“The best vision is peripheral vision.” – Nicholas Negroponte
Back when I was a carefree grad student, some 20 years ago, I decided to write a dissertation about apocalyptic discourse. The millennium was then looming on the horizon like a Mayan baktun or a disruptive innovation, threatening to bring about the end of the world as we knew it. In one corner stood those who confidently predicted that a comprehensive desolation would be visited upon everything that we’d once held sacred, and in the other corner stood those for whom the clanging bell of the millennium would most certainly signal the restoration of a profound peace and a lasting illumination.
Who could resist stepping into a fight like that?
Not only did it sound like fun to tell them they were both wrong, but it also seemed fundamentally true. I felt pretty confident, for a start, that the world wouldn’t really end.
I feel much the same today when I confront yet another breathless news story about whatever latest innovation (hint: it’s always a MOOC) is going to change higher education utterly, for better or worse, full stop. Except it doesn’t, and they never do – film didn’t change education utterly, television didn’t, the computer didn’t, and the Internet hasn’t. After all, I write this to you from the cozy corner of a major urban research university; the old ways are still very much with us, even as we make way for the new.
While I don’t want to lay the blame for all of this apocalyptic rhetoric at the doorstep of Clayton Christensen, I would still like to have a word.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a longtime fan of online learning (as well as classroom learning; I’ve studied and taught in both environments, and each has its strengths). I also like change as much as the next person – whether it’s the sun coming out in December or a shiny new iPhone. All of these things have something to recommend them. But do any of them portend the end of time? I don’t think so.
I read Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma with real interest back in 1997 when I was an IT market analyst. I even reviewed it for a trade newsletter. I think his theories of “sustaining innovation” and “disruptive innovation” offer interesting tools for understanding how a variety of industries have evolved at particular moments in the past.
Whether these theories can be used to predict the future, however – well, I’m not so convinced.
For example, I was surprised to read the following prediction from Christensen’s Disrupting Class in 2008: “by 2019, about 50 percent of high school courses will be delivered online.” I already knew back then that the penetration of online learning in higher education was nowhere near approaching that level, and I also knew that higher education was far advanced in its experimentation with online learning relative to high schools. While Christensen and his co-authors had some interesting mathematical models to draw upon to support their prediction, common sense and recent history seemed to suggest that the revolution probably wouldn’t come as early as they’d anticipated. In fact, if the prediction turns out to be true in six years’ time, I’ll eat this article.
My real beef, though, isn’t with Christensen. He’s a smart man, even if he’s still something short of a prophet. My real problem is with the acolytes – and I urge any young readers out there considering a dissertation of their own on apocalyptic discourse to keep an eye out for these types. Acolytes tend toward reductivism, simplification, and speaking very loudly. And often they mangle the prophet’s core message in the process, occasionally even inverting it.
Take disruptive innovation. Please.
In higher education, at least judging by the recent conferences I’ve attended, far too many people have come away from Christensen’s work (or whatever second- and third-order echoes of it they’ve picked up from the media) with the idea that, if we all try, we can simply disrupt ourselves. And that way, nobody has to lose a job or a research grant or move back to the home office.
Among this strand of believers, “disruptive” innovation appears to be synonymous with “cool” innovation, or even simply “change” – or even, more simply, “the status quo.”
What these believers forget, or perhaps never knew, is that Christensen uses the concept of disruptive innovation as a means of describing how the giant company is so often killed by the little guy with the sling shot – a sling shot that just happens to be cruder, easier to use, less expensive, and more attractive to a heretofore unengaged set of new consumers than the giant’s weapon of choice. In other words, if genuinely disruptive innovation does occur within higher education, traditional universities are much more likely to play the role of the giant than the innovator.
And yet some of the more attentive readers of Christensen’s work have taken to heart his hopeful message that the only way for incumbent leaders to survive these market disruptions is to create new and separate business units of their own, free from profit pressures and growth strategies of the core business, and allow them to break all the rules en route to coming up with “the new, new thing” that will prove to be the true category-killer. If any institutions within higher education succeed at disrupting themselves, it may be the few that have adopted this model. But for those institutions working desperately to preserve the rules and still somehow survive in a dynamic market – the ending may not be the one they expect.
