Distance education

Essay: massive online courses not a game changing innovation

Over the past few weeks, the news media has been abuzz over two developments in higher education that some in the chattering class foretell as the beginning of the end of degree programs.

First, MIT announced that it would extend its successful OpenCourseWare initiative and offer certificates to students who complete courses. Like OpenCourseWare, which has provided free access to learning materials from 2,100 courses since 2002 (and which, with more than 100 million unique visitors, has helped launch the open education movement), MITx will allow students to access content for free. But students who wish to receive a certificate will be charged a modest fee for the requisite assessments. The kicker is that the certificate will not be issued under the name MIT.  According to the University:  “MIT plans to create a not-for-profit body within the institute that will offer certificate for online learners of MIT coursework. That body will carry a distinct name to avoid confusion.”

Then, Sebastian Thrun, an adjunct professor of computer science at Stanford who invited the world to attend his fall semester artificial intelligence course and who ended up with 160,000 online students, announced he had decided to stop teaching at Stanford and direct all his teaching activities through Udacity, a start-up he co-founded that will offer online courses from leading professors to millions of students.  Udacity’s first course is on building a search engine and will teach students with no programming experience how to build their own Google in seven weeks. Thrun hopes 500,000 students will enroll. He called the experience of reaching so many students life-changing:  “Having done this, I can’t teach at Stanford again.  I feel there’s a red pill and a blue pill. And you can take the blue pill and go back to your classroom and lecture your 20 students.  But I’ve taken the red pill, and I’ve seen Wonderland.”

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Just as the Web 2.0 boom is recapitulating much of the excitement and extravagance of the dot-com boom, we get the funny sense we’ve seen this movie before.  Take a look at this excerpt from a dot-com era New York Times article with the headline “Boola Boola, E-Commerce Comes to The Quad,” which anticipates Professor Thrun’s announcement by 12 years:

"We always thought our new competition was going to be 'Microsoft University,' " the president of an elite eastern university ruefully remarked to a visitor over dinner recently. ''We were wrong. Our competition is our own faculty.''  Welcome to the ivory tower in the dot.com age, where commerce and competition have set up shop…  Distance learning sells the knowledge inside a professor's head directly to a global on-line audience.  That means that, just by doing what he does every day, a teacher potentially could grow rich instructing a class consisting of a million students signed up by the Internet-based educational firm that marketed the course and handles the payments.  ''Faculty are dreaming of returns that are probably multiples of their lifetime net worth,'' said Kim Clark, dean of the Harvard Business School. ''They are doing things like saying, 'This technology allows someone who is used to teaching 100 students to teach a million students.' And they are running numbers and imagining, 'Gee, what if everyone paid $10 to listen to my lecture?' ''

It was a heady time, and many in higher education really believed the hype that brand-name institutions would grow to hundreds of thousands of students and that “rock star” faculty would get rich teaching millions of students online. Twelve years later, the only universities with hundreds of thousands of students are private-sector institutions whose brands were dreamed up by marketers in the past 30 years, and the only educator who has become a rock star through the Internet is in K-12, not higher education (more on him in a moment). So what happened?

The currency of higher education is degrees because degrees are the sine qua non of professional, white-collar, high-paying jobs. The difference between not having a degree and having a degree is hundreds of thousands of dollars in lifetime earnings.  So what happened is that Professor Thrun’s antecedents like Arthur Miller, the Harvard Law professor, found that while they might offer courses, faculty cannot offer degrees.  And their brand-name institutions have continued to prioritize avoiding “confusion” over extending access. Even MIT, the most forward-thinking of the lot, will ensure its new offering cannot possibly be construed as an MIT degree.

The noise emanating from these recent announcements boils down to this:  when the chattering class meets Professor Thrun, it’s love at first sight.  The notion that they might take a Stanford course for free recalls their youthful days at similar elite universities. But of course, these educational romantics already have degrees. And when Udacity begins charging even modest fees for its courses, Professor Thrun may find this group resistant to paying for lifelong learning.

On the other hand, you have the much, much larger group of non-elites who need a degree. The United States, once the global leader in the number of 25-34 year-olds with college degrees, now ranks 12th, while more than half of U.S. employers have trouble filling job openings because they cannot find qualified workers. The outsized importance of the degree itself over the university granting the degree or the faculty member teaching the course is the simplest explanation for the explosion in enrollment at private-sector universities. 

As a result, the notion that certificates or “badges” might displace degrees in any meaningful timeframe is incorrect.  Even in developing economies, where there is truly a hunger for knowledge in any form and where the degree may not yet be as central to the evaluation of prospective employees, the wage premium from a bachelor’s degree is even higher: 124 percent in Mexico, 171 percent in Brazil and 200 percent in China, compared with a mere 62 percent in the U.S. Degrees are definitely not disappearing; they’re not even in decline.

***

There are two important respects, however, in which this movie is different. The first must be credited to the first online “rock star” educator:  Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy.  If you haven’t had the pleasure of watching a Khan video, you haven’t missed much in the way of the simulations, animations and expensive special effects many dot-com pundits predicted would dominate online learning.  A Khan video is short, just a few minutes, and teaches a single concept.  It does so by showing Khan’s hand on the whiteboard while you hear his narration – an approach that is especially effective for math.  Professor Thrun’s online course builds on Khan’s innovation, and the resulting andragogy is remarkable.

With regard to the more important innovation, here’s what Professor Thrun had to say in his announcement:

We really set up our students for failure.  We don’t help students to become smart.  I started realizing that grades are the failure of the education system.  [When students don’t earn good grades, it means] educators have failed to bring students to A+ levels.  So rather than grading students, my task was to make students successful.  So it couldn’t be about harsh, difficult questions.  We changed the course so the questions were still hard, but students could attempt them multiple times.  And when they finally got them right, they would get their A+.  And it was much better.  That really made me think about the education system as a whole.  Salman Khan has this wonderful story.  When you learn to ride a bicycle, and you fail to learn to ride a bicycle, you don’t stop learning to ride the bicycle, give the person a D, and then move on to a unicycle.  You keep training them as long as it takes.  And then they can ride a bicycle.  Today, when someone fails, we don’t take time to make them a strong student.  We give them a C or a D, move them to the next class.  Then they’re branded a loser, and they’re set up for failure.  This medium has the potential to change all that.

So when Anant Agarwal, one of the leaders of the MITx effort, notes that “human productivity has gone up dramatically in the past several decades due to the Internet and computing technologies, but amazingly enough the way we do education is not very different from the way we did it a thousand years ago,” the major advance he has in mind is not rock star professors lecturing to millions, but rather that the online medium lends itself perfectly to a competency-based approach. 

The shift from “clock hours” or “seat time” to competency-based learning is just around the corner and much more fundamental to higher education than the explosion of online delivery itself. Awarding credits and degrees based on assessed competencies will significantly reduce time to completion and therefore increase completion rates and return on investment. More important, it ensures that students actually have mastered the set of competencies represented by the degree they have earned. Though not without significant challenges, this approach has the potential to revolutionize degree programs and all of higher education from within. That’s the real Wonderland adventure.  And we don’t need to take a pill to find it.

So have we seen this movie before? Turns out this one’s a sequel. But this is that very rare occasion when the sequel is much better than the original.

Ryan Craig is a partner at University Ventures Fund.

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Online Higher Education's Individualist Fallacy

There has been much talk of the “online revolution” in higher education. While there is a place for online education, some of its boosters anticipate displacing the traditional campus altogether. A close reading of their arguments, however, makes clear that many share what might be called the “individualist fallacy,” both in their understanding of how students learn and how professors teach.

Of course, individualism has a long, noble heritage in American history. From the “age of the self-made man” onward, we have valued those who pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. But, as Warren Buffett has made clear, even the most successful individuals depend heavily on the cultural, economic, legal, political, and social contexts in which they act. This is as true for Buffett as it is for other so-called self-made men as Bill Gates. And it is certainly true for students.

But many advocates of online learning ignore this simple point. The economist Richard Vedder, for example, believes that being on campus is only useful for “making friends, partying, drinking, and having sex.” Anya Kamenetz, in her book DIY U, celebrates the day when individuals are liberated from the constraints of physical campuses, while Gates anticipates that “five years from now on the Web for free you’ll be able to find the best lectures in the world. It will be better than any single university.”

Another Perspective
For an alternative view
on online education, read
this essay appearing
elsewhere on the site today.

These advocates of online higher education forget the importance of institutional culture in shaping how people learn. College is about more than accessing information; it’s about developing an attitude toward knowledge.

There is a difference between being on a campus with other students and teachers committed to learning and sitting at home. Learning, like religion, is a social experience. Context matters. No matter how much we might learn about God and our obligations from the Web, it is by going to church and being surrounded by other congregants engaged in similar questions, under the guidance of a thoughtful, caring pastor, that we really change. Conversion is social, and so is learning.

Like all adults, students will pursue many activities during their time on campus, but what distinguishes a college is that it embodies ideals distinct from the rest of students’ lives. If we take college seriously, we need people to spend time in such places so that they will leave different than when they entered.

Some argue that large lecture courses make a mockery of the above claims. Admittedly, in a better world, there would be no large lecture courses. Still, this argument misleads for several reasons. First, it generalizes from one kind of course, ignoring the smaller class sizes at community colleges and the upper-division courses in which students interact closely with each other and their professors. Second, it dismisses the energy of being in a classroom, even a large one, with real people when compared to being on our own. Even in large classes, good teachers push their students to think by asking probing questions, modeling curiosity, and adapting to the class’s needs. Finally, it disregards the importance of the broader campus context in which all classes, large and small, take place.

The goal of bringing students to campus for several years is to immerse them in an environment in which learning is the highest value, something online environments, no matter how interactive, cannot simulate. Real learning is hard; it requires students to trust each other and their teachers. In other words, it depends on relationships. This is particularly important for the liberal arts.

Of course, as Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s recent study Academically Adrift makes clear, there are great variations in what college students are learning. All too often, higher education does not fulfill our aspirations. But none of the problems Arum and Roksa identify are ones that online higher education would solve. As Arum and Roksa make clear, students learn more on campuses where learning is valued and expectations are high. If anything, we need to pay more attention to institutional culture because it matters so much.

This does not mean that we should reject technology when it can further learning, as in new computer programs that help diagnose students’ specific stumbling blocks. But computers will never replace the inspiring, often unexpected, conversations that happen among students and between students and teachers on campuses. Because computers are not interpretive moral beings, they cannot evaluate assignments in which students are asked to reflect on complicated ideas or come up with new ones, especially concerning moral questions. Fundamentally, computers cannot cultivate curiosity because machines are not curious.

Technology is a tool, not an end in itself. As the computer scientist Jaron Lanier has written in his book You Are Not A Gadget, computers exist to support human endeavors, not the other way around. Many techno-utopists proclaim that computers are becoming smarter, more human, but Lanier wonders whether that is because we tend to reduce our human horizons to interact with our machines. This certainly is one of the dangers of online higher education.

The individualist fallacy applies not just to online advocates’ understandings of students, but also their conception of what makes great teachers and scholars. Vedder, for example, echoes Gates in his hope that someday there will be a Wikipedia University, or that the Gates Foundation will start a university in which a few “star professors” are paid to teach thousands of students across the nation and world. Of course, this has been happening since the invention of cassette tapes that offer “the great courses.” This is hardly innovative, nor does it a college education make.

Vedder ignores how star professors become great. How do they know what to teach and to write? Their success, like Buffett’s, is social: they converse with and read and rely on the work of hundreds, even thousands, of other scholars. Read their articles and books, listen to their lectures, and you can discern how deeply influenced and how dependent they are on the work of their peers. In short, there would be no star professors absent an academy of scholars committed to research.

Schools like the online, Gates Foundation-funded Western Governors University free-ride off the expensive, quality research completed by traditional professors when they rely on open course ware and curricula. Take away the professors, and many online schools will teach material that is out of date or inaccurate or, worse, hand control over to other entities who are not interested in promoting the truth -- from textbook companies seeking to maximize sales to coal and pharmaceutical companies offering their own curriculums for “free.”

The Web and new technologies are great tools; they have made more information more accessible to more people. This is to be celebrated. Citizens in a democracy should be able to access as much information as freely as possible. A democratic society cannot allow scholars, or anyone else, to be the gatekeepers to knowledge.

Certainly, we will expand online higher education, if for no other reason than because wealthy foundations like Gates and ambitious for-profit entities are putting their money and power behind it. For certain students, especially working adults pursuing clearly defined vocational programs rather than a liberal arts education, online programs may allow opportunities that they would have otherwise foregone. But online higher education will never replace, much less replicate, what happens on college campuses.

Even as we expand online, therefore, we must deepen our commitment to those institutions that cultivate a love of learning in their students, focus on the liberal arts, and produce the knowledge that online and offline teaching requires.

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