Star professors start their own 'university' and don't ever plan to make money

Smart Title: 

Tyler Cowen, star economics professor, co-founded online university about a decade after he helped start the popular blog Marginal Revolution. He wants to offer a whole basic economics education online and has no plans to make money from it.

Essay on faculty concerns about new forms of online education

The irony about MOOCs is that hardly anyone opposes them except many of the academics qualified to teach them.

Recently academics, including groups of faculty at Amherst College, Duke University, and San Jose State University, have been publicly skeptical of, and even hostile to new forms of teaching online courses. Amherst faculty voted down a proposal to create MOOCs with edX, a nonprofit collaboration between Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Duke professors narrowly defeated an online teaching partnership with the for-profit 2U. Nearly 60 faculty members at Harvard itself recently issued a letter expressing angst over the cost of MOOCs and the "impact online courses will have on the higher education system."

But many of the concerns driving opposition to MOOCs and other new forms of higher education aren't compelling.

One of the most common doubts about MOOCs in higher education, for example, is that some numbers suggest fewer than 10 percent of enrollees complete the classes (though figures vary widely for different MOOC models).

Well, so what? Most dieters quit; does this mean universities should abandon wellness education? Should they cut smoking cessation programs? Should rural schools in Pakistan be shuttered because many children in the area won’t or can’t walk four miles from home to learn?

Another common forecast from academics is that universities will use MOOCs to eliminate tenure-track positions, fire vulnerable adjuncts, and commodify higher education.

But wait, we were just told that only 10 percent of MOOC enrollees finish. Doesn’t that mean colleges and universities will still need professors in the flesh and brick facilities to educate people who don’t thrive in online classrooms? Yes, because online learning is just a natural component — not a replacement — of higher education in our age of screens.

The fear that MOOCs and other online teaching will whittle academic departments is overstated, but even if it isn’t, who are we trying to benefit here? If, say, a Yale University MOOC allows 200 students in Honduras and Hawaii to complete an Ivy League chemistry class, and the same MOOC results in the elimination of an adjunct position in Honolulu, I’m not sure I see a clearly defined catastrophe.

Philosophy faculty at San Jose State University recently sent an open letter to a Harvard MOOC professor, publicly refusing to use any of the academic’s MOOC in their curriculum. Now, is the decision to never use any of the Harvard MOOC, made available by a trial partnership between San Jose State and edX, the ideal verdict for every San Jose State student who ever takes philosophy? Doubtful.

There are far more students than professors in higher education, and the system is supposed to be set up for the aspirants, not the academics. I want universities to have robust, supported faculty, and I’m a professor myself, but MOOC-triggered alarms that that focus solely on faculty positions put the teacher first, learner last. Online learning (both MOOCs and other new models) should simply be viewed as another way to reach learners where they are, and as a way to acknowledge different learning styles.

The grandest warning against MOOCs is that the online courses will devastate in-person education as we know it, erasing all the dynamics of classrooms, the pheromones, and instantaneous feedback.

But forms of communication don’t die; devices do. The best way to teach will always be in person, but technologies can be utilized to also help those who can’t be in the room.  Why does Eric Schmidt fly around the world to expand Google’s business? Why do tech elites at Apple still gather in meeting rooms like the cast of "Mad Men"? Because the best way to forge meaningful ties is face-to-face.  We still need to seize online technologies, though, to connect more learners to teachers.

One of the more legitimate concerns regarding MOOCs and other new forms of online instruction involves intellectual property rights. Who retains copyright privileges for online courses that can cost a university a lot to produce, but are also the fruit of professors’ creativity?

Some MOOCs and other initiatives literally require hundreds of thousands of dollars to launch. With sunk costs like that, universities want to retain ownership of the course.  Rightfully, though, professors want to be able to take their course material with them, say, if they leave one university for another, or, in the age of monetized curriculums, to earn fees from their courses promoted by for-profit companies.

But the intellectual property concern doesn’t make people want to eliminate MOOCs, and rather hinges on who will retain distribution and financial rights to an online course.

Professors who want to teach MOOCs, not those who fear them, raise copyright concerns. Professors, presidents and provosts must reach acceptable agreements on rights to the moolah, just as they do for other contentious issues.