In the months ahead, I’d like to use this column to reframe and refocus the conversation about innovation in higher education. All of this talk about disruption has become a distraction – an apocalyptic tick. It reminds me of that great line from Tolstoy, “He in his madness prays for storms, and dreams that storms will bring him peace.” Let’s leave that aside for the time being and look at productive change in higher education from a different vantage point.
“The best vision,” Nicholas Negroponte likes to say, “is peripheral vision.” New ideas are out there – in the margins, away from the main frames of reference. Their immediate effects may be small or local in scale, but they can gradually introduce meaningful improvements to mainstream practices. In this column I want to examine some of the interesting experiments taking place in the margins of our field of vision – experiments that may well inform how we refine our approach to delivering higher education going forward.
Along the way, I’d like to propose that we focus on a humbler but still worthwhile form of innovation – the kind that isn’t dependent upon hype, gadgetry, a singular eureka moment, or the game-changing end of all that came before it. I’d prefer to focus on the kind of innovation characterized by a planned and responsible approach to strategy and management, the kind that continuously seeks to transform products and services in ways that are more responsive to the evolving needs of the contemporary marketplace, and which, as a consequence, delivers enhanced benefits to all participants, whether they be students, faculty, administrators, parents, governments, or the public.
And let’s assume the world is still there with us, too.
Peter Stokes is executive director of postsecondary innovation in the College of Professional Studies at Northeastern University.
Rather than having students wait weeks for feedback on homework, MIT professor has developed computer program that assigns diverse group of people to review small chunks of each student's work. MIT may use program in MOOCs.
Submitted by Aaron Bady on December 6, 2012 - 3:00am
Clay Shirky is a big thinker, and I read him because he’s consistently worth reading. But he’s not always right – and his thinking (and the flaws in it) is typical of the unquestioning enthusiasm of many thinkers today about technology and higher education. In his recent piece on "Napster, Udacity, and the Academy," for example, Shirky is not only guardedly optimistic about the ways that MOOCs and online education will transform higher education, but he takes for granted that they will, that there is no alternative. Just as inevitably as digital sharing turned the music industry on its head, he pronounces, so it is and will be with digital teaching. And as predictably as rain, he anticipates that "we" in academe will stick our heads in the sand, will deny the inevitable -- as the music industry did with Napster -- and will "screw this up as badly as the music people did." His views are shared by many in the "disruption" school of thought about higher education.
I suspect that if you agree with Clay Shirky that teaching is analogous to music, then you are likely to be persuaded by his assertion that Udacity -- a lavishly capitalized educational startup company -- is analogous to Napster. If you are not impressed with this analogy, however, you will not be impressed by his argument. And just to put my cards on the table, I am not very impressed with his argument. I think teaching is very different from music; that it is so different as to make the comparison obscure a lot more than it reveals.
But the bigger problem is that this kind of argument is weighted against academics, virtually constructed so as to make it impossible for an academic to reply. If you observe that "institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution," after all -- what has been called "The Shirky Rule" -- it can be easy to add the words "all" and "always" to a sentence in which they do not belong. This not a principle or a rule; it’s just a thing that often happens, and often is not always. But if you make the mistake of thinking that it is, you can become uniformly prejudiced against "institutions," since you literally know in advance what they will do and why. Because you understand them better than they understand themselves -- because they don’t or can’t realize that they are simply "institutions" -- you can explain things about them that they can neither see, nor argue against. "Why are you so defensive?" you ask, innocently, and everything they say testifies against them.
If someone like me -- a graduate student for many years, currently trying to find an academic job -- looks at MOOCs and online education, and sees the downsides very clearly, it’s also true that no one has a more strongly vested interest in arguing the benefits of radically transforming the academe than Clay Shirky and a number of others who talk about the inevitability of radical change. As Chuck Klosterman unkindly put it, once, "Clay Shirky must argue that the Internet is having a positive effect – it’s the only reason he’s publicly essential." Which is not to say that Shirky is wrong, simply that he must prove, not presume, that he is right.
