Are you a faculty member or administrator who thinks that the latest technologies are finally going to enable us to teach our students well, or do you at least hope that’s the case? If so, you should reconsider, because the vaunted elements of the latest technologies have been around for some 100 years. It isn’t having the technology, but using the technology that is key to helping students learn well.
For at least the past decade there has been much talk about the advantages of highly sophisticated online courses and the use of online tools in traditional courses. One of the significant advantages of technology-enhanced courses, it is said, is that they can be tailored to individual students’ needs, and thus achieve desired learning outcomes for each student better and faster.
Consider for example, this quote from the website of the Apollo Group, the parent company of the University of Phoenix: "Based upon the belief that learning is not a one-size-fits-all experience, Apollo Technology developed the technology to deliver data-driven, personalized education tailored to the individual. Apollo Technology’s unique student data system collects and analyzes individual student data, and delivers automatic just-in-time guidance that can significantly improve student outcomes." In 2010, the University of Phoenix announced a new Learning Management System, the Learning Genome Project, that "gets to know each of its 400,000 students personally and adapts to accommodate the idiosyncrasies of their 'learning DNA.'" Similarly, a recent article in The New York Times stated: "Because of technological advances — among them, the greatly improved quality of online delivery platforms, the ability to personalize material … MOOCs [massive open online courses] are likely to be a game changer."
These statements are evidence of the general belief that now, using technology, we can achieve all sorts of personalized instruction, which constitutes a revolution in how we can help students learn.
But using technology to individualize student learning is not at all a new idea — it does not originate with online courses or with the technology developments of the past decade, or two, or even three. Using technology to individualize student learning is an idea going back at least 100 years. One of the original learning theorists of the modern era, Edward Thorndike, stated in his 1912 book: "If, by a miracle of mechanical ingenuity, a book could be so arranged that only to him who had done what was directed on page one would page two become visible, and so on, much that now requires personal instruction could be managed by print."
A couple of World Wars later, one of Thorndike’s intellectual descendants, B.F. Skinner, recognized as the most eminent psychologist of the 20th century, was developing and crystallizing the field of operant conditioning, the form of learning in which so-called voluntary behavior changes as a result of its consequences. In the third and final volume of his autobiography, Skinner relates that in 1953, in seeing how his daughters were being educated at the Shady Hill School, "I suddenly realized that something had to be done. Possibly through no fault of her own, the teacher was violating two fundamental principles: the students were not being told at once whether their work was right or wrong (a corrected paper seen 24 hours later could not act as a reinforcer), and they were all moving at the same pace regardless of preparation or ability. But how could a teacher reinforce the behavior of each of 20 or 30 students at the right time and on the material for which he or she was just then ready?.... A few days later I built a primitive teaching machine."
Skinner later developed more sophisticated versions of teaching machines, demonstrating one at the University of Pittsburgh in 1954. These machines presented math problems one at a time, with students having to solve each problem before being able to go on to the next.
In 1961 Skinner took a somewhat different approach to personalized instruction when he published, with Holland, the programmed textbook The Analysis of Behavior. This book focused on the principles of learning, more specifically, the principles of classical (Pavlovian) and operant conditioning, with an emphasis on the latter. The introductory pages of the book, echoing Thorndike in 1912, state that "the material was designed for use in a teaching machine…. Where machines are not available, a programmed textbook such as this may be used. The correct response to each item appears on the following page, along with the next item in the sequence."
Students wrote down their answers before turning the page, and repeated a section if more than 10 percent of the answers in that section were incorrect. I first encountered this book in the summer of 1968, as a 15-year-old student in a psychology course taught under the auspices of the National Science Foundation. Similar to other students in my group that summer, I finished this text within weeks and loved it. In 1964, in seventh grade, I had been the beneficiary of another programmed textbook, English 3200. This book was part of a very successful series that taught English grammar.
Another well-known figure in the origins of operant conditioning, Fred Keller, published his iconic article, "Good-bye Teacher…" in 1968. In this article he essentially advocates breaking down the entire teaching process to its elements, and conducting each of those elements more efficiently. The prime function of the teacher becomes, not to lecture, which is best left to automated means, but to engage in direct interaction with students in support of their individualized instruction. More specifically, Keller points out as important the following teaching elements:
1. Highly individualized instruction that allows students to progress at their own speed.
2. Clear specification of learning outcomes (the specific skills to be achieved).
3. Clear specification of the steps needed to achieve these learning outcomes.
4. A goal of perfection for each student and for each stage in the learning process.
5. Two types of teachers: Classroom teachers whose duties include "guiding, clarifying, demonstrating, testing, grading," and other teachers who deal with "course logistics, the interpretation of training manuals, the construction of lesson plans and guides, the evaluation of student progress, the selection of [classroom teachers], and the writing of reports for superiors."
