Teaching

The importance of the unsparing reprimand in students' learning and growth

A couple months ago, I got in the mail something that members of the graduating class of 2017 will start receiving soon, namely the alumni magazine from my undergraduate institution. In a moment of nostalgia some years back, I made a small donation and now have a correspondence for life with Gonzaga University, a small liberal arts college in Spokane, Wash., run by the Jesuits. In its commitment to a broad liberal arts education, Gonzaga is a lot like the place I have spent most of my academic career, Brandeis University -- though with different religious holidays.

Anyway, the latest edition of the Gonzaga magazine contained some sad tidings. A professor I remembered quite well, Reverend Frank Costello, S.J., had passed away. When I did the subtraction and figured out how old he was when he taught me, I was little startled to learn that he was two decades younger than I am now -- and of course he seemed as old as Methuselah to my classmates and me. Father Costello exemplified the best in old-school Jesuit rigor, the kind of man who took both of his vocations -- as priest and professor -- seriously. And he did not suffer foolishness gladly.

I learned just how ungladly during the first semester of my freshman year. I forget the class and the book we were talking about, but during the discussion of the assigned text, some guileless freshman raised his hand and said, “I haven’t finished the book yet, but I think --”

At which point Father Costello cut him off and said, “If you haven’t finished the book yet, then you should remain silent and listen to those of us who have.”

That guileless freshman was me. It was a public dressing-down, and I didn’t feel good about it, but I remember that from then on I tended to come to class a lot better prepared -- and if I wasn’t, I kept my mouth shut. To my credit (if I do say so myself) I was old enough to receive the rebuke not in a spirit of resentment -- which probably would have been my response a couple of years earlier -- but as the adult I was becoming. I took it to heart as fair warning. I wasn’t in high school anymore; this was a university seminar, not a place of unconditional love and support. I was in the big leagues.

Father Costello was not a mean-spirited man, and he delivered the rebuke matter-of-factly because he had been coping with similarly guileless freshmen throughout his teaching career. At the same time, in laying down the law, he wasn’t particularly concerned with my feelings or the post-traumatic emotional stress that may have been triggered by his remarks.

If you are over a certain age, you may remember a similar moment from your own education -- a sharp reprimand from a teacher, a coach, a boss -- and if, like me, you were of a certain age, you responded not with petulance but by trying to get your act together.

You can probably see where I am going with this. I wonder if the current atmosphere on American college campuses encourages or even tolerates the kind of unsparing rebuke from a professor that many of us remember as necessary and salutary. Lately, throughout higher education, the face-off between intellectual rigor and emotional sensitivity has tilted decisively toward the second half of the equation.

Traditionally, American universities have always celebrated and nurtured the first half: smarts over sentiment. They prided themselves on sharpening the critical intelligence and cultivating a free-floating exchange of ideas. At Brandeis, that dedication is emblazoned in the school motto: “Truth even unto its innermost parts.” The key word there is “even” -- as in, even if it is unpleasant, even if it challenges your preconceptions, even if it really hurts your feelings and even if it makes you feel spatially unsafe.

Such stern principles were not unique to Brandeis. The mottos and mission statements of most American universities expressed a clear-eyed commitment to the life of the mind, not a doe-eyed celebration of the emotions, still less the elevation of personal feelings as a moral absolute, the trump card that defeats all other arguments: “That offends me.” Presidents, provosts, deans and faculty members dedicated themselves to open inquiry, spirited debate and, as per the Declaration of Independence, a decent respect for the opinions of others. They understood in their bones that the corruption of a culture begins with the corruption of public discourse -- and they believed that the university was the designated custodian of critical thinking, congenial dialogue and, on occasion, the speaking of unpleasant and unpopular truths.

As anyone with cable news access or a Twitter feed knows, the American university is not in particularly good odor right now on matters of tolerance and free expression. Neither is the present generation of undergraduates, who tend to be portrayed as waspish scolds or delicate snowflakes. While the bad reputation of both is partly a news-media construct, there is enough on-the-ground confirmation to make anyone committed to the values embedded in the Brandeis motto a bit apprehensive. Some of the surrender to rigor and the accommodation to sensitivity is merely silly, such as the infantilizing “trigger warnings” that junior faculty feel compelled to put on their syllabi by way of CYA: (“Students who have been whipped by their father may be disturbed by certain passages in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”).