I have to go through this excessively long wind-up because of the ways that Shirky has stacked the rhetorical deck in his favor. He uses the word "we" throughout his piece, and in this powerful final paragraph, he hammers us over the head with it, so precisely that we might mistake it for a caress:
"In the academy, we lecture other people every day about learning from history. Now it's our turn, and the risk is that we’ll be the last to know that the world has changed, because we can’t imagine — really cannot imagine — that story we tell ourselves about ourselves could start to fail. Even when it’s true. Especially when it’s true."
But what do you mean "we," Mr. Distinguished Writer in Residence? I asked Shirky on Twitter if he considered himself primarily an academic, and though he didn’t respond, it’s important that he frames his entire post as if he’s an insider. But while it’s certainly true that I am biased in favor of academic labor continuing to exist in something like its present form, he is no less biased by having nothing to lose and everything to gain if academe is flipped on its head. And yet the cumulative rhetorical effect of his framing is to remind us that no one within the institution can speak knowledgeably about their institution, precisely because of their location within it; when Shirky speaks of "we" academics, he does so only to emphasize that "we" can’t imagine that the story we tell ourselves is wrong.
It's because he is willing to burn the village to save it that Shirky can speak for and of academe. Because Shirky never has to show evidence that online education will ever be any good; he notes an academic’s assessment of a Udacity course as "amazingly, shockingly awful" and is then, apparently, satisfied when Udacity admitted that its courses "can be improved in more than one way." A defensive blog post written by Udacity’s founder is enough to demonstrate that change for the better is happening. And when the academic who criticized the Udacity course mentions a colleague whose course showed some of the same problems -- but does not name the colleague -- Shirky is triumphant. The academic in question "could observe every aspect of Udacity’s Statistics 101 (as can you) and discuss them in public," Shirky observes, "but when criticizing his own institution, he pulled his punches."
This is Clay Shirky’s domain, and also the domain of so many others who point to one or another failing of traditional higher ed to suggest that radical change is needed. The anecdote that illustrates something larger. In this case, the fact that academe is a "closed" institution means it cannot grow, change, or improve. By contrast, "[o]pen systems are open" seems to be the end of the discussion; when he contemplates the openness of a MOOC, the same definitional necessity applies. "It becomes clear," he writes, "that open courses, even in their nascent state, will be able to raise quality and improve certification faster than traditional institutions can lower cost or increase enrollment.” It becomes clear because it is clear, because "open" is better, because it is open.
But how "open" is Udacity, really? Udacity’s primary obligation is to its investors. That reality will always push it to squeeze as much profit out of its activities as it can. This may make Udacity better at educating, but it also may not; the job of a for-profit entity is not to educate, but to profit, and it will. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with for-profit education -- and most abuses can be traced back to government deregulation, not tax status -- but the idea that "openness," as such, will magically transform how a business does business is a massively begged question. A bit of bad press can get Sebastian Thrun to write a blog post promising change, but actually investing the resources necessary to follow through on that is actually a very different question. The fact that someone like Shirky takes him at face value -- not only gives him the benefit of the doubt, but seems to have no doubt at all -- speaks volumes to me.
Meanwhile, did the academic that Shirky criticizes really "pull his punches"? Did he refrain from naming his colleague because of the way academics instinctively shield each other from criticism? It’s far from clear; if you read the original blog post, in fact, it’s not even apparent that the academic knew who this "colleague" actually was. All we really know is that a student referred to something her "last teacher" did. But suppose he did know who this student’s last teacher was; suppose the student mentioned the teacher by name. Would it have been appropriate to post someone’s name on the Internet just because a secondhand source told you something bad about them? Does that count as openness?
