MOOCs

EdX and Google to develop open-source MOOC platform

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MOOC provider edX finds a powerful partner in Google for its new platform, Open edX.

Essay on context behind the MOOC experiments

When a new product is launched, particularly in technology, people often rush to be among its early adopters. The sudden explosion of users invariably reveals bugs and glitches that need to be addressed.

This is analogous to what we appear to be witnessing right now with massive open online courses. An unrelenting stream of attention-grabbing announcements is being followed by closer inspection – and the realization that, although MOOCs are a novel approach to education, they may not be a panacea.

The picture of MOOCs presented in the press is quite a paradox. The concept has been described as both a game-changer and a hyped retread. MOOCs deliver great content to faraway places, but some believe they place academic quality in peril. They are financial enigmas — offering the potential to bend the higher education cost curve, yet lacking an accepted plan for monetization. Some leaders in higher education are scrambling to get into the game; others are issuing a call to slow down.

The contradictions are rich, and the hyperbole in full bloom. Personally, I find all of the discourse to be a positive sign. The intensity of the MOOC dialogue indicates a chord has been struck. The promise of technology and access is igniting a larger discussion about the higher education paradigm. The initial rush has evolved, but what’s next? Where is this train ultimately headed?

First, let’s keep in mind that in the technology adoption life cycle, MOOCs are probably somewhere between innovation and early adoption; it’s too early to declare victory or to reject the concept before it has been further tested, evaluated and refined. Second, colleges and universities are ground zero in the exploration of ideas. If you can’t experiment here, then where?

In thinking about this issue as an engineer, I am reminded of the Wright Brothers and their pursuit of human flight. The brothers’ first test glider in 1900 failed to achieve the altitude that Wilbur and Orville had anticipated. So they revisited their equations and re-analyzed the aerodynamic data obtained from the aviator, Otto Lilienthal. They increased the size of the wings and refined the sloped surface of the airfoil, but additional adjustments brought the same disappointing results. It would be another two and a half years before the Wright brothers succeeded in launching and controlling a powered aircraft.

What if their early struggles with the gliders had gotten the better of the Wrights? How much longer might humankind had to wait to fly?

The same might be asked today of MOOCs. The dawn of a new academic year seems an appropriate time to contemplate such questions and share a few observations on higher education’s latest grand experiment:

1. The prospect of MOOCs replacing the physical college campus for undergraduates is dubious at best. Other target audiences are likely better-suited for MOOCs. My university, the Georgia Institute of Technology, is preparing to offer an inexpensive M.S. degree in computer science via massive (but not open) online courses beginning January 2014, with two options. The on-campus version has a research emphasis, requiring one-on-one interaction, whereas the online degree caters to professionals by focusing on applying advanced knowledge in the workplace. If successful, thousands are expected to enroll in this $7,000 MS degree program.

2. In addition to the master’s level, MOOCs may also help level the playing field for precollege education. This is another area of the MOOC wilderness being explored. With a $150,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, Georgia Tech is offering MOOCs in three introductory topic areas for people who have yet to pursue a college degree. One can also easily extrapolate and imagine MOOC-like advanced placement courses available to students at high schools without their own Advanced Placement offerings.

3. Despite challenges, delivering content online could be a real asset to enhance pedagogy for undergraduates as well. The inverted classroom – in which students and faculty convene solely for discussion, and all lectures take place online – appears to have significant promise. For example, a recent comparison between a standard fluid mechanics course at Georgia Tech and its "flipped" counterpart revealed that weaker students in the flipped classroom actually outperformed stronger students who experienced traditional delivery of the material.

American higher education finds itself at a pivotal point in its great MOOC experiment. We must continue working to optimize MOOCs so that their promise and potential can be realized. While operational and execution issues remain, MOOCs still represent a tremendous opportunity for people around the world to learn and for educators to study and optimize that learning process.

A realistic time frame for evaluating the successes, failures, and unanticipated results is still likely another three to five years away. But, as Wilbur Wright said about learning to fly: "If you are looking for perfect safety, you will do well to sit on a fence and watch the birds; but if you really wish to learn, you must mount a machine and become acquainted with its tricks by actual trial."
 

Gary S. May is dean of the College of Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology.

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For-profit Kaplan branches out with learning science projects

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Kaplan, which includes Pearson-like ed-tech offerings as well as for-profit degree programs, won't miss a beat as The Washington Post moves on.

Essay on the impact of California's controversial bill on new forms of instruction

California’s controversial bill to allow third-party, online courses to count for credit at the three public systems of higher education has met an ignoble end. Or has it? On July 31, we learned that Senate Bill 520 (SB 520), authored by Senate President Pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg, is being moved to the two-year file, and will remain dormant for at least a year.

Is this a telling defeat for powerful state politicians who went too far in trying to advance online education options, or did the process of introducing the bill and debating it in public actually create the same goals and opportunities that drove the bill in the first place?

We believe that despite the tremendous and dramatic opposition and perceived defeat of SB 520, quite a lot has been accomplished as a direct result of the initial bill language. Despite spectacular headlines, the bill itself is not dead, but rather has simply been moved to the two-year file where it will be revived as needed.

