Way too long a post – more of a paper.. but this connects so well with articles in today’s Chronicle titled Before you jump on the MOOC bandwagon and a report tweeted by SNHU President Paul LeBlanc; Cracking the Credit Hour by Amy Laitinen , that I wanted to get it out there
You’re doing MOOCs? – That’s OK then
The zenith of the recent University of Virginia power struggle was the culminating statement released July 17th with only the teeniest smidgeon of schadenfreude: “On Tuesday, Virginia is joining a group of 12 institutions that plan to open their courses to the world, free of charge, through an online platform created by the start-up company Coursera.”In one fell swoop, the suggestion that UVa or its president Theresa Sullivan was in any way off the pace, or not thinking strategically about disruptive change in education, was dismissed. The board members who ousted the president were left looking foolish while Sullivan and her allies were lauded as visionaries who had secretly been cultivating this master plan all along.The significance of MOOCs is both clear and compelling. Supported by influential academic institutions, hundreds of thousands of students signed up, providing data analytic opportunities that could shape future directions of online and traditional (face to face) instruction. Stanford president John Hennessey is quoted in the UK’s Guardian newspaper describing this movement as a “digital tsunami threatening to sweep away conventional university education.” However, it is important to note that Hennessey is talking more generally of the field of distance learning and Stanford’s next steps therein rather than just what is happening with MOOCs. While UVa’s president appears to have assuaged concerns about her incrementalism simply by dropping a four-letter acronym into the mix, many in higher education feel that jumping on the MOOC-wagon in and of itself does not necessarily constitute a Get Out Of Jail free pass. MOOC-involvement should not exempt institutions from genuine, mission-related, analyses of next level distance education, what it means specifically at their institution and the genuine possibilities for disruption in higher education.
What DO MOOCs provide?
1) The opportunity for serious data / learning analytics.
Back in the 1990s most online courses comprised of three simple elements: the readings, the discussion board and the paper. Many institutions, endorsed by enrollments from the undiscerning, did not and have not moved far beyond that. As technology started to live up to its promise, MIT launched what came to be known as their Open Course Ware (OCW) sub-brand with “hi-tech” talking head videos – a.k.a. hours at a time of someone talking over slides produced at great cost, to no great(er) pedagogic effect. As one commentator put it: “If you thought your economics lecturer was boring in person, try watching him or her on a 50 minute Internet video!”
More recently there has been a shift from the educational technology focus (the tools) to the work of Clark, Merrill and others who talk of the importance of Cognitive Task Analysis (CTA), cognitive overload, and Guided Experiential Learning (GEL) (the processes). The question remains – “What really works?” and the answer persists – “We don’t really know.”
The current oversight of online instruction centers on the analysis of student feedback and frequency of logins, but when people skim or where they access alternative (open) materials outside the institutional Learning Management System (LMS) we are hamstrung. With the best technology and platform that $30 million(MIT and Harvard’s combined contribution to this project) can buy, and huge participation numbers, we should at least be able to better see the patterns. Back end analysis is what this is all about. The “X’s” are providing insulation for their employees from day-to-day operational concerns and a focus on data that can’t help but be instructive.
2) Opening Education to the Masses (a.k.a. Democratizing Education)
Theoretically. Free Ivy education to those who are excluded from Harvard’s Old Yard, Stanford’s Main Quad or the Infinite Corridor at MIT. Give us your poor, your unwashed, your pedagogically deprived, we will include them. To my mind this is reminiscent of the early 2000’s “green washing”which suggested many corporations were aligning themselves with easy-to-implement “green” tenets without making any significant changes to business-as-usual profit-making goals. What we may have here is: “MOOC-washing” the principle by which institutions align themselves with MOOCs to proclaim, “look at us, we’re innovative, we’re onboard, we’re involved in the future of higher education and we’re opening up access to under-served communities who we will not otherwise admit.”
Statistics from early MOOCs indicate that this altruistic aspect is being overplayed. Early reports1 indicate that around 18% of participants are taking MOOCs with the hope of “getting a better job.” More than twice that proportion, 39%, are “just curious” while 31% are looking to sharpen skills for use in their current job. In other words, 70+% do not anticipate notably improving their lives career-wise by taking these courses. The largest defined group of participants, 41%, list themselves as “professionals in the software industry.” These people are practically insiders; either curious or looking to climb the ladders they are already halfway up. No poor, no under-served, no unwashed masses.
The whole thing feels faddish.