Open vs. closed is a useful conceptual distinction, but when it comes down to specific cases, these kinds of grand narratives can mislead us. For one thing, far from the kind of siege mentality that characterized an industry watching its business model go up in smoke -- an industry that was not interested in giving away its product for free -- academics are delighted to give away their products for free, if they can figure out a way to do it. Just about every single public and nonprofit university in the country is working to develop digital platforms for education, or thinking hard about how they can. This doesn’t mean they are doing it successfully, or well; time will tell, and the proof will be in the pudding. But to imagine that Silicon Valley venture capitalists are the only people who see the potential of these technologies requires you to ignore the tremendous work that academics are currently doing to develop new ways of doing what they do. The most important predecessors to MOOCs, after all, were things like Massachusetts Institute of Technology's OpenCourseWare, designed entirely in the spirit of openness and not in search of profit.
The key difference between academics and venture capitalists, in fact, is not closed versus open but evidence versus speculation. The thing about academics is that they require evidence of success before declaring victory, while venture capitalists can afford to gamble on the odds. While Shirky can see the future revolutionizing in front of us, he is thinking like a venture capitalist when he does, betting on optimism because he can afford to lose. He doesn’t know that he’s right; he just knows that he might not be wrong. And so, like all such educational futurologists, Shirky’s case for MOOCs is all essentially defensive: he argues against the arguments against MOOCs, taking shelter in the possibility of what isn’t, yet, but which may someday be.
For example, instead of arguing that MOOCs really can provide "education of the very best sort," Shirky explicitly argues that we should not hold them to this standard. Instead of thinking in terms of quality, we should talk about access: from his perspective, the argument against MOOCs is too narrowly focused on the "18-year-old who can set aside $250k and four years" and so it neglects to address students who are not well-endowed with money and time. "Outside the elite institutions," Shirky notes, "the other 75 percent of students — over 13 million of them — are enrolled in the four thousand institutions you haven’t heard of." And while elite students will continue to attend elite institutions, "a good chunk of the four thousand institutions you haven’t heard of provide an expensive but mediocre education."
This is a very common argument from MOOC boosters, because access is a real problem. But while a "good chunk" of 13 million students are poorly served by the present arrangement, it is quite telling that his example of "expensive but mediocre education" is Kaplan and the University of Phoenix, for-profit institutions that are beloved by the same kinds of venture capitalists who are funding Udacity. He is right: For-profit education has amassed a terrible track record of failure. If you are getting a degree at a for-profit institution, you probably are paying too much for too little. But would it be any less mediocre if it were free?
Udacity’s courses are free to consumers (though not, significantly, to universities), at least for now. And Shirky is not wrong that "demand for knowledge is so enormous that good, free online materials can attract extraordinary numbers of people from all over the world." But Shirky doesn’t mean "demand" in the economic sense: demand for a free commodity is just desire until it starts to pay for the thing it wants. Since there is a lot of unmet desire for education out there, and since that desire is glad to have the thing it wants when it finds it for free, it seems all to the good that students can find courses for free. But while we should ask questions about why venture capitalists are investing so heavily in educational philanthropy, we also need to think more carefully about why is there so much unmet desire in the first place, and why so many people want education without, apparently, being able to pay for it. Why hasn’t that desire already found a way to become demand, such that it must wait until Silicon Valley venture capitalists show up, benevolently bearing the future in their arms?
The giveaway is when Shirky uses the phrase "non-elite institutions": for Shirky, there are elite institutions for elite students and there are non-elites for everyone else. The elite institutions will remain the same. No one will ever choose Udacity over Harvard or U.Va., and while elite institutions like MIT, Stanford, Princeton, and my own University of California are leaping into the online education world head first, anyone who thinks these online brands will ever compete with "the real thing" will be exactly the kind of sucker who would fork over full price for a watered-down product.
MOOCs are only better than nothing and speculation that this will someday change is worth pursuing, but for now, remains just that, speculation. It should be no surprise that venture capital is interested in speculation. And it should be no surprise that when academics look at the actual track record, when we try to evaluate the evidence rather than the hope, we discover a great deal to be pessimistic about.