6. Using lectures as little as possible — more as a way to motivate students, and using student participation as much as possible.
7. Lots of testing, all with immediate feedback to students, which helps to ensure student learning.
This breakdown of the learning process makes large parts of that process, parts that are ordinarily done in classrooms involving direct human interaction, well suited for being done by technology. However, humans are clearly still needed for specifying the learning outcomes and the steps required to reach them, as well as other tasks involving analysis and creativity and complex interactions with students.
Just a few years later, in the fall of 1972, I took an undergraduate course on learning at Harvard University, taught by William Baum, that followed the "Keller plan." The work was divided into 26 units, each requiring some reading, some questions to which answers had to be found and learned (50 to 80 such questions per unit, some of which would require an essay to really answer properly), and a written and an oral quiz. Students were not allowed to progress to the next unit until they had passed the written and oral quizzes for the preceding unit, and individual instruction with Baum or his graduate teaching assistant was always available. However, due to the large number of units in this 14-week course, and the difficulty of the quizzes, which students often did not pass, very few students finished the entire sequence and so very few students received an A. Thus using the Keller method does not automatically result in students doing well. The application of such teaching techniques is critical.
Lest anyone think that visions of improving learning by the use of technology are limited to psychologists, 1995 saw the publication of an outstanding work of science fiction by Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age. A central theme in this work is an interactive book, owned by a small girl, that greatly facilitates her learning, development, and upbringing. We cannot yet achieve the degree of device interactivity that Stephenson describes, but we can achieve elements of that interactivity, and Stephenson gives us a vision of the possibilities.
In 1998, Frank Mayadas, then a program director at the Sloan Foundation, gave the keynote address at the City University of New York’s Baruch College’s first annual Teaching and Technology Conference. In this address he pointed out that all forms of college learning have three elements in common: an expert, who oversees the process; information sources; and colleagues, with whom a student learns. All three are important in the learning process, and all three may be instantiated in different ways depending on the modality of instruction. Although current technology cannot by itself design a new course, it can serve well as an information source, and it can assume some of the functions of colleagues. As technology continues to develop, the functions that it can serve will increasingly closely resemble those that have traditionally been served by humans.
The more recent past, 2010, saw the publication of DIY U by Anya Kamenetz. Consistent with Keller in 1968 and Mayadas in 1998, Kamenetz also would separate the components of the learning process, instead of concentrating them all in a course’s single professor as has been largely the case until now. In her vision of the future, individualized instruction is assumed, with technology playing a significant role, including by taking over those parts of teaching that can be automated.
Kamenetz’s vision is not far away given what is already happening on today’s campuses. As stated in a 2012 report from the Ithaka organization, "Barriers to Adoption of Online Learning Systems in U.S. Higher Education": "Literally for the first time in centuries, faculty and administrators are questioning their basic approach to educating students. The traditional model of lectures coupled with smaller recitation sections (sometimes characterized as 'the sage on the stage') is yielding to a dizzying array of technology-enabled pedagogical innovations." One primary use of technology is to deliver lecture material outside of class, while class time is used for discussion and other active interactions involving the instructor and the students. This is known as the flipped classroom, which turns "traditional education on its head." But recall Keller’s 1968 suggestions about how teachers should be used for "guiding, clarifying, demonstrating, testing, grading," and that lectures should be "used as little as possible … and student participation as much as possible." It seems that the new invention of the flipped classroom is not so new at all.
What encourages these recent statements about the benefits of technology for learning is a worldwide recognition that what is important in higher education is the achievement of specific, agreed-upon learning outcomes. Although this emphasis was present at least from 1912 in the work of learning theorists such as Thorndike, who emphasize the end result — the behavioral goal — in their approach to changing behavior, it has only been in the past few decades that such recognition has become prominent in higher education.
