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March 10, 2014

BERKELEY, Calif. -- A year after the Online Learning Summit was founded in Cambridge, Mass., attendees this weekend struggled to draw parallels to last year's event. The reason, they said, is that "everything has changed."

Top-ranking university officials and ed-tech company executives reconvened at the University of California at Berkeley after a turbulent year for massive open online courses. During the the day-and-a-half-long summit, organized by Berkeley, Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University, speakers seemed to follow an everything-but-MOOCs approach to online education on campus.

There was Ellen Junn, the former provost of San Jose State University and now at California State University at Dominguez Hills, pointing out that “technically speaking, what San Jose State did [in its partnership with Udacity] was not actually create MOOCs.” The university instead tried to use online courses for remedial education, but later abandoned the project.

Her Saturday morning keynote was followed by the creators of the distributed online collaborative course (DOCC), a feminist alternative to the massive open online course, who said they had “put aside the desire to be massive, arguing instead for the importance of creating a critical mass of learners rather than aspiring to reach an undifferentiated mass of students.”

While Coursera and edX officials were once again on the guest list, they appeared this year only in the audience -- not on stage.

“Look at the program for this year,” said John C. Mitchell, Stanford’s vice provost for online learning. “What a difference a year makes.”

This year’s speakers were asked to consider “How Technology Impacts the Pedagogy and Economics of Residential Higher Education” -- the summit’s subtitle -- yet it took until halfway through the summit for one speaker to point out that the majority of students pursuing higher education don’t fit into that shrinking slice of the market.

“It’s not like higher ed is currently serving disadvantaged students well, so if we break something, we already know it was broken beforehand,” said Laura Hamilton, assistant professor of sociology at the University of California at Merced, who summarized talking points from an earlier presentation in the summit’s closing session.

“To make online education work for these students, we actually do have to spend far more than we currently do on them, and far more than you would on a typical Stanford or MIT student. We need to build models based on their needs of their world."

That's quite a contrast from the rhetoric heard a year or so ago as MOOCs were all the rage and policy makers were seeing them transforming and cutting the cost of higher education.

Hamilton described many of the models of online education presented at the summit as “very top-down.”

“They’re from the perspectives of faculty and administrators not working with students like these -- students at my institution that’s 15 percent white, 60 percent first-generation right now,” Hamilton said. “The thing is, these students -- they’re so different than the students you’re talking about. They have a lot of different needs. What gets trickled down to them at their institutions is going to look a lot different than what happens at the Stanford d.school, or what students at Stanford and MIT do when they log on for their advanced astrophysics course, right? Unless the models that we develop reflect the needs of disadvantaged students to make them front and center, I’m a little worried.”

Eric L. Grimson, MIT’s chancellor for academic advancement, addressed that disconnect during his lunch keynote. His talk focused on the preliminary report on the future of the institution, released last November, which he said was published to show how MIT is grappling with questions ranging from moving the first year online (“Students hated that idea!”) to getting rid of lecture halls (“Is chalk and talk still relevant, or really is it something of the past?”) The final report will be released some time later this year.

“MIT is in a very fortunate position,” Grimson said. “I hate the word elite, but I understand the kind of institution we are. I think we also we believe that we have an obligation because of that.”

Grimson listed the catalog of academic materials available through MIT OpenCourseWare, and -- recognizing the presence of the for-profit Coursera in the room -- said MIT founded edX “because ... many strongly of us believed that there needed to be a not-for-profit alternative in this space.” The statement caused an outbreak of scattered applause among the roughly 175 attendees.

“Through our partners at edX, we are engaged in discussion with other institutions,” Grimson said. “How can we hear what you need? How can we use that to try to think about how you can build on [that]?”

Hamilton was joined on the panel by three undergraduates at Berkeley, who responded to the presentations and contributed their thoughts. One student said universities should reward coursework that doesn't take place in the classroom; another argued for new taxonomies of courses that would enable students to stitch together modules for specific learning outcomes. Organizers later said the session was so well received that next year’s summit ought to feature student input at the beginning, middle and end.

“My generation, we take online courses sometimes at UC-Berkeley, and while we’re taking them, I can see that everyone has a second tab open that’s YouTube or Pandora,” said Carmen Zheng, a freshman at the university, who spoke as a slideshow presentation behind her showed an open browser with a dozen different tabs clogging the window. “Sometimes we’re taking a really important test that could determine whether we pass or fail that class in bed in our pajamas.”

Zheng attributed the multitasking to the “lack of a true learning environment” online and availability of distractions.

“My life moves really, really fast,” Zheng said, ticking off courses, extracurricular activities, college sports and planning for graduate school. “If a browser was my life, I do not want education to just literally be another tab.”

 

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