Why have we stopped aspiring to provide the real thing for everyone? That’s the interesting question, I think, but if we begin from the distinction between "elite" and "non-elite" institutions, it becomes easy to take for granted that "non-elite students" receiving cheap education is something other than giving up. It is important to note that when online education boosters talk about "access," they explicitly do not mean access to "education of the best sort"; they mean that because an institution like Udacity provides teaching for free, you can’t complain about its mediocrity. It’s not an elite institution, and it’s not for elite students. It just needs to be cheap.
Talking in terms of "access" (instead of access to what?) allows people like Shirky to overlook the elephant in the room, which is the way this country used to provide inexpensive and high-quality education to all sorts of people who couldn’t afford to go to Yale -- people like me and my parents. While state after state is defunding its public colleges and universities (and so tuition is rising while quality is declining), the vast majority of American college students are still educated in public colleges and universities, institutions that have traditionally provided very high-quality mass higher education, and which did it nearly for free barely a generation ago.
"Access" wouldn’t even be a problem if we didn’t expect mass higher education to still be available: Americans only have the kind of reverence for education that we have because the 20th century made it possible for the rising middle class to have what had previously been a mark of elite status, a college education. But the result of letting these public institutions rot on the vine is that a host of essentially parasitic institutions -- like Udacity -- are sprouting like mushrooms on the desire for education that was created by the existence of the world’s biggest and best public mass higher education system.
Shirky talks dismissively about his own education, at Yale, and recalls paying a lot of money to go to crowded lectures and then to discussion sections with underpaid graduate students. Let me counter his anecdote with my own, When I was a high school student, in Appalachian Ohio, I told my guidance counselor that I wanted to go to Harvard, and he made me understand that people from Fairland High School do not really go to Harvard. I was a dumb high school student, so I listened to him. But although both of my parents worked in West Virginia, they had moved to Ohio when I was young so that I could go to Ohio schools, and this meant that although my grades were only moderately good -- and I had never had access to Advanced Placement classes -- I was able to apply to Ohio State University, get in, afford it, and get an education that was probably better than the one that Shirky got at Yale, and certainly a heck of a lot cheaper. My parents paid my rent, but I paid my tuition myself -- with part time jobs and $20,000 in loans -- and I didn’t have a single class in my major with more than 30 students. I had one-on-one access to all of my professors, and I took advantage of it.
It's a lot harder to do this now, of course; tuition at Ohio State is more than double what it was when I started in 1997. More important, you not only pay a lot more if you go to a school like Ohio State, you’re also a lot less likely to get in; the country’s college-age population has continued to grow, but the number of acceptance letters that public universities like OSU send out has not increased. As Mike Konczal and I have argued, this shortfall in quality higher education creates what economists call "fake supply." If you don’t get in to a college specializing in education "of the best sort" (or if your guidance counselor tells you not to apply), where do you go, if you go? You go to an online university, to Kaplan, or maybe now you try a MOOC or a public college relying on MOOCs to provide general education, as Texas now envisions. Such things are better than nothing. But "nothing" only seems like the relevant point of comparison if we pretend that public higher education doesn’t exist. And if we ignore the fact that we are actively choosing to let it cease to exist.
Beware anyone who tries to give you a link to WebMD as a replacement for seeing a real doctor.
Aaron Bady is a doctoral candidate in English literature at the University of California at Berkeley, and he writes and tweets for The New Inquiry as @zunguzungu.
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).
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.
Submitted by Gary S. May on September 11, 2012 - 3:05am
Here’s a question I’m asked more and more every day: When is Georgia Tech going to offer an undergraduate engineering degree online?
It’s no surprise that this question is being posed. Universities around the country are having intense discussions about massive open online courses, or MOOCs, as they’ve come to be known.
Late last year, when the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced MITx, an online learning platform offering free courses for anyone anywhere, Forbes hailed this development as a "game changer" in higher education. Although participants in such courses earn a "certificate of completion" rather than credit or a degree, hundreds of thousands of students around the world have already availed themselves of this opportunity to take online courses from a prestigious university at no charge.
