Academic administration

MOOCs are no panacea, but they can help improve learning (essay)

Back in 2012, massive open online courses entered public consciousness accompanied by grand promises of revolution. MOOC proponents, often backed by private venture capital, promised to make higher education more nimble and accessible than ever before. Three years in, at least, it hasn’t worked out that way. Our own assessment is that MOOC mania brought lots of hype, promising technology, some compelling if nascent science and broader recognition of a huge problem that no silver bullet can solve.

Our own university began encouraging new experiments with online learning in 2012. Two of us were at Stanford then, helping to produce massive open online courses based on recorded video lectures, multiple-choice questions and audience discussion, conveyed via the Internet to millions of people at no cost to them.

Faculty members responded enthusiastically. By 2013 a new campus operation was created to support online instruction. It helped our faculty produce 171 online offerings, including 51 free public MOOCs offered repeatedly, reaching nearly two million learners.

No doubt about it, we contributed to MOOC mania. Here’s what we learned.

First, MOOCs are not college courses. They are a new instructional genre -- somewhere between a digital textbook and a successful college course. Although they can provide much richer learning experiences than a printed book alone, current MOOCs pale in any comparison with face-to-face instruction by a thoughtfully invested human instructor.

No education policy that has current MOOCs replacing quality classroom instruction should be taken seriously. That said, most MOOCs provide free or low-cost learning opportunities, so it makes good sense to view them as positive enhancements to the overall education ecosystem. Letters of praise and thanks from thousands of grateful MOOC learners from all walks of life attest to the contributions of this new genre.

Second, MOOCs are no panacea for educational inequality. Ample research now makes clear that the preponderance of MOOC users worldwide are college-educated men in highly industrialized countries. MOOCs have not provided a remedy for deep-rooted disparities in access to knowledge. Recorded video instruction based on classes at highly selective colleges cannot easily serve broader audiences of less prepared learners.

Third, simply transferring lectures online will not provide effective learning on a massive scale. As anyone who has taken one can attest, MOOCs are not Socratic wonders. Most of them rely substantially on short lecture segments in a talking-head format, replicating online the stand-and-lecture pedagogies of conventional classrooms without scaling the discussion sections, office hours, late-night dorm-room study groups, drop-in tutoring, painstakingly graded homework and other components of a successful large college class.

Instructors often complain about the inability of current MOOC platforms to facilitate creative ways of interacting with learners, and they’re right. The learning process is much more complicated than merely sitting in front of a computer screen. Successful online resources have been developed and rigorously evaluated, but they require careful learning design and engineering to engage students in meaningful activity.

Fourth, on another positive note, MOOCs have raised awareness about how online learning technology might be used to support the science of learning. Every keystroke people make when they interact with an online instructional offering leaves a data trace that can be gleaned to support learning research. Research with MOOC data has enabled us to see where people get discouraged in difficult lessons and how they can be encouraged to persevere.

As educators design more complex online tasks that scaffold and reveal learners’ thought processes, and analyze the data generated by learner interactions, we will probably improve the effectiveness of online learning and advance science generally. Since ancient times teaching has been regarded as an art: subtle, complex and hard to specify. Computational descriptions of how people interact with learning material, teachers and one another make it possible to pair that art with new kinds of empirical knowledge.

What no technology can solve is a failing business model for U.S. higher education. Citizens benefit most from education early in their lives when they are least able to pay for it themselves. Yet students and their families are now being asked to pay ever-larger proportions of the cost of higher education as government support for college has increasingly taken the form of subsidized loans.

Sticker prices for tuition and fees at residential colleges have risen faster than the rate of inflation for decades, making what was once called a “traditional” college experience, complete with dorm rooms and verdant campuses and football teams, into a luxury service. Using present technology, effective online courses are more expensive to produce than in-person classes and we do not know how to scale them to massive audiences without corresponding costs.

At the same time college completion and ongoing professional development have become more essential for success in the labor market. Students, parents, entrepreneurs and politicians alike are eagerly seeking alternative forms of higher education, and for a brief moment back in 2012 many wanted to believe that the simple Internet technologies embodied in MOOCs would be the next big thing. It’s not that simple.

MOOCs have not fixed higher education, but they are poignant reminders of the urgent problems of college cost and access, potential forerunners of truly effective educational technology, and valuable tools for advancing the science of learning. That’s progress.

John Mitchell, Mitchell Stevens and Candace Thille are professors and co-directors of the Lytics Lab at Stanford University.

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Rhode Island College aims to improve retention with 'meta majors'

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Rhode Island College looks to "meta majors" to improve retention rates and push students to make up their minds about a course of study.

Non-tenure-track faculty members say they want more professional development, with compensation

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Non-tenure-track faculty members say they want more convenient, compensated professional development.

Education Uncubed

Date: 
Mon, 11/02/2015 to Wed, 11/04/2015

Location

125 W 18th St.
New York , New York 10011
United States

Why professors shouldn't view administrators with such disdain (essay)

When I moved into administration after being a professor, a colleague who had made the same move years before told me to brace for the loss of my faculty friends.

Impossible, I argued -- we attended regular Friday cocktail hours, had fought and won battles across campus, supported each other across the thorny paths leading to tenure and promotion. We’d been through it all, and those are precisely the kinds of experiences that make for lasting relationships.

I was wrong. My colleague was right.

About this time in my career, I began noticing for the first time the term “incivility” in higher ed news. Perhaps I noticed it because for the first time, it rang true. Where once I had been respected as a caring teacher and a hardworking colleague, I was now viewed with suspicion.

Now perceived as someone out for personal glory and set on bungling things for everyone else, I began finding it difficult to interact with my department (where I still taught one course a semester). After my move to the administration building, returning to my home department was like returning to the house of ex-in-laws after a bad divorce -- everyone froze, smiled stiffly and waited for me to leave. This office had been my home for over 15 years.

Inside Higher Ed recently reprinted a letter to the Financial Times advice column “Dear Lucy,” in which a disgruntled faculty member inquired, “Should I plot the downfall of our dean?” The offense that inspired this angry faculty member to ask the question was this: while traveling to Asia with a special delegation from his university’s business school, he had been forced to sit in coach. Directly in his line of sight was his dean, seated in the much more comfortable business class. For this, the dean must be destroyed.

While not all of us in the academy engage in this kind of career terrorism, we have all at least witnessed or been privy to such schemes and dark plots. I have myself experienced deep frustration as a faculty member, feeling underpaid, overworked and underappreciated. Certainly I would not have been pleased to be dragging an administrator along to a professional meeting, either. And I would have especially been dreading the stiff small talk at baggage claim, or the forced chat at the evening’s cocktail hour.

Also quite familiar was the willingness on the part of a faculty member to assign the worst motives to that seat placement and to wish on the dean the disaster of losing his job. The language “plot the downfall” contains a kind of professional violence too often at play in relationships between faculty and administrators. It’s an aspect of academic life of which we should not be proud.

Over lunch I once asked a professor friend whom I admired a great deal -- with impeccable scholarship, this superb teacher made one of the highest faculty salaries and enjoyed research release time and summers away -- if s/he really thought “all administrators were bad people.” The answer came back an unblinking, “Yes.”

I was an administrator at the time.

“Administrator” does not signify “human being” in scenarios like the one I just described. In such cases of deep suspicion administrators are assumed to be self-centered mismanagers or, worse, bloodless careerists. And certainly not committed to the institutions they serve. This is precisely the objectifying of others that we teach our students to recognize and reject. It is a powerful tool for excusing or justifying hostility toward an identity position. And it was certainly at play inside that airplane.

As an administrator I am precisely the same person I was when I was on the faculty. Same strengths, same weaknesses, same commitments to my family, identical professional goals. And to be fair, when I made the move to administration, I did not lose every friend, and my next administrative post included some very nice relationships with faculty colleagues.

But there is no question that once I became an administrator, simply by virtue of being an administrator, I fell under the suspicion of many. Was I seeking power? Would I continue to value teaching? Had I lost my mind? Was it mere greed driving my decision?

The truth is, on most campuses, there are not pots of money squirreled away under deans’ desks; we don’t enjoy giant travel budgets or outsize benefits packages. And we continue to possess whatever powers of ratiocination we enjoyed before.

What’s different: we carry responsibilities across a college or unit that force difficult decisions that are quite visible and affect many people, and that will often result in deep disappointments for some while satisfying (even rewarding) others. Many deans/provosts admit that these are jobs few would actually want if they knew beforehand what they were getting into, because it can be difficult to exist happily on a campus under a cloud of suspicion, making decisions that will destroy your credibility with one half of the campus one week and render you despised by the other half the next.

Yet I chose administration because of these difficulties; they suit me. I love higher education, am committed to student success, deeply respect faculty and research. Me? I’m a fine (not great) scholar and a respected teacher, but my heart is in the institutional project and has been for a long time.

And while I have endured much incivility in my new administrative life, it would not be fair to attribute the loss of true friendships to mere malice or professional pettiness. In truth, we tried to stay close at first, but whatever suspicions my faculty friends harbored about administration in general hung between us, squashing conversation.

Friday night debriefs over cocktails became impossible if I attended. There were things I couldn’t share, gossip I could no longer indulge in -- guessing other deans’ motives, parsing the language of the president’s latest missive. We have all known the fun of harmless gossip with colleagues; it’s part of being close friends at work. Sadly, the nature of academe itself, with its intractable tension between faculty and administration, had rendered me an outsider, and I could never go back.

Academe has become known for its internecine warring, as a place fraught and gossipy and deeply bifurcated. And often not a little ridiculous. Certainly the gentleman asking Lucy’s advice above works in a place like that.

If you are a career academic reading this, you recognize what I’m saying. You’ve been on one or both sides of this business. As an administrator who still believes in the higher education enterprise, I’d ask faculty to think next time the impulse to plot strikes, and to remember that many of us in administration are just as competent as we were as faculty, and no matter where we are seated on a plane, still as human.

After 15 years as a professor of English, Kellie Bean became an associate dean and then provost.

Assistant provost

Date Announced: 
Mon, 08/17/2015

Essay calls for a new approach to college textbooks

The Book Industry Study Group just reported that 52 percent of college students surveyed agreed that “I would rather pay $100 for a learning solution that improves my result by one letter grade and reduces my study time by 25 percent than $50 for my current textbook.” As a professor, I am troubled by declines in the effort many in my classes are willing to put into doing the reading I assign. But as an administrator, I also recognize students’ concerns with scoring high grades, juggling internships and part-time jobs, and minimizing expenses.

Multiple factors are at play here: grade inflation, social pressures, student debt, the iffy job market. Further relevant is the time students report studying each week (now an average of 15 hours, down from about 24 in the 1960s). Yet one of the major culprits is the price tag on textbooks and other course materials, estimated at around $1,200 a year -- assuming you buy them.

Faculty members and students alike are in a quandary over how to handle textbook costs, especially for those hefty tomes often used in introductory courses. Increasingly, students are opting not to purchase these books -- not even rent them. Digital formats (and rentals of any kind) tend to be less expensive than buying print, though frequently the decision is not to acquire the materials at all. The U.S. Public Interest Research Group reports that two-thirds of students have refrained from purchasing at least one assigned textbook because of price.

Recently, American University ran focus groups with our undergraduates, looking to get a sense of how they make textbook decisions. For courses in their major, they are willing to lay out more money than for general education classes, which they perceive (often wrongly) not to require much work anyway. Over all, the common sentiment is that spending more than about $50 for a book is excessive. And of course there are plenty of college textbooks with prices that exceed $50.

This message was reinforced by an anecdote shared with me by Michael Rosenwald, a reporter for The Washington Post. While interviewing American University students for a story on college reading and book-purchasing habits, Rosenwald asked, “Who buys course materials from the campus store these days?” Their answer: “Freshmen,” revealing that once students settle into campus life, they discover less expensive ways to get their books -- or devise strategies on how much reading they'll actually do.

For faculty members, the challenge is to find a workable balance between the amount of reading we would like those in our classes to complete and realistic expectations for student follow-through. While some full-length books may remain on our required list, their numbers have shrunk over time. These days, assignments that used to call for complete books are being slimmed down to single chapters or articles. Our aspirations for our students to encounter and absorb substantial amounts of written material increasingly rub up against their notions of how much is worth reading.

The numbers tell the tale. That same Book Industry Study Group report noted that between 2010 and 2013, the percentage of students indicating that classes they were taking required “no formal course materials” rose from 4 percent to 11 percent.

Student complaints are equally revealing. When Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone came out, I assigned the book to a group of honors undergraduates, eager for them to experience careful, hypothesis-driven, data-rich social science research. One member of the class balked. In fact, she publicly berated me, demanding to know why I hadn’t told the group about the “short version” of the book -- meaning an article Putnam has written years earlier, before his full study was completed. She went on to inform the class what she had learned from a teacher in high school: books aren’t worth reading, only articles. The rest of what’s in books is just padding.

The author and teacher in me cringed at how this young woman perceived the intellectual enterprise.

For students, besides the understandable limitations on time and finances, there is the question of value proposition. If the objective is learning that lasts, maybe buying the book (and reading it) is worth it. But if the goal is getting a better grade, maybe not. All too often today, it is the grade that triumphs.

One player that faculty members generally leave out of the equation is the publishing industry, including not just the companies whose names are on the spines but the people who print the books, supply the paper and ink, and operate the presses. Recently I spoke at the Book Manufacturers’ Institute Conference and was troubled by the disconnect I perceived between those who produce and distribute textbooks and those who consume them. As students buy fewer books, publishers do smaller print runs, resulting in higher prices, which in turn reinforces the spiral of lower sales.

A potential compensatory financial strategy for publishers is issuing revised editions, intended to render obsolete those already in circulation. In reality, students often take a pass on these new offerings, waiting until they appear on the used book market. Yes, sometimes there is fresh, timely material in the new versions, but how often do we really need to update textbooks on the structure of English grammar or the history of early America?

When speaking with participants in the book manufacturers’ conference, I became increasingly convinced that the current model of book creation, distribution and use is not sustainable. What to do?

There is a pressing need for meaningful collaboration between faculty members and the publishing industry to find ways of producing materials designed to foster learning that reaches beyond the test -- and that students can be reasonably expected to procure and use. I would like to hope that textbook publishers (who I know are financially suffering) are in conversation not just with authors seeking book contracts but with faculty members who can share their own assignment practices, along with personal experiences about how students are voting with their feet regarding purchasing and reading decisions.

To help foster such dialogue, here are some suggestions:

  • Gather data on shifts in the amount and nature of reading that faculty assign, say, over the past 10-20 years.
  • Reconsider publishing strategies regarding those handsome, expensive, color-picture-laden texts, whose purpose is apparently to entice students to read them. If students aren’t willing to shell out the money, the book likely isn’t being read. Focus instead on producing meaningful material written with clear, engaging prose.
  • Rethink when a new edition is really warranted and when not. In many instances, issuing a smaller update, to be used as a supplement to the existing text, is really all that’s needed. (Think of those encyclopedia annuals with which many of us are familiar.) Students -- and far more of them -- will be willing to pay $9.95 for an update to an older book than $109.95 for a new one. McDonald’s learned long ago that you can turn a handsome profit through high volume on low-cost items. The publishing industry needs to do the math.
  • Make faculty members aware of the realities of both textbook prices (some professors never look before placing book orders) and student reading patterns. I heartily recommend hanging out in the student union (or equivalent) and eavesdropping. You will be amazed at how cunning -- and how honest -- students are about their study practices.
  • Encourage professors to assign readings (especially ones students are asked to pay for) that maximize long-term educational value.
  • Educate students about the difference between gaming the assignment system (either for grades or cost savings) and learning.

The results can yield a win-win situation for both the publishing industry and higher education.

Naomi S. Baron is executive director of the Center for Teaching, Research, and Learning at American University and author of Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World.

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