It’s only been about a year since massive open online courses (MOOCs) burst onto the higher education scene. But it hasn’t taken long in many quarters of our community for acclaim to accede to skepticism, and excitement about MOOCs to fade amid charges of excessive hype.
All of that’s understandable during such challenging times for American higher education, as presidents and professors alike grapple with issues of affordability, access and accountability. After all, no one innovation will ever be a cureall, no matter how much attention it gets.
This is a good time for all of us in higher education to take a step back and study the disruptive potential of MOOCs and other innovations. The American Council on Education, for instance, has an ongoing and wide-ranging research and evaluation effort to examine the academic potential of MOOCs and attempt to answer questions about whether they can help support degree completion, deepen college curriculums and increase learning productivity.
I was interested, therefore, in the findings of Inside Higher Ed’s new Survey of Faculty Attitudes on Technology. Over all, and perhaps to no one’s surprise, many faculty members expressed reservations about online courses in general and about MOOCs in particular. Several responses highlighted this skepticism, but also, I believe, showed where ACE’s work can be of assistance.
Just 22 percent of the faculty who responded to the survey agreed that "higher education should award credit for MOOCs." However, 66 percent said that a very important indicator of a quality online course is whether it has been "independently certified for quality."
It has been well-publicized that one aspect of ACE’s MOOC evaluation and research initiative is to review some specific MOOCs for potential college credit recommendations. So far, in fact, we have determined that 11 such courses across three major MOOC platforms met criteria for credit recommendations: Five from Coursera, five from Udacity and one from edX.
But what may be less well-known is that reviewing MOOCs for credit recommendations involves the same work ACE has been successfully undertaking for many years to evaluate learning that takes place outside traditional degree programs. And faculty should keep in mind that it is their colleagues who are responsible for carrying out these reviews.
Since 1945, ACE has evaluated military training and experiences to determine their eligibility for credit recommendations. In 1974, the ACE College Credit Recommendation Service (ACE CREDIT®) was formed to extend these reviews to the workplace and to major departments of government. Decisions about this and all transfer credit are up to individual institutions on a case-by-case basis, as they should be, but there is a network of some 2,000 institutions that have agreed to consider ACE credit recommendations.
Many of these courses are found in military and workplace settings, but they also have for a number of years included “traditional” online courses that now are more than a decade old.
Each course review is led by a team of at least two experienced and trained faculty assessors, drawn from a variety of institutions and geographic regions. Each faculty assessor's expertise is relevant to the course under review and all must have significant teaching experience. The reviewers look at textbooks and other instructional materials, course syllabuses, assessment methods, lab and class exercises, instructor qualifications and, for online courses, instructional design, assessments, student authentication and exam proctoring.
In the process of these rigorous reviews, it is not unusual for a faculty team to make recommendations for improvements to MOOCs and other types of courses.
The final recommendations are always a consensus of the team, and they are based on consistent standards that are national in scope and not linked to the standards of any one particular institution. It is up to ACE faculty reviewers to decide how much credit to recommend based on the scope and depth of the course, with decisions about whether to grant credit at the discretion of degree-granting institutions.
The promise of MOOCs remains an open question, but it’s clear that online learning overall will play an increasingly important role as the higher education community works to serve millions of adult learners and help our country meet the goal of boosting the number of Americans with a postsecondary degree, certificate or credential. About two-thirds of American college students now are post-traditional learners whose pursuit of additional knowledge and skill is interlaced with time commitments to jobs and family responsibilities.
The 2012 Survey of Online Learning by the Babson Survey Research Group showed that more than 6.7 million students were taking at least one online course during the fall 2011 term, an increase of 570,000 from 2010, and that 32 percent of higher education students now take at least one course online. And while just 2.6 percent of our institutions reported currently having a MOOC, an additional 9.4 percent said that MOOCs were being planned.
ACE, of course, isn’t the only entity that can help assure faculty of the quality of online courses, including MOOCs. And it’s worth noting that ACE’s MOOC initiative is part of our broader push to expand the area of prior learning assessment in ways appropriate for both post-traditional students and American’s diverse system of colleges and universities.
Indeed, as my ACE colleague Cathy Sandeen recently noted, there are many ways to develop a more truly interconnected higher education system that helps more Americans complete postsecondary degrees, credentials and certificates.
Yes, MOOCs have received a lot of hype. But that just makes it all the more important to continue with efforts to assess where and how they might fit into the higher education landscape.
Molly Corbett Broad is president of the American Council on Education.
I know! I know! Everyone is sick to death of debating the pros and cons of MOOCs, the massive online courses that, depending on your viewpoint, will be the downfall or resurrection of higher education. But what's getting lost in all the noise is that MOOCs are far from the only game in town when it comes to online education.
Key in determining the effectiveness of a course, both online and on the ground, is how actively it is being taught and how effectively it is engaging students.
Educators are creating and tweaking a number of very different learning models to engage students in "active learning," both in the physical classroom and the virtual world – often in intriguing combinations.
Based on innumerable conversations with faculty, students, administrators, staff, and the general public, the following are the three most important things I know about the role distance education plays in higher education today and about how to create high-quality programs.
Distance education is not a singular thing.
Educators and administrators often use only the terms "synchronous" and "asynchronous" to differentiate among distance education models. But the most critical descriptor of distance education models has nothing to do with the extent of live instruction; rather, it is the extent to which a course is "actively taught."
On one side of the active-teaching spectrum is a "course-in-a-box" -- a course with pre-built media assets meant to stand alone, with minimal or no involvement or intervention by the faculty. MOOCs, for instance, often consist of pre-recorded high-production video and automated assessments. If the faculty member were to disappear or otherwise disengage from the course, the course would still exist. The thousands of students in the MOOC could simply press the play button on the screen, answer automatically graded test questions and otherwise enter input as appropriate. And, of course, the size of the MOOC is nearly limitless, subject only to technology capacity constraints.
On the other side of this spectrum is the very actively taught class. Independent of media assets available to students, faculty teach. They communicate with students, lead discussion, provide feedback, and otherwise engage. If a faculty member were to stop teaching, the class would cease to exist. Typically, such actively taught courses are smaller and require that faculty know and interact with students much more intimately, more like a seminar than a lecture hall.
Some MOOCs employ teaching assistants, striving for modest interaction with students. However, in most cases, the scale of MOOCs overwhelms even multiple instructors; plus, TAs are, by definition, not faculty. Thus, while MOOCs may be great for personal enrichment, most are not yet appropriate for college credit, given that they are largely unresponsive to the learning needs of any given student.
The questions being asked about effective distance education aren’t all that different from those concerning "traditional" teaching models.
Just as with traditional education, one the greatest challenges of distance education is how to better engage students. Traditional educators often discuss the role of lecture, discussion, feedback, group projects and peer assessment. Today they also talk about "flipping the classroom" so that lectures and other didactic material are recorded and made available to students outside of class. Class time can then be reserved for discussion and application.
Understanding that student engagement is highly correlated to active teaching, distance educators are addressing the very same issues. The "course in a box" model is rarely engaging - many MOOCs create very passive experiences for students, who are required to watch hours of video and answer machine-graded multiple choice questions.
That said, some "course in a box" exceptions come close to rivaling substantive live interactions. Simulations, games, and other online modules in which students must solve problems and make decisions within an automated environment can be very effective teaching tools that adapt to students’ varying levels of skill and mastery. Fully adaptive learning technologies may, in fact, be more engaging than traditional teaching, given that students’ learning experiences may be customized to individual needs.
Of course, not even all traditional education is "active." A professor’s recitation of pre-written 75-minute lectures twice a week for an entire term would hardly be more active than simply recording those lectures and posting them on a website. An actively taught traditional course, like a distance education course, would require the faculty member to engage much more intimately with students through discussion, feedback, and more.
While some asynchronous models have no active teaching element -- including many MOOCs -- others rely on highly active and present faculty to asynchronously engage with students. Asynchronous communications, including group discussion boards, blogs, and wikis, can lead to more substantive exploration of course material than live, in-person conversations. Some faculty report that asynchronous communications allow students to better digest and consider others’ opinions while constructing their own beliefs, and can lead to deeper and more robust discussions.
Putting aside the aforementioned adaptive and interactive learning technologies (which are still relatively rare), an active teacher can better understand the needs of each student and differentiate instruction, customizing discussion and explanations as appropriate. Non-active teaching -- whether through distance or traditional education -- tends to be inflexible and monolithic.
Faculty conversations about distance education are shifting markedly.
Faculty today are less interested in debating the quality of distance education and how much a student can learn. Perhaps the launch of edX by MIT and Harvard opened the gates -- suddenly high-profile, top-notch universities were committing to distance education with significant resources, searching for new ways of teaching and learning.
For whatever reason, today’s conversations by faculty focus less on quality and more on the qualities of distance education. Many express concern that a distance course may be deficient at enhancing cognition, emotion and interpersonal relationship-building, or at developing the "whole student." These are reasonable concerns. No serious distance educator would ever suggest that distance education fully supplants the benefits of a live in-person experience. Rather, we argue that the loss of face-to-face benefits in a classroom can be mitigated in a distance learning environment if students achieve the intended learning outcomes while benefiting from convenience and increased access to higher education.
Faculty are also keenly interested in the impact of distance education on higher education broadly and the faculty workforce specifically. Given that distance courses can be taught by faculty anywhere in the world to students anywhere in the world, they question whether distance education will result in a sort of standardization of curriculum, fewer faculty at their home institutions, and lower standard of quality.
While not unreasonable, such questions must be considered within the context of how distance education is evolving. If today’s MOOCs become widely available for credit, concern would be merited. However, if most credit-bearing distance education is "actively taught," then the risks are lessened, if only because the costs of actively taught distance education can be just as great as the costs of traditional education.
Besides, without dramatic change, institutions of higher education, many of which are in financial distress, face a highly uncertain future. The question to ponder: how a future with distance education compares to all other possible futures for higher education.
Joel Shapiro is associate dean of academics at Northwestern University School of Continuing Studies and has taught in and led distance education programming at Northwestern for more than six years.
Submitted by Gary S. May on September 10, 2013 - 3:00am
When a new product is launched, particularly in technology, people often rush to be among its early adopters. The sudden explosion of users invariably reveals bugs and glitches that need to be addressed.
This is analogous to what we appear to be witnessing right now with massive open online courses. An unrelenting stream of attention-grabbing announcements is being followed by closer inspection – and the realization that, although MOOCs are a novel approach to education, they may not be a panacea.
The picture of MOOCs presented in the press is quite a paradox. The concept has been described as both a game-changer and a hyped retread. MOOCs deliver great content to faraway places, but some believe they place academic quality in peril. They are financial enigmas — offering the potential to bend the higher education cost curve, yet lacking an accepted plan for monetization. Some leaders in higher education are scrambling to get into the game; others are issuing a call to slow down.
The contradictions are rich, and the hyperbole in full bloom. Personally, I find all of the discourse to be a positive sign. The intensity of the MOOC dialogue indicates a chord has been struck. The promise of technology and access is igniting a larger discussion about the higher education paradigm. The initial rush has evolved, but what’s next? Where is this train ultimately headed?
First, let’s keep in mind that in the technology adoption life cycle, MOOCs are probably somewhere between innovation and early adoption; it’s too early to declare victory or to reject the concept before it has been further tested, evaluated and refined. Second, colleges and universities are ground zero in the exploration of ideas. If you can’t experiment here, then where?
In thinking about this issue as an engineer, I am reminded of the Wright Brothers and their pursuit of human flight. The brothers’ first test glider in 1900 failed to achieve the altitude that Wilbur and Orville had anticipated. So they revisited their equations and re-analyzed the aerodynamic data obtained from the aviator, Otto Lilienthal. They increased the size of the wings and refined the sloped surface of the airfoil, but additional adjustments brought the same disappointing results. It would be another two and a half years before the Wright brothers succeeded in launching and controlling a powered aircraft.
What if their early struggles with the gliders had gotten the better of the Wrights? How much longer might humankind had to wait to fly?
The same might be asked today of MOOCs. The dawn of a new academic year seems an appropriate time to contemplate such questions and share a few observations on higher education’s latest grand experiment:
1. The prospect of MOOCs replacing the physical college campus for undergraduates is dubious at best. Other target audiences are likely better-suited for MOOCs. My university, the Georgia Institute of Technology, is preparing to offer an inexpensive M.S. degree in computer science via massive (but not open) online courses beginning January 2014, with two options. The on-campus version has a research emphasis, requiring one-on-one interaction, whereas the online degree caters to professionals by focusing on applying advanced knowledge in the workplace. If successful, thousands are expected to enroll in this $7,000 MS degree program.
2. In addition to the master’s level, MOOCs may also help level the playing field for precollege education. This is another area of the MOOC wilderness being explored. With a $150,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, Georgia Tech is offering MOOCs in three introductory topic areas for people who have yet to pursue a college degree. One can also easily extrapolate and imagine MOOC-like advanced placement courses available to students at high schools without their own Advanced Placement offerings.
3. Despite challenges, delivering content online could be a real asset to enhance pedagogy for undergraduates as well. The inverted classroom – in which students and faculty convene solely for discussion, and all lectures take place online – appears to have significant promise. For example, a recent comparison between a standard fluid mechanics course at Georgia Tech and its "flipped" counterpart revealed that weaker students in the flipped classroom actually outperformed stronger students who experienced traditional delivery of the material.
American higher education finds itself at a pivotal point in its great MOOC experiment. We must continue working to optimize MOOCs so that their promise and potential can be realized. While operational and execution issues remain, MOOCs still represent a tremendous opportunity for people around the world to learn and for educators to study and optimize that learning process.
A realistic time frame for evaluating the successes, failures, and unanticipated results is still likely another three to five years away. But, as Wilbur Wright said about learning to fly: "If you are looking for perfect safety, you will do well to sit on a fence and watch the birds; but if you really wish to learn, you must mount a machine and become acquainted with its tricks by actual trial."
Gary S. May is dean of the College of Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology.