“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.
With great interest, I read the recent news announcing that the American Council on Education (ACE) had evaluated five Coursera MOOCs and recommended them for credit. But I had hoped for something different.
Having traditional prestigious institutions making their online content open to the world – of course without their prestigious credit attached – was an exciting development. A race to post courses ensued. On the surface, it’s an altruistic move to make learning available to anyone, anywhere for free.
Dig deeper and we are left to ask, how many MOOC courses will really be worth college credit, where will the credits be accepted, and for how long will college credits even be the primary measurement of learning?
Now that ACE has evaluated a few courses, MOOC providers will see how their process goes as students start actually finding proctors and taking tests -- or finding other methods of assessment -- to prove they learned the material. But a few courses will not be enough to really help students earn degrees, and with MOOC courses and providers continuing to proliferate, this does not seem like a viable way to keep up with demand.
Regardless, it is more than likely that the universities that agreed to the ACE CREDIT review are never going to accept an ACE CREDIT transcript themselves. The students with ACE CREDIT transcripts will need to present those transcripts to “lesser known” schools that are not among the elite players – colleges with much lower tuition and a willingness to serve post-traditional students.
More troubling is the fact that the ACE process for credit review is still course-based. Will this really be flexible enough in the future? Will it measure competencies and individual learning outcomes? Even if it seems scalable, will it mean all MOOC evaluations have to run through ACE and only ACE? Will students have to wait until ACE has evaluated a MOOC course before they can get credit?
Moreover, this raises the question: Are course evaluations and testing really the best or only way to deal with this new era of learning? What about experiential learning? If someone has college-level learning from their life experience is it invalid unless they take a course?
As Inside Higher Ed points out in its article, this was a fast move in an industry that moves at a glacial pace. But when ice really begins to melt, it can quickly turn into a waterfall. Students have more options for learning, and can get more information, from a variety of sources. So the question for education becomes, how can we best accommodate that?
I would assert that a portfolio assessment of students’ learning is the best way. Just as an artist shows a portfolio to a prospective employer, students should be able to demonstrate learning from wherever they have learned -- work, MOOCs, informal training, military service, volunteer service, and more -- all in one place. And much of this learning will not involve a course at all.
If MOOCs are to be truly disruptive, they must link to competencies, credentials, degrees and/or ultimately jobs. Using a course-by-course, credit hour-by-credit hour approach to do this will not dramatically change the way people earn degrees. And dramatic change that allows for individual demonstrations of competencies is the only way to provide the education quality and agility necessary to truly recognize learning derived from free resources on the web. By focusing on competencies, we can align and accept learning experiences from everywhere.
Pamela Tate is president/CEO of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning.
Historians of this period, possessing the clearsightedness that only time provides, will likely point to online learning as the disruptive technology platform that radically changed higher education, which had remained largely unchanged since the cathedral schools of medieval Europe -- football, beer pong and food courts notwithstanding.
Online learning is already well-understood, well-established and well-respected by those who genuinely know it. But what we now see in higher education is a new wave of innovation that uses online learning, or at least aspects of it, as a starting point. The meteoric growth of the for-profit sector, the emergence of MOOCs, new self-paced competency-based programs, adaptive learning environments, peer-to-peer learning platforms, third-party service providers, the end of geographic limitations on program delivery and more all spring from the maturation of online learning and the technology that supports it. Online learning has provided a platform for rethinking delivery models and much of accreditation is not designed to account for these new approaches.
Until now, regional accreditation has been based on a review of an integrated organization and its activities: the college or university. These were largely cohesive and relatively easy to understand organizational structures where almost everything was integrated to produce the learning experience and degree. Accreditation is now faced with assessing learning in an increasingly disaggregated world with organizations that are increasingly complex, or at least differently complex, including shifting roles, new stakeholders and participants, various contractual obligations and relationships, and new delivery models. There is likely to be increasing pressure for accreditation to move from looking only at the overall whole, the institution, to include smaller parts within the whole or alternatives to the whole: perhaps programs, providers and offerings other than degrees and maybe provided by entities other than traditional institutions. In other words, in an increasingly disaggregated world does accreditation need to become more disaggregated as well?
Take the emergence of competency-based education, which is more profound – if less discussed – than massive open online courses (MOOCs). Our own competency-based program, College for America (CfA), is the first of its kind to so wholly move from any anchoring to the three-credit hour Carnegie Unit that pervades higher education (shaping workload, units of learning, resource allocation, space utilization, salary structures, financial aid regulations, transfer policies, degree definitions and more). The irony of the three-credit hour is that it fixes time while it leaves variable the actual learning. In other words, we are really good at telling the world how long students have sat at their desks and we are really quite poor at saying how much they have learned or even what they learned. Competency-based education flips the relationship and says let time be variable, but make learning well-defined, fixed and non-negotiable.
In our CfA program, there are no courses. There are 120 competencies – “can do” statements, if you will – precisely defined by well-developed rubrics. Students demonstrate mastery of those competencies through completion of “tasks” that are then assessed by faculty reviewers using the rubrics. Students can’t “slide by” with a C or a B; they have either mastered the competencies or they are still working on them. When they are successful, the assessments are maintained in a web-based portfolio as evidence of learning. Students can begin with any competency at any level (there are three levels moving from smaller, simpler competencies to higher level, complicated competencies) and go as fast or as slow as they need to be successful. We offer the degree for $2,500 per year, so an associate degree for $5,000 if a student takes two years and for as little as $1,250 if they complete in just six months (an admittedly formidable task for most). CfA is the first program of its kind to be approved by a regional accreditor, NEASC in our case, and is the first to seek approval for Title IV funding through the “direct assessment of learning” provisions. At the time of this writing, CfA has successfully passed the first stage review by the Department of Education and is still moving through the approval process.
The radical possibility offered in the competency-based movement is that traditional higher education may lose its monopoly on delivery models. Accreditors have for some time put more emphasis on learning outcomes and assessment, but the competency-based education movement privileges them above all else. When we excel at both defining and assessing learning, we open up enormous possibilities for new delivery models, creativity and innovation. It’s not a notion that most incumbent providers welcome, but in terms of finding new answers to the cost, access, quality, productivity and relevance problems that are reaching crisis proportions in higher education, competency-based education may be the most dramatic development in higher education in hundreds of years. For example, the path to legitimacy for MOOCs probably lies in competency-based approaches, and while they can readily tackle the outcomes or competency side of the equation, they still face formidable challenges of reliable, trustworthy and rigorous assessment at scale (at least while trying to remain free). Well-developed competency-based approaches can also help undergird the badges movement, demanding that such efforts be transparent about the claims associated with a badge and the assessments used to validate learning or mastery.
Competency-based education may also provide accreditors with a framework for more fundamentally rethinking assessment. It would shift accreditation to looking much harder at learning outcomes and competencies, the claims an entity is making for the education it provides and for the mechanisms it uses for knowing and demonstrating that the learning has occurred. The good news here is that such a dual focus would free accreditors from so much attention on inputs, like organization, stakeholder roles and governance, and instead allow for the emergence of all sorts of new delivery models. The bad news is that we are still working on how to craft well designed learning outcomes and conduct effective assessment. It’s harder than many think. A greater focus on outcomes and assessment also begs other important questions for accreditors:
How will they rethink standards to account for far more complex and disaggregated business models which might have a mix of “suppliers,” some for-profit and some nonprofit, and which look very different from traditional institutions?
Will they only accredit institutions or does accreditation have to be disaggregated too? Might there by multiple forms of accreditation: for institutions, for programs, for courses, for MOOCs, for badges and so on? At what level of granularity?
CBE programs are coming. College for America is one example, but other institutions have announced efforts in this area. Major foundations are lining up behind the effort (most notably the Lumina and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations), and the Department of Education appears to be relying on accreditors to attest to the quality and rigor of those programs. While the Department of Education is moving cautiously on this question, accreditors might want to think through what a world untethered to the credit hour might look like. Might there be two paths to accreditation: the traditional “institutional path” and the “competency-based education path,” with the former looking largely unchanged and the latter using rigorous outcomes and assessment review to support more innovation than current standards now do? Innovation theory would predict that new innovative CBE accreditation pathway would come to improve the incumbent accreditation processes and standards.
This last point is important: accreditors need to think about their relationship to innovation. If the standards are largely built to assess incumbent models and enforced by incumbents, they must be by their very nature conservative and in service of the status quo. Yet the nation is in many ways frustrated with the status quo and unwilling to support it in the old ways. Frankly, they believe we are failing, and the ways they think we are failing depend on whom you ask. But never has the popular press (and thus the public and policy makers) been so consumed with the problems of traditional higher education and intrigued by the alternatives. In some ways, accreditors are being asked to shift or at least expand their role to accommodate these new models.
If regional accreditors are unable to rise to that challenge they might see new alternative accreditors emerge and be left tethered to incumbent models that are increasingly less relevant or central to how higher education takes place 10 years from now. There is time. As has been said, we frequently overestimate the amount of change in the next two years and the dramatically underestimate the amount of change in the next 10. The time is now for regional accreditors to re-engineer the paths to accreditation. In doing so they can not only be ready for that future, they can help usher it into reality.
Paul J. LeBlanc is president of Southern New Hampshire University. This essay is adapted from writing produced for the Western Association of Schools and Colleges as part of a convening to look at the future of accreditation. WASC has given permission for it to be shared more widely and without restriction.