Friday, March 7, 2014

The Diversity of MOOCs and the Dangers of Over-Generalization

A lot of academic criticism of MOOCs derives from the fear that small, private online courses (SPOCs) open only to fee paying students, but based on MOOCs offered by “superstar” online professors, will replace local faculty, especially in lower tier institutions. Low-paid contingent faculty and teaching assistants (or worse, software programs and auto-graders) will then handle the heuristic teaching and grading, leaving fee paying students without expert human guidance. This is the "MOOCs will Destroy Higher Education as we Know It" argument. 
If you carry the hierarchical, every-student-for-themselves assumptions inherent in an xMOOC into the future you will never escape the reasons why so many caring educators oppose MOOCs in the first place. . . The problem with MOOCs isn’t the name. It’s not even the components of the acronym. The problem with MOOCs is that they’re being designed to create low-quality, hierarchical courses that can be championed by unscrupulous administrators to fire caring professors and leave unsuspecting students to fend entirely for themselves.
 Rees appears to be arguing here against SPOCs, not MOOCs. But let’s take up that part of his argument directed nominally against MOOCs. Rees says:
Cosmetic changes will not solve (MOOC quality) problems. Only re-thinking the entire xMOOC experience from the ground up will have even the slightest chance of creating something worthwhile.
The initial bother here is Rees’s false choice between merely “cosmetic” changes vs. “rethinking MOOCs from the ground up”. Rees’s dualism neglects that middle ground of actual or potential positive developments within the existing x-MOOC framework. Rees would almost certainly know about these if he took a break from general critique to explore particular MOOCs.  I’ll turn to this task below.
We can dismiss Rees’ unsupported claim about what MOOC designers intend.  Have x-MOOCs been “designed to create low quality courses”. On the contrary, their designers seek to create high quality courses, as they understand them, with instruction better than they perceive to be today’s norm. Indeed Anant Agarwal has made it the highest priority of edX to use the huge data sets available in computerized courses with tens or hundreds of thousands of students to improve instruction and learning. MOOCs may nonetheless be low quality courses, of course, but that is another question and would have to be addressed on the basis of relevant criteria of value.   
Have MOOCs been “designed to suit the needs of unscrupulous administrators?”  This ids another unsupported claim. Agarwal, Koller, Ng and the other platform executive have had quite different aims – to scale up instruction and make quality higher education globally available. While this may also result in substitution of technology for labor in the university, it hardly follows that that was the intended result, and in any case is not a critique of MOOC instruction itself. It is no critique of a hammer that an imbecile can use it to bash in someone’s head. It might nonetheless be a very good hammer.
Evaluating Particular MOOCs
So let’s consider the tasks of instruction in actual MOOCs. 
Instruction in courses typically involves three inter-acting dimensions: didactic, discursive and heuristic. The didactic dimension conveys knowledge through lectures and textbook readings; the discursive facilitates understanding through discussion and critical feedback; the heuristic shapes skills through drill and practice.  
In a geometry unit, for example, the didactic component may present basic concepts such as line, plane, axiom or proof; the discursive component may provide opportunities for discussion of e.g., proof strategies; the heuristic component may provide multiple opportunities to e.g., determine the area or perimeter of figures, to invent proofs, or to construct bi-sections of line segments.  In a literature unit, the didactic may convey background knowledge on the author, genre or period, the discursive may provide opportunities for guided interpretive and critical discussions of a selected story, and the heuristic may provide opportunities to use strategies of analysis, e.g., to locate the protagonist, the central conflict, and the dénouement.  
