techfaculty

Essay on what MOOCs are missing to truly transform higher education

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.

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Publishers will appeal district court's decision in e-reserve copyright case

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Publishers say they will appeal district court ruling on landmark Georgia State copyright case, raising the stakes on a case that could set bar for fair use and digital library reserves.

Essay on a contradiction facing MOOCs and their university sponsors

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 + Admissions Selection + Mastery = Degree.

Course - Admissions Selection + Mastery = Certificate.  

“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.

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Site-based testing deals strengthen case for granting credit to MOOC students

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A second major MOOC provider signs deal to hold exams at physical testing centers, potentially elevating the credibility of certificates.

Indiana U. Pulls Kinsey Institute's New App

Just hours after the Kinsey Institute announced a new mobile app on which people could report sexual activity, Indiana University (of which the institute is a part) pulled the app, The Indianapolis Star reported. The app was designed to gather self-reported data on sexual activity, birth control, public displays of affection and various other sex-related information. While the announcement said that the information would be secure and private, the university said that it needed to study the privacy issues raised by the app.

 

Purdue Struggles With Blackboard Outages

It was a frustrating first week for many students and faculty at Purdue University, where the Blackboard system went down four separate times over a period of nine days. The outages, which resulted largely from increased usage and the use of a new version of the learning management system, ranged from 45 minutes to more than four hours.

Purdue, which hosts Blackboard on its own servers, has been in communication with Blackboard technicians three times a day and has also contacted other universities to see how they have managed the upgrade to Blackboard Learn. According to university spokesman Steve Tally, the downtime was not the result of one big problem, but of several small glitches that needed to be fixed.

Blackboard, for its part, acknowledged that the back-to-school period can be particularly problematic, since the systems see much more traffic than usual. But Matt Maurer, a spokesman for the company, said Blackboard has seen a decrease in the downtime for all users in the past few years, along with a faster response time by technicians when there is a problem. In Purdue's case, a representative from Blackboard was sent to the university to help deal with the problem on-site.

 

U. of Maine campus experiments with small-scale, high-touch open courses

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The U. of Maine at Presque Isle pilots open online courses that are anti-massive, featuring high levels of instructor feedback and pathways to formal credit.

New Group Purchasing Option for E-Textbooks

Internet2 and Educause, two higher-ed technology organizations, announced on Tuesday that they are expanding a group purchasing effort that allows member institutions to purchase access e-textbooks from McGraw-Hill at a discounted price. The effort, which began in January with five universities, "aims to advance a new model for the purchase, distribution, and use of electronic textbooks and digital course materials," according to a press release. The program added 20 additional institutions on Tuesday, including both small liberal arts colleges and large state universities. The idea is that negotiating deals for e-textbook access at the institutional level, as a group, will make it cheaper and easier for colleges and universities to support professors who want to take their courses digital. The first five universities to sign on recently collaborated on a report summarizing the experiences of students and professors in the first semester of the pilot. The results were mixed.

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Massive open courses aren't answer to reducing higher ed inequality (essay)

“The United States has, overall, the most effective system of higher education the world has ever known.”
-- Clark Kerr

From a global perspective, the most distinctive characteristic of American higher education is its heterogeneity.  While higher education in almost every other country is public and fairly homogeneous across institutions, private institutions are much more widely represented in the U.S., and among public colleges and universities, a high degree of heterogeneity has been tolerated.  Clark Kerr’s master plan for the University of California is the archetype for American public higher education, with the UC schools charged with enrolling the top eighth of high school graduates, the CSU system enrolling the remainder of the top third, and community colleges providing access to everyone else.  As Arthur Levine remarked in his preface to Higher Learning in America, 1980-2000: “The importance of the California Master Plan was that it stopped the stampede toward a single, homogeneous model of higher education. Excellence, in many purposes was chosen over mediocrity... .”

Over the next 50 years, the rest of the world looked at American colleges and universities with envy.  As John Godfrey, former president of University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia, noted with an analogy fellow Canadians undoubtedly understood: “Wayne Gretzky belongs to the elite of hockey players. He is the best. I am also a hockey player.  I am not the best...  Nevertheless, I would really enjoy playing hockey for the Edmonton Oilers, given half a chance. I suppose the issue here is accessibility versus elitism in professional hockey. Otherwise stated, the proposition might be phrased: ‘Are we here to play hockey or just fool around?’ ”

American higher education has not shied away from elitism. The social bargain, of course, was that an unequal system, with a level of inequality of inputs across institutions far outpacing any other country, would somehow manage to reduce social inequality, i.e., students coming out of the system would be less unequal than they were coming in.

This certainly seemed to be the case through the 1980s, as a wave of merit-based upward social mobility in higher education allowed colleges to be viewed as key contributors to social equality.  But while it was still possible to hold on to this guiding fiction up to the Great Recession, it is no longer. The statistics are damning; we are failing to live up to our end of the social bargain:

  • 67 percent of entering freshmen in the class of 2010 at the 200 most selective colleges came from the top income quartile; only 15 percent came from the bottom half.
  • The gap in SAT scores between low-income and high-income students has widened about 40 percent in the past 40 years and is now double the gap between black and white students.
  • The share of students from the bottom income quartile at the 200 most selective colleges has been stuck at less than 5 percent for the past 20 years.
  • 41 percent of low-income students entering a four-year college managed to graduate within five years, but 66 percent of high-income students did. This gap has been growing.
  • Only 22 percent of students at flagship universities receive Pell Grants compared to 35 percent across all colleges and universities. And among minority students, only 12 percent at flagship universities are Pell recipients compared to 24 percent across all institutions. The University of Virginia has a lower proportion of Pell recipients than Yale (11 percent vs. 13 percent).

