Coursera and edX, the two major providers of massive open online courses, continue to partner with more institutions. On Tuesday, edX, a nonprofit started with money from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, announced it has 15 new partners, including a half dozen in Asia. Both edX and Coursera, a Silicon Valley-based company, have recently touted the global nature of their efforts. Coursera last week gained a prestigious domestic partner: Yale University, which had been taking its time to reflect.
Here's a course topic not currently offered by any of the providers of massive open online courses: "The Implications of Coursera’s For-Profit Business Model for Global Public Education." The course was proposed last week by Robert Meister, professor of political and social thought in the department of the history of consciousness at the University of California at Santa Cruz and president of the Council of UC Faculty Associations. He sent a letter with his idea to Daphne Koller, a computer science professor at Stanford University and co-founder of Coursera, and then published his letter on the blog of the American Association of University Professors.
Among the topics Meister proposes covering:
Why venture capitalists "are willing to provide an even greater abundance of knowledge in the service of greater economic and social equality than is the State of California, which clearly has the means to spend much more than it has cost your company to reach a worldwide enrollment in the millions."
The way "free MOOCs weaken the link between scarcity and quality on which the business model of all higher education, both public and private, unfortunately depends."
Teaching students to "think financially about the socio-economic spreads created by our public educational system as a potential source of private profit."
"[T]hat the for-profit logic of their online educational empowerment depends on the fact while they are consuming information, they are also producing information that Coursera can correlate with other data to predict what prices students with particular profiles would eventually pay for courses they are presently consuming for free."
The piece ends by asking Koller if she would co-teach the course, saying "I’m sure that together we could reach a very large audience indeed."
Via e-mail in response to an Inside Higher Ed question, Koller indicated that potential students might not find the course listed in the Coursera list of offerings any time soon, and that she does not consider that she was really being invited to co-teach it.
"If you've read the (rather long) letter, you'll have seen that it's not actually an invitation to co-teach a course, but rather a thinly veiled attack on Coursera and the whole MOOC model," she wrote. "When we launched Coursera we introduced a completely new model for providing learners everywhere free access to a great education. It is not surprising that a model this transformative brings out skeptics and critics, and, indeed, some caution is appropriate whenever the world changes this quickly. I am happy to respond to concrete criticism of our actions or words, but Mr. Meister's letter criticizes the model not based on what Coursera has done, nor even on what we have said we would do in future, but rather based on a speculative trajectory of his own construction. Our mission, to enable anyone around the world to have access to education, and to do what's best for students, remains clear today and will not bend in the future."
This being spring conference season, I’ve attended a number of higher education events in recent weeks, as well as a number of smaller gatherings where higher education leaders have congregated to reflect on the present moment and what it might mean for the future of our colleges and universities. Needless to say, many of the discussions at these various meetings have featured liberal use of the word “innovation.”
Indeed, as keynotes drifted from one into the other, as PowerPoint slides clicked by with dizzying speed – chock-full of numbers presented in just such a way as to persuade us that a vast and disparate array of trends pointed pretty much down one path (the inevitable road to innovation) – and as numerous hallway conversations, tote bags emblazoned with seemingly hopeful messages about “disruption,” and yet another banquet chicken came and went, I began to wonder what we really talk about when we talk about innovation.
Is innovation, I wondered, just a euphemism for anxiety?
In one small-group conversation I sat in on recently, for example, a colleague observed that when she arrived at her new institution, a meeting was called summoning all those individuals on campus who, like her, possessed the word innovation in their job titles – 90 people attended the meeting, she said.
That’s a lot of innovation. Or is it something else?
The contemporary moment poses many questions about the future of our industry (if I may call it that). Should higher education be free? That’s a fairly big one for a start, and yet we find ourselves asking it at a moment when public contributions to our colleges and universities seem bent on an ineluctable downward slide.
Can students learn without the direct assistance of faculty? Another fairly challenging brain teaser, particularly as we explore the potential for artificial intelligence, machine learning, personalized learning, adaptive learning, and so on, to – at the very least – “flip” the classroom. And what about the near cousins of this question: Are peer grading and computer grading as effective as traditional models of assessment? At one event I attended recently, Bill Bowen, the former president of Princeton University and a trustee of the research organization Ithaka, bluntly observed, "the faculty governance model is not well suited to online learning." Little surprise, then, that faculty organizations have met recent legislative proposals suggesting that selected MOOCs be judged credit worthy in California and Florida with strongly worded counter arguments.
Will the federal government award Title IV funding for direct assessment? Yes, it turns out. And thus guaranteed student loans are officially untethered from the credit hour. How long before other seemingly unshakeable barriers crumble? The recently proposed bill in Florida, for example, recommends that unaccredited organizations be considered among those that might deliver these credit-bearing online courses. It almost makes you wonder which state will be the first to declare that higher education can be undertaken entirely without the aid of an institution higher education.
Maybe all of this talk about innovation is, in part, an effort to domesticate and tame these challenging and threatening questions. But what if masking our fears with more positivist rhetoric about innovation actually narrows our options and leads us to make false choices – between “freemium” and premium pricing models, between faculty-led and faculty-free instructional models, between academic institutions having the authority to award degrees and almost anyone?
As we sip conference wine and watch the sun stretch out across the close-cropped lawns at golf resorts, we may feel like we’ve got a good seat on the innovation bandwagon, and we might very well be enjoying the ride. But in the end, we may come to realize that we’ve been following rather than leading, and copying rather than innovating, and pretty much just hoping for the best – until the bandwagon hits a ditch.
Perhaps the next time we find ourselves at one of these conferences, mingling at one of those receptions, having one of these conversations about innovation, we should ask ourselves: Are we really talking about our anxieties? That might help to bring some of these conversations back down to earth a bit, away from the atmospheric fizz of so many PowerPoint slides racing by, and away from the blurry feeling that change is inevitable so any change will do. That can’t be right when the stakes are so high. Innovation is one thing, after all, but anxiety is something else.
Peter Stokes is executive director of postsecondary innovation in the College of Professional Studies at Northeastern University, and author of the Peripheral Vision column.
Makers of competing learning management systems are coming together to offer prizes to developers for applications that can work across their different products. It's an effort to grow a common "edtech ecosystem." The goal is to spare companies the effort of having to develop every single functionality for themselves. Instead, they can have certain applications that can work across their different products. “I felt for a long time like there aren’t enough integrations and there are too many that are vendor-specific," said Brian Whitmer, co-founder of Instructure, the maker of Canvas. "There’s a lot of lock-in going on.”
Developers will be given $250 for a program that can run in a common language across Canvas, Blackboard, Moodle, Desire2Learn, and other management systems. Judges will also award $1,000 to developers who come up with the best products.
Several major publishers will experiment with offering free course materials to Coursera users enrolled in the Silicon Valley-based company's massive open online courses. The partnership, which involves Cengage Learning, Macmillan Higher Education, Oxford University Press, SAGE, and Wiley will deliver material using Chegg, a company that offers an e-book platform. According to Coursera, while professors teaching MOOCs on its platform have been able to assign free high-quality content, they will now be able to work with publishers to "provide an even wider variety of carefully curated teaching and learning materials at no cost to the student." Coursera has, however, generated some revenue from the Amazon.com affiliates program wherein users buy books suggested by professors.
Indiana University last year approved -- and then quickly unapproved -- the release of a sex reporting app by its Kinsey Institute, long famous for cutting-edge sex research. Using the app, individuals could report promptly (and anonymously) on their own sexual activities, potentially giving researchers new information on exactly what people do and when and how they do it. The university denied it was being prudish and said it needed only to review privacy protocols. Following months of review, the university announced Wednesday that the app has again been approved for release -- with only one change. That change is that all reports will be placed on hold for geographically defined areas. Only when enough people from a given area respond so that reports could not be linked to any one individual will that information move into the database where it can be studied.