A consortium of small colleges and universities in developing nations around the world is collaborating on a multidisciplinary course that delivers many of the merits of MOOCs but also provides experiential education directed at pressing local needs. The desired result of this pilot is a powerful blend of multidisciplinary scholarly perspectives, global insights from direct interactions with academics around the world, and applied experience such as comes from helping host communities confront barriers to their sustainable development.
Massive open online courses are invaluable sources of knowledge delivered to every corner of every continent. One can hardly overstate the revolutionary and potentially empowering contribution of MOOCs toward human development as they stream information across recently bridged digital divides. However, what’s missing from this Internet-delivered treasure trove is the focused insight and skill that comes from analyzing, understanding, and working on issues of local importance.
MOOCs from major universities in the United States or Britain are necessarily sweeping in scope – and often laced with informative case studies – but they rarely if ever speak to the specific conditions and challenges that a given student experiences every day. In this respect, MOOCs are geographically generic, lacking the capacity to drill down to the granular details and nuanced elements of a regional issue. So while institutions of higher learning will do well to tap MOOCs for their powerhouse instructors and insightfully articulated content, they should also look to the development needs of their host communities for learning opportunities that provide direct experience, not to mention the rewards that come from confronting, analyzing, understanding, and surmounting a local challenge.
American University of Nigeria (AUN) is trying to reconcile the efficiency of MOOCs in knowledge-sharing with the skill-building experience that comes from community service that is directly tied to local needs. In the pilot course described here, we are introducing a third element, which has an intimate connection with local issues in other parts of the world, not just in reading or videos, but through the receipt of tailored content from and interaction with participating faculty from around the globe.
The subject matter for the pilot course is water; the venues are Africa, Pakistan, Bulgaria, Lebanon, and the United States. The course, entitled Global Explorations of Water, is multidisciplinary, exquisitely relevant, and locally originated, albeit from multiple communities. Water is of course supremely important in all the venues, but in different ways that call for a breadth of understanding and versatility of analysis.
The course grew out of the work of the Global Liberal Arts Alliance (GLAA), a Great Lakes Colleges Association-based initiative dedicated to supporting liberal arts in higher education and fostering global connections among faculty members in both teaching and research. For several years, GLAA has hosted workshops that convene professors from many disciplines and countries for training and facilitated interactions. Last summer’s three-day workshop at the College of Wooster focused on water in the fullest spirit of the liberal arts tradition, with a rich potpourri of lectures, exhibitions, performances and field trips in art, faith, science, policy, technology, and management. The attendees from the countries listed above spoke to their region’s most pressing issues surrounding water. For instance AUN’s representative described desertification and flooding that arises from deforestation; Forman Christian College’s (Pakistan) attendees discussed agriculture and biofuels.
The faculty member from Earlham College addressed environmental justice in the Great Lakes region. Other colleges brought forth similarly diverse and pertinent issues and perspectives.
The course’s design and delivery is straightforward, requiring no special software. Faculty members select, develop and post their content in one of a number of places on the web, sometimes videotaping classroom lectures and other times simply speaking into their computers and referencing accompanying presentation slides. The online materials are available to students and faculty members at any of the participating institutions. Several faculty members have taken themselves or their classes into the field, videotaping hilltop mini-lectures, discussions, and interviews with stakeholders on local water issues.
The switchboard for the course is a website that provides basic information and points to the pertinent content on the web, be it faculty-posted materials, TED Talks, or literary readings.
Videoconferencing is another, powerful element of the course. The interactions between African students and faculty from abroad add a dimension that reading or videos never could. For instance, we at AUN have had students briefly describe their assignments to faculty from widely varying disciplines and geographies to receive feedback and perspective that a single local instructor could scarcely offer.
As mentioned above, this fall’s pilot offering is driven by AUN, whose faculty and students post the lion’s share of content. Faculty from other countries and disciplines who participated in the GLAA workshop are also posting content on regional water issues that speaks to their expertise, addresses their local challenges, and tailors itself to the overall themes of the course.
Although AUN students are the only ones participating in this pilot course, the content and lessons learned will be available next spring to the faculty in Pakistan, Lebanon, Bulgaria, and the U.S., as well as a possible sequel at AUN. It will be the instructors’ prerogative to select among the already available web-posted content, to develop and post their own, and to assign their students the appropriate community-based learning experience. To access this content, the instructor may choose to develop his or her own switchboard website. The instructors will also have the chance to arrange video conferences with their colleagues from afar. Looking forward, Global Explorations of Water will likely become a “cumulative course,” updated each semester with new content while drawing retrospectively on content from earlier offerings. The richer and more diverse this content – and the greater the selection available to a given instructor – the more the course will assume the merits of a MOOC, although never at the expense of local relevance and experiential learning.
Charles C Reith is interim provost and director of sustainability at American University of Nigeria.