Online education is happening and we're going to see more of it, and educators can't hide under the covers.

Northwestern University, where I teach, will begin in the fall a pilot year of "Semester Online," a consortium project in which Northwestern students can take and receive credit for online courses from schools like Boston College, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Emory University and elsewhere. Northwestern professors, likewise, may teach classes online to students at colleges in the consortium. Such expansive online offerings could be especially useful in the future to my students, as I teach in Northwestern's journalism program in Qatar, over 7,000 miles from Evanston, Ill. 

And that's the idea: to give students more options while jealously guarding quality. Colleges in the consortium will not accept credit for a "Wayne's World" MOOC broadcast from a basement, but rather courses from faculty at proven universities. This is a much better approach than closing one's eyes and hoping online learning goes away.

Justin D. Martin teaches journalism at Northwestern University in Qatar and serves on Northwestern’s Faculty Distance Learning Workgroup, though his views do not necessarily reflect the group’s perspectives. Follow him @Justin_D_Martin.

Editorial Tags: 

Essay on disappointing experience in a MOOC

I admit it – from kindergarten on, I was teacher’s pet.  I got an assignment. I labored over it, made it perfect, turned it in early, got the A.

Until now.  Let me confess: I am a MOOC noncompleter. I had heard the hype that massive open online courses (MOOCs) are transforming higher education, and I wanted to see for myself.

I enrolled in the University of Edinburgh’s MOOC on e-learning and digital cultures, offered through Coursera. With enthusiasm I joined my 260,000 fellow students, whom I assumed shared my interest in a rigorous and rich college experience online.

On day one, I got a form e-mail welcoming me. I was to watch a few videos each week, do a few readings, and do my homework – maybe: "There are no weekly 'assignments,' although we do recommend trying at least two of the suggested activities. These are not assessed, but will help you to prepare for the final assignment."

I started out eagerly, watching the videos, skimming the readings, and participating in the online discussion forum. I could do this late at night at home or while traveling for my day job. But after two sessions, my interest waned. Maybe it was the lack of real-time interaction with classmates or professors. Maybe it was the lack of accountability. I soon wasn’t watching all the videos, and I certainly wasn’t doing the practice homework that no one would ever grade. Honestly, I felt more like an audience member than a student.

The final assignment would determine if I passed or failed, but I didn’t feel connected enough to the class to complete the project. And what would have been my reward? A noncredit statement of completion of truly questionable value.

My MOOC experience is pretty typical. Passing is about showing up, not doing the kind of quality work that meets any standards of academic rigor. Even with bare minimum standards for passing, classes have huge rates of attrition.

At the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education, we pride ourselves on delivering high-quality master's-level programs online. I don’t think the problem is with online learning. Rather, we should see MOOCs for what they are so far: an easy way to dabble in a subject, maybe learn new material, maybe not, and sometimes with highly respected faculty. In my MOOC,  I never saw my professor live online.

We must do more than put a camera in a lecture hall and put professors in a loosely moderated discussion forum. We must offer real-time interaction between professors and students, and between classmates. There must be learning objectives, not just topics to be covered, so students know where they’re headed academically. We must require students to be accountable and expect them to show a mastery of a subject beyond a "showing up" standard.

Those of us who deliver a real college experience online for credit are happy to share the many lessons we’ve learned. Because nobody wants to be a noncompleter.

Karen Symms Gallagher is dean of the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education.

Editorial Tags: 

Online Education Bill Clears California Senate

A controversial California proposal to expand the state public colleges' use of online education has passed the Senate, though it's been amended again. Early versions of the bill would have required the state’s 145 public colleges and universities to grant credit for low-cost online courses offered by outside groups, including classes offered by for-profit companies. The latest version, which cleared the Senate late last month and is pending in the state Assembly, would create an "incentive grant program" to encourage faculty and campuses to work either with each other across the state's tri-part higher education system or with private companies to offer online classes in high-demand subjects to college and high school students. Faculty representatives, which came out strongly against earlier versions of the bill, reportedly remain opposed. 

