Travel and Victorian Realism is forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press.