How Did We Get Here?

As described in a position paper written by Phil Hill and Michael Feldstein for the 20 Million Minds Foundation, when the California Master Plan was adopted in 1960, the basic premise was to guarantee students a place within one of the three public systems based on their high school record. It was assumed that by having a place in a public institution, the student would have access to needed courses. As the state budget has crumbled, unemployment rates have skyrocketed and enrollment demand has surged without the resources to accommodate it, this assumption is no longer valid. Across the state, literally hundreds of thousands of students have been turned away from needed courses at the California Community Colleges (CCC), the California State University (CSU), and the University of California (UC).

In January of 2013, in an effort to address the growing public education access problem facing California, the 20 Million Minds Foundation brought together students, faculty, administrators, state leaders, and ed-tech pioneers for a one-day symposium. The "Re:Boot California Higher Education" conference promoted a robust discussion that examined not only the challenges, but also the potential technological solutions to the major issues facing California’s three segments of higher education. During his opening address to the Re:Boot participants, Senator Steinberg indicated:

[Online education] is a […] revolution and possibilities abound using technology in ways that not only equal or enhance quality but also reduce the cost of higher education for struggling students and their families.

Resistance

In March of this year, during an online press conference, Senator Steinberg unveiled Senate Bill 520, announcing the legislation that would “would reshape higher education, in partnership with technology we already use, to break bottlenecks that prevent students from completing education.”

The newfound involvement of state government officials in this level of higher education, and the nature of the bill itself, which proposed the heretofore unheard-of use of controversial, potentially disruptive, large-scale solutions such as MOOCs for credit, generated significant resistance from faculty groups and the systems themselves. In particular, a New York Times article "broke the news" that a powerful senate leader was going to challenge the status quo without getting agreement from faculty groups first, and this publicity helped rally vocal opposition to the bill. Of course, this level of resistance should not have surprised anyone involved in higher education in California.

The nature of government is that real legislative movement most often occurs for two reasons – bad press or a crisis. Senator Steinberg sees course access as a crisis for public higher education, and he introduced a bill designed to wake up the higher education community. The bill essentially sent the message that "we need to solve these problems of access whether our colleges and universities do it themselves or whether we need outside help." This challenge to go beyond the ordinary thoughts and discussions in public policy pushed the boundaries and made many groups quite uncomfortable.

In parallel, Governor Jerry Brown added fuel to the fire by proposing additional funding to the CCC, CSU, and UC with the caveat that certain conditions be tied to the funding. The language in the proposed budget obligated the funds "to increase the number of courses available to matriculated undergraduates through the use of technology, specifically those courses that have the highest demand, fill quickly, and are prerequisites for many different degrees.” This language was interpreted as telling the systems how to do their job. After CSU and UC indicated they would follow the same guidelines, but execute the solution their own way, Governor Brown used a line-item veto to remove his own proposed earmarks creating conditions for the additional funding.

The result of the intense opposition and debate during the legislative process led to significant amendments to SB 520. Originally envisioned as the gateway to public-private partnerships with a common pool of courses, the bill has been transformed into a grant program for each system to implement individually. Even with the passage of the amended bill in the Senate, the bill is currently on hold.

Movement From Systems

All three systems have proposed new programs that broadly meet the same goals outlined by SB 520, largely based on the additional funding for online initiatives, with the new emphasis being the introduction or expansion of online courses with cross-enrollment across each system.

The California Community Colleges currently enroll as much as 17 percent of their students in various types of online or distance education. The system is poised to continue to advance and expand its online programs with a strong focus on career technical education as well as workforce development programs as outlined in the CCC System Strategic Plan, updated in June of this year.

In July, the CSU introduced a new Intrasystem Concurrent Enrollment program, allowing students at each campus to sign up for one of 30 online courses offered in the program from other "host" campuses. Under the current plan, students will be limited to one course per semester.

In January, UC introduced the Innovative Learning Technology Initiative, updated in May, as "a direct response to the governor’s plan to earmark $10 million from UC’s FY 14 core budget to use technology to increase access to high-demand courses for UC matriculated students.”

Despite the welcome news of these programs, we are already hearing widespread concerns over the pace and scale of implementation. Lieut. Governor Gavin Newsom, a noted supporter of more effective use of technology, following the online program presentation at the July meeting of the UC Regents, stated, "I don’t think we’re running at full speed here. We’re moving extraordinarily slowly…. Californians are looking to us" for progress in online education.

What to Expect Next

Students enrolled in California public colleges and universities should be guaranteed timely access to the core courses that they are required to take in order to graduate. Given that there are a variety of ways in which the institutions could meet this obligation, the state should avoid being overly prescriptive about the method. Rather, it should supply the mandate for educational access, support institutions in meeting this mandate, and provide a safety valve to ensure the mandate’s right is preserved.

                                          --From our position paper

The focus should remain on finding effective solutions to the course-access issue -- providing students with high-quality courses they need while reducing costs. Before this year, this was not happening for a variety of reasons, and it remains to be seen just how much the institutions will do without the pressure of earmarked funding in the state budget or pending legislation such as SB 520.