U. of Maryland University College Closes Intellectual Property Center

The University of Maryland University College recently closed its Center for Intellectual Property, citing a universitywide budget gap of $35 million that caused dozens of other layoffs. The closure of the noted center cost four people their jobs, said university spokesman Bob Ludwig.  "The decision to close the Center for Intellectual Property was basically based on a process we went through to refocus our priorities and meet our budget gap we were facing for the next fiscal year," he said. "So, through that process, it was determined that the Center for Intellectual Property was not central to UMUC's core mission." The center -- whose work was followed by experts elsewhere -- worked on "education, research and resource development on the impact of intellectual property issues in higher education," according to its website.

Maker of Canvas Gets $30 Million, Eyes Competition in LMS Market

Instructure, the maker of the Canvas learning management system, raised $30 million in venture capital to help fuel its competition against Blackboard, Desire2Learn and other more established players, the company said this week. Bessemer Venture Partners put up $26 million and existing investors put in another $4 million.

“We plan to use it for growth. We still think there is a great opportunity in this market to take market share,” said Brian Whitmer, an Instructure co-founder. Right now, he said the five-year-old company has about 5 percent of the LMS market.

Whitmer said the company would hire sales, development and support staff. It may also buy other startups. “We may use some of it for acquisitions," he said.

Another goal, of course, is to eventually take the company public. Bessemer's Silicon Valley partner Byron Deeter will join the Instructure board.

Essay on two recent discussions of massive open online education

Two recent interventions in the ongoing conversation about massive open online courses (MOOCs) strike me as provocative, in very different ways – and also as curiously neglected, given the interest of what the authors have to say. Perhaps it is a sign of fatigue with the subject? Maybe, but the two articles in question, published a little over a month ago, take up the MOOC question in ways that haven’t previously come to the fore.

In calling them to readers’ attention, I don’t aim to influence anyone’s opinion of MOOCs. To attempt that, my own opinion would have to be settled, which it isn’t. There are compelling arguments for assessing them as the pedagogical wave of the future, bringing quality education to everyone, or as a passing fad, possibly in the nature of an economic bubble. I sometimes wonder whether MOOCs might not be the next step towards a dehumanized future in which we become the carbon-based batteries fueling our robot overlords, but have come, as yet, to no settled judgment. (Not that these are the only options, of course, but the topic does tend to elicit strong feelings.)

Wherever you fall in the spectrum of opinion, at least one of the two articles flagged here should be of some interest. They take perspectives not otherwise represented, to my knowledge, in the arguments of the past couple of years. That neither has raised any ruckus seems odd.

Visibility was certainly not the problem with “The Pedagogical Foundations of Massive Open Online Courses” by David George Glance, Martin Forsey, and Myles Riley. It ran in early May in First Monday, the peer-reviewed journal for research concerning the Internet. Hosted at the University of Chicago and now in its 18th year, First Monday is one of the more venerable open-access online publications.

Glance, Forsey, and Riley (the first two associate professors at the University of West Australia, the third a research assistant there) are in effect addressing the question posed in the title of John F. Ebersole’s article here at IHE, a couple of days ago: “Where’s the Evidence?” Their paper is a review of empirical studies of the components of MOOC instruction – short videos, frequent quizzes, peer- and self-assessment, and online forums where students discuss course material. The authors located and synthesized 138 relevant papers. Very little of the literature specifically focused on MOOCs themselves; they are still too recent a development for much research to have been done. But, the authors maintain, MOOCs share enough features with other forms of instruction (both online and face-to-face) to make studies of their common features pertinent.

“A common format for MOOCs,” the paper notes, “is the short video interspersed or associated with multiple-choice quizzes.” The combination “emulates one-on-one tutoring” and enables the student “to control the pace, pause, rewind, explore, and return to the content,” unlike with “standard lectures or with video recordings which may be one to two hours long.” Self-pacing enables the student to “achieve mastery of a concept before moving on the next” -- a pedagogical process known as “mastery learning,” for which there is much evidence of efficacy: “A meta-analysis of 108 controlled evaluations,” reported in a paper in 1990, “showed mastery learning programs to have positive effects on examination performances of students in university, high school, and upper grades of primary school.”