Some of it, however, is more sinister and corrosive, manifesting itself in a refusal to engage minority opinions or hear out the people who express them. The mobs of know-nothings at Middlebury College, where a controversial social scientist was shouted down and his faculty escort assaulted, and at Evergreen State College, where a biology professor has been hounded out of his classroom for objecting to exclusionary practices based on race, are two recent, and sadly not atypical, examples.

For what it is worth, I have never confronted in my own students any of the fierce anti-intellectualism that seems to be have afflicted at least some of their peers. But lately I have begun to encounter a new degree of trepidation -- and maybe the whiff of fear -- in the classroom.

For years, I’ve been teaching the 1939 MGM epic Gone With the Wind. Of course, the film is a hallucination in Technicolor, awash in offensive stereotypes and Confederate revisionism. Still, as perhaps the most popular film in the classical Hollywood canon, it warrants attention in the undergraduate curriculum. Besides, I’ve always found GWTW a surefire catalyst for animated discussion and impassioned essays.

After the students have absorbed the nearly four-hour tour through David O. Selznick and Margaret Mitchell’s version of the Old South, I focus on two scenes calculated to raise the classroom temperature: one highlighting the issue of race, the other of gender. The first features Hattie McDaniel, who plays the slave/servant Mammy, in dialogue with Clark Gable as Rhett Butler. I explain that the critical reaction to McDaniel’s character tends to divide along two lines: first, that Mammy is a racist and offensive caricature, period; and second, that McDaniel so powerfully controls her screen space that the performance undercuts the demeaning role she is required to play.

The second clip unspools the famous scene where Rhett claims his then-lawful prerogative as a husband, overpowering a struggling Scarlett O’Hara and carrying her upstairs to the marriage bed and a presumably coerced consummation. But the next morning, Scarlett is aglow in postcoital satisfaction. What gives?

As a teacher, all I want is for the students to look at the film, engage the questions and venture an opinion. In the past, they have always done so. Yet the last time I taught the film and asked for reactions, I got silence -- a nervous, queasy silence. They seemed afraid to talk lest they say the wrong thing and offend -- another student? A campus consensus?

They certainly weren’t afraid of me. I would never snap at a student for venturing an opinion. But, in the future, I think perhaps I should rebuke them for being so sensitive -- even if it might hurt their feelings.

Thomas Doherty is a professor of American studies at Brandeis University.

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Does cellphone use in class encourage active learning? (essay)

Teaching Today

Perhaps faculty members’ conflicting views reflect that academe is made up of people who hold different paradigms related to authority, writes Aubree Evans.

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Anthropologist studies why professors don't adopt innovative teaching methods

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Anthropologist offers explanation for why faculty members hesitate to adopt innovative teaching methods.

Life as a visiting scholar of conservative thought at a major public university (essay)

If you want a classroom where students can speak freely and assess dangerous ideas, then you can't be a helicopter professor -- whether you’re a liberal, conservative or something in between, writes Francis J. Beckwith.

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The importance of a core curriculum (essay)

In a recent salvo in what some observers call the “war on the core (curriculum),” Donal O’Shea, president of New College of Florida, points to the disadvantages of the ostensibly rigid and compulsory nature of too many fixed graduation requirements. He alleges that such a dynamic limits opportunities for intellectual exploration and development. Such criticisms might leave readers with the impression that colleges with strong core requirements leave students with little intellectual room to grow.

But naysayers rarely mention this: a thorough seven-subject general education sequence, such as the core curriculum for which the American Council of Trustees and Alumni advocates in its “What Will They Learn?” report, occupies at most 30 semester hours. It provides an unparalleled, diverse intellectual foundation for further study, while still affording students ample opportunity not only to complete their major but also to devote their attention to the topics that personally excite them.