We believe the best outcomes for online education occur when faculty and institutions are motivated and supported to design high-quality options for students. Ideally, colleges and universities would craft solutions, but use third-party courses as safety valves to ensure students have access to necessary classes. The hope is that the three public systems will continue their progress, find real solutions to the course access problem, and not fall into the trap of doing the same old thing again, just with online options.

At this point, one might actually suggest that a welcome policy outcome has indeed been accomplished as a direct result of the initial language in SB 520. The bill is certainly not dead. The bill itself could now be thought of as a safety valve, providing an option in case the three systems fail to show real progress in meeting the challenge of course access. We are, however, cautiously optimistic that viable and effective change is, at least for now, in the formative stages.

Phil Hill is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He is co-publisher of the e-Literate blog and co-founder of MindWires Consulting. Follow him on Twitter at @PhilOnEdTech.

Dean Florez is the former Senate majority leader of the California State Senate and the current president and CEO of the 20 Million Minds Foundation (@20MillionMinds). Follow him on Twitter at @DeanFlorez.

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Essay on the MOOC debate and what really matters about teaching

Giving college credit for a massive open online course will devalue degrees, but the moment I write that, a voice in my mind asks, "Why do you believe that?"

Although I don’t think colleges and universities should equate MOOCs with other courses, I’m no Luddite. I’m happy to see digital humanities breathe life into literary studies, and at one point I took an online class to prepare to teach in that format. Since then I’ve taught several courses entirely online, but the results discouraged me: Committed students did well, but the rest did poorly or vanished.

Although some students have problems in my face-to-face classes, I’m able to intervene and provide help earlier in that format, so far fewer disappear. Currently I use digital resources to enhance the classes I teach, but I have no desire to run a course entirely online again. Therefore I assume that instructors who favor MOOCs have taught online classes with quality equal to or better than their face-to-face classes.

My skepticism about MOOCs also comes from the size of the face-to-face classes I’ve taken and taught. I earned my undergraduate degree at St. John’s University, a small liberal arts college in Minnesota, and I teach English at a similar institution, Aquinas College, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Almost all my experience comes from classes with 25 or fewer students, but perhaps I would champion MOOCs if I had had educational triumphs while taking and teaching face-to-face courses with hundreds enrolled.

Some MOOCs feature lectures by professors at Ivy League and other top research universities. The assumption that the most-esteemed researchers give the best lectures certainly makes great advertising, but the quality standard that I set for undergrad education comes from an Intro to Philosophy class taught by Professor Robert Joyce at St. John’s, who is now retired. Rather than lecture on the great speculations of the ages, Professor Joyce wanted his students to experience philosophy. To accomplish this, he plunged us into the Socratic Method. He might begin a session by asking "What do you think of capital punishment?"

I would say, "I’m against it. Taking another person’s life is wrong."

Professor Joyce would reply, "Why do you believe that?"

I would say, "I don’t know. It just is."

Professor Joyce would ask, "What if a criminal kills a relative of yours? Doesn’t justice require that murderer to die?"

“No. An eye for an eye isn’t always right.”

Professor Joyce would persist. “Why do you believe that?”

“I don’t know.”

These exercises made me realize that I couldn’t defend easily what I accepted as self-evident truths. Could students in a MOOC have a comparable experience? I have a hard time imagining it, but perhaps my pro-MOOC colleagues have found a digital substitute for Professor Joyce’s one-on-one attention and cheerful intensity as he looked a person in the eye and asked repeatedly, "Why do you believe that?"

In high school I believed multiple-choice tests were great because I could guess which isolated factoids would appear on them. When the first Intro to Philosophy exam loomed on the horizon, however, I thought our in-class exercises unlikely sources for multiple-choice questions. We had read several Socratic dialogues, but would Professor Joyce ask me to match the names of befuddled Athenians with the titles of dialogues? I doubted it.

To prepare for the first test, I organized a study group that spent a couple of hours tossing around speculations about how Professor Joyce thought and what he might ask. I concede that a MOOC could provide an experience similar to my study group, especially if the thousands of enrollees were divided into close-knit groups of a couple hundred.

That first Intro to Philosophy test offered not a single multiple-choice question.

No true/false or matching, either. Instead, it required me to construct a dialogue between myself and Socrates, a dialogue asking him to reconsider a belief about forms or ideas existing in a realm separate from earthly matter. From the study group session I’d developed a Dr. Seuss-like image of pink and blue cotton-candy words such as VIRTUE and TRUTH floating in the air above Socrates and his buddies, but the test required me to argue against that image. I dreamed up something about people constructing ideas by contrasting one experience in life to another. I proposed that alternative, but because the professor admired Socrates, I let the ancient Athenian talk me out of it. That shift in direction might confound a computer program for scanning and grading 100,000 essays, but a human being judged my blue book. Fortunately, my answer connected with Professor Joyce’s idea of an A.