Frequent assessment via multiple-choice tests (which have the obvious advantage of being scored by computer and giving the student almost instantaneous feedback) means that students have “an opportunity for retrieval learning” through a practice that “enhance[es] long-term memory of facts through recalling information from short-term memory.” The authors cite a number of studies indicating that retrieval practice improves long-term retention, and note that some research suggests that it can have deeper effects: “Every time we retrieve knowledge, that knowledge is altered, and the ability to reconstruct that knowledge again in the future is strengthened. Recent studies have shown retrieval practice to also enhance meaningful learning (producing organised, coherent, and integrated mental models that allow people to make inferences and apply knowledge)….”

There’s more, though that much should suffice for present purposes. The gist of it is that the “pedagogical foundations” of MOOC instruction are at least as firm as those beneath the traditional classroom “and may actually improve learning outcomes.” This is, again, an extrapolation from work done (most of it) before the advent of MOOCs. The latter are treated, in effect, as just online education on steroids. The authors acknowledge, in passing, that the “massive” side of the phenomenon may have the undesirable effect of fostering social isolation, and note that they have not addressed “the larger questions around whether taking a collection of MOOCs could replace obtaining an education on campus at a university in all of its facets of personal development and education.”

In other words, more research remains to be done -- and the three authors seem to be in a position to undertake some of it: earlier this year, the University of West Australia began offering its first set of MOOCs.

Why stop at offering courses? Why not massive open online degrees, as well? While looking around for discussions of “The Pedagogical Foundations” – and there was precious little, apart from the thread following this summary by one of the authors – I came across a blog post with a subject line reading

MOOCs are so unambitious: introducing the MOOPhD

which I bookmarked as something to revisit as a diversion. You might reasonably assume that it is a satirical piece -- or at least I did.

Except it isn’t. The author, Jon Dron, is an associate professor of computing and information systems at Athabasca University, in Alberta, Canada. He has “had peripheral involvement with a support network for students investigating learning analytics,” he writes, and “helped to set up a site to provide resources for graduate students and their supervisors.” His remarks framing the possibility of massive open online doctoral studies are sober and completely uncontaminated by irony.

Dron brainstormed the idea with a couple of colleagues, and the very concept sounds like work in progress. The MOO doctoral candidate “would accrue a body of research publications that could be used as evidence of a sustained research journey, and a set of skills that would prepare them for viva voces and other more formal assessment methods. This would be good for universities as they would be able to award more Ph.D.s without the immense resources that are normally needed, and good for students who would need to invest less money (and maybe be surrounded by a bigger learning community).”

Much could be said about the whole idea -- let alone about how desirable its outcomes might be -- though I will forebear. But if the plan is ever realized, we must at least draw a line at the massive open online MD program. That would be just a little too much like Hollywood Upstairs Medical College.

Editorial Tags: 

Unexpected Issues in Online Education Deal

A pilot partnership between San Jose State University and Udacity, the Silicon Valley-based ed tech company, revealed some hidden costs of online education, The Oakland Tribune reports

"I get this call from San Jose State: 'Uh, we have a problem,'" recalled Mark Ryan, superintendent of a charter school in Oakland that was taking part in the project to offer for-credit online classes to students, including high school students. According to the newspaper, "It turned out some of the low-income teens didn't have computers and high-speed Internet connections at home that the online course required. Many needed personal attention to make it through. The final results aren't in yet, but the experiment exposed some challenges to the promise of a low-cost online education. And it showed there is still a divide between technology-driven educators and the low-income, first-generation college hopefuls they are trying to reach."

Udacity just signed a major deal with the Georgia Institute of Technology to offer a low-cost professional master's degree courses to 10,000 students at once.

New Data on MOOC Students

New data on an early MOOC course offered by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are being released today in the journal Research and Practice in Assessment. The data are about the course Circuits and Electronics, which already has been the subject of some analysis. In an article in the journal, researchers reported on the use of course resources by those who earned certificates (greatest use on weekends, when students presumably had more time and just before assignments were due), the use of discussion boards (most students were lurkers, and viewed others comments without adding any of their own), and the countries of origin of students, based on IP addresses and perhaps not completely accurate as a result (greatest enrollments from the United States, followed by India, Britain, Colombia and Spain).