One example is contained within what is known as the Spellings Report (the 2006 report of the commission that was appointed by then-Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings). A major point of this report was that "[a]ccreditation agencies should make performance outcomes, including completion rates and student learning, the core of their assessment as a priority over inputs or processes." It is this emphasis on learning outcomes that, in part, enables the use of technology in the learning process. Once the learning outcomes are specified, the process of helping students to achieve them can be programmed, using increasingly sophisticated technology.
Many of the elements of good teaching discussed here — for example, individualized instruction, frequent testing, focus on outcomes, immediate feedback — now have sound laboratory evidence to support their use (see a comprehensive survey here). We seem to have forgotten their behavioral psychology origins and history, yet it is their effectiveness that is important in the end. Perhaps there are additional lessons to be learned from behavioral scientists, however, in the use of technology to facilitate instruction. We have only to look at casino attendees, particularly the users of slot machines, to see evidence of what Skinner and Keller knew firsthand in the laboratory with rats, that animals (including humans) respond at a high, continuous, persistent rate on variable ratio schedules (situations in which each reward arrives after a variable number of responses). Using such knowledge, in addition to knowledge from cognitive psychology about how best to structure concepts, can result in online courses that not only make concepts easy to learn and remember but, similar to slot machines, are almost irresistibly attractive.
Keller in 1968 summed up his position on teaching with the following:
Twenty-odd years ago, when white rats were first used as laboratory subjects in the introductory course, a student would sometimes complain about his animal’s behavior. The beast couldn’t learn, he was asleep, he wasn’t hungry, he was sick, and so forth. With a little time and a handful of pellets, we could usually show that this was wrong. All that one needed to do was follow the rules. “The rat,” we used to say, “is always right.”
My days of teaching are over. But … I learned one very important thing: the student is always right. He is not asleep, not unmotivated, not sick, and he can learn a great deal if we provide the right contingencies of reinforcement.
Although we can all agree that college students are certainly not the same as casino attendees or lab rats, we can also all agree that technology, designed and used correctly, can facilitate instruction through personalization as well as through motivation. (The popular appeal of many online role-playing games is one example of that.)
The teaching techniques and tools discussed here have been promoted by behavioral psychologists for the past century. What lessons can we learn from this? One is that it is possible to facilitate learning using the techniques discussed here, such as personalized instruction, without ever having to use the latest (very expensive) technology. There are times when a relatively cheap programmed textbook will help someone learn, perhaps not as well as the best online programs, but very well.
A related lesson is that it is not the existence of the latest technology or its potential uses that will help us to maximize student learning, but using what we know and have. Faculty must be both aware of the techniques and tools at their disposal, and want to use them. This requires proper training during graduate school, professional development later on, and appropriate college and university incentive structures (all of which have been too often missing if the repeated rediscovery of these techniques and tools during the past century is any indication).
The sorts of tools that we have needed to help students learn have been around for 100 years, albeit continuously improved. It is our job to — finally — use those tools.
Alexandra W. Logue is executive vice chancellor and provost of the City University of New York.
Since the 2008 Great Recession, American higher education has experienced a new round of uncertainties and reductions -- especially, but not only, in public institutions. British academics refer to the current season of top-down austerity as "the cuts," but in the U.S., we might speak of lingchi, "death by a thousand cuts." Faculty lines slashed, programs eliminated, course seats lowered, graduate student aid reduced, the decentralized U.S. higher education system has struggled to maintain quality across the disciplines. Humanities programs, in particular, have appeared threatened.
Yet, in this same time we are in the first phase of a digital revolution in higher education. Much of the teaching and learning apparatus has moved online. Computational technologies and methodologies have transformed research practices in every discipline, leading to exciting discoveries and tools. New interdisciplinary initiatives, exploiting the digital, such as bioinformatics, human cognition, and digital humanities, are bringing faculty members together in ways never before attempted.
For the humanities, the threat of diminished resources has appeared hand-in-glove with the digital turn. The recent events at the University of Virginia demonstrate just how influential the digital paradigm has become, but also how unevenly applied its pressures can be. The university's board members seemed to be swayed by the model of massive open online courses (MOOCs) under development at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University, among other institutions, most of the key instances of which have been in the STEM fields. Meanwhile, some board members proposed to eliminate classics and German to save money in the face of the university's massive structural budget deficit. They apparently did not realize how many students actually take these subjects (a lot) or that the subjects have been required in state codes chartering the university.