According to Ronald Legon, executive director of the Quality Matters Program, first-generation MOOCs often rely on multiple-choice tests, but he thinks second-generation MOOCs will “incorporate many of the best practices of distance learning.” I hope that MOOCs improve, but because of the sheer number of students, I fear that many second-generation MOOCs will follow the easy route mapped by the first generation. I also confess that I create exams entirely of essay questions for my own classes, but I might change if someone shows me how to make multiple-choice tests that lead students to construct knowledge involving multiple abstractions.

Legon and others wrestle with the issue of students getting meaningful guidance from an instructor. I have yet to see a proposed model that handles this issue well, especially given that real classes — not picture-perfect imaginary ones — frequently face unanticipated problems. I recall that Professor Joyce once assigned a book that assumed the reader had a large disposable income and cosmopolitan experiences far removed from my small-town Minnesotan background. These assumptions angered me so much that I threw the book against the wall of my dorm room. In class the next day other students voiced similar frustrations with the reading. Professor Joyce set aside his planned lesson and encouraged us to look beyond the specific details and find worthwhile principles behind the discourse. Because the instructor knew and understood his class, he could change the course to match our needs.

I have a hard time envisioning a MOOC designed for the millions that could respond to the needs of students in a specific class and change direction for a teachable moment. Of course, I also have a hard time imagining the algorithms the National Security Agency uses to locate the terrorist messages among the millions of private communications it spies upon, so perhaps someone has developed equally useful algorithms to identify the students among the MOOC multitudes that need to have a lesson created on the spot.

The most important lesson I learned from Intro to Philosophy surprised me. At lunch one day with friends from my study group, I asserted an opinion about some current issue. As I did so, I involuntarily imagined Professor Joyce asking, "Why do you believe that?" I told my friends and even did an imitation of the man, which got a good laugh. I discovered, however, that the professor’s voice couldn’t be laughed away. In fact, the voice stayed with me throughout my formal education, and to this day, about once a week I imagine my Intro to Philosophy instructor saying, "Why do you believe that?"

I associate the voice in my head so closely with the flesh-and-blood individual that I cannot imagine a MOOC having a similar lifelong effect, but I give the MOOCs a pass on this one because they haven’t been around long enough for anyone to determine their long-term influence. Fortunately, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is funding a MOOC Research Initiative.

MOOCs are becoming acceptable in higher education because people richer and more powerful than I am declare them to be good. I still expect MOOCs to devalue the worth of degrees, but having performed the Socratic self-examination that Professor Joyce taught me, I have a better understanding of why I believe what I do.

Brent Chesley is a professor of English at Aquinas College, in Michigan.

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Socrates teaching

Essay calls for alternative to massive online learning

What an exciting year for distance learning! Cutting-edge communication systems allowed colleges to escape the tired confines of face-to-face education. Bold new technologies made it possible for thousands of geographically dispersed students to enroll in world-class courses. Innovative assessment mechanisms let professors supervise their pupils remotely.

All this progress was good for business, too. Private entrepreneurs leapt at the chance to compete in the new distance learning marketplace, while Ivy League universities bustled to keep pace. True, a few naysayers fretted about declining student attention spans and low course-completion rates. But who could object to the expansively democratic goal of bringing first-rate education to more people than ever before? The new pedagogical tools promised to be not only more affordable than traditional classes, but also more effective at measuring student progress.

In the words of one prominent expert, the average distance learner "knows more of the subject, and knows it better, than the student who has covered the same ground in the classroom." Indeed, "the day is coming when the work done [via distance learning] will be greater in amount than that done in the class-rooms of our colleges." The future of education was finally here.

2012, right? Think again: 1885. The commentator quoted above was Yale classicist (and future University of Chicago President) William Rainey Harper, evaluating correspondence courses. That’s right: you’ve got (snail) mail.  Journalist Nicholas Carr has chronicled the recurrent boosterism about mass mediated education over the last century: the phonograph, instructional radio, televised lectures. All were heralded as transformative educational tools in their day. This should give us pause as we consider the latest iteration of distance learning: massive open online courses (MOOCs).

In response to the "MOOC Moment," skeptical faculty have begun questioning venture capitalists eager for new markets and legislators eager to dismantle public funding for American higher education. To their credit, some people pushing for MOOCs speak from laudably egalitarian impulses to provide access for disadvantaged students. But to what are they being given access? Are broadcast lectures and online discussions the sum of an education? Or is an education something more than "content" delivery?

To state the obvious: there’s a living, human element to education. We who cherish in-person instruction would benefit from a pithy phrase to defend and promote this millennia-tested practice. I propose that we begin calling it "close learning." "Close learning" evokes the laborious, time-consuming, and costly but irreplaceable proximity between teacher and student. "Close learning" exposes the stark deficiencies of mass distance learning such as MOOCs, and its haste to reduce dynamism, responsiveness, presence.

Techno-utopians seem surprised that "blended" or "flipped" classrooms – combining online media with in-person discussions – are more effective than their online-only counterparts, or that one-on-one tutoring strengthens the utility of MOOCs. In spite of all the hype about interactivity, "lecturing" a la MOOCs merely extends the cliché of the static, one-sided lecture hall, where distance learning begins after the first row.