Every educator will join O’Shea in his appreciation of the way that “serendipity” and discovery compose a major part of the excitement of liberal learning -- the “intervention of a gifted professor … taking an inspiring course or excitedly talking over an idea with a friend in a residence hall.” But colleges should not confuse intellectual exploration with the absence of structure and intentional scaffolding of intellectual growth or overlook how profoundly curricular standards help students distinguish between the serious and the trivial.

How does a course on Horror Films and American Culture at the University of Colorado at Boulder equate to an American history course designed to cover a comprehensive study of key events in our nation’s past? What about The Fame Monster: The Cultural Politics of Lady Gaga, offered in 2013 at Indiana University, where the most frequent grade was an A-plus? These misplaced priorities are a predictable consequence of privileging curricular “serendipity” over sound curricular structure.

Students enjoy flexibility, agency and choice -- but they also need and appreciate direction and structure, rather than being left to pick and choose course sequences with limited intellectual coherence. How will students be ready for serendipity when it comes, if they lack the intellectual foundation required to meaningfully engage in those pursuits? A Lumina Foundation study found that students get “tangled up” when they are left with too many choices, lengthening their time to degree. Faculty members and administrators have an obligation to give students the framework they need to grow intellectually and graduate.

Attributing boredom and tedium to required courses, and excitement and joy to curricular choice, simply does not stand up to a logical examination of the facts. A required course can be taught well or taught badly, and the same is true of the most culturally relevant elective. Try telling graduates of core curricula at programs as varied as those at Columbia University, Hampden-Sydney College, Pepperdine University, the University of Dallas and the University of Georgia that their experience was stale and intellectually limited.

The decimation of clear requirements and frameworks is likely a major contributor to a growing sense of drift and disappointment among college graduates -- and their employers. Survey data show that while nearly all provosts believe their institution is doing an excellent job of preparing students for careers, employers sharply disagree -- particularly when it comes to writing and critical thinking. A survey of employers by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that only 26 percent deemed the critical thinking skills of their recently hired college graduates excellent. Just 23 percent thought that recent graduates were well prepared at “applying knowledge/skills to the real world.”

“Serendipity” is ultimately a poor substitute for academic leadership, for a board, administration and expert faculty coming together, determining the priority skills and knowledge that equip graduates for successful careers and informed citizenship, and then having the determination to reify those priorities in requirements -- not aspirations. Privileging faculty excitement over the needs of students -- about to face a ferocious, globalized job market -- is academic malpractice.

The survival of the liberal arts tradition demands that colleges act with urgency to clarify their requirements and expectations of students. Costs and sagging class enrollments are threatening entire majors and departments in essential subjects such as physics, philosophy and foreign language on many college campuses. Students at some liberal arts colleges are opting into vocational courses such as accounting and computer science.

Without rigor and cohesive requirements, the liberal arts will eventually confront a future of irrelevance. What’s called for here is a rigorous liberal arts education and facing up to our responsibility as standard-bearers in that process. Employers, taxpayers, parents and students are quite reasonably demanding more from higher education. Are we listening?

Michael B. Poliakoff is president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

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An alternate approach would have made the Evergreen State events less controversial and more educational (essay)

The controversy that roiled Evergreen State College in recent weeks stirred up a great deal of emotion within the campus community and the national media. It began because Evergreen students organize annual voluntary Days of Absence in which minority students and faculty members stay off campus -- not unlike the recent nationwide Day Without Immigrants. The students then observe a Day of Presence to reflect on the experience and reunite the community.

This year, however, the organizers said they wanted white people to remain off the campus, and a professor objected to that proposal in a message to an email list. Demands for the professor’s firing, protests and counterprotests, threats to safety, and the closing of the campus followed.

In part, the fracas resulted from a breakdown of the teacher-student relationship and a Crossfire cultural reflex: the faculty member chose to castigate rather than investigate the students’ actions, causing students to become defensive rather than inquisitive. In response, they felt the need to teach the teacher, who came off as dismissive rather than unconvinced of an inchoate but legitimate proposal.

The students’ intentions touched on what strikes me as an impossible problem. For in the end, questions perhaps should not have turned to “Who is right here?” but rather, “Who is white here?”