As humanities chairs with a long involvement in digital issues, we have seen clearly that top-down budget cuts are often justified with arguments about how digital technologies are driving change in higher education. Just as the MOOC course model played a signature role in the University of Virginia saga, so one of the most visible controversies in the University of California system at the onset of the epic California budget crisis occurred when Berkeley Law School Dean Christopher Edley Jr. proposed an all-digital UC campus.
So we believe that humanities faculty members, chairs, and administrators right now have a choice. One option is to take no systematic action on the digital humanities (DH) front and thus let the long-term digital future be built for them. By taking "no systematic action," we mean the present practices of many of us in the humanities who automatically denounce university ambitions for digital education without looking into the issues, allow digital humanities to be the special province of "power" users, and treat digital humanities as a discretionary field. The results of this course have been anemic: settling the responsibility for leading the humanities into the digital age on adjunct faculty or library staff, ignoring the mismatch between digital humanities and established ways of measuring academic performance, and quarantining digital humanities in a project. We have too often outsourced digital humanities to a special center on campus or tiptoed into digital humanities by advertising for faculty in established fields but adding wistfully that "digital proficiency is a plus."
The other option is for humanities faculty, chairs, and administrators to plan how to integrate the digital humanities systematically through our departments -- to infuse departments with digital technologies and practices so as to create models of organically interrelated humanities digital research, teaching, administration and staff work. Of course, we have no proof that this will "save the humanities," a goal we share but that we fear is counterproductive when posed as an all-or-nothing proposition. Good strategy requires picking some point on the line to apply leverage. The leverage point in the policies now shaping the future university is the digital, and we feel that it is crucial that the humanities try for well-conceived, humanities-friendly models of digital work that are institutionally cohesive enough to influence policy.
How can we change the dynamic and create new structures for the humanities to flourish in the digital age? We recommend the following four principles for faculty members, department chairs and administrators to follow in integrating the digital humanities in the humanities.
It all starts with where scholars live and work natively: in their departments (or similar units). Currently, digital initiatives are predominantly institutionalized in campus units, library annex programs, or interdisciplinary entities; whereas in departments themselves they spring up accidentally like weeds around particular faculty, areas, or projects. We propose an organic strategy for integrating digital initiatives into core departmental research, teaching, administration, and staff work.
Departments should help spread digital methods and tools across the curriculum, for example, by sponsoring graduate students to research digital pedagogies and promoting their cross-adoption or engaging students and faculty to build websites for best practices. Departments might cultivate DH across a larger span of faculty research and craft job searches that alternate between prioritizing established fields, with digital expertise a "plus," and prioritizing digital expertise, with an established field a "plus."
Chairs and faculty should consider adopting new guidelines for tenure and promotion reviews that value such activities as writing grant proposals, collaborating on projects, creating digital archives, building cyberinfrastructure, or contributing influential non-refereed articles or blog posts (starting with steps as simple as standardizing categories for these activities in C.V.s). We have worked in our own departments to explicitly include digital scholarship expectations in letters of offer to digital humanities scholars; to train graduate students in DH (e.g., through an introduction to digital humanities course); and to work with office staff to improve administrative and clerical support of research and teaching through digital methods that meet campus standards, where they exist, of accessibility, preservation, privacy, and security.
Think collaboratively (across departments and divisions).
In our personal experience, the digital humanities are not just a field but a conduit. Digital technologies and media typically require a broad set of methods and skills to carry out -- as in computational or archival projects that require the combined expertise of computer-science engineers, social scientists, artists, and humanists. Digital methods can thus be the common link across departments or divisions collaborating on shared grants, research projects, and curricular initiatives that strengthen the humanities with partners and make them magnets for cost-share and other funding. We have personally benefited from collaborating with other departments and divisions on digital projects, and correlatively we have seen impressive results in our campus administrations' encouragement and cost-share support.
In teaching, the need for partnership is especially acute. For example, the humanities could play an important role in helping to develop innovative digital alternatives to the thrice-weekly 50- or 75-minute large lecture course. Such alternatives could better-serve their own university's students (augmented, perhaps, with instructors and students elsewhere chosen to enhance the educational experience) than astronomically supersized MOOC courses distributed worldwide to ill-defined masses.
