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Playing the Role of MOOC Skeptic: 7 Concerns
May 21, 2012 - 9:00pm

Last week I had the privilege of attending the 65th Education Writers Association (EWA) National Seminar, held this year at the University of Pennsylvania. 

I was invited to sit on a panel discussion with the topic "Will Open Source College Courses Roil the Waters?" The session description read:

"The University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University are joining schools such as MIT, Stanford and Carnegie Mellon in making some of their courses available free online, sans credit for now. What questions should reporters be asking about this move to give everyone everywhere access to a college education?"

The panel included: Peter Struck associate professor of classical studies at Penn, Jeffrey Himpele associate director The McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning at Princeton, Kevin Carey policy director Education Sector, and myself. Jeff Young from The Chronicle of Higher Education moderated.

Any good panel discussion contains some measure of disagreement, or at least debate. I tried to provide that friction by attempting to play the part of "MOOC (massively open online course) skeptic". Truth be told, none of my fellow panelists could be described as MOOC cheerleaders. Rather, it was clear that Peter, Jeffrey, Kevin and Jeff hold complicated, sophisticated, nuanced and highly informed views on the growth of open online courses such as edX and new companies such as Coursera and Udacity in this space.

For a good review of the panel discussion, Peter Struck's ideas of what MOOCS will, won't and might do, check out Paul Glader's post over at wiredacademic.com.

I share the view of my fellow panelists that there are many good things about MOOCs. I actually think that MOOCs are a wonderful thing for the professors entrepreneurial enough to get Coursera contracts or to launch one with some other partner. The exposure is terrific. 

Having our courses available to the world will be an important catalyst to re-think the traditional lecture class, as the fastest route to a "flipped classroom" may be through a MOOC. We will learn lots about formative and summative assessment. We will think hard about the length of our lectures, and perhaps even move our conversations from "coverage" to "learning" and "retention." MOOCs will be an important communications channel to alumni and potential students, particularly international students.

But I also believe, and what I tried to make clear in the EWA panel, that MOOCs are in danger of being overhyped and their benefits being oversold. 

In short, while I believe that MOOCS are wonderful for the people who teach them and can be wonderful for our institutions, I don't believe that MOOCs offer any sort of solution to increase access, raise quality, or decrease costs in the higher ed marketplace.  

MOOCs are a welcome addition to the puzzle, but if we are serious as a society about investing in the human capital of our citizens (and thus provide opportunities for economic self-sufficiency and even economic mobility) that we need to invest public dollars in higher ed.   I worry that MOOCs are a distraction to this need for investment, and will divert attention from the systematic dis-investments we are seeing in post-secondary funding by government at all levels.

7 MOOC Concerns:

1. Education Requires Dialogue: Massively open online courses are wonderful things, but they should not be confused with a higher education. A MOOC, if well designed, can be a terrific method for information transfer, practice and assessment. Education contains all these elements, but an authentic educational experience requires dialogue. If our campuses are running courses that are absent real dialogue between students and instructors then we guilty of educational malpractice. MOOCs might expose this pathology (which would be a good thing), but they will not be the cure.

2. Authentic Learning Does Not Scale: The problem with creating authentic learning environments for higher ed is the impossibility of scaling up the experience. Past a certain ratio of students-to-educators learning efficacy degrades rapidly. Technology can be a mechanism that helps bring intimacy and personalization to learning, but we can only push this so far. I love the idea of pre-recorded lectures and rich online practice and assessment opportunities, but only if these elements free up time, space and energy for genuine and sustained interactions between students and instructors. A real education requires the development and nurturing of real relationships.   

3. More Inputs, Not Less, Equates to Better Educational Quality: We will not find a magic bullet that will lower the cost of higher education the way Moore's law has lowered the price of microprocessors. Higher education is costly because real learning relies on relationships and dialogue, and the educator side of this equation is expensive. As a society we need to find the political will to invest more dollars in higher education, not less.  

4. MOOCs Come With Opportunity Costs: If we decide to launch a MOOC then we better do it well. The last thing our institutions will need are public online classes that are not representative of the quality of our courses. And doing a good MOOC will be expensive, as designing for large numbers requires different learning design and course management strategies as traditional (smaller, closed) courses. We should talk about what we will not be doing if we invest in designing, supporting and sustaining a MOOC. Even if we get outside funding (which would be great), I'm almost certain that this funding will not create all new people on campus to work on the MOOC.  Rather, you will want your best faculty, learning designers, librarians, technologists and other education professionals producing your MOOC. These people will not be able to do other things. I wonder if a focus on creating quality blended courses, courses for our enrolled (and paying students), might in some cases be a better use of scarce time, attention and resources.

5. MOOCs Should Align with Strategic Goals: Every institution needs a MOOC strategy. This strategy may be an affirmative decision not to sponsor and support a campus MOOC, or perhaps the decision will be to partner with a for-profit or non-profit provider. Maybe the decision will be to do neither of these things, and leave the decision to offer a MOOC up to individual faculty. Whatever is decided, policies need to be crafted to support faculty and protect the institution at each step. Investments, and expected returns on investment, should be analyzed and then made available to the campus community. A communications strategy around MOOC decisions is as important as making these decisions in the first place.  We are now at the point where campus leaders cannot take a "wait and see" attitude about MOOCs - they need to get involved in the conversation. The goal should be that whatever the campus MOOC strategy ends up looking like that it aligns with the larger strategic goals of the institution.

6. The Danger Of MOOCs as a Money Saving Substitute:  I'm really worried that some provost or dean will get the idea to save money by having local students enroll in some edX or Coursera MOOC. The pitch will be that the local institution will provide "robust" tutoring and access to "small group" discussions. The local institution will then quality check by offering independent exams to validate that the material from the distant campus MOOC has been absorbed.  The argument will be: "Why not have our students learn from the world's best professors, wherever they may be teaching".  I think that this is a terrible idea, and will represent an abdication of our responsibilities as learning institutions. Separating our students from faculty by sourcing the role of teaching to the MOOC will save money, but the practice will disallow the development of the relationship between teacher and student that is necessary for authentic learning.   

7. Be Cautious about Commercial Partners:  My last concern around MOOCs relates to the role of commercial and for-profit players in this space. I am 100% convinced that we need vibrant for-profit / non-profit partnerships to spur innovation in higher education.  The people I know who work at for-profit education companies are as dedicated to transforming and improving education as anyone I know in the non-profit space. Yet, also know from experience that the incentives for non-profits and for-profits are not always perfectly aligned.  Both non-profit and for-profit entities need to think hard about how any relationship to design and launch a MOOC will evolve over the medium-to-long term.  Non-profit higher ed has very very long time horizons, an orientation that makes us a challenge to work with. We all need to be judicious as we examine new opportunities to create partnerships around open online learning.

Do you have any MOOC concerns?

 

 

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