The old-fashioned Socratic seminar is where we actually find interactive learning and open-ended inquiry.  In the close learning of the live seminar, spontaneity rules. Both students and teachers are always at a crossroads, collaboratively deciding where to go and where to stop, how to navigate and how to detour, and how to close the distance between a topic and the people discussing it. For the seminar to work, certain limits are required (most centrally, a limit in size).  But these finite limits enable the infinity of questioning that is close learning. MOOCs claim to abolish those limits, while they paradoxically reinstate them. Their naïve model assumes that there is always total transparency, that passively seeing (watching a lecture, or a virtual simulation) is learning.

A Columbia University neuroscientist, Stuart Firestein, recently published a polemical book titled Ignorance: How It Drives Science. Discouraged by students regurgitating his lectures without internalizing the complexity of scientific inquiry, Firestein created a seminar to which he invited his colleagues to discuss what they don’t know. As Firestein repeatedly emphasizes, it is informed ignorance, not information, that is the genuine "engine" of knowledge.  His seminar demonstrates that mere data transmission from teacher to student doesn’t produce deep learning. It’s the ability to interact, to think hard thoughts alongside other people.

In a seminar, a student can ask for clarification, and challenge a teacher; a teacher can shift course when spirits are flagging; a stray thought can spark a new insight. Isn’t this the kind of nonconformist "thinking outside the box" that business leaders adore? So why is there such a rush to freeze knowledge and distribute it in a frozen form? Even Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng concedes that the real value of a college education "isn’t just the content.... The real value is the interactions with professors and other, equally bright students."

The corporate world recognizes the virtues of proximity in its own human resource management. Witness, for example, Yahoo’s recent decision to eliminate telecommuting and require employees to be present in the office. CEO Marissa Mayer’s memo reads as a mini-manifesto for close learning:

"To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together."

Why do boards of directors still go through the effort of convening in person? Why, in spite of all the fantasies about “working from anywhere,” are “creative classes” still concentrating in proximity to one another: the entertainment industry in LA, information technology in the Bay Area, financial capital in New York City? The powerful and the wealthy are well aware that computers can accelerate the exchange of information, and facilitate low-level "training." But not the development of knowledge, much less wisdom.

Close learning transcends disciplines. In every field, students must incline towards their subjects: leaning into a sentence, to craft it most persuasively. Leaning into an archival document, to determine an uncertain provenance. Leaning into a musical score, to poise the body for performance. Leaning into a data set, to discern emerging patterns. Leaning into a laboratory instrument, to interpret what is viewed. MOOCs, in contrast, encourage students and faculty to lean back, not to cultivate the disciplined attention necessary to engage fully in a complex task. Low completion rates for MOOCs (hovering around 10 percent) speak for themselves.

A devotion to close learning should not be mistaken for an anti-technology stance. (Contrary to a common misperception, the original Luddites simply wanted machines that made high-quality goods, run by trained workers who were adequately compensated.)  I teach Shakespeare, supposedly one of the mustiest of topics. Yet my students navigate the vast resources of the Internet; evaluate recorded performances; wrestle with facsimiles of original publications; listen to pertinent podcasts; survey decades of scholarship in digitized form; circulate their drafts electronically; explore the cultural topography of early modern London; and contemplate the historical richness of the English language. Close learning is entirely compatible with engaging in meaningful conversations outside the classroom; faculty can correspond regularly with students via e-mail, and keep in close contact via all kinds of new media.  But this is all in service of close learning, and the payoff comes in the classroom.

Teachers have always employed "technology" – including the book, one of the most flexible and dynamic learning technologies ever created. But let’s not fixate upon technology for technology’s sake, or delude ourselves into thinking that better technology overcomes bad teaching.  At no stage of education does technology, no matter how novel, ever replace human attention. Close learning can’t be automated, or scaled up.

As retrograde as it might sound, gathering humans in a room with real time for dialogue still matters. As educators, we must remind ourselves – not to mention our boards, our alumni, our students, and those students’ parents – of the inescapable fact that our "product" is close learning.  This is why savvy parents have always invested in intensive human interaction for their children. (Tellingly, parents from Silicon Valley deliberately restrict their children’s access to electronic distractions, so that they might experience the free play of mind essential to human development.) What remains to be seen is whether we value this kind of close learning at all levels of education, enough to defend it, and fund it, for a wider circle of Americans – or whether we will continue to permit the circle to contract, excluding a genuinely transformative educational experience from those without means.

Scott L. Newstok teaches in the English department at Rhodes College.

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Blackboard, the largest provider of classroom management software, enters the MOOC fray

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Largest provider of classroom management software removes itself from the sidelines and joins the MOOC fray.

One MOOC professor won't let students know the right answers

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MOOCs are supposed to democratize education, but some students may never learn the right answers to questions on assignments that they get wrong.