A little over 12 months ago, The New York Times famously dubbed 2012 “The Year of the MOOC.” What a difference 365 little days can make. Here at the back end of another calendar year, we wonder if 2013 might come to be thought of as “The Year of the Backlash” within the online higher education community.
Even Udacity's founder, Sebastian Thrun, one of the entrepreneurs whose businesses kicked off MOOC mania, seems to be getting into the backlash game.
According to Fast Company magazine, Thrun recently made the following observation regarding the evanescent hype surrounding MOOCs and his own company: "We were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don't educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product."
Of course, the hype around this category hasn’t wholly abated. Coursera has just announced another $20 million infusion of venture capital. And MIT has just released a report embracing the disaggregation of the higher education value chain fomented by platforms such as edX.
But maybe Thrun is right. Maybe MOOCs are a lousy product – at least as initially conceived. And even if MOOCs are meaningfully reimagined, the mark they have made on the public consciousness to date could have lasting repercussions for the broader field of online learning.
It seems like only last year (in fact it was) that some were crediting elite institutions with “legitimizing” online learning through their experimentation with MOOCs. But what if instead of legitimizing online learning, MOOCs actually delegitimized it?
Perhaps this is why, currently, 56 percent of employers say they prefer an applicant with a traditional degree from an average college to one with an online degree from a top institution, according to a Public Agenda survey undertaken earlier this year.
We’ve been following online learning for a long time, and collectively share experiences in teaching online, earning credentials online, writing about online learning, analyzing the online learning market, and serving as administrators inside a research university with a significant stake in online and hybrid delivery models.
While some MOOC enthusiasts might like you to believe that online learning appeared out of nowhere, sui generis, in 2012, the reality is that we’ve been bringing courses and degree programs online for more than 20 years. Hardly born yesterday, online learning has evolved slowly and steadily, taking these two decades to reach the approximately one-third of all higher education students who have taken at least one online course, and serving as the preferred medium of delivery for roughly one-sixth of all students. The pace of adoption of online learning – among institutions, students, faculty, and employers – has been remarkably steady.
The advent of this so-called “lousy product” – the MOOC – may be triggering a change, however. Indeed, recent survey evidence suggests that the acceptance of online learning among certain constituencies may be plateauing. Is it possible that a backlash against MOOCs could even precipitate a decline in the broader acceptance of online learning?
The long-running Babson Survey Research Group/Sloan-C surveys show relatively little change in faculty acceptance of online instruction between 2002, when they first measured it, and the most recent survey data available, from 2011. The percentage of chief academic officers that indicated they agreed with the statement “faculty at my school accept the value and legitimacy of online education” only grew from 28 percent in 2002, to 31 percent in 2009, and 32 percent in 2011. According to a more recent Inside Higher Ed/Gallup survey, “only one in five [faculty agree] that online courses can achieve learning outcomes equivalent to those of in-person courses.”
We have to be careful making comparisons across surveys, audiences and time spans, of course. But there is a palpable sense here that something may have shifted for online learning in the last year or so, and that as a result of that shift, online learning may be in danger -- for the first time in some 20 years -- of losing momentum.
In recent months, we’ve witnessed faculty rebelling against online learning initiatives at institutions as diverse as Harvard, Duke, Rutgers, and San Jose State, to name a few. In the latter case, faculty rallied to resist the use of Udacity courses on campus, but other instances of resistance did not even pertain to MOOCs – such as Duke’s decision to withdraw from the 2U-sponsored Semester Online consortium, or the vote from Rutgers’ Graduate School faculty to block the university’s planned rollout of online degree programs through its partnership with Pearson.
Our hypothesis is that MOOCs are playing a role here – chiefly by confusing higher education stakeholders about what online learning really is. By and large, of course, online learning isn’t massive and it isn’t open. And by and large, it does actually involve real courses, genuine coursework and assessment, meaningful faculty interaction, and the awarding of credentials – namely, degrees.
In numerous focus groups and surveys we have conducted over the course of 2013, both prospective students and employers have raised concerns about online learning that we had not been hearing in years past – concerns that have been chiefly related to the level of faculty interaction with students, the relationship between quality and price, and the utility of courses that don’t lead to recognized credentials.
The net contribution of the MOOC phenomenon, for the moment at least, may be a backsliding in the general acceptance of online learning – not least among faculty, who may fear they have the most to lose from MOOC mania, especially in the wake of controversial legislative proposals in a variety of states mandating that MOOCs be deemed creditworthy, thereby threatening further public divestment in higher education.
For those of us that have nurtured the growth and strengthening of online learning over many years, this would be an unfortunate outcome of the MOOC moment.
If there is a backlash under way, and if that backlash is contributing to an erosion in the confidence in the quality of online learning generally, that is something that won’t be overcome in a single hype cycle – it will take time, just as the establishment of degree-bearing online learning programs took time to develop and bolster. Possibly even more than one year.
Peter Stokes is vice president of global strategy and business development at Northeastern University, and author of the Peripheral Vision column. Sean Gallagher is chief strategy officer at Northeastern University.