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The Pulse podcast features tools to help teach lab courses online

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This month's edition of the Pulse podcast features an interview with Jim Brown of Ocean County College, discussing tools that can help faculty members teach lab courses in online settings.

Academic Minute: Autism Studies and Wearable Technology

In today’s Academic Minute, Matthew Goodwin of Northeastern University reveals how wearable technology is improving the quality of autism studies. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

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NEA Prepares New Statement on Digital Learning

The board of the National Education Association, which represents college faculty members in addition to elementary and secondary school teachers, on Friday approved a new statement on digital learning that is likely to be adopted as official policy for the union by its Representative Assembly in July. The policy, which applies to both K-12 and higher education:

  • Endorses "hybrid" teaching -- involving both technology and teachers -- as the best approach. "Optimal learning environments should neither be totally technology free, nor should they be totally online and devoid of educator interaction," the statement says.
  • Calls for teachers to be centrally involved in decisions about how to use technology in classrooms.
  • Says that "education employees should own the copyright to materials that they create in the course of their employment. There should be an appropriate 'teacher’s exception' to the 'works made for hire' doctrine, pursuant to which works created by education employees in the course of their employment are owned by the employee. This exception should reflect the unique practices and traditions of academia."
  • Urges policy makers to consider the extent to which increased reliance on technology for learning may exacerbate inequities in the education system.

 

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Essay suggests that MOOCs are losing their original worthy goals

The recent announcement from the California State University System regarding its embrace of edX massive open online courses (MOOCs) is interesting and depressing at the same time. As with many aspects of the MOOC phenomenon, it comes packaged with good and bad aspects bundled up together. Instructors will offer a "special 'flipped' version of an electrical engineering course ... where students watch online lectures from Harvard and MIT at home." So the good is the flipped part because it's more interactive and dynamic and there's less lecture-based didacticism in the classroom due to watching videos at home? Really? The 1970s just called: they want their Open University courses back.

This model perhaps moves the Cal State system forward as it offers more accessibility to content for working adults in a hybrid format. I wish they would just step away from the MOOC terminology, which is, let’s be honest, copying and lending out a videotape in another name. MOOCs have been so beaten up and stolen for self-serving means that the original premise has been lost. As Stephen Downes, one of the forefathers of original MOOCs, stated in a recent blog, "These arguments miss the point of the MOOC, and that point is, precisely, to make education available to people who cannot afford to pay the cost to travel to and attend these small in-person events. Having one instructor for 20-50 people is expensive, and most of the world cannot afford that cost."

The MOOC spirit has been eroded by institutions and individuals who see an easy way to sound (or just seem) tech-online savvy. MOOCs are being used by many institutions to avoid actually having to discuss issues like ownership of curriculum, scalability and strategic online growth. In a (MOOC) swoosh, difficult governance issues regarding intellectual property, scalability and ownership are gone. Corrupted MOOCs circumvent the need for anything other than talking (lecture-style) to a camera with the hope that the "nice young guys and gals at CoursEdXra" drop me into a backdrop of the Parthenon and/or animate the background with pen cast versions of napkin sketches. There’s no building of an online community, facilitation of discussion threads, not even grading of papers, just, "I’m done — here’s my MOOC!"

MOOCs were originally intended to educate the Masses (M): hundreds of thousands who “cannot afford to enroll or travel to classes.” They were all Open (O): Open Content provided or supported by Saylor.org, Creative Commons and others. Now Open no longer means open resources — it has been unofficially changed to mean "open to anyone." Don’t get me wrong. Being more available to more people isn’t in itself a bad thing, but it does move the focus away from the original intent, which was to provide free, quality educational materials. The second O stands for Online — unless it’s a hybrid offered in a flipped classroom in which students have watched a video before coming to class (sigh). C = Course. Well, I guess one out of four is not bad if 10 percent retention is acceptable.