In general, departments could expand the collaborative reach of the humanities by taking such steps as: meeting with other departments (and deans) to explore how multiple departments might co-develop a digital course, project, or administrative tool; providing incentives to faculty to try for collaborative grants (e.g., by offering course release for grant writing that, if successful, would repay the lost teaching through curricular development or a course buyout); and creating lecture series and workshops that expose faculty to digital research and pedagogy elsewhere on campus.
Humanities departments need more intensive computing power to conduct research in today's era of large-scale text and data sets, distributed archival resources, and multi-modal (including visual, aural, and cartographic) materials. Yet they often lag in both simple and complex technology. This has spillover effects on teaching as well. Though universities and colleges often furnish classroom technology through central campus agencies, we believe that boosting department-specific technology for the humanities could lead to curricular gains.
The fact is that the latest technology improves humanities research and teaching together, affecting the way our faculty offer their classes by interweaving research and teaching to the benefit of both. For example, the National Endowment for the Humanities-funded English Broadside Ballad Archive (EBBA) project in the University of California at Santa Barbara's English department and the Digital History Project at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln's history department have driven the adoption of higher grades of department technology (workstations, servers, backup systems, remote conferencing tools, text-encoding and image handling tools), all of which has created a thriving digital environment (and busy shared physical space) where undergraduate and graduate students work directly on the project as part of their learning in courses. In general, the humanities are now at a point where we cannot settle for the minimal provision of one aging workstation in each faculty office plus a computer with digital projector in each classroom.
Departments and chairs should seek larger start-up packages for all new hires (and, opportunistically, larger retention packages for faculty with offers elsewhere) to encourage the adoption of powerful computational technologies; initiate a replacement cycle for faculty computers; explore creating a shared department computational research facility (or at least a grouped set of research workstations) if none exist; provide at least one departmentally controlled server for project development or collaborative experimentation that would not be possible on mission-critical university servers; boost large-scale faculty data storage and backup facilities; create remote conferencing facilities to accommodate the increasing number of online meetings and job interviews; and sponsor workshops to keep faculty current on new technologies and methods.
Humanities fields have enjoyed immense cultural authority and interest in every state and community. But they have organized few systematic efforts to maintain, renew, and update these associations in the digital age -- a task that is especially vital when austerity makes some leaders discount the value of the humanities on the basis of misinformed cost-benefit calculations.
The coin of the realm in the digital age, we predict, will be service to society. On the one hand, crowdsourcing and other partnerships with "citizen scholars" will increasingly contribute to humanities scholarship. On the other hand, the humanities must continue to develop their expertise as differentiated from the new, networked public knowledge. The trick will be to evolve the roles of the humanities faculty both in, and distinct from, digital public knowledge so that they will be valued as a necessary instrument in the orchestra.
While the established humanities model of research followed by presentation of finished results in scholarly lectures and publications will continue to be important, that model can no longer stand by itself. Digital technologies allow and, indeed, encourage humanities scholars to engage in open discourse about unfinished research; and they also drive them to "publish" in a wider range of socially visible venues and formats.
Humanities faculty members, chairs, and administrators should start by doing what likely has not been done in recent institutional memory: review what is meant by "service" (typically denoting committee work, supplemented by ill-defined "community" or "other" work). The goal is not to take faculty time away from research and teaching, as if academic work were a zero-sum game, but instead to explore ways to integrate service with everything else for the gain of all. We know ourselves that the simple act of creating a webpage for a project that addresses the public enriches our understanding of the project's research and teaching potential.
In all this, digital technologies are a catalyst for change. Already, digital humanists are exploring methods for publishing in open, crowd-reviewed, blog-based ways. Indeed, there is an incentive for the humanities to ask digital humanists to go even further to create next-generation scholarly platforms that integrate public engagement seamlessly with core research and teaching. For example, online journals could employ text-mining, topic-modeling, linked-data, visualization, and other tools to create on-demand summaries or "WorldCat Identities"-like pages--to be used directly by the public or by scholars for easy import into public websites or course pages.
Humanities departments can take such initial, imaginative steps as conducting a department-wide exercise in revising the departmental web site. Tomorrow's departmental site must go beyond presenting people, courses, and events just one level deep to exposing to public view some of the real content and activity streams of all these (e.g., through interviews with faculty, showcases of student projects, or excerpts from faculty lectures and articles). Other initial steps might include organizing online events that allow faculty and students to share their research with alumni or the community or creating a new service role in the department for an annual "public faculty member" charged with cultivating public engagement, agreeing to meet with members of the community, working on collaboration with local public libraries and museums, and keeping a blog or creating an online showcase for it all.