Defining Terms

A laudable tradition running back decades, absence projects underscore our nation’s interdependence among its diverse population. To remain logically consistent, Evergreen’s project was inevitably going to invite white people to participate. Indeed, why shouldn’t it? If it could be done, white people should be included in such a thoughtful project as Evergreen’s days of absence -- otherwise, they would ironically enjoy the privilege of being excluded from staged experiences of exclusion.

Inviting Evergreen’s white community members strikes me as ingenious, despite its being highly improbable, for reasons I’ll enumerate. White students and faculty might benefit from reflecting on what it feels like to be arbitrarily excluded and disadvantaged, although I wonder how many people might just enjoy one more day off from school or work. Concomitantly, students of color might see what I see: many privileges afforded by white identities also afford enormous opportunities to foment greater appreciation for the inherently interconnected nature of our society.

Many of us with such privileges leverage them to inspire change. I suspect on a white absence day, an overwhelming number of courses would have gone teacherless, even those treating issues of injustice. Generating discussions about complex topics and leading them toward nuance rather than overgeneralization requires skill and expertise: white absence could make plainer that the training for those activities has historically been doled out disproportionately to white people. Students of color might also appreciate how often white students contribute meaningfully, if not always in the most elegant terms, to all number of difficult conversations.

Yet an Evergreen biology professor, Bret Weinstein, chose to voice his objection in an unfortunate form, sparking an already charged campus community into an explosion. As a faculty member at a liberal arts college, Weinstein might have chosen not to chide but to question the student leadership encouraging the participation of white people in absenting themselves from the Evergreen community. He knows as well as anyone how spurious biological claims about race are. Specifically, then, he might have posed the question, “Who are the white people in our community?”

I suspect the Evergreen student leadership would have to think quite some time before being able to start defining their terms. Let’s say I have an international student from a Central European nation in my class. Should I encourage her, as a white woman with no ties to America’s complex racial history, to avoid classes for a day?

Should I ask her if she’s Muslim first?

Or take my own family. There’s no question I’m a white guy, but my wife is Jewish and so are my children. Jews have faced so much discrimination throughout history that it would seem odd to request that they reflect on an incomplete understanding of what it means to experience arbitrary hatred. So, are my children white? I’d say yes … but I’d also say that in conversations about race in America, they are less white than I am. And as someone who was raised Catholic and knows acutely about the paranoia directed toward Catholics in post-Civil War and even Cold War-era America, I know that I would have not been considered white at moments in that past and now remain, however infinitesimally, less white than families with Protestant lineages. Keep in mind that Joe Biden’s Catholicism made him a historic U.S. vice president.

To this point, I’ve left staff members, traditionally included in Evergreen’s absence initiative, out of the conversation. Did Evergreen’s students determine if the college could offer adequate emergency health care without a large number of staff on campus? Would the dining halls run? Would all the buildings get unlocked, would the library be open, would facilities emergencies get proper attention, would Evergreen paychecks get processed on time and so on, without the so many staff members, often invisible, keeping the engines of the college running? Showing the vital contributions of staff might be the greatest object lesson from such a venture as a Day of White Absence.

A Rare Dialogue

Evergreen’s students initially acted bravely in standing up for a righteous cause. Tired of leaving diversity issues to “the other,” they took them to white people. Some took certain actions too far -- personally insulting the college president, whose academic research focuses on structural injustice, belies their faith in the very institution they purport to improve. When Weinstein moved the issue past the Evergreen students’ specific proposal to generalizing broadly about exclusion, the matter lost its local character and turned toward many already-defined national causes and concerns. Thus, George S. Bridges was left to moderate a campus discussion within pre-established terms, and (personal affections admitted here) he did just about all that a president can do -- which is not very much, as I see it, other than listen carefully and patiently to student concerns, issue a vague statement, and reaffirm commitments to improving diversity-related resources. More lasting solutions require time. Trust me, if not his own words: if Bridges had the answers, he would do all he could to implement them immediately.