Essay on the need to focus higher ed reforms on the right goals, not just quick change

So many exciting and innovative efforts are under way to deliver the best educational value to as many students as possible. Since joining the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation a year ago, I’ve spent considerable time talking to college presidents, chancellors, faculty members, grantees, and other partners. We continually learn from higher education leaders and use what they tell us to assess how we can support their creative and inspiring efforts.

Their commitment to innovation is real and exciting. However, I’m also finding that some institutions are chasing innovation without exactly knowing why they are doing it, leading to a very clear rumbling of what I call "innovation exhaustion."

I encountered this at the Education Writers Association (EWA) national seminar, held recently at Stanford University. From reporters to college officials, everyone is after the next big thing, whether it’s MOOCs (massive open online courses), online education, ed-tech startups, competency-based courses or e-portfolios. But to what end?

At the EWA event, speakers said that in the swirl of innovation, some parts of the higher education community have lost sight of the purpose of innovation. The purpose of innovation, it was repeatedly stated, is to achieve more affordable and better education pathways so that more young adults are able to move into sustaining careers. I could not agree more.

Why are so many coming down with an acute case of innovation exhaustion? For the presidents and chancellors I’ve met with, their innovation exhaustion comes out in an obvious and growing frustration with MOOCs. For them, MOOCs are a perfect storm of hype, hyperbole, and hysteria – and yet many have plunged headlong into them without a real clear sense of why or how MOOCs can help more students succeed. And that is what I see as the primary problem with innovation in higher education.

Everybody seems to be chasing something, but very few people actually know what or why, or what they’d do if they ever caught it.

For example, governors and policymakers are gushing over MOOCs because they see them as an opportunity to drive down costs. They believe MOOCs will enable institutions to deliver education to more people, more cheaply, even though we are far from knowing whether MOOCs are a viable thing or are just a passing fad. The Gates Foundation has invested in MOOCs to help determine if they have the potential to help more students earn the degrees they seek while maintaining or even improving learning outcomes.

Trustees and board members also are pushing college presidents to innovate because they don’t want their colleges and universities left behind. I call this "me too"-ism, where innovation itself becomes the goal without a clear and compelling strategic purpose.

As these pressures build from above, demands are also percolating up, as faculty are beginning to dig in and ask hard questions which press on academic freedom. (Why shouldn’t a professor from one university be able to offer instruction to students around the world? Why shouldn’t accredited academic institutions be permitted to bestow credit on students who take such courses and pass them the way we do all the time with transferred community college and Advanced Placement credits?)

It seems to me, at least with respect to MOOCs, that we have skipped an important step. We’ve jumped right into the "chase" without much of a discussion about what problems they could help us to solve. We have skipped the big picture of where higher ed is going and where we want to be in 10 or 20 years.

I haven’t heard many people talking about innovation in these terms. During a time of tight budgets and scarce resources, policymakers in particular are right to take on controlling costs and increasing efficiency. And they’re trying to do it through technology and innovation. But I believe they’re missing something important.

States and policymakers should be looking for ways to use innovation to drive up the value of a college degree while increasing the system’s productivity (its ability to provide more students with credentials that lead to sustaining careers). In fact, there are many who believe that focusing only on driving down costs could break the very systems that we have spent generations, and billions of taxpayer dollars, creating. Worse, no one wants to cheapen education by diminishing its value to students.

Those of us invested in higher education’s future need to align this enthusiasm for innovation with clear institutional goals so that these efforts result in more students earning the degrees and credentials they need to be successful in the workplace, in society, and in life. Working carefully and deliberately, we can showcase the different reasons why innovation is being embraced and show where they can take us as a society.

As for faculty, I know that there are many in the academic ranks — maybe even a majority — who believe strongly that their mission is to uphold the public importance of higher education and to better the lives of their students. We all want that.

To this end, there are many exciting efforts under way to improve the value of a college degree while increasing the system’s productivity, often through new courseware, tools, and systems for tracking student progress. These include adaptive technologies that adjust to a student’s needs and abilities, such as learning modules that tweak the type and difficulty of their material in response to a student’s pace and skill level. I believe once faculty witness the power of these tools to keep students engaged and on track to graduate, once they see a clear purpose and strategy behind such innovations, they will embrace them.

It will not be easy or quick to get to a point where all sectors of higher education are delivering high value education to more students. But there are a number of institutions well on the way — Arizona State, Georgia State and Southern New Hampshire Universities, to name a few. We need to support and encourage these thoughtful innovators, and help them articulate what we know to be true: That innovation is a means of increasing the value of higher education and improving its impact and ability to improve student lives.

Like most Americans, we at the Gates Foundation support efforts to deliver the best educational value to as many students as possible. We envision a postsecondary system that drives social mobility and economic development for us all. I believe we can get there through strategic innovation that puts student success front and center.

Dan Greenstein is the director of postsecondary success at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Follow him on Twitter: @dan_greenstein.

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Essay sees missing savings in Georgia Tech's much discussed MOOC-based program

Love MOOCs or hate them, there’s something to disappoint everyone in the Udacity/Georgia Tech services contract amendments that Inside Higher Ed’s Ry Rivard obtained through a public records request.