Since then, multiple universities have begun venturing into MOOCs. Stanford, Princeton, my own Georgia Institute of Technology and others have recently signed up to collaborate with Coursera, a new commercial concern with $22 million in venture capital, to provide similar free courseware and instruction. More than 200,000 people to date have signed up for the six courses offered through Udacity, another online entity recently started by Stanford University professor Sebastian Thrun. MIT has now partnered with its Cambridge neighbor, Harvard, and the MITx platform has evolved into edX.
As with any new phenomenon, the experience of change and the promise of benefit create a measure of hyperbole. Some say MOOCs are the future of higher education; others contend they are over-hyped. The truth is no one knows where the exploration of online courses will lead.
What is clear is that colleges and universities must further innovate in a few critical areas if they are to capitalize on MOOCs to their advantage and the people they serve:
Pedagogy. MOOCs offer a huge opportunity to investigate how to use technology to more effectively educate students. They could potentially serve as laboratories to conduct experiments that might reinvent education. How can student learning be optimized in an online environment, and what is the best role of the faculty member in such an environment? Is the "flipped classroom" – i.e., using online lectures as preparation work for in-person interactions at multiple locations – a viable approach?
Scalability. Optimal education requires interaction between student and teacher, and no professor can know 100,000 students in a MOOC. So the model must continue to evolve so that the MOOC becomes one piece of the teaching equation. If credit beyond a “certificate of completion” is to be offered for MOOCs, what models should be developed and tested to evaluate mastery, given that a single professor cannot grade 100,000 exams?
Lab experience. In fields such as engineering or medicine, hands-on laboratory experiences are crucial. But as my friend (and predecessor as dean at Georgia Tech), Don Giddens, has asked: "Would you like to be operated on by a surgeon who earned a degree online?" So higher education must identify the best ways to supplement the virtual experience with the physical experience needed to impart knowledge. Here, we should not ignore the value of simulation environments – after all, pilots learn how to fly in simulators. And again, satellite locations to provide lab experience may be part of the answer.
Cheating. Right now, cheating is virtually impossible to prevent in the online world. In a recent panel discussion on online education, Dave Patterson, who taught a MOOC at the University of California at Berkeley, described technological evidence that indicates such cheating is “unbound.” Purveyors of MOOCs will have to develop sophisticated tools and processes to mitigate acts of academic dishonesty.
Until higher education invents solutions that address these areas of concern, the future and value of MOOCs is uncertain. To employers, after all, the credential is paramount; if the credential comes with questions about quality of experience or depth of knowledge, its worth is compromised. This is not to say that Georgia Tech and others are sitting and waiting. We are actively experimenting with – and advocating for – MOOCs to harness their potential. In fact, this fall, engineering and computing faculty will be teaching several classes through Cousera on computational photography, control of mobile robots, computational investing and strategic energy.
A colleague recently reminded me of why we work toward this end when he posted to his Facebook page a quote by W.E.B. DuBois: "The purpose of education is not to make men and women into doctors, lawyers and engineers; the purpose of education is to make doctors, lawyers and engineers into men and women."
A college education is much more than mere knowledge transfer. It is a rite of passage and an important part of personal development and the maturation process. As universities work to assure that result, online courses will no doubt be part of the mix. How much a part depends on our ability to innovate our way forward.
Gary S. May is dean of the College of Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Submitted by David Touve on September 11, 2012 - 3:00am
In recent months, many of the most prominent research universities announced forays into free online courses. As a greater number of these universities go online with such free education platforms, the nature of the market for — and even the meaning of — a college degree could change in both subtle and significant ways.
Behind the screens, beyond the more collaborative desire to educate the world, a rather complex sort of competition may be playing out. Aside from the question of competition, however, is the question of what the classification of these online programs signals in terms of our beliefs about the purpose and value of a college degree, as well as the qualifications for such a degree.
On the one hand, universities or their partnered courseware platforms describe these MOOC experiences as analogous to classroom-based course experiences, in terms of either the academic rigor or at least the capacity to assess mastery of the course material. For example, edX describes the rigor of its online courses as the same as that of the partnering institutions. Coursera, citing a 2010 meta-analysis conducted by the Department of Education, claims that online learning is at least as effective as learning in face-to-face classroom settings.