Original MOOCs (oMOOCs) were free, or at least extremely affordable, fully online, well-crafted and contained a lot of interesting pedagogy and instructional design. The target demographic was the underserved, both nationally and internationally. Per Downes, they were "not designed to serve the missions of the elite colleges and universities...." but rather "designed to undermine them, and make those missions obsolete."

Hijacked MOOCs are flagship (institution)-led, starting to cost (increasingly), often hybrid, faculty headshot to camera, tech sophistication layered on, little-to-zero impact on faculty member revisiting / learning? pedagogy (in any format) and not very massive. They're mostly taken by education technologists, already-qualified individuals and Tom Friedman.

It’s the strategic analysis and "nuanced discussion" that I want us all back to. Proper MOOCs may work for some, others may just choose to use open online materials and some may even have a mission to support affordable education for underserved communities (my favorite). But let’s not kid ourselves. Co-opting a MOOC label does not make an offering edgy. Get strategy and rationale nailed first, worry about the acronym later.

Kevin Bell is the executive director for online curriculum development and deployment at Northeastern University's College of Professional Studies. This essay is adopted from a posting at the blog Aspire.

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San Jose State University Faculty Pushes Back Against EdX

The philosophy department at San Jose State University is pushing back against the university's pioneering projects to test new online learning ventures.

department-approved letter not only challenges hype around online learning but personally calls out a Harvard University professor who teaches a massive open online class for his alleged culpability in what the department calls perilous online learning efforts. The department's letter to Harvard's Michael Sandel follows a suggestion from San Jose State's administration that the department look at using Sandel's popular edX MOOC on justice.

"There is no pedagogical problem in our department that JusticeX solves," the letter to Sandel says, "nor do we have a shortage of faculty capable of teaching our equivalent course. We believe that long-term financial considerations motivate the call for massively open online courses (MOOCs) at public universities such as ours. Unfortunately, the move to MOOCs comes at great peril to our university. We regard such courses as a serious compromise of quality of education and, ironically for a social justice course, a case of social injustice."

San Jose State Provost Ellen Junn said the faculty had the option of using the online course to supplement their normal course material in the same way professors use textbooks. “Faculty have the complete control and responsibility for using or not using whatever material they want, whether it be a textbook or video,” she said.

San Jose State is using another edX course to "flip" one of its engineering courses and is so far seeing better pass rates, according to university faculty. Junn said the use of material from providers offering MOOCs does not mean the university classes are themselves MOOCs because they are not entirely online and they are not massive courses -- indeed, they have the same number of enrolled students as traditional un-flipped courses. 

Sandel released a statement saying he is only trying to make material available to the public and making clear that he does not believe online courses are a substitute for personal engagement.

"My goal is simply to make an educational resource freely available--a resource that faculty colleagues should be free to use in whole or in part, or not at all, as they see fit," he said. "The worry that the widespread use of online courses will damage departments in public universities facing budgetary pressures is a legitimate concern that deserves serious debate, at edX and throughout higher education. The last thing I want is for my online lectures to be used to undermine faculty colleagues at other institutions."

The San Jose State letter is the latest instance of professors looking at and rejecting attempts by officials at traditional universities to partner with a new batch of online course providers. Amherst College's faculty last month voted down a proposal to join edX. Last week, Duke University faculty members, frustrated with their administration and skeptical of the degrees to be awarded, forced the institution to back out of a deal with nine other universities and 2U to create a pool of for-credit online classes for undergraduates.

Education research and the pace of innovation

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Academic researchers need to be nimble to contribute to the fast-moving science of learning around online education.

Washington State Students Save $5.5M With Open Courseware

Students at the state of Washington's 34 community and technical colleges will save hundreds of thousands of dollars a year because of low-cost textbooks produced by the state's Open Course Library, the college system said this week. The library, which received funding from the state legislature and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, spent $1.8 million to develop low-cost course material, including textbooks of no more than $30, for 81 common courses. The effort has already saved students $5.5 million since fall 2011, according to an analysis by The Student Public Interest Research Groups, an advocacy organization.