We are aware that there are valid concerns by many of our colleagues that signing on to the digital revolution in higher education in any systematic way is tantamount to undermining some of the core principles and strengths of the humanities. After all, leading philanthropists have suggested that the World Wide Web will soon eclipse all "place-based institutions" of higher education, and enormous sums of venture capital funding have moved into "for profit" higher ed. Faculty could reasonably conclude that the digital project means participating in the eclipse of their field, ceding even more influence to the oligarchy of elite, private universities with the resources and cachet to start online course consortiums, detracting from the humanistic ideal of close inquiry carried out in intimate conversation, and -- it must also be said -- eroding the need for as many faculty and instructor positions as now exist.
What the current climate tells us, however, is something quite different: that we have an opportunity and a responsibility to reframe the humanities for the digital age. We also see in our respective institutions that administrators, many colleagues, students, and the public are eager to help. The questions and concerns of the humanities continue to speak to and inspire these constituencies, and we should enlist them in our efforts. The reframing project that humanities leaders face will require imagination, leadership, and experimentation. The work we propose is to adopt the necessary level of organizational vision to systematically harness the digital age for the humanities.
William G. Thomas III is chair of the Department of History and the John and Catherine Angle Professor in the Humanities and professor of history at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. He is a faculty fellow of the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at his university; and formerly he was founding director of the Virginia Center for Digital History at the University of Virginia.
Alan Liu was chair of the Department of English from 2008-12 at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where he founded several digital initiatives, including the English department's transcriptions center (for research and teaching on "literature and the culture of information") and the University of California multicampus research group Transliteracies (focused on online reading technologies and practices).
Saylor.org, a clearinghouse for open educational resources (OER), announced on Thursday that it has teamed up with Google to offer its recently unveiled line of free online courses through Google's new massive open online course (MOOC) platform. Google leaped into the MOOC fray earlier this month with Course Builder, which it has pitched as an "open-source," do-it-yourself platform for colleges and individuals that want to adapt their courses to the trendy MOOC format.
Saylor.org, which is run by the nonprofit Saylor Foundation, recently announced it will be opening 240 peer-reviewed courses. It also announced partnerships with Excelsior College and StraighterLine that could give learners who take those courses pathways to formal college credit. Right now the Saylor courses live on their own website; the organization has not yet promised to migrate the lot of them to Google's platform -- just one for now, an introductory course in mechanics.
Google is not the only MOOC platform provider that has expressed an interest in letting other developers and course designers build freely on its code. edX, a nonprofit MOOC provider funded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has been talking about making its own software platform similarly "open source."
Google's arrival in the fray has produced some unusual bedfellows. Peter Norvig, the company's director of research, has been involved with Udacity, a for-profit MOOC provider that grew out of an open teaching experiment Norvig led last year with Sebastian Thrun, a colleague of Norvig's at both Google and Stanford. Google has now made Norvig a figurehead for Course Builder, and he has been talking up a potential collaboration with edX. "edX shares in the open source vision for online learning platforms, and Google and the edX team are in discussions about open standards and technology sharing for course platforms," wrote Norvig in a blog post for Google.
"We're all still experimenting to find the most effective ways to offer education online," he says in a video introducing Course Builder. "And that's why we're so excited to be offering this initial set of tools: so that there will be more of us trying different approaches and learning what works."
Recent developments in online higher education will likely benefit the credit ratings of brand-name and niche institutions while possibly threatening for-profit institutions and smaller, regional colleges and universities, according to a new report by Moody's Investor Service. In a report that elides the potential implications of massive open online courses (MOOCs) and the continued growth of conventional online programs, Moody's analysts predicted that well-reputed institutions will band together around online offerings to reduce operating costs. Meanwhile, there could "eventually be negative side effects on for-profit education companies and some smaller not-for-profit colleges that may be left out of emerging high reputation online networks," the report said. However, the analysts suggested that well-known institutions that rush too heedlessly into MOOCs could sacrifice their reputational footing. "[T]he rapid pace of the MOOC movement presents the possibility of brand dilution as universities rush to join the trend without controlling the quality of the product/content being posted," they wrote.
