What is the future of MOOCs and how will they blend into the higher education landscape — specifically, into the community college landscape?
The "deMOOCratization" of higher education content, making courses readily available to millions of individuals who can sign up for courses online, developed and taught by faculty from the most elite institutions – Harvard University, the University of Michigan and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, just to name a few -- is now a reality. And no "entry" requirements needed. It is not difficult to understand the appeal. Now anyone can participate in education proffered by a name-brand university.
While it is too early to measure the long-term potential of these cyborg courses, MOOCs already have reignited conversations around student access, content, the delivery of content, and student learning outcomes. In some instances, policy makers and educators are looking to MOOCs to fill gaps resulting from the scaling back of course offerings due to budget cuts and high student demand driven by the last economic recession, enrollment growth and accelerating demographic shifts. California is a case in point. Governor Jerry Brown has shown strong interest in MOOCs and online learning as potential stopgaps against enrollment strain and course shortages plaguing California’s community colleges and students.
But do MOOCs represent a panacea for community colleges? Data from the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Teachers College, Columbia University offer a cautionary tale about traditional online courses now being used at community colleges.
The result of a longitudinal study of students in the Washington Community and Technical Colleges dating back to 2004, the CCRC study raises serious questions about the efficacy of online learning — and by implication, MOOCs — for community college students.
The CCRC study found that community college students enrolled in online courses were more likely to drop out of or fail those courses. Researchers controlled for the customary factors that can predict success, but the fact remains that students struggling academically in college are most at risk for failure in online courses. While many other factors influence success in online learning, a fundamental question remains: can such courses replicate the enduring effects of student and faculty interaction — particularly in the many special circumstances typical of community colleges?
And in regard to community colleges’ greatest challenge – remedial education – MOOCs with their high-powered instruction and fast-paced delivery, but devoid of real-time faculty-student interaction, appear to offer little if any promise in helping students with the greatest needs overcome their academic deficits.
At this point, we have more questions than answers, including those related to the very nature of MOOCs. What exactly are they? It is difficult to quantify the seemingly eclectic collection of courses into a program of study, assess their relationship to quality, and most important, their impact on student learning. More vexing perhaps, what is the relationship between MOOCs and student success and completion? Already, significant numbers of students who sign up for MOOCs fail to complete them. The latter question is of particular concern to community colleges, but also to higher education in general because of the new imperative to increase educational attainment rates in America.
While MOOCs have garnered considerable attention in the media and within higher education, it is premature to draw any conclusions about their eventual landing place in the community college ecosystem. But thanks to the extraordinary work of the Liberal Learning & America’s Promise initiative by the American Association of Colleges and Universities, we would do well to refresh our memory banks about the hallmark practices that result in student success and achievement.
Through AAC&U efforts, we can revisit those timeless values that undergird effective student learning, dating at least as far back as Socrates and the Socratic method of inquiry. These values include hands-on, rigorous learning opportunities, programs with purpose and cumulative by design, a learning-centric community and emphasis on mentoring, and student/faculty interaction and feedback. We in the community college sector have embraced these same values while at the same time recommitting to fostering student success and completion.
It is important to demystify MOOCs, to separate the wheat from the chaff; that will happen, but we aren’t there yet. In the meantime, most community colleges are already offering online education, which has proven, even when combined with traditional resources like staffing, tutoring and faculty interaction, not to work well for low-income and educationally disadvantaged students. It’s as though we’ve forgotten the digital divide still exists, and nowhere more so than for community college students.
The CCRC data suggest that MOOCs cannot simply be substituted for more traditional courses, regardless of credit-worthiness, when our goal as educational institutions is increased student performance and academic progression through community colleges and not simply ticking requirements off a list regardless of outcome.
Moreover, what’s fundamentally different about MOOCs is that their content is developed by faculty and experts who are external to the "home" institution. As a result, while anyone can sign up to take a MOOC, no credit is given unless the MOOC is recognized by some credit-granting entity. That’s where the American Council on Education has jumped in.
ACE has thus far approved a number of MOOCs offered through Coursera for college credit. This is one step toward an answer of whether a student will be able to apply credit earned through MOOCs to specific college degree programs where a student is matriculated. This raises larger, yet unresolved credit transfer issues and articulation agreements, issues we in the community college sector are seeking to address through the Voluntary Framework for Accountability. The fundamental question for MOOCs is how they will be integrated into community college curriculums and degree programs. And, who will determine their quality and "fit" vis-à-vis with community college curriculums?
Returning to California again, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg introduced legislation to create a process for awarding credit for online courses. Senator Steinberg’s legislation, Senate Bill 520, would create a "statewide network of faculty-approved online college courses for credit." The stated goal is to supplement the current shortage of classroom seats with online learning opportunities to allow more students, and in particular community college students, to further their studies. The legislation has ignited a controversy around the mechanism for approving courses for credit. Specifically, a nine-member appointed faculty council would review and approve the courses for credit under the proposal.
Senator Steinberg’s legislation is the latest flashpoint in the current debate surrounding MOOCs — namely, who decides the quality and applicability of the content relative to a college’s curriculum and its faculty? The resolution of this issue leads directly to questions of institutional governance, accreditation, accountability, faculty roles and responsibilities, and ultimately to institutional autonomy. There are good reasons for having institutional faculty involved in the review of curricular content, which has been the model in higher education since its inception.
Democratic learning is central to the community college mission — access to higher education has always been the unique hallmark of community colleges. If the MOOC revolution turns out to be more than a "DeMOOCrazy" experiment with technology, then community college governing boards will need to weigh in on MOOCs — and the sooner the better. The discussions won’t be easy, and even coming up with the best questions to ask at this point is a challenge. But when community college trustees delve into this new world, I hope that they balance issues of demand and expediency with those relating to quality, accountability, institutional autonomy, and above everything else, student success and completion.
J. Noah Brown is president and CEO of the Association of Community College Trustees and author of First in the World: Community Colleges and America’s Future.