In the end, Evergreen’s white absence project has failed so far for the very reasons it could yet succeed. It could inspire a dialogue we rarely have. What are we talking about when we talk about white people? To whom does it confer what specific privileges? “White,” perhaps more than any other racial category, eludes definition. One might say that the concept of white identity is a strategy in and of itself: a way of defining some people against an ineffable white selfhood such that it can be as inclusive as it needs to be and exclusive at it wants to be, both at the same time. It sorts people to degrees of greater and lesser inclusion, depending on circumstances, including who’s defining the category and for what purposes.

The problem thus remains: while the others always feels their otherness, the “other than” has not been adequately delimited. Maybe it can never be, though I hope it can. That a group of Evergreen students might not yet be able to articulate the reality of American white identity speaks less to their ideals and their ambitions than it does to the fact that the conversation does not seem to have gotten where it needs to go. Absent a will to instruct through reasonable questioning even -- or especially -- in fraught circumstances, I worry it rarely will.

Christopher Leise is an associate professor of English at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash. His most recent book, The Story Upon a Hill: the Puritan Myth in Contemporary American Fiction, will be published by the University of Alabama Press this July.

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The unintended consequences of too many requirements (essay)

Institutions across the country have been considering carefully scripted general-education courses in lieu of traditional distribution requirements (see “No Math Required,” “Rethinking Gen Ed” and “Gen Ed Redesigns”). Some months ago, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni issued a report pointing out the efficiencies that would be realized by sequenced general-education courses with prescribed curricula, little student choice and lots of requirements.

The same organization also issued a letter deploring the fact that most college students could not identify James Madison as the father of the U.S. Constitution (most chose Thomas Jefferson) and that 40 percent did not know that Congress has the power to declare war. Their solution: a course on civic literacy required of every college student.

The push to require courses even comes from student groups. Last semester, I talked with a group of student activists concerned about their classmates’ use of phrases that had been used historically to demean others and the chilling effect of such discourse. Their solution: a course on cultural competence required of every college student.

Other groups decry college students’ lack of mathematical and quantitative literacy, of historical knowledge, of basic financial knowledge, and of writing skills. Common to all is the proposed solution: new required courses.

Administrators also enjoy required courses. They are stable and easy to section and schedule. Pointing to a required course that purports to convey particular content or skills is a highly efficient way of satisfying accreditors.

Unhappily, however, taking a course does not guarantee a student will learn what the course purports to teach. Civics courses are required in most high schools. If they worked, college students would not be lacking civic knowledge.

Worse, requirements have unintended consequences. Colleges are marketplaces: ideas are exchanged, professors vie for students and students vie for professors. The currency is not dollars, but student enrollments. Make a course required, and you remove the incentive for whoever is teaching that course to make it attractive to students. Professors are busy and they need to allocate their time carefully. Subsidizing a course by guaranteeing enrollment will cause a professor to devote more attention to other, unsubsidized courses.

Moreover, because departments also care about enrollments, they will not place their most gifted faculty members in a course in which enrollments are guaranteed. They will use their best faculty members to attract students to the major or to get students through the hardest courses. It takes a lot of vigilance and energy to ensure that required courses remain exciting and inspiring. Anyone who doubts that should think back on the worst courses they ever took.

The Power of Serendipity

I’m not suggesting that colleges and universities should have no requirements. Just as unregulated free markets concentrate capital, unregulated curricula concentrate enrollments. Think massive, entertaining, undemanding lecture courses. But the opposite -- centrally planned, highly sequenced curricula with lots of top-down requirements -- are precise analogues of Marxist economies. And we all know how those work.

The trick is to find regulations that are unobtrusive and actually improve student learning.

The first step is easy. Markets function best when there is equal and easy access to information. And students must have good information about what they can expect to learn in a class and why it is important.

But the way regulations are structured also matters. Think back to the best educational experiences that you have ever had. Common to most such experiences will be serendipity: the intervention of a gifted professor, reading a spell-binding book at exactly the right time, taking an inspiring course or excitedly talking over an idea with a friend in a residence hall.

In a college or university, regulations should be designed to maximize serendipity. How one does that depends, of course, on the institution.