3) Extending the Brand
As the UVa case showed, in the current climate, being onboard with MOOCs is a publicity feeding frenzy only rivaled in academia by stories of over-privileged plagiarism or college football malfeasance. It has developed into shorthand for “progressive” and “innovative.” Many of the elements behind MOOCs are innovative; the format has helped to “unbundle” the faculty role to a further degree. Ownership of courses is institutionalized, or even shared across multiple institutions, materials development lies with skilled technologists and experts in online pedagogy, grading is done by technology while student advising is managed by staff rather than faculty. The usual concerns over quality, rigor and plagiarism are moot with MOOCs. No credits = no concrete criteria for completion, GPA or persistence. In the light of the recent Harvard cheating scandal it is clear that circumventing these issues does not solve them, but for now, cheating to get a badge or a line on your Link’d In profile seems somewhat less heinous than doing so to walk at graduation and frame a registrar-endorsed qualification. These projects at the moment are only really extending the brand for brands that are extremely strong already. The X project would simply subsume lesser institutions if it invited them to join at all. Berkley only got in to the EdX project by offering up platform support. UVa’s involvement in Coursera was mutually beneficial given the panacea and publicity needed by UVa and lapped up by the consortium. Smaller institutions that really need a viable solution for stability and growth are not going to be welcomed into these established consortia and are extremely unlikely to be able to gain momentum to rival them with a cool moniker of their own.
4) A revised lens on pedagogy. (Note the dearth of conversation on this factor)
It is interesting to note that while the “medallion” institutes jumping on board with MOOCs seem to tout the elements that are long shots at best, they typically fail to consider the one element that the originators of modern MOOCs – George Siemens and Stephen Downes – saw as their real potential. Going way back to the early work of pioneers such as Ivan Illich who back in 1971 described “decentralized learning webs” – and summarized thus: “A good educational system should have three purposes: it should provide all who want to learn with access to available resources at any time in their lives; empower all who want to share what they know to find those who want to learn it from them; and, furnish all who want to present an issue to the public with the opportunity to make their challenge known.”
The connectivist principles that underpin the MOOC (hidden) pedagogic model include:
i) Learning and knowledge rest in diversity of opinions.
ii) Learning is a process of connecting specialized nodes or information sources.
iii) Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning.
iv) The ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill.
v) Decision making is itself a learning process. Choosing what to learn and the meaning of incoming information is seen through the lens of a shifting reality.
What we may be seeing with MOOCs is a way to review new pedagogies and analyze the role of the expert, without directly threatening the traditional faculty role. It should be an interesting part of the discussion. It is not.
(It’s all about) Disrupting
In the mid-1970s it was suggested that having faculty play all of the traditional roles they tend to in an academic system; the “impartation of information, counseling, credentialing, coercion and club-membership” was actually in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act, Wang, (1981). This suggestion was extended to a proposal for “unbundling” the overall faculty role into at least three distinct functions: direct instruction, assessment of student learning, and academic advising. The recent work of Clayton Christensen has posited this “unbundling” as a central tenet for colleges serious about being on the leading edge of new formats for teaching and learning.
Given the questions that resonate around what MOOCs are actually positioned to achieve, the question is begged; are there (other) viable models that have more potential than MOOCs or might extend them to a place where they do become a viable model?
For sustainable disruption to occur the academic model needs to be:
- Self-paced with “all-you-can-eat” options. A set fee for sign up, move as quickly or as slowly as prior learning permits, with no fixed term dates (or spring breaks.)
- Competency-based – possibly to the extent that coursework is not organized in credit-sized chunks but solely around core competencies defined by both academia and employers.
- Certified with valuable credentials; either a new way of getting formal credits leading to a degree or alternative awards that replace formal degrees by virtue of employer acceptance.
- Open: courseware, platforms and materials– for scalability, affordability, and access.
- Supported by alternative learning communities – at least in part replacing high-touch faculty support with lower cost alternatives.
MOOCs arguably meet 2-3 of these criteria – some intentionally, some by happenstance. The gaps in other key areas – fixed terms, credentialing and viable support, mean they will not significantly disrupt in their current format. Given this “good try” assessment of MOOCs are there other models achieving more that should be examined?
What other models have disruptive potential?
1) The Open Education Resource University (OERu).
With no significant budget, OERu has developed a model where open materials are gathered, or “curated,” in a free, open access environment. The main differentiator from MOOCs is that students, if they want to go beyond study for its own sake, can click through to take formal assessments with any of the coalition members. All coalition members reciprocally accept these assessments and credits. The student graduates from his/her main credit-endorsing institution or from the one where (s)he takes her/his last course, with a degree recognized by all accredited members. This model arguably speaks to at least three, perhaps four of the elements listed as needed for true disruption to occur.