Although MOOCs have monopolized definitions of higher education reform for nearly two years now, some academic managers have wondered whether they shouldn’t extend online instruction on the base of their existing online programs, rather than partnering with an MOOC platform like Udacity.  A consortium of Midwestern research universities recently took a major step in this direction in suggesting that their members might evolve their own "coordinated platform for the development and delivery of online or blended courses” for the whole consortium’s use.

In contrast, the strongest argument to skip internal development and hire MOOC companies has been the companies' claim to bring revolutionary cost savings to colleges and their students with their revolutionary technology. Unfortunately for all concerned, there is no sign in the Udacity spreadsheets of massive online cost-cutting services. Nor can the savings that do appear be traced directly to the Udacity platform.

The contract, between Udacity and the Georgia Tech Research Corporation (GTRC), aims to create a MOOC master’s degree in computer science — described as "the first professional online master of science degree in computer science (OMS CS) that can be earned completely through the ‘massive online’ format." The hook is the low low price -- $6,630, according to Rivard, or one-seventh of the $40,000-plus price of a face-to-face computer science M.S. at the same institution.

But when we look for massive cost savings in the Georgia Tech-Udacity spreadsheets, what do we find?  In Year 1 (Exhibit H), things don’t look so cheap. The two entities together will spend about $3.1 million running a program for an estimated 200 students in the first semester. This comes to around $15,700 per year per enrolled student. The figure is close to what the University of California Office of the President says it spends educating all UC students averaged together (Display 6). In Year 1, Udacity-Georgia Tech costs look like those of a good, conventional public university program.

But wouldn’t Semester 1 naturally be burdened by start-up costs and a steep learning curve? Yes, were Georgia Tech designing the platform from scratch.  But Udacity is supposed to have already solved higher education’s "cost disease" with its technology. We’ll note that Year 1 is not plug-and-play. Years 2 and 3, when student volume increases, feature courses that are in the can, and low marginal costs of instruction could kick in.

Here’s where things get disappointing.

First of all, the budgets don’t fit with the enrollment plan. Each student takes "6 credit hours (2 courses) per semester" in a 12-course master's. The enrollment forecast "assumes 200 pending full standing (degree-seeking) students begin the program each semester and all 200 in semester 1 become full-standing students .... in semester 2." So in semester 6, the enrollment forecast has semester 1 students in their final term, and five more semesters of 200 new students apiece, for a total of 1,200 students. That is a lot of growth in the existing program that now admits 150 new students a year (page 2). But on the spreadsheet, year 3 revenues have increased nearly 14-fold, to over $19 million. This income requires over 2,800 student FTE in Year 3 (based on Year 1 per-student revenues), which is more than double the enrollment forecast found in the footnotes.

But in fact, the partnership is not collecting $6,630 per year but per degree, and the degree is estimated to take three years. So the typical student in any given year is paying $2,210 in tuition. At that annual price, $19 million of Year 3 revenue requires 8,700 paying student FTE. This figure is larger than the total number of computer science master’s degrees granted in 2009-10 in the United States (Table 4).  Even after noting an untapped global market, this Year 3 number is not credible for degree program enrollment.

At least two conflicting enrollment scenarios are supported by different parts of these documents: (1) growth to 1,200 in Semester 6, and (2) growth to 8,700 in Year 3. (1) fits with reasonable estimates of the time it takes to design and produce new classes, hire and train many "course assistants" (CAs), solve infrastructure issues, and so on, while abiding by the Georgia Tech faculty’s desire to enforce the institution’s high academic standards.

Scenario (2), however, fits with MOOC hype about the "digital revolution" cracking open closed universities to massive global markets by teaching at "effectively zero dollars marginal cost per additional student," in the words of Coursera's co-founder, Daphne Koller. With $14.4 million in expenses in Year 3, a OMS CS with an implausible enrollment of 8,700 students would spend about $1,655 per year per student, or under $5,000 per degree. The cost is ultra-low for a master’s degree, or for any other kind.

How would the OMS CS get to this cost?  The simple answer is that it wouldn’t. The faculty working group expected a 30:1 student:TA ratio. The contract says 1 contact hour per student credit hour, or 104,400 contact hours per year for 8,700 students, each of whom gets a total of 12 hours of personal attention in that time, or 36 hours over the 3-year program. At the same time, the first-year co-sponsor, AT&T, expects 100 percent online instruction, which is cheap only when stripped of personal attention (whether online, via Skype, or in person).  There is a big difference between 290 CAs with the 30:1 ratio, the 87 who at 40 hours a week could deliver 12 hours per student per year, and zero for the online model that eliminates personal attention.  (The budget for student support suggests something close to 87.) With this slippage, Udacity can appeal to the corporate belief that the future of teaching is no teachers, while hiring quasi-teachers to suppress that belief’s results.

Let’s turn from price to cost. Regardless of real enrollment growth, the spreadsheets undermine two key assumptions about commercial MOOCs. The first is that MOOCs offer an automation of teaching that will allow the elimination and/or the cheapening of most teaching staff. This is how Taylorism worked in assembly-line industrialization, and how robotics has worked in manufacturing.