Essay questioning the evidence on MOOCs and learning

As widely reported, five massive open online courses have been deemed worthy of an academic credit recommendation by the American Council on Education. The announcement by ACE has been greeted with equal parts acclaim and concern. Many see this step as a new day for increased access and reduced cost for those working toward a degree. Content costing thousands of dollars on campus may now be available for free and in the comfort of one’s own home. Others, especially in academe, continue to express concern about the nature of MOOCs and their ability to produce learning.

While no one questions the quality of instruction, it remains unclear as to how student learning by MOOC is to be measured.  Yes, there has been discussion in the media about the use of proctored exams. Yet, a poor assessment securely administered is still a problem.  Are examinations being developed from publisher test banks, or are they akin to the psychometrically validated, field tested exams that have been long used to measure other forms of non-collegiate learning? Are question banks sufficiently deep to ensure assessment variation and integrity? And, are security measures in place to minimize the likelihood of the type of cheating that has compromised other large scale testing programs (the TOEFL experience in Asia a few years ago comes to mind)?

At a time when evidence of learning is increasingly demanded by accreditors and the federal government, a determination of equivalency in instruction alone is no longer sufficient. Valid, secure learning outcome assessment must now be part of the equation as well.

Yes, the MOOCs produced by Udacity and Coursera feature some of our finest instructors from prestigious institutions. We must remember, however, that this instruction comes from outside the academy. MOOCs are not subjected to the same reviews that are part of the accreditation process for other instruction at colleges and universities. And, as we have seen, more thought must be given to the assessment process and its validity.

Would this also be the case for a course coming from within the academy? One would hope not. A higher standard is mandated when measuring the ability of non-collegiate instruction to produce meaningful outcomes. Consider that it has been standard practice for individual military students, independent study students, and those taking courses through open educational resources, as well as other forms of prior learning, to prove their mastery of specific subject matter through psychometrically validated, ACE reviewed and approved examinations. These exams are prepared by Ph.D. psychometricians, in tandem with panels of nationally prominent content specialists. They are field tested for reliability and predictability.  In the case of exams at my institution, Excelsior College,, they are also nationally normed to establish "cut scores" for the assignment of letter grades. The academic community broadly has been accepting of this type of learning validation because of the understood rigor and credibility of the methodology.

No similar attention to rigor, validity  and security is seen in the MOOCs offered to date. This is especially important as we struggle to understand why only a small percentage of students (less than 10 percent by most accounts and usually from abroad), actually complete the MOOC experience.

And yet, massive open online "courses" (doubt still exists as to whether this is what they truly are) do appear to have real value.  It can be argued that they are well-suited (and likely sustainable over the long term) as vehicles for:

1. Delivering cutting-edge continuing education, where credit is secondary to relevance for technical professionals striving to remain current and competitive.

2. Building faculty reputations through what some see as "21st-century interactive, textbooks." It is a rare professor who can boast of hundreds of thousands of "students" when preparing for a promotion or tenure review, especially at a time when traditional texts typically sell fewer than a thousand copies.

3. Creating greater institutional brand awareness. By being seen in the company of "giants," other research universities enhance their visibility overseas, which is where the majority of MOOC participants are located. (This is inexpensive PR in the eyes of many and explains the unseemly rush by some institutions to get on board).

4. Offering "free samples" of a program that will later involve real dollars. Berklee School of Music, for example, is offering an introductory guitar class to tens of thousands of interested individuals. In so doing, the prospective student can try before buying. Even if only a small number complete the course per usual, Berklee will have a greater number of potential enrollees than is typically the case with other forms of student recruitment.

With all of these promising applications, where MOOCs have yet to prove themselves remains in the area of degree completion, or even completion of enough learning to justify the awarding of credit. Traditional students (ages 18-24) and those adults who question their ability to succeed as returning students often need to interact with an instructor. Mentoring, teaching and building self-confidence are not attributes of the current MOOC. Until there is evidence of real learning here, institutions may wish to move with caution in the extension of credit toward degree requirements As the executive director of a regional accrediting body recently stated, "We will be very interested [in our visits] to learn of the basis for such decisions [by the accepting institution]."

John F. Ebersole is president of Excelsior College.

Editorial Tags: 


Subscribe to RSS - techadministrators
Back to Top