It has two elements that MOOCs do not. Their model incorporates student support via a support group of mentors; “Academic Volunteers International,” – a sustainable and scalable community ecosystem providing a pyramid of volunteer support. The OERu model also actually generates revenue. Their guideline for partners was to charge between 25 and 30% of their regular tuition to provide credit for success on course exams. The MOOC-buzz has relegated most other projects, OERu included, to the distant background.
2) Western Governors University (WGU)
- WGU has over 20,000 students (increasing at 30% a year).
- Their model is self-sustaining on tuition of $5,800 a year.
- Students pay for six months access to materials, they take as many credits as they can in that time (self-paced / all you can eat)
- Their average time to graduation (bachelors’ degree) is 30 months compared to a more typical 55 month standard.
- Their one-year retention is 75%
WGU have unbundled more than almost any other model. They assign a dedicated Faculty Mentor to each student. This “mentor” is a generalist who works with the student for the duration of the program. Faculty mentors spend approximately 30 hours a week interfacing with students. The mentor to student ratio is 80:1.
Content Mentors are assigned to work with students on particular courses. Each content mentor oversees 50 students; they make regular telephone check-ins. All mentors are assessed on their retention rates, graduation rates and through student satisfaction surveys. There are no mandated times, formats of interaction or frequencies of logins, etc. Tests and reviews that are not automatically graded are graded by Graders – independent of the mentors / faculty. WGU does not develop or teach its own courses. They find the best available courses from OCW (Open Course Ware) and other sources. Each student is given an Academic Action Plan (AAP) based on prior learning and the learning resources and assessments needed to supplement the skills the candidate has and those (s)he needs to develop. Technology (not faculty) delivers content. All content is modular; completing one module opens up access to the next module. They use simulations to develop students’ critical thinking. WGU is the most quoted competency-focused exemplar in the field. Their unbundling and all-you-can-eat format is actually their biggest differentiator.
3) The Entrepreneurs
One unintended consequence of the MOOC phenomenon could be the spin-off opportunities for entrepreneurial innovators. Lack of organized peer-to-peer support is an area being addressed by Open Study – an online learning community with over 100,000 members who gain badges and other rewards by answering student questions. Participants are encouraged to answer by explaining rationales rather than simply providing answers. Excelsior college is an accredited provider providing both challenge exams in under the UExcel banner and a portfolio review in which students document learning by writing about previous learning, providing work samples, or having a third party verify their knowledge.
The gaps in the MOOC package may provide opportunities for other innovators or collaborations providing further opportunities for students to operate their own, personalized “DIY University.” Collaborations among these entrepreneurs are actively working to close remaining gaps – the “Mechanical MOOC” announced August 2012, links Open Study with OpenCourseWare, CodeAcademy and Peer2Peer University and checks almost all the boxes. If they partnered directly with UExcel to confirm credits, they would have to be considered a seriously viable disruptor. As it stands, an A- if ever I saw one.
With the premise that simply aligning with MOOCs raises as many questions as it answers; what might constitute a strategy that, as a university leader, one could present to a roomful of faculty, trustees, alumni and assembled skeptics?
Being involved in the MOOC experiment is great. It could be an important part of a strategy with the understanding that it is a social and technical experiment that may lead to no firm solution. Most online schools that are moving innovatively have separated content development and Instructional Design (ID) from the faculty who teach the courses; MIT, World Campus (Penn State), Southern New Hampshire University, American Public University, and Excelsior to name but a few. Robert Mendenhall (President of WGU)’s recommendation for colleges who want to replicate the WGU model is to set up a “completely autonomous business unit.”Paul LeBlanc at Southern New Hampshire University in November 2011 established the Innovation Lab to, “put our own online program out of business.” The X’s immunity from accountability (and revenue) may yet be their most important feature.
Appropriate Haste ?
A college that is exploring the potential for unbundling the faculty role, one that is looking to utilize either open resources or ones that are already deployed through organizations like The Saylor foundation or the OERu. One that is looking seriously at differentiated revenue models and alternate support mechanisms for students could be one considered to be moving with “appropriate haste.”
MOOCs are a wonderful concept and they have brought tier one research institutes to the discussion by invoking the Google model of “innovate, grow quickly and worry about revenue later.” There is a chance that MOOCs may be the future, but they need to evolve and address many elements that they currently, conveniently, ignore. With MOOCs leaving many questions unanswered, colleges serious about successful entrepreneurial ventures should be asking themselves – What do we strategically want to achieve? How does this affect teaching and learning at this institution? How does this relate to our mission?
“We’re doing MOOCs,” should be a start, rather than an end to the conversation.