Good liberal arts institutions (and many others) go to great trouble to hire faculty members who love their disciplines and truly enjoy teaching. In such institutions, distribution requirements that simply demand that students take courses in different disciplines are effective. Although one can talk about breadth and exploration, the distribution requirements spread students over that faculty. They increase serendipity by increasing the odds that a student will encounter a gifted professor who changes their life.

In addition to maximizing opportunities for serendipity, a good college or university will make it difficult for students to avoid learning material or acquiring skills they will subsequently need. In fact, rather than simply requiring a course, it will make sure that the outcomes desired of students are reflected in many of the courses those students will take. To guarantee that students write well, for example, students must practice writing in most courses they take. The same goes for civics or intercultural competence. That is the job of a strong faculty working together to align many different courses. To do that, faculty members need an institutional culture where people in different disciplines talk with one another openly about what they are seeking to do in their courses, and what seems to be working and what does not.

In smaller institutions, faculty members must know one another and interact regularly. In larger institutions, one needs structures that ensure that department members in charge of large multisectioned courses crucial to other departments know and interact openly with their counterparts in those departments.

In both small and large institutions, trust is essential. Administrators and faculty leaders can’t order up trust, but they can model it and facilitate interaction across different departments. For administrators and faculty leaders, it requires thinking about what groups to bring together and how to charge them. It requires being present and gathering and sharing data that departments and faculty can use. It requires the patience and wisdom to realize that time spent allowing different groups to explore not only what their students most need but also how to entice those students into acquiring what it is they need will pay larger dividends than top-down edicts mandating courses to be completed and exams to be passed.

It’s not easy, and it requires time, thoughtfulness and a deft touch. Higher education, like the economy, would be simpler if a benign leader could just require things. But it wouldn’t be better.

Donal O’Shea is president of New College of Florida.

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Essay: Looking back at predictions about MOOCs

After thinking that interest in and excitement about massive open online courses had faded to the background of the higher education landscape, I was surprised to see a recent flurry of news media coverage of MOOCs. Even more surprising, I found myself impressed -- the work seems markedly different from the wave of stories that flooded the popular and higher ed trade press in 2012, with less hype and longer evidence-based studies. For example, recent coverage included a report from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that analyzes characteristics and behaviors of their own MOOC students, and a study by Stanford University and MIT researchers that addresses the persistence of international students who have enrolled in MOOCs.

Having written and spoken about MOOCs many times in the past, this recent resurgence prompted me to look back to my own articles, research studies and blog posts from the MOOC heyday to see if some of my own claims and predictions have come to pass.

The term “MOOC” will go away. I am somewhat surprised the moniker has stuck around as long as it has, because what exists today is quite different than what we were discussing five years ago. In “A MOOC by Any Other Name? An Online Course,” I suggested that we would stop talking about MOOCs because they were another variation of an online course, with too much variety in the term’s application. I was not entirely accurate, since we’re still using the term -- however, I stand by my assertion that we’d do better to move away from it. There still is no one thing that exemplifies what, exactly, makes an online course a MOOC. Since there are even more permutations of MOOCs these days, I’d be curious how the academy and general public perceives and understands the name.

A viable business model will emerge. The original MOOCs lived up to the first O: open. They were entirely free for the massive numbers of students who enrolled -- over 100,000 students in some courses. The courses were largely self-paced and included minimal or no faculty interaction. Completion rates hovered below 10 percent and the courses provided no transferrable college credit from the institutions that sponsored them. Course content was provided by reputable U.S. universities through various partnership agreements with the three major MOOC platforms, Coursera, Udacity and edX, which were mostly funded by venture capital. Free courses equaled no discernible revenue stream.

This has changed. Free and open is no longer completely true. Emphasis on personal enrichment is no longer the value proposition.

The three original MOOC platforms still exist but have been joined by others like Open University’s FutureLearn. In addition, institutions host their own MOOCs on local learning management systems.