On the other hand, those universities now experimenting with MOOC offerings are quick to clarify that they will grant course credit or college degrees only to those students who first pass through the highly selective admissions process, which occurs before these students ever register for a course — online or on-campus.
As a result, the nature of these recent experiments in massive and open online courses risks triggering a paradox in certain galaxies of the higher education universe: evidence of mastery in university coursework will warrant only a certificate, while evidence of mastery in work prior to university coursework will determine the degree. Simply stated, the line between an online certificate and a degree from any particular institution shall be drawn by the admissions office.
This paradox was expressed in point-blank terms by MIT’s news office, in December 2011, within the original FAQ for the MITx program:
"Credentials will be granted only to students who earn them by demonstrating mastery of the material.... MIT awards MIT degrees only to those admitted to MIT through a highly selective admissions process."
Expressing, in mathematical terms, the degree-does-not-equal-certificate logic:
“Course” and "Mastery" cancel each other out, and so:
(+) Admission Selection = Degree, while
(-) Admission Selection = Certificate
Perhaps as evidence of the danger presented by this paradox, the edX FAQ now makes no explicit reference to the qualifications — such as a lack of equivalence in subject mastery — that distinguish a degree from a certificate. Frankly, however, the resolution of this paradox cannot be resolved by simply not mentioning it.
Unfortunately, the engineered distinction between certificates and degrees mimics a much deeper and unsightly impression for which the market for these same prestigious universities is widely criticized: the inputs to education trump the outputs of education. We rank, and even respect, universities according to the relative metrics of standardized test scores and dollars spent on research (inputs) rather than measures of classroom experience or subject mastery (outputs).
As larger populations of students in the higher education universe complete increasing proportions of their coursework online, however, some resolution to the certificate versus degree paradox becomes unavoidable. The line that could previously be drawn between wholly online degree programs and wholly offline programs fades.
Furthermore, as larger populations of students complete increasing proportions of their coursework through the same, or extremely similar courseware platforms, our ability to ignore these MOOCs as the means to measure at least one dimension of the outputs of higher education fades as well. In other words, we will have to come to terms with the implications of our measures of mastery (e.g., when the only students who aced a Stanford University course in artificial intelligence were students who were not attending the university).
Just as our initial characterizations of the Internet as seemingly antisocial transitioned to an awareness that this online space was social in its own ways, so to might this distinction between online and offline education transition to a recognition that these two environments simply provide different venues for learning, each venue leading to certain subject mastery in its own ways.
Frankly, it’s time to resolve this paradox, and the sooner the better.
If a well-attended and open online course offered by a prominent university is somehow different from the associated on-campus education in terms of the level or type of mastery that can be achieved, then we should just say so and treat this difference as such. Subject mastery in a MOOC environment may be a necessary but not yet sufficient condition for "mastery," at least in certain galaxies of higher education.
In fact, perhaps the mastery we are ultimately hoping for from the range of galaxies in the higher education universe is more than the ability to answer 50 questions correctly. Instead, our ultimate goal is to develop a capacity to convert the implications of those answers to new questions, new ideas, and new inventions — dynamic sources of impact. Developing and supporting this dynamic capacity may not scale in the same way that MOOC education can.
If, however, there is no difference between the level and type of mastery that can be reached online versus that which might be attained on campus, then we should speak and act as if these two venues are indeed equivalent — if not in experience then at least in terms of the outputs, regardless of inputs.
Most importantly, however, we should resolve the paradox that emerges from this debate over MOOCs, wherein the substance — whether chunks of matter or ideas or right answers or genuine insights — that determines whether a student earns a university degree rather than a course certificate would be in the selection of that student through admissions standards rather than in the content and quality of the education or the impact of that education as measured through the student’s experience, accomplishments, or dynamic capacity to act upon and even develop new knowledge.
David Touve is assistant professor of business administration at Washington and Lee University.