But in the budget, the category of "student support" grows in lockstep with revenue (up 13.8x and 13.9x respectively). One simple reason is that the Georgia Tech faculty wants the OMS CS to have "world-class quality," and that means "blended" or "hybrid" courses. Fully online courses are cheaper, but they generate the highest attrition rates in the history of higher education. Quality MOOCs are always blended MOOCs, and blended MOOCs have lots of CAs (coming mostly from Udacity), which means they aren’t actually MOOCs in the sense of the imagined near-zero personnel costs that has set the business and policy worlds on fire.

This is an important admission that a MOOC is "as good or better" than hands-on instruction only through much hands-on instruction. (Coursera’s recent announcement of 10 public university partnerships also focuses on blended services.) This blocks online’s alleged cost revolution — although online support for instruction obviously helps with costs.

Next, there’s an unpleasant surprise in the equally relentless growth of "Operations, Materials, & Supplies." This is where Udacity’s proprietary technology was supposed to rescue teaching budgets from the medieval methods that currently bloat them. In fact, looking at the budget, its platform does nothing to cut operating costs. The cost of examinations is particularly large. The big savings, ironically, come by squeezing innovation — payments to course creators flatten out — and by leveraging overhead. But there’s nothing novel in these practices. It’s easy to reduce expenses by giving the same lecture over and over, which is what existing online courses are designed to do. The same goes for running more volume on the same equipment, which is another time-honored university tactic.

The Udacity-GTRC contract raises the question of what exactly Udacity brings to the table. First, it brings its platform. Yet its platform is not transformative — not visibly better, faster, or cheaper than what Georgia Tech’s computer science department has already created or could create with new resources for this purpose.

Second, there are some net revenues. With a profit of $1,665 per degree, the program would earn $14.5 million on the untenable 8,700 graduates, or about $4.8 million per year. Sixty percent of this total (or $2.9 million) would go to GTRC. This amounts to a bit over 1 percent of GTRC’s annual research revenues, even with this high number of enrollments. On top of this, GTRC would get 20 percent of gross revenues and 20 percent of gross profits for non-OMS students that use Georgia Tech courses through Udacity. But these are MOOC students who will in general not pay anything. Georgia Tech probably has better margins on its existing extension programs, and could also support its institutional needs with new, smaller programs that it runs on its own.

What Udacity does bring to the table is platform branding. The company has positioned itself as a first mover and dominant player in what it describes as a new global market. Its founder is high-status, famous, and influential. Sebastian Thrun is associated with Google’s driverless car and with Stanford’s artificial intelligence program. He co-signed a deal to provide three entry-level courses to San Jose State University in the presence of the governor of California.

A similar story of brand dominance can be told about Coursera and its co-founder Daphne Koller, whose access to decision makers extends to the World Economic Forum conference at Davos. The three main MOOC companies have had the clout to sign deals directly with a given institution’s senior managers, over the heads of the university faculty. Since Internet and communications technologies seem always to lead to oligarchy (Google/Bing/Yahoo) or duopoly (Apple OS /Microsoft Windows), Udacity can pitch its platform as one of the very few ways for universities to stay in a global online game.

In exchange for presenting itself as an oligarch in waiting, Udacity extracts quite a bit from Georgia Tech. Udacity gets the intellectual content for a master’s program of 20 courses at an upfront cost of $400,000. It borrows Georgia Tech’s reputation as its own, at a huge discount (no training of graduate students, no support for labs, no decades of accumulated know-how through which Georgia Tech earned its reputation).  It acquires these courses for a proprietary platform: Georgia Tech cannot offer these OMS CS courses, created by its own faculty, to a competing distributor.

Udacity expects Georgia Tech faculty members to maintain and update course material, and can use their latest version. While requiring that Georgia Tech not compete with it, it can take Georgia Tech-created courses and offer them to tens or hundreds of thousands of non-registered students — and sell a program certificate for those courses. These courses will differ from Georgia Tech’s in being "minimally staffed to rely on course assistants only for student assessment," but will use Georgia Tech’s content to compete with Georgia Tech’s and all other masters’ programs.  With these courses, Udacity enters the master's certification business, selling a complete degree program without a degree’s intellectual ecology, physical infrastructure, interpersonal venues, and sunk costs.

Udacity’s business model requires that it become a dominant platform. With a series of Georgia Tech-style deals for entire degree programs, it could leverage university content — with sustained free-riding -- to appear to the public as a global university.

For two years, claims about the cheapness of the MOOC format overcame widespread doubts about their educational and social effects. During this time, the main MOOC companies did not release specific financial projections.  Now we finally have two spreadsheets, and their claims to cheapness are not confirmed.

If these costs are typical, it will be more efficient for universities to partner directly with other universities to develop online instruction for underserved students -- and avoid taking on yet another middleman to do one of their two basic jobs.

Christopher Newfield is professor of English at the University of California at Santa Barbara, author of Unmaking the Public University (Harvard University Press) and co-editor of Remaking the University blog.

 

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