All of the major platforms now charge fees for certifying completion. The original three MOOC platforms appear to have found their niche by migrating to the nondegree professional development and contract-training sphere, taking advantage of the growth of alternative credentials (e.g., nondegree certificates and microcredentials) that are recognized by industries and employers. Many offer and charge for badges or other credentials that can be displayed on social media platforms like LinkedIn. For example, Udacity offers nanodegrees, edX offers MicroMasters and Coursera offers specializations. Some of these credentials also include university credit through university or alternative credit providers. Computer and data science, programming, and software development dominate the offerings. Students pay to earn these various credentials and certifications, and some platforms offer need-based financial support.

Reputation, not revenue drives investment. Early on I studied institutional leaders’ motivations for investing in MOOCs. Important motivators included increasing institutional and individual faculty reputation, expanding international reach, and exploring innovative and more effective ways to teach. Generating revenue was not a principal motivation.

This, too, has changed somewhat. While general reputational enhancement and the exploration of online teaching innovation no doubt result from an institution’s involvement in MOOCs, generating revenue (at least covering costs) and integrating MOOCs into degree-granting programs appear more common.

Georgia Tech continues to offer a low-cost, high-enrollment master’s degree in computer science on the Udacity platform with support from AT&T. Well over 3,000 students have enrolled in the program. The university has recently added a second high-enrollment, low-cost master’s in analytics on the edX platform.

Arizona State University offers the Global Freshman Academy on the edX platform, providing credit-bearing, self-paced lower-division courses to a domestic and global audience. ASU also offers individual self-paced and instructor-led credit-bearing courses with edX. Though the courses and programs are not free, the relatively low cost of these programs, combined with the robust online platform, seem to contribute to the access missions of these large public institutions.

MOOCs can be vehicles for continuous improvement in teaching and learning. Yes and no. The recent reports from Harvard, MIT and Stanford illustrate this. The Harvard/MIT report explored the background of students, time on task, paid certificate completion rates and the relationship between certification rates and the Human Development Index (World Bank composite index of a country’s life expectancy, education and income indicators). Researchers at Stanford and MIT focused on interventions to increase persistence and completion among international MOOC enrollees. These sophisticated studies increase our knowledge of MOOC student behaviors, but findings are not applicable to other academic settings.

Higher ed will be firmly entrenched in the MOOC 3.0 era. In a 2013 post, I applied the Gartner technology hype cycle to MOOCs and predicted, “we will enter a plateau of productivity and the various permutations of MOOCs will become part of the higher education mainstream.” I do believe we are in the plateau of productivity with MOOCs, but not within the higher education mainstream.

Both the MOOC platforms and universities emphasize using MOOCs and alternative credentials to support professional development for working professionals, mainly in technology fields where employers are willing to provide ample financial support. The exception would be institutions like ASU that focus on providing access to their regular undergraduate curriculum. But the push is overwhelmingly toward professional development markets.

Adoption of other technologies that support improved pedagogy, access and affordability -- such as open educational resources, learning analytics and personalized learning -- is growing, but not dependent on the development of or contribution from MOOCs.

MOOCs can play an important role in postsecondary attainment. In 2013, I optimistically wrote, “MOOCs and their derivatives, and the accelerated experimentation and wide-ranging conversations they have sparked, have played an important and energizing role in our quest to help more students along the path to postsecondary attainment.” I admit this was an overstatement, especially now that I am chancellor of an access-oriented institution.

With some exceptions noted previously, MOOCs are mainly a technology business, focused on providing a return on investment (even for nonprofits like edX) by targeting the large nondegree professional development and technology training market. Though the MOOC experiment over the past five years has resulted in many positives, this era also reminds us that when it comes to degree attainment, there really is no magic bullet. The hard, in-the-trenches work of helping the students of today get and remain focused, learn, and stick it out to degree completion remains the province of mainstream higher education -- MOOCs or no MOOCs.

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Cathy Sandeen

Cathy Sandeen is chancellor of the University of Wisconsin Colleges and University of Wisconsin Extension. She previously served as vice president for education attainment and innovation at the American Council on Education.

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Anti-Turnitin manifesto calls for resistance to some technology in digital age

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Essay argues the age of big data is the time for professors to reconsider their reliance on the anti-plagiarism business.