“Students are clearly the winners in the open courseware library model,” said Marty Brown, the executive director of the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, in a conference call with reporters.

Nicole Allen, a textbook advocate for the student group, said Washington's materials are used outside the state, including by a math department in Arizona. Policymakers in California and British Columbia have created similar projects, she said.

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Essay on the nature of change in American higher education

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) have captured the nation’s imagination. The notion of online classes enrolling more than 100,000 students is staggering. Companies are springing up to sponsor MOOCs, growing numbers of universities are offering them, and the rest of America’s colleges are afraid they will be left behind if they don’t.

But MOOCs alone are unlikely to reshape American higher education. When history looks back on them, they may receive no more than a footnote. However, they mark a revolution in higher education that is already occurring and which will continue.

America is shifting from a national, analog, industrial economy to a global, digital, information economy. Our social institutions, colleges and universities included, were created for the former. Today they all seem to be broken. They work less well than they once did. Through either repair or replacement — more likely a combination — they need to be refitted for a new age.

Higher education underwent this kind of evolution in the past as the United States shifted from an agricultural to an industrial economy. The classical agrarian college, imported from 17th-century England with a curriculum rooted in the Middle Ages, was established to educate a learned clergy to govern the colonies. This model held sway until the early 19th century.

In the years before the Civil War, the gap between colleges and society grew larger. European higher education modernized, creating models that would inspire America to grow our own. Innovations, mostly small, were attempted; many failed. During and after the war, the scale of experimentation increased with the founding of universities such as Cornell University, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Chicago a few decades later. Other institutions, such as Harvard University, remade themselves. The innovations spread. By the mid-20th century a new model of higher education for an industrial era coalesced. It was codified in California’s 1960 master plan, balancing selectivity with access and workforce development.

This transition brought new institutions that better met the needs of an industrializing America.

  • An entity called the university was imported from Germany, with what would become a mission of teaching, research and service. It offered instruction in professions essential to an industrial society, organized knowledge into relevant specialties, and hired expert faculty in those areas. It not only transmitted the knowledge of the past, but advanced the frontiers of knowledge for the future.
  • The federal government created the land-grant college to bridge between the old agrarian America and the emerging worlds, agrarian and industrial America. Now found in all 50 states, the land-grant college was designed to provide instruction in agriculture and the mechanic arts without excluding classical studies.
  • Specialized institutions emerged. Some, like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, were modeled on the European polytechnics; they promoted industrial science and technology and prepared leaders in these fields. Others, the normal schools, sought to provide more and better teachers as the evolving economy demanded more education of its citizenry.
  • The two-year college — originally called a junior college, later a community college, sometimes Democracy’s College — was initially established to offer lower-division undergraduate education in the local community.

As these institutions emerged, the curriculum changed. Graduate studies were introduced. New professional schools in fields like engineering, business and education became staples. Continuing education and correspondence courses were added. Elective courses and majors arose. Disputation, recitation, and memorization, the teaching methods of the agrarian college, gave way to lectures, seminars, and laboratories.

The colleges that persisted adopted many of the era’s changes, and the classical curriculum largely disappeared.

This is the history of higher education in America. Change has occurred by accretion. The new has been added to the old and the old, over time, modernized. Change occurs with no grand vision of the system that the future will require. New ideas are tried; some succeed, many fail. By successive approximations, what emerges is the higher education system necessary to serve the evolved society.

Social change is a constant, and so is the need for higher education to adapt to it. When the change in society is deleterious, as in the McCarthy era, it is the responsibility of higher education to resist it and right the society. It is a natural process, almost like a dance. However, in times of massive social change like the transformation of America to an information economy, a commensurate transformation on the part of higher education is required.

We are witnessing precisely that today. MOOCs, like the university itself or graduate education or technology institutes, are one element of the change. They may or may not persist or be recognizable in the future that unfolds.