According to Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, “Our postsecondary system has become highly segregated by class, by race and by ethnicity.  It is more and more the case that the four-year college system is whiter and more affluent, [while] the two-year system is browner and blacker and more working class and some poor.  In the end, the system is predictably reflecting the advantaged in the society.” 

The outputs at two-year institutions are well-known, with graduation and transfer rates typically in the 10-20 percent range despite 75 percent or more of entering students expressing a desire to earn a bachelor’s degree. Meanwhile, the key input of spending per student at two-year institutions averaged $13,000 in 2009, while private four-year colleges spent over five times more ($67,000).

Research over the past decade has demonstrated that state policies to sustain heterogeneous systems are increasing social inequality as students are matched to institutions based on their level of preparation.  And the situation seems to be deteriorating as non-elite institutions have raised tuition to the extent necessary to offset declines in state support, while elite institutions have raised tuition to increase per student spending.

Higher education is receiving increasing attention as a major source of the increase in inequality and decline in social and economic mobility. Sixty-two percent of Americans raised in the top 20 percent in terms of income now remain in the top 40 percent for their entire lives, while 65 percent raised in the bottom 20 percent remain in the bottom 40 percent.  So while we continue to have a merit-based system of higher education, “merit” is increasingly passed down from one generation to the next.

***

Elite universities -- where the Wayne Gretzkys of academe convene -- have come to recognize that this is a major problem. It has taken a while. A study by William Bowen, former president of Princeton University, found that, controlling for test scores, low-income students had no better chance of admission to 19 elite colleges than high-income students.  But in the past few years, our wealthiest universities have taken action:  “We need to recognize that the most serious domestic problem in the United States today is the widening gap between the children of the rich and the children of the poor," said Larry Summers when he served as president of Harvard. The context for this statement, and President Summers’ initiative, was to announce that Harvard would give full scholarships to all its lowest-income students.

Of course, even if Ivy League schools were an accurate reflection of national income distribution, it wouldn’t reverse the overall trend. In any event, this isn’t going to happen; in the rankings-driven arms race, no institution is prepared to unilaterally disarm by admitting large numbers of low-income students with lower SAT scores. Indeed, this is how some colleges have climbed the rankings ladder over the past decade: reducing the percentage of low-income students. So despite generous grant programs from our most elite institutions, it is as true as ever that diversity at top institutions means putting a rich kid from California in the same room as a rich kid from New York.

Replacing loans with grants is not how the social bargain will be remade. The most likely candidate to do so is technology. Using innovative technologies to significantly lower costs while delivering measurably excellent outcomes to students (albeit in very different ways from elite, residential institutions) is the best hope for remaking the social bargain and retaining public support for heterogeneity in American higher education.

In a world where online courses are largely text-based and priced at the same level as on-ground courses, this may seem like a distant hope. But reading the Ithaka S&R report released in May on "Barriers to Adoption of Online Learning Systems in U.S. Higher Education" -- a report co-written by Bowen and Larry Bacow, the former president of Tufts University -- it’s clear that “machine-guided learning” is emerging.  According to Bowen and Bacow, machine-guided learning has the potential “to greatly expand the reach of the nation’s colleges and universities to populations currently not served, while at the same time helping to bend the cost curve in higher education... It also has the potential to benefit students by allowing them to have more targeted and personalized learning experiences.”

This is why the recent tsunami of elite university interest in massive open online courses (MOOCs) is so interesting, and yet so maddening. On the one hand, many of the technologies that are and will be deployed by companies like Coursera and edX will be instrumental in helping to test and prove the concept of machine-guided learning. On the other hand, their application in non-degree, not-for-credit courses indicates these institutions either fail to recognize or have no interest in solving the problem.

It is absolutely in the interest of elite colleges and universities to pave the highway so that, if this promise is realized, digital community colleges and state university systems will have the opportunity to drive unprecedented student outcomes for millions of students at all income levels. To do so, elite institutions need to demonstrate new technologies like adaptive learning in the context of degree programs, thereby gaining acceptance from accreditors, regulators, and prospective students.

If we continue to “fool around” with MOOCs rather than “play hockey,” the U.S. system may continue to be the most effective.  But it won’t be viewed as just. And therefore either federal support for higher education will go the way of state support, or continued federal support will be linked to new policies that will increase the homogeneity of our colleges and universities. Neither are good options for elite universities.

So rather than using MOOCs to reach “needy” lifelong learners, employed professionals and alumni, much better to blaze the trail so that, through innovative applications of learning technologies, large public institutions have the opportunity to re-instill faith in the notion that continued government support for higher education is a pro- (not anti-) social enterprise.

Ryan Craig is a partner at University Ventures, a fund focused on innovation from within higher education.

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U. of Texas at Austin Is Negotiating With MOOCs

The University of Texas at Austin is in negotiations about joining two prominent organizations that offer MOOCs (or massive open online courses), The Texas Tribune reported. The two are Coursera and edX. Texas officials said that the outcome of the negotiations could be announced in a few weeks.

 

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