A professor's invitation: Senator, please come visit my classroom (essay)

Dear Senator,

I’ll try to make you feel comfortable, if not totally inconspicuous. I assume of course there wouldn’t be a coterie of administrators anxious to produce a dog-and-pony show. And no cameras. Just a visit to an unvarnished college physics class, warts and all.

You’ll want to see for yourself students who come totally unprepared for class, and the strategies and energy I (and by extension, my colleagues) use to pull them out of their IT-induced stupor and begin to focus on the chalkboard. You’ll also realize the unmatched effectiveness of an active classroom led by a concerned human being. You’ll understand why technology-based learning never captured the 20 million or so ordinary students who continue to fill our classrooms.

At class's end, you’ll watch as students come by to get a point cleared up -- or just exchange a few encouraging words. Then you’ll begin to see why students taught by adjuncts anxious to leave for their next assignment are being shortchanged.

Afterward, we might spend some time in my office, where I’ll let you leaf through a range of textbooks to see for yourself the dumbing down of college-level material, one outcome of the “increase the graduation rate at all costs” movement. You’ll hear my comment that colleges and universities aren’t vocational schools, and that the faculty -- the people legislators never get to see -- are interested in learning, not loan repayment or career success, as college outcomes.

Not that I blame anyone. You and your staff are inundated by calls to "improve" or change accreditation by having accreditors take quantitative student outcomes into account. You probably don’t know that even though we’ve been hearing the "outcome" story for over 30 years, there has yet to be found a quantitative outcome that is reliable and valid.

If you have time, I would explain to you how the emphasis on numerical outcomes led directly to the Corinthian Colleges disaster, and I would also explain why the direct, hands-on peer review of traditional accreditation is unsurpassed at evaluating a school.

By the way, you’re listed as a supporter of legislation calling for innovative approaches to accreditation. Have you walked through how they would work? I have, and I’ll be happy to explain to your staff why these approaches would generate future Corinthians.

I would also lend a word of caution: students are not widgets. They are human beings who can suffer harm. If they are asked to participate in an innovative (there’s that word again!) approach to learning, shouldn’t they be warned that they might acquire less content, fewer skills, delayed intellectual growth in this new untested scheme? Here’s an idea for legislation: Why not require informed consent from students who are about to enroll in an experimental, pilot or untested program?

I digress. While in my office, I’ll show you some graded exams and my grade book -- names covered, of course. You’ll be relieved to know that nobody earns college credit for "seat time." Splinters are all one gets from simply sitting in a classroom.

And a point of pride: you’ll look at the range of grades and you won’t be able to correlate race, sex or ethnicity with the A’s and the F’s. Everybody works for good grades. Or not.

We’ll get a chance to talk to students -- randomly selected -- in the hall, or downstairs in the lobby. You might want to ask them about the College Scorecard, and the basis on which they made their choice of colleges. I hope your new insight won’t cause you to want to cut funding for the Department of Education’s statistics efforts. They do marvelous work -- even though few people seem to care.

And as the pièce de résistance, you’ll meet other faculty members. Just don’t mention the effort to increase data collection now being proposed. Can I tell you how one person I know would react?

He would theatrically slap his forehead and probably say, “Of course! How stupid of me! More data is just what we need to solve the problems of higher education! We’ll successfully address the racial gap, the rising costs, the disengaged students and students who are hungry. Before we go off on another harebrained scheme, why not test any new hypothesis against the longitudinal data we own in virtually every state? Nothing ever came of 30 years of gathering data, and another dose will add nothing more than expense and headaches.”

I’m sure you’ll forgive him, because in your career you’ve met other exceedingly bright people who are no respecters of personages. But I hope you’ll listen to his words.

Your day will be full -- but at the end you will be able to address higher education from a position of direct knowledge, rather than from experts. You might want to tell these experts that they, too, would benefit immensely from a day or two in a college classroom, or on an accreditation visit.

You, your colleagues and your staff are always welcome to come by -- unannounced -- to visit, and to experience a reality so important to our nation.

Bernard Fryshman is a professor of physics at New York Institute of Technology.

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