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MOOCs as Work-Arounds
March 13, 2013 - 10:36pm

A few years ago, some colleges in my neck of the woods flirted with the idea of partnering with more expensive for-profits to provide “express lanes” for students to get around long waiting lists for high demand programs, especially in nursing. The idea was that the colleges didn’t have the resources to build the needed capacity, so they would partner with institutions that did.

Now, and on the other ocean, California is considering requiring public colleges and universities to accept MOOCs for credit when taken by students on waiting lists for regular classes.  The MOOC providers are nonprofit, and the courses will cost the same or less -- it isn’t clear from the various articles -- but the basic idea is the same.  If we assume austerity as an immutable fact of life in community colleges, then the only way to add capacity is to come up with work-arounds.

So many thoughts...

First, it’s helpful to keep the various sectors straight. It’s true that at many research universities, intro classes are taught in cavernous auditoriums by a sage on a stage, usually with PowerPoint.  To pretend that those classes aren’t already “distance” education is basically lying. They’re taught that way not because it makes any educational sense, but because it’s cheap.  The profits from those classes subsidize smaller, upper-level sections (and lighter teaching loads for research faculty).  I’d be hard-pressed to locate any actual educational harm from shifting the viewing of a lecture from row 30 of an auditorium to a window on a browser.  If anything, the browser is probably preferable, since you can pause and rewind (or whatever the digital equivalent of rewinding is).

But that’s not true at every level. At most community colleges, intro courses are smaller.  I’ve never seen a 300 student auditorium class at a community college.  The smaller sections are meant to accommodate interactions with students who need interaction; in this sector, the “ah, what the hell” objection that might work at a research university doesn’t hold.

If anything, I think Josh Kim’s piece earlier this week got the economics right. For a community college that is concerned with student success rates, MOOCs could actually increase costs.  That’s because the wraparound services that students need to be successful are both costly and hard to monetize.  At my college, for example, students pay by the credit hour for the courses they take, but the library and the tutoring center are free and all you can eat.  If we outsourced the classes but kept the support, the entire economic model would collapse.  

Second, the idea of mandating credit transfer from unaccredited providers is groundbreaking.  This is where I have to take issue with Matt Yglesias’ characterization of the bill as “a very modest step.”  There’s nothing modest about bypassing accreditation and mandating credit.  It may or may not be a good idea, but it’s big.  

It’s also backwards.  If you want to harness MOOCs intelligently -- to turn into the skid, as it were -- you have to decouple them from evaluation. Steer students on waitlists to the MOOCs that will help them test out of the classes they’re missing, then base credit on whether they test (or portfolio, or otherwise perform) well enough to get credit for the class. If you pick up enough knowledge on your own to test out of Intro to Psychology, well then, good for you.  Where you got the knowledge should be irrelevant.

Third, the language in the bill -- which I’m getting secondhand, and which may be incorrect -- suggests that only “faculty-approved” courses would get credit. Depending on what that means, that could scuttle the entire initiative.  I don’t imagine faculty being in any hurry to outsource their own jobs.  The argument that it only applies to courses with waitlists sounds persuasive until you recognize that staffing shortages cause waitlists, and staffing shortages can get progressively worse with each new round of cuts.  

In a collective bargaining setting, which California public colleges are, a change that would shift “unit work” to non-unit people -- such as shifting instruction from unionized faculty to non-union MOOCs -- would trigger an impact bargaining requirement.  The bill is written to avoid that, lifting Federal grant language to the effects that MOOCs will “supplement, not supplant” normal classes.  But unless you define “normal classes” with a single historical snapshot, the goalposts can move every year.  As the cuts accumulate and the “normal” offerings shrink, the waitlists proliferate, and more courses become eligible for MOOC treatment.

If California is serious about moving in this direction -- and heaven help me, I never know what California is serious about -- it’ll have to junk any sort of “performance” funding formula for community colleges.  It’s preposterous to hold a college responsible for the caliber of instruction of courses it doesn’t teach, by faculty it didn’t hire.  Given the attrition rates in MOOCs at this point, I’d expect to see colleges whose funding is based on “performance” to avoid them like the plague.  

Over the long term, I think it’s obvious that we need to get away from seat time as the currency of higher education.  But as a transitional move, this strikes me as likely to backfire.  And I’d be afraid of any legislature arrogating to itself the role of accreditor.  Yes, it’s a great idea to take advantage of new online resources and to use new technology to find efficiencies.  But to just outsource the one lucrative avenue colleges have, and then double down on performance requirements that would require even more expensive wraparound services, is really setting colleges up to fail.  Innovation is great -- I’m a fan -- but it requires both investment and thought.  California doesn’t seem to be interested in either.

 

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