What does seem probable is this. As in the industrial era, the primary changes in higher education are unlikely to occur from within. Some institutions will certainly transform themselves as Harvard did after the Civil War, but the boldest innovations are likelier to come from outside or from the periphery of existing higher education, unencumbered by the need to slough off current practice. They may be not-for-profits, for-profits or hybrids. Names like Western Governors University, Coursera, and Udacity leap to mind.

We are likely to see one or more new types of institution emerge. As each economic and technological revolution creates new needs for higher education, unique institutions emerge to meet them. In the agrarian era, only a tiny percentage of the population needed higher education, and the college served these elite few. When industrial America required more education, more research, and mass access to college, two major institutions were established: the university and the community college.

The information economy, which requires a more educated population than ever before in history, will seek universal postsecondary education and is likely to create new institutions to establish college access for all at low cost. These institutions will operate globally, not locally, which will dictate a digital format. Because information economies emphasize time-variable, common outcomes — unlike the industrial era’s common processes and fixed times (think assembly lines) — universal-access institutions will offer individualized, time-variable instruction, rooted in mastery of explicit learning outcomes. Degrees and credits are likely to give way to competency certification and badges.

Traditional higher education institutions — universities and colleges—will continue, evolving as did their colonial predecessors. Their numbers will likely decline. At greatest risk will be regional, part-time commuter universities and less-selective, low-endowment private colleges, particularly in New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the Midwest. The future of the community college and its relationship to the universal-access university is a question mark. It is possible that sprawling campuses will shed real estate in favor of more online programs, more compact learning centers and closer connections with employers and other higher education units.

In this era of change, traditional higher education—often criticized for being low in productivity, being high in cost, and making limited use of technology — will be under enormous pressure to change.

Policy makers and investors are among those forces outside of education bringing that pressure to bear. It’s time for higher education to be equally aware and responsive.

Arthur Levine, a former president of Teachers College, Columbia University, is president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.
 

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California Senate Panel Mulls Course Outsource

California's Senate education committee is expected to vote next week on a newly amended plan to allow online courses from unaccredited providers to count for credit at the state's three college and university systems.

The committee on Wednesday heard an hour of discussion about the bill, SB 520. The bill's sponsor, Democratic State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg -- who is the leader of the Senate -- showed up to defend the bill against a parade of opposition by faculty representatives from unions and the state's academic senates. Student support for the idea, which is meant to expand access to over-enrolled lower division classes and lower costs for students, also appeared mixed.

Steinberg offered three new amendments to his bill, which he also amended last week. He said the new amendments will prevent public money from going to private companies and make it possible that colleges can develop their own classes without being forced to turn to outside providers, although seeking aid from private sector technology companies remains a key impetus for the legislation. 

“What are you afraid of?" Steinberg said to faculty who attended the hearing to oppose the bill. "What are you afraid of?”

Faculty representatives expressed concern that unproven private sector companies would be put in charge of students' education. They argued that the solution to access problems in California is more funding for the public higher education systems.

State Universities Should Move Online More Aggressively, Report Argues

Public universities have a long history of adapting to technological change, but they must speed up their embrace of online education -- and work together to do so -- to remain at the forefront of educating the citizens of their states and the country, argues a new report from two Washington research groups. "State U Online," from the New America Foundation and Education Sector, traces the history of public universities and of online education and suggests that major public universities have been slower than other sectors -- especially for-profit higher education -- to incorporate digital learning into their offerings. The author, Rachel Fishman of New America, argues that the institutions are best positioned to offer a high-quality, affordable digital education that is "grounded in public values," and offers a roadmap for doing so, including creating a clearinghouse where state institutions can "collaborate to provide an easy-to-search library of online courses and degrees," sharing contracts for digital platforms and online support services to meet multiple institutions' needs, and sharing credentialing beyond state borders.

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