Submitted by Gary S. May on September 11, 2012 - 3:05am
Here’s a question I’m asked more and more every day: When is Georgia Tech going to offer an undergraduate engineering degree online?
It’s no surprise that this question is being posed. Universities around the country are having intense discussions about massive open online courses, or MOOCs, as they’ve come to be known.
Late last year, when the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced MITx, an online learning platform offering free courses for anyone anywhere, Forbes hailed this development as a "game changer" in higher education. Although participants in such courses earn a "certificate of completion" rather than credit or a degree, hundreds of thousands of students around the world have already availed themselves of this opportunity to take online courses from a prestigious university at no charge.
Since then, multiple universities have begun venturing into MOOCs. Stanford, Princeton, my own Georgia Institute of Technology and others have recently signed up to collaborate with Coursera, a new commercial concern with $22 million in venture capital, to provide similar free courseware and instruction. More than 200,000 people to date have signed up for the six courses offered through Udacity, another online entity recently started by Stanford University professor Sebastian Thrun. MIT has now partnered with its Cambridge neighbor, Harvard, and the MITx platform has evolved into edX.
As with any new phenomenon, the experience of change and the promise of benefit create a measure of hyperbole. Some say MOOCs are the future of higher education; others contend they are over-hyped. The truth is no one knows where the exploration of online courses will lead.
What is clear is that colleges and universities must further innovate in a few critical areas if they are to capitalize on MOOCs to their advantage and the people they serve:
Pedagogy. MOOCs offer a huge opportunity to investigate how to use technology to more effectively educate students. They could potentially serve as laboratories to conduct experiments that might reinvent education. How can student learning be optimized in an online environment, and what is the best role of the faculty member in such an environment? Is the "flipped classroom" – i.e., using online lectures as preparation work for in-person interactions at multiple locations – a viable approach?
Scalability. Optimal education requires interaction between student and teacher, and no professor can know 100,000 students in a MOOC. So the model must continue to evolve so that the MOOC becomes one piece of the teaching equation. If credit beyond a “certificate of completion” is to be offered for MOOCs, what models should be developed and tested to evaluate mastery, given that a single professor cannot grade 100,000 exams?
Lab experience. In fields such as engineering or medicine, hands-on laboratory experiences are crucial. But as my friend (and predecessor as dean at Georgia Tech), Don Giddens, has asked: "Would you like to be operated on by a surgeon who earned a degree online?" So higher education must identify the best ways to supplement the virtual experience with the physical experience needed to impart knowledge. Here, we should not ignore the value of simulation environments – after all, pilots learn how to fly in simulators. And again, satellite locations to provide lab experience may be part of the answer.
Cheating. Right now, cheating is virtually impossible to prevent in the online world. In a recent panel discussion on online education, Dave Patterson, who taught a MOOC at the University of California at Berkeley, described technological evidence that indicates such cheating is “unbound.” Purveyors of MOOCs will have to develop sophisticated tools and processes to mitigate acts of academic dishonesty.
Until higher education invents solutions that address these areas of concern, the future and value of MOOCs is uncertain. To employers, after all, the credential is paramount; if the credential comes with questions about quality of experience or depth of knowledge, its worth is compromised. This is not to say that Georgia Tech and others are sitting and waiting. We are actively experimenting with – and advocating for – MOOCs to harness their potential. In fact, this fall, engineering and computing faculty will be teaching several classes through Cousera on computational photography, control of mobile robots, computational investing and strategic energy.
A colleague recently reminded me of why we work toward this end when he posted to his Facebook page a quote by W.E.B. DuBois: "The purpose of education is not to make men and women into doctors, lawyers and engineers; the purpose of education is to make doctors, lawyers and engineers into men and women."
A college education is much more than mere knowledge transfer. It is a rite of passage and an important part of personal development and the maturation process. As universities work to assure that result, online courses will no doubt be part of the mix. How much a part depends on our ability to innovate our way forward.
Gary S. May is dean of the College of Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Submitted by David Touve on September 11, 2012 - 3:00am
In recent months, many of the most prominent research universities announced forays into free online courses. As a greater number of these universities go online with such free education platforms, the nature of the market for — and even the meaning of — a college degree could change in both subtle and significant ways.
Behind the screens, beyond the more collaborative desire to educate the world, a rather complex sort of competition may be playing out. Aside from the question of competition, however, is the question of what the classification of these online programs signals in terms of our beliefs about the purpose and value of a college degree, as well as the qualifications for such a degree.
On the one hand, universities or their partnered courseware platforms describe these MOOC experiences as analogous to classroom-based course experiences, in terms of either the academic rigor or at least the capacity to assess mastery of the course material. For example, edX describes the rigor of its online courses as the same as that of the partnering institutions. Coursera, citing a 2010 meta-analysis conducted by the Department of Education, claims that online learning is at least as effective as learning in face-to-face classroom settings.
On the other hand, those universities now experimenting with MOOC offerings are quick to clarify that they will grant course credit or college degrees only to those students who first pass through the highly selective admissions process, which occurs before these students ever register for a course — online or on-campus.
As a result, the nature of these recent experiments in massive and open online courses risks triggering a paradox in certain galaxies of the higher education universe: evidence of mastery in university coursework will warrant only a certificate, while evidence of mastery in work prior to university coursework will determine the degree. Simply stated, the line between an online certificate and a degree from any particular institution shall be drawn by the admissions office.
This paradox was expressed in point-blank terms by MIT’s news office, in December 2011, within the original FAQ for the MITx program:
"Credentials will be granted only to students who earn them by demonstrating mastery of the material.... MIT awards MIT degrees only to those admitted to MIT through a highly selective admissions process."
Expressing, in mathematical terms, the degree-does-not-equal-certificate logic:
“Course” and "Mastery" cancel each other out, and so:
(+) Admission Selection = Degree, while
(-) Admission Selection = Certificate
Perhaps as evidence of the danger presented by this paradox, the edX FAQ now makes no explicit reference to the qualifications — such as a lack of equivalence in subject mastery — that distinguish a degree from a certificate. Frankly, however, the resolution of this paradox cannot be resolved by simply not mentioning it.
Unfortunately, the engineered distinction between certificates and degrees mimics a much deeper and unsightly impression for which the market for these same prestigious universities is widely criticized: the inputs to education trump the outputs of education. We rank, and even respect, universities according to the relative metrics of standardized test scores and dollars spent on research (inputs) rather than measures of classroom experience or subject mastery (outputs).
As larger populations of students in the higher education universe complete increasing proportions of their coursework online, however, some resolution to the certificate versus degree paradox becomes unavoidable. The line that could previously be drawn between wholly online degree programs and wholly offline programs fades.
Furthermore, as larger populations of students complete increasing proportions of their coursework through the same, or extremely similar courseware platforms, our ability to ignore these MOOCs as the means to measure at least one dimension of the outputs of higher education fades as well. In other words, we will have to come to terms with the implications of our measures of mastery (e.g., when the only students who aced a Stanford University course in artificial intelligence were students who were not attending the university).
Just as our initial characterizations of the Internet as seemingly antisocial transitioned to an awareness that this online space was social in its own ways, so to might this distinction between online and offline education transition to a recognition that these two environments simply provide different venues for learning, each venue leading to certain subject mastery in its own ways.
Frankly, it’s time to resolve this paradox, and the sooner the better.
If a well-attended and open online course offered by a prominent university is somehow different from the associated on-campus education in terms of the level or type of mastery that can be achieved, then we should just say so and treat this difference as such. Subject mastery in a MOOC environment may be a necessary but not yet sufficient condition for "mastery," at least in certain galaxies of higher education.
In fact, perhaps the mastery we are ultimately hoping for from the range of galaxies in the higher education universe is more than the ability to answer 50 questions correctly. Instead, our ultimate goal is to develop a capacity to convert the implications of those answers to new questions, new ideas, and new inventions — dynamic sources of impact. Developing and supporting this dynamic capacity may not scale in the same way that MOOC education can.
If, however, there is no difference between the level and type of mastery that can be reached online versus that which might be attained on campus, then we should speak and act as if these two venues are indeed equivalent — if not in experience then at least in terms of the outputs, regardless of inputs.
Most importantly, however, we should resolve the paradox that emerges from this debate over MOOCs, wherein the substance — whether chunks of matter or ideas or right answers or genuine insights — that determines whether a student earns a university degree rather than a course certificate would be in the selection of that student through admissions standards rather than in the content and quality of the education or the impact of that education as measured through the student’s experience, accomplishments, or dynamic capacity to act upon and even develop new knowledge.
David Touve is assistant professor of business administration at Washington and Lee University.