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.
Despite the praise heaped on California Senate Bill 520 by Phil Hill and Dean Florez in a recent panegyric published in Inside Higher Ed, the bill was not the right answer for California’s higher education access woes, and it is a poor model for other states to emulate.
A bill that would open the door to for-profit companies -- including unaccredited “fly-by-night” ones -- to offer courses in the name of a state’s colleges and universities is fraught with danger. A bill that would require a state’s colleges and universities to outsource their core educational function is truly misguided, however well-intentioned the idea may have been.
That’s the real reason for the huge uproar and the rare universal opposition to California’s SB 520 from those close to higher education -- both faculty groups and the universities themselves.
Let’s be clear about one thing that’s not acknowledged in Hill and Florez’s piece: colleges and universities around the country already allow transfer credit from other universities as long as those courses meet the quality control standards of the home institution.
That tradition has been in place for a long time precisely to balance the needs of students who often take courses at more than one institution with the needs of the public to ensure quality control and the integrity of degrees from its taxpayer-funded institutions. The people of California (including employers) need to know that a degree from the University of California, the California State University, or a state community college is just that -- and not something offered by an unknown entity.
By mandating that state public colleges and universities begin a process of outsourcing its courses, SB 520 would have seriously weakened transparency and accountability in its institutions of higher learning. That’s one reason why the provosts of major universities in the Midwest have argued against similar schemes in their institutions. Alumni and trustees at Thunderbird Business School have also expressed serious concerns about how such a proposed relationship would threaten the reputation of that school and the value of its degrees for all students.
There is good reason for such concern, for cautionary tales about relying on for-profit companies to offer a college’s courses are unfolding right now around the country. In a December 2012 court settlement, for instance, the New York Institute of Technology was found legally and financially liable for actions of its for-profit partner. More recently, Tiffin University has seen its accreditation threatened because of over-reliance on unaccredited for-profit companies to offer its courses.
If SB 520 had passed, it would not have expanded meaningful access to quality higher education in the state. But it would have thrown open the door to massive profits for edu-businesses, who are accountable not to the people of California, but to investors and stockholders. No wonder so many CEOs were there to praise SB 520.
Florez and Hill labor mightily to make SB 520 sound bold and innovative, an effort to “wake up [California’s] higher education community,” they say. What everyone, including the state’s elected leaders, really need to wake up to are the fundamental facts about higher education funding in California.
According to a report published in February 2013 by Postsecondary Opportunity: The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education and titled “State Disinvestment in Higher Education FY1961 to FY2013,” California’s state fiscal support for higher education as a percentage of state personal income dropped by 58.2 percent (adjusted for inflation) between 1980 and 2013. The trajectory is clear: if the current long-term trend continues, California will reach zero in state funding for higher education in the year 2054.
Unfortunately, as Postsecondary Opportunity’s research demonstrates, many other states are also in a “Race to Zero.”
SB 520 was no “wake-up call” for anyone. It was, in fact, a dangerous diversion from the reality that there is simply no substitute for public investment in higher education, and there is no single cheaper teaching modality or low-cost “magic bullet” that will meet our need for qualified college graduates.
With all that is at stake for the futures of millions of students and for our country, we need to take a harder look at so-called “innovative” solutions that make the old promise of “something for nothing.”
California’s controversial bill to allow third-party, online courses to count for credit at the three public systems of higher education has met an ignoble end. Or has it? On July 31, we learned that Senate Bill 520 (SB 520), authored by Senate President Pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg, is being moved to the two-year file, and will remain dormant for at least a year.
Is this a telling defeat for powerful state politicians who went too far in trying to advance online education options, or did the process of introducing the bill and debating it in public actually create the same goals and opportunities that drove the bill in the first place?
We believe that despite the tremendous and dramatic opposition and perceived defeat of SB 520, quite a lot has been accomplished as a direct result of the initial bill language. Despite spectacular headlines, the bill itself is not dead, but rather has simply been moved to the two-year file where it will be revived as needed.
How Did We Get Here?
As described in a position paper written by Phil Hill and Michael Feldstein for the 20 Million Minds Foundation, when the California Master Plan was adopted in 1960, the basic premise was to guarantee students a place within one of the three public systems based on their high school record. It was assumed that by having a place in a public institution, the student would have access to needed courses. As the state budget has crumbled, unemployment rates have skyrocketed and enrollment demand has surged without the resources to accommodate it, this assumption is no longer valid. Across the state, literally hundreds of thousands of students have been turned away from needed courses at the California Community Colleges (CCC), the California State University (CSU), and the University of California (UC).
In January of 2013, in an effort to address the growing public education access problem facing California, the 20 Million Minds Foundation brought together students, faculty, administrators, state leaders, and ed-tech pioneers for a one-day symposium. The "Re:Boot California Higher Education" conference promoted a robust discussion that examined not only the challenges, but also the potential technological solutions to the major issues facing California’s three segments of higher education. During his opening address to the Re:Boot participants, Senator Steinberg indicated:
[Online education] is a […] revolution and possibilities abound using technology in ways that not only equal or enhance quality but also reduce the cost of higher education for struggling students and their families.
In March of this year, during an online press conference, Senator Steinberg unveiled Senate Bill 520, announcing the legislation that would “would reshape higher education, in partnership with technology we already use, to break bottlenecks that prevent students from completing education.”
The newfound involvement of state government officials in this level of higher education, and the nature of the bill itself, which proposed the heretofore unheard-of use of controversial, potentially disruptive, large-scale solutions such as MOOCs for credit, generated significant resistance from faculty groups and the systems themselves. In particular, a New York Timesarticle "broke the news" that a powerful senate leader was going to challenge the status quo without getting agreement from faculty groups first, and this publicity helped rally vocal opposition to the bill. Of course, this level of resistance should not have surprised anyone involved in higher education in California.
The nature of government is that real legislative movement most often occurs for two reasons – bad press or a crisis. Senator Steinberg sees course access as a crisis for public higher education, and he introduced a bill designed to wake up the higher education community. The bill essentially sent the message that "we need to solve these problems of access whether our colleges and universities do it themselves or whether we need outside help." This challenge to go beyond the ordinary thoughts and discussions in public policy pushed the boundaries and made many groups quite uncomfortable.
In parallel, Governor Jerry Brown added fuel to the fire by proposing additional funding to the CCC, CSU, and UC with the caveat that certain conditions be tied to the funding. The language in the proposed budget obligated the funds "to increase the number of courses available to matriculated undergraduates through the use of technology, specifically those courses that have the highest demand, fill quickly, and are prerequisites for many different degrees.” This language was interpreted as telling the systems how to do their job. After CSU and UC indicated they would follow the same guidelines, but execute the solution their own way, Governor Brown used a line-item veto to remove his own proposed earmarks creating conditions for the additional funding.
The result of the intense opposition and debate during the legislative process led to significant amendments to SB 520. Originally envisioned as the gateway to public-private partnerships with a common pool of courses, the bill has been transformed into a grant program for each system to implement individually. Even with the passage of the amended bill in the Senate, the bill is currently on hold.
Movement From Systems
All three systems have proposed new programs that broadly meet the same goals outlined by SB 520, largely based on the additional funding for online initiatives, with the new emphasis being the introduction or expansion of online courses with cross-enrollment across each system.
The California Community Colleges currently enroll as much as 17 percent of their students in various types of online or distance education. The system is poised to continue to advance and expand its online programs with a strong focus on career technical education as well as workforce development programs as outlined in the CCC System Strategic Plan, updated in June of this year.
In July, the CSU introduced a new Intrasystem Concurrent Enrollment program, allowing students at each campus to sign up for one of 30 online courses offered in the program from other "host" campuses. Under the current plan, students will be limited to one course per semester.
In January, UC introduced the Innovative Learning Technology Initiative, updated in May, as "a direct response to the governor’s plan to earmark $10 million from UC’s FY 14 core budget to use technology to increase access to high-demand courses for UC matriculated students.”
Despite the welcome news of these programs, we are already hearing widespread concerns over the pace and scale of implementation. Lieut. Governor Gavin Newsom, a noted supporter of more effective use of technology, following the online program presentation at the July meeting of the UC Regents, stated, "I don’t think we’re running at full speed here. We’re moving extraordinarily slowly…. Californians are looking to us" for progress in online education.
What to Expect Next
Students enrolled in California public colleges and universities should be guaranteed timely access to the core courses that they are required to take in order to graduate. Given that there are a variety of ways in which the institutions could meet this obligation, the state should avoid being overly prescriptive about the method. Rather, it should supply the mandate for educational access, support institutions in meeting this mandate, and provide a safety valve to ensure the mandate’s right is preserved.
--From our position paper
The focus should remain on finding effective solutions to the course-access issue -- providing students with high-quality courses they need while reducing costs. Before this year, this was not happening for a variety of reasons, and it remains to be seen just how much the institutions will do without the pressure of earmarked funding in the state budget or pending legislation such as SB 520.
We believe the best outcomes for online education occur when faculty and institutions are motivated and supported to design high-quality options for students. Ideally, colleges and universities would craft solutions, but use third-party courses as safety valves to ensure students have access to necessary classes. The hope is that the three public systems will continue their progress, find real solutions to the course access problem, and not fall into the trap of doing the same old thing again, just with online options.
At this point, one might actually suggest that a welcome policy outcome has indeed been accomplished as a direct result of the initial language in SB 520. The bill is certainly not dead. The bill itself could now be thought of as a safety valve, providing an option in case the three systems fail to show real progress in meeting the challenge of course access. We are, however, cautiously optimistic that viable and effective change is, at least for now, in the formative stages.
Phil Hill is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He is co-publisher of the e-Literate blog and co-founder of MindWires Consulting. Follow him on Twitter at @PhilOnEdTech.
Dean Florez is the former Senate majority leader of the California State Senate and the current president and CEO of the 20 Million Minds Foundation (@20MillionMinds). Follow him on Twitter at @DeanFlorez.
What an exciting year for distance learning! Cutting-edge communication systems allowed colleges to escape the tired confines of face-to-face education. Bold new technologies made it possible for thousands of geographically dispersed students to enroll in world-class courses. Innovative assessment mechanisms let professors supervise their pupils remotely.
All this progress was good for business, too. Private entrepreneurs leapt at the chance to compete in the new distance learning marketplace, while Ivy League universities bustled to keep pace. True, a few naysayers fretted about declining student attention spans and low course-completion rates. But who could object to the expansively democratic goal of bringing first-rate education to more people than ever before? The new pedagogical tools promised to be not only more affordable than traditional classes, but also more effective at measuring student progress.
In the words of one prominent expert, the average distance learner "knows more of the subject, and knows it better, than the student who has covered the same ground in the classroom." Indeed, "the day is coming when the work done [via distance learning] will be greater in amount than that done in the class-rooms of our colleges." The future of education was finally here.
2012, right? Think again: 1885. The commentator quoted above was Yale classicist (and future University of Chicago President) William Rainey Harper, evaluating correspondence courses. That’s right: you’ve got (snail) mail. Journalist Nicholas Carr has chronicled the recurrent boosterism about mass mediated education over the last century: the phonograph, instructional radio, televised lectures. All were heralded as transformative educational tools in their day. This should give us pause as we consider the latest iteration of distance learning: massive open online courses (MOOCs).
In response to the "MOOC Moment,"skeptical faculty have begun questioning venture capitalists eager for new markets and legislators eager to dismantle public funding for American higher education. To their credit, some people pushing for MOOCs speak from laudably egalitarian impulses to provide access for disadvantaged students. But to what are they being given access? Are broadcast lectures and online discussions the sum of an education? Or is an education something more than "content" delivery?
To state the obvious: there’s a living, human element to education. We who cherish in-person instruction would benefit from a pithy phrase to defend and promote this millennia-tested practice. I propose that we begin calling it "close learning." "Close learning" evokes the laborious, time-consuming, and costly but irreplaceable proximity between teacher and student. "Close learning" exposes the stark deficiencies of mass distance learning such as MOOCs, and its haste to reduce dynamism, responsiveness, presence.
Techno-utopians seem surprised that "blended" or "flipped" classrooms – combining online media with in-person discussions – are more effective than their online-only counterparts, or that one-on-one tutoring strengthens the utility of MOOCs. In spite of all the hype about interactivity, "lecturing" a la MOOCs merely extends the cliché of the static, one-sided lecture hall, where distance learning begins after the first row.
The old-fashioned Socratic seminar is where we actually find interactive learning and open-ended inquiry. In the close learning of the live seminar, spontaneity rules. Both students and teachers are always at a crossroads, collaboratively deciding where to go and where to stop, how to navigate and how to detour, and how to close the distance between a topic and the people discussing it. For the seminar to work, certain limits are required (most centrally, a limit in size). But these finite limits enable the infinity of questioning that is close learning. MOOCs claim to abolish those limits, while they paradoxically reinstate them. Their naïve model assumes that there is always total transparency, that passively seeing (watching a lecture, or a virtual simulation) is learning.
A Columbia University neuroscientist, Stuart Firestein, recently published a polemical book titled Ignorance: How It Drives Science. Discouraged by students regurgitating his lectures without internalizing the complexity of scientific inquiry, Firestein created a seminar to which he invited his colleagues to discuss what they don’t know. As Firestein repeatedly emphasizes, it is informed ignorance, not information, that is the genuine "engine" of knowledge. His seminar demonstrates that mere data transmission from teacher to student doesn’t produce deep learning. It’s the ability to interact, to think hard thoughts alongside other people.
In a seminar, a student can ask for clarification, and challenge a teacher; a teacher can shift course when spirits are flagging; a stray thought can spark a new insight. Isn’t this the kind of nonconformist "thinking outside the box" that business leaders adore? So why is there such a rush to freeze knowledge and distribute it in a frozen form? Even Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng concedes that the real value of a college education "isn’t just the content.... The real value is the interactions with professors and other, equally bright students."
The corporate world recognizes the virtues of proximity in its own human resource management. Witness, for example, Yahoo’s recent decision to eliminate telecommuting and require employees to be present in the office. CEO Marissa Mayer’s memo reads as a mini-manifesto for close learning:
"To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together."
Why do boards of directors still go through the effort of convening in person? Why, in spite of all the fantasies about “working from anywhere,” are “creative classes” still concentrating in proximity to one another: the entertainment industry in LA, information technology in the Bay Area, financial capital in New York City? The powerful and the wealthy are well aware that computers can accelerate the exchange of information, and facilitate low-level "training." But not the development of knowledge, much less wisdom.
Close learning transcends disciplines. In every field, students must incline towards their subjects: leaning into a sentence, to craft it most persuasively. Leaning into an archival document, to determine an uncertain provenance. Leaning into a musical score, to poise the body for performance. Leaning into a data set, to discern emerging patterns. Leaning into a laboratory instrument, to interpret what is viewed. MOOCs, in contrast, encourage students and faculty to lean back, not to cultivate the disciplined attention necessary to engage fully in a complex task. Low completion rates for MOOCs (hovering around 10 percent) speak for themselves.
A devotion to close learning should not be mistaken for an anti-technology stance. (Contrary to a common misperception, the original Luddites simply wanted machines that made high-quality goods, run by trained workers who were adequately compensated.) I teach Shakespeare, supposedly one of the mustiest of topics. Yet my students navigate the vast resources of the Internet; evaluate recorded performances; wrestle with facsimiles of original publications; listen to pertinent podcasts; survey decades of scholarship in digitized form; circulate their drafts electronically; explore the cultural topography of early modern London; and contemplate the historical richness of the English language. Close learning is entirely compatible with engaging in meaningful conversations outside the classroom; faculty can correspond regularly with students via e-mail, and keep in close contact via all kinds of new media. But this is all in service of close learning, and the payoff comes in the classroom.
Teachers have always employed "technology" – including the book, one of the most flexible and dynamic learning technologies ever created. But let’s not fixate upon technology for technology’s sake, or delude ourselves into thinking that better technology overcomes bad teaching. At no stage of education does technology, no matter how novel, ever replace human attention. Close learning can’t be automated, or scaled up.
As retrograde as it might sound, gathering humans in a room with real time for dialogue still matters. As educators, we must remind ourselves – not to mention our boards, our alumni, our students, and those students’ parents – of the inescapable fact that our "product" is close learning. This is why savvy parents have always invested in intensive human interaction for their children. (Tellingly, parents from Silicon Valley deliberately restrict their children’s access to electronic distractions, so that they might experience the free play of mind essential to human development.) What remains to be seen is whether we value this kind of close learning at all levels of education, enough to defend it, and fund it, for a wider circle of Americans – or whether we will continue to permit the circle to contract, excluding a genuinely transformative educational experience from those without means.
Scott L. Newstok teaches in the English department at Rhodes College.