“It’s not the strongest of the species that survives,” Charles Darwin once observed, “but the one most responsive to change.”
If only it were true in higher education.
It’s interesting to observe, isn’t it, how much higher education is still driven by a “brute force” model of delivery? As much as we might wish it were otherwise, postsecondary courses and degree programs are still largely delivered in a one-size-fits-all manner, and those students who can’t keep up are simply left behind, sometimes irretrievably so – the higher education equivalent of natural selection, some might say.
(I once had lunch with a colleague, for example, who told me with no small amount of pride that he only taught to the 10 percent of the class who “got it.” The others, it seemed, were not worth his effort.)
But surely anyone – teacher, student, or otherwise – who has ever sat in a classroom has seen glaring evidence of the fact that not all students move at the same pace. Some are prepared to move more quickly than the majority while others require greater attention and more time to master the same material as their classmates. The limits of mainstreaming diversely skilled students are obvious to all and yet we largely persist in the vain hope that greater numbers of students will learn to move at “class pace” if only we underscore their responsibility to do so in syllabuses and first-class lectures.
Of course, when teachers face classes of 20 or 40 or 200 students, personalized instruction isn’t much of an option. It’s simply too expensive and impractical – until now, perhaps.
Witness the countervailing perspective emerging these days that the curriculum is the thing that needs to change pace. Indeed, after a number of years of quiet experimentation we may now be on the cusp of an evolutionary moment – one that promises greater personalization, deeper engagement, and stronger outcomes for students of many types. And it may even be affordable. In fact, it may even be cost-efficient, by virtue of allowing instructors to use their time more judiciously.
Welcome to the emerging realm of adaptive learning – an environment where technology and brain science collaborate with big data to carve out customized pathways through curriculums for individual learners and free up teachers to devote their energies in more productive and scalable ways.
What promises to make adaptive learning technologies an important evolutionary advance in our approaches to teaching and learning is the way these systems behave differently based on how the learner interacts with them, allowing for a variety of nonlinear paths to remediation that are largely foreclosed by the one-size-fits-all approach of traditional class-paced forms of instruction.
To put it simply, adaptive systems adapt to the learner. In turn, they allow the learner to adapt to the curriculum in more effective ways. (See this recent white paper from Education Growth Advisors for more background on what adaptive learning really looks like – full disclosure: I had a hand in writing it.)
If the early results hold, we may soon be able to argue quite compellingly that these forms of computer-aided instruction actually produce better outcomes – in certain settings at least – than traditional forms of teaching and assessment do. In the future, as Darwin might have said were he still here, it won’t be the students who can withstand the brute force approach to higher education who survive, but those who prove themselves to be the most adaptive.
A recent poll of college and university presidents conducted by Inside Higher Ed and Gallup showed that a greater number of the survey’s respondents saw potential in adaptive learning to make a “positive impact on higher education” (66 percent) than they saw in MOOCs (42 percent). This is somewhat surprising given the vastly differing quantities of ink spilled on these respective topics, but it’s encouraging that adaptive learning is on the radar of so many college and university leaders. In some respects, adaptive learning has been one of higher education’s best-kept secrets.
For over a decade, Carnegie Mellon University’s Open Learning Initiative has been conducting research on how to develop technology-assisted course materials that provide real-time remediation and encourage deeper engagement among students en route to achieving improved outcomes. So adaptive learning is not necessarily new, and its origins go back even further to computer-based tutoring systems of various stripes.
But the interest in adaptive learning within the higher education community has increased significantly in the last year or two – particularly as software companies like Knewton have attracted tens of millions of dollars in venture capital and worked with high-visibility institutions like Arizona State University. (See Inside Higher Ed’s extensive profile of Knewton’s collaboration with ASU, from January of this year, here.)
Some of our biggest education companies have been paying attention, too. Pearson and Knewton are now working together to convert Pearson learning materials into adaptive courses and modules. Other big publishers have developed their own adaptive learning solutions – like McGraw-Hill’s LearnSmart division.
But a variety of early-stage companies are emerging, too. Not just in the U.S., but all around the world. Take CogBooks, based in Scotland, whose solution’s algorithms permit students to follow a nonlinear path through a web of learning content according to their particular areas of strength and weakness as captured by the CogBooks system. Or consider Smart Sparrow, based in Australia, whose system supports simulations and virtual laboratories and is currently being deployed in a variety of institutions both at home and here in the U.S., including ASU.
There is also Cerego, founded in Japan but now moving into the U.S., with a solution that focuses on memory optimization by delivering tailored content to students that is based not only on a recognition of which content they have mastered but also with an understanding of how memory degrades and how learning can be optimized by delivering remediation at just the right point in the arc of memory decay.
These adaptive learning companies, and many others working alongside them, share a common interest in bringing brain science and learning theory into play in designing learning experiences that achieve higher impact.
They differ in their points of emphasis – a consequence, in part, of their varying origin stories. Some companies emerged from the test prep field, while others began life as data analytics engines, and so on. But they are converging on a goal – drawing on big data to inform a more rigorous and scientific approach to curriculum development, delivery, and student assessment and remediation.
In the months ahead, you should expect to be seeing more and more coverage and other discussion of companies like these, as well as the institutions that are deploying their solutions in increasingly high-impact ways. Last month, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation issued an RFP inviting institutions to collaborate with companies such as these in seeking $100,000 grants to support new adaptive learning implementations. The grants are contingent, in part, on the winning proposals outlining how they’ll measure the impact of those implementations.
Before long, then, we may have much more we can say about just how far adaptive learning can take us in moving beyond a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching and learning – and in achieving better outcomes as a result. And for some students, their survival may depend upon it.
Peter Stokes is executive director of postsecondary innovation in the College of Professional Studies at Northeastern University, and author of the Peripheral Vision column.
There’s a legendary story about Anne Sexton’s learning how to write a sonnet by watching I.A. Richard’s educational-television series in the late fifties. I’ve thought about that fairly often while reading the daily stories on MOOCs. In the Sexton/Richards instance, there was a fortuitous electronic meeting of an excellent teacher who saw possibilities in the then “new” technology of television and a motivated student who was ready to write as if -- and according to her this was indeed the case -- her life depended on it.
That hyperbolic tone of the last sentence above -- a tone that readers of Sexton’s later poems and interviews are already familiar with -- is also the tone of a good many declarations about MOOCs.
Thomas Friedman’s latest column “The Professors’ Big Stage” is a case in point. His piece on “the MOOCs revolution” is riddled with contradictions, shallow thinking -- and an error in basic arithmetic.
Friedman begins by excitedly informing us that he’s just returned from a “great conference” sponsored by M.I.T. and Harvard on “Online Learning and the Future of Residential Education.” He doesn’t explain why he had to attend in person, or question why the conference wasn’t online, but he adds his own title, “How can colleges charge $50,000 a year if my kid can learn it all free from massive open online courses?" That premise, it soon becomes clear, is moot.
More on Friedman and MOOCs
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As Friedman goes on to extol the virtues of using MOOCs as supplements for traditional courses and programs, MOOCs then become an example of preliminary programmed learning -- the sort of thing that community colleges have been doing in terms of remedial aid for quite a while. Publishers like Bedford/St. Martin’s have offered online drills for years. And if the MOOC is tied to an accredited college’s course, then Junior and his dad are still paying for Junior’s education.
According to Friedman, students enrolled in a hybrid course at San Jose State, which combines M.I.T.’s introductory online Circuits and Electronics course with traditional in-seat class time, have done quite well: “Preliminary numbers indicate that those passing the class went from nearly 60 percent to about 90 percent.” There’s even better news for the students involved in that course than Friedman’s assessment: he sees the improvement as one-third; in fact, a jump from 60 percent to 90 percent means the number of students passing the class increased by one-half, or 50 percent.
We should note that this is an argument for remedial preparation and/or immersion in a subject -- not necessarily an argument for online versus in-seat instruction.
And that, of course, is just one class. Friedman sees MOOCs as going far “beyond the current system of information and delivery -- the professorial ‘sage on the stage’ and students taking notes, followed by a superficial assessment. This description not only fails to describe adequately the current system but also ironically illuminates some of the biggest problems with MOOCs. Given the scale of MOOC courses, the only kinds of student assessment that can be accomplished are superficial. And we will have to hope that some enrolled students, unlike Friedman, still believe in note taking. The MOOC lecture system, however, puts that sage right back on the stage -- as Friedman’s very title for his op-ed indicates.
Moreover, his discussion of Michael Sandel, the Harvard professor whose Justice course will have its American debut on March 12 as the first humanities offering on the M.I.T./Harvard edX online learning platform, focuses not on aspects of the course but on Sandel’s old-fashioned appearances on the lecture circuit.
Sandel, whose course has been translated into Korean and shown on national South Korean television, recently traveled to Seoul (again, why?), where he lectured “in an outdoor amphitheater to 14,000 people, with audience participation.” There was no indication as to how long the Q&A session ran.
Academicians often fall prey to magical thinking; at my former college, each time we hired a new provost (10 in my 16 years), we were certain that this was the one who would be our savior.
Each time we created a new central curriculum (three in my 16 years; the final stage just before I left was to exempt adult students from completion of the college’s core requirements), we were certain that this was the answer. Smaller, struggling colleges may see offering licensed supersized online courses as cost-saving -- an escape from the situation they currently find themselves in, in which every small school worries about going online or bust.
Many of these colleges turned to creating their own individual online courses -- already being referred to as “traditional online courses” -- as a solution, only to find that the expenses have outweighed the successes: they are costly in terms of faculty training, serve very small audiences (often sitting only a building or two away), and put severe strain on IT departments.
Online consortiums in which struggling schools have banded together have also proved to be problematic; I am thinking in particular of one class that I was asked to review for my former college, which was a member of such a consortium: an accelerated multi-genre writing class, which asked students to write one poem, one short story, and one essay over a period of five weeks. The "final project" consisted of one additional work, in the students' choice of genre. It was thus possible to fufill 50 percent of the course requirements with two haiku.
MOOCs, of course, have their ur-versions, which include not only Henry Ford’s production line and the rise of fast food, but massive online delivery experiments in the mid-1990s, online remedial drills, large introductory-course in-seat lectures, Sunrise Semester, and the Great Lecture Series, but also the 19th-century lecture. And possibly there was someone who asked Harvard for credit for attending Thoreau’s lecture on “Society” -- or for attending a lecture by P. T. Barnum.
Friedman does note, near the end of his exhortatory column, that “We still need more research on what works.”
Indeed. Along with the return of the sage on the stage, this newest educational/industrialized development has brought along with it -- no surprise to anyone who has taught a traditional online class, a class with online components, or a traditional in-seat class -- some old concerns: problems with technology; problems with underprepared and unmotivated students; problems with class participation in discussions (one sage walked off the stage); and concerns about retention and plagiarism.
Assessment will continue to be one of the biggest concerns: both assessment of the overall course and assessment of any student work that goes beyond the level of a drill. Financial issues will come in to play, as will work force issues. Hierarchical divides among students, faculty members, and institutions will not disappear.
Finally, there is a dynamic in a traditional classroom that MOOCs simply can’t provide. In small, in-seat courses and workshops, students discover that they are part of a community, in which each person has a responsibility to contribute and the reward of personal interaction. Such courses allow for flexibility, Socratic questioning, and serendipity. Face-to-face meetings and small-group dynamics are important parts of education and socialization. And they provide an essential break for students from their hours of online gaming, posting and browsing.
One other analogy that comes up in discussions of MOOCs is “correspondence course.” It’s considered a dirty term, and yet, it may be an accurate description as thousands of students and piecework adjuncts labor at their solitary tasks.
And there may be something to be learned from a fictional account of a correspondence school: J. D. Salinger’s “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period.” The alienated protagonist concludes that “We are all nuns” -- working silently, separately, seeking salvation.
Carolyn Foster Segal is a professor emeritus of English at Cedar Crest College. She currently teaches at Muhlenberg College.
“The fruit ripens slowly,” the Guru Nisargadatta Maharaj once observed, “but it drops suddenly.”
In a similar fashion, MOOCs (or massive open online courses) seem to have arrived almost out of nowhere, in quick succession – first Udacity in February of last year, followed by Coursera in April, then edX in May. Remarkable as it may seem, MOOCs as we know them today have been with us only for as long as it has taken the Earth to make one orbit around the sun.
“I like to call the last year ‘the decade of online learning,’ ” joked Anant Agarwal, president of edX, during my recent visit to the offices of his bustling startup in the Kendall Square area of Cambridge, Mass.
As accelerated as the progression of MOOCs has been from curious acronym to household name, and as much as it may seem that MOOCs themselves have fallen from the sky, in truth MOOCs have been ripening for some time.
Consider the free “courses” delivered through iTunes U for the last several years, or TED Talks, and Khan Academy, not to mention some of the early progenitors of MOOCs themselves, including Dave Cormier, credited with coining the phrase in 2008, as well as George Siemens, Stephen Downes, Alec Couros, David Wiley, and others.
Recall Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative, the “open educational resources” movement, and MIT’s OpenCourseware, launched all the way back in 2002. And let’s not forget Fathom.com, an initiative out of Columbia University launched at the turn of the millennium, or even the early days of America Online and Compuserve, both of which offered educational content through their services as early as the 1990s.
MOOCs, then, are not as new as they seem – though the world today appears to be more ready for them than it was in decades past. Indeed, it isn’t hard to see how forces as diverse as Clayton Christensen’s theory of “disruptive innovation” from the late 1990s, the expansion of online enrollments over the last decade, the reformist intentions of the Spellings Commission on the Future of Higher Education from 2005-2006, the great recession of 2007-2009, or the completion agenda supported by the Lumina and Gates Foundations over the last few years have all contributed to a public thirst for what look like very high-quality educational offerings at very low – or even zero – cost.
“I also call the last year,” Agarwal added, “ ‘the decade of innovation.’ ”
And like many innovations before them, MOOCs have been received with the usual contradictory apocalyptic fervor – where some believers foresee the arrival an educational golden age and others see the eventual destruction of our institutions, our faculty, and the intangible value of face-to-face learning.
Writing in The American Interest this month, for example, Nathan Harden claimed that “ten years from now Harvard will enroll ten million students." He went on to argue that as a result of the MOOC movement, “the changes ahead will ultimately bring about the most beneficial, most efficient and most equitable access to education that the world has ever seen."
At the other end of the apocalyptic continuum, Gregory Ferenstein, writing for TechCrunch last month, foresaw a future in which MOOCs wreaked a terrible devastation on the land, as “part-time faculty get laid off, more community colleges are shuttered, extracurricular college services are closed, and humanities and arts departments are dissolved for lack of enrollment.”
The real significance of MOOCs lies, however, not in their being a harbinger of our educational salvation or demolition. Nor does their real significance lie principally in their potential to increase access or reduce costs – at least not for Agarwal and edX.
“We are about two things,” Agarwal told me. “We are about dramatically increasing quality and impacting campus learning. We are being very deliberate. This is not a numbers game – this is not a game at all. This is a quality quest.”
Funded with $60 million in seed capital from MIT and Harvard, edX can make a claim to being the first MOOC platform to market, inasmuch as its predecessor, MITx, was launched in December 2011. Until this week, the edX consortium featured five independent member institutions (MIT, Harvard, the University of California at Berkeley, Georgetown University, and Wellesley College) and one state university system comprising 15 colleges and universities (the University of Texas System). Thursday, it added six more, including several outside the United States.
In less than a year, edX’s 25 courses have enrolled close to 700,000 people. “That’s more than the combined alumni of MIT and Harvard over their combined 500-year history,” Agarwal observed with a mixture of pride, enthusiasm and amazement. What really pleases him, though, is something else.
Rolling his chair across the office, Agarwal waves me over to his monitor and shows me the virtual laboratories edX has been developing for its courses. We start with his own course on Circuits and Electronics (6.002x in the edX course catalog).
“Many MOOCs are just about analyzing problems,” he said. “We give you a blank sheet of paper and say, ‘Go build, design, create, construct something.’ ” With drag-and-drop alacrity, Agarwal moves the components of a circuit into place on a piece of digital graph paper and clicks a button to test its performance. “Computers do the grading,” he said, “in real time.”
“The media focus on numbers, they focus on cost,” Agarwal sighed. “But they should focus on something else – quality. And they should focus on efficiency. What is efficiency? It’s a ratio of quality and cost.”
Agarwal knows that MOOCs have their doubters, and he believes that they can only be persuaded with proof. He cites the case of San Jose State University, which licensed his own course on circuits and ran it as an adjunct to the school’s own classroom-based instruction. The results, Agarwal claims, were impressive. “The fail rate dropped from 40 percent to 9 percent,” he told me. “That’s a quality improvement.” And the costs to San Jose State were minimal. That’s efficiency. Agarwal says San Jose will be sharing more details about their experience with edX in the near future.
With the avidity of the prototypical startup entrepreneur, Agarwal talked excitedly about the potential for MOOCs to improve pedagogy. “We have our xConsortium,” he said. “All of the schools in our consortium have access to all the data in the platform in an anonymized format. This is what I call ‘the particle accelerator of learning’ – big data in learning in real-time.” In a sense, then, edX’s quality quest, as Agarwal calls it, is seeking out the educational equivalent of the Higgs Boson, as well the other fundamental elements of learning, in order to better understand what kind of learning objects, what kind of real-time remediation, and what kind of learning materials – whether analysis or laboratory or other – produce the best results from one learning context to the next.
I ask Agarwal what distinguishes edX from its fellow MOOC platforms. “We have a fundamentally different mission,” he replied. “We’re nonprofit. We’re open source. Our technology is for everyone. And we have a commitment to campus learning.”
Earlier this month, the American Council on Education completed an evaluation of five courses on the Coursera platform, developed respectively by Duke University, the University of California at Irvine, and the University of Pennsylvania. Intriguingly, all five courses were approved for credit through the ACE credit transfer program. But just in case the future of MOOCs was beginning to make sense to you, consider this – all three of these institutions have made it clear that they, at least, will not be awarding credits for the courses, irrespective of the fact that they developed the courses themselves.
MOOCs are puzzling.
Will they last? It’s not, I suspect, a question that would bother Agarwal very much one way or the other. “For us,” he said, “it’s not about MOOCs. We are trying to reimagine our own campus. The lecture wasn’t working. Quality has been static for decades, but costs are going up. There’s a trillion dollars in student debt. We are trying reimagine campus education from the ground up – with new ways of learning that are more enriching, more engaging, more efficient, and that produce better outcomes.”
How do you like them apples?
Peter Stokes is executive director of postsecondary innovation in the College of Professional Studies at Northeastern University, and author of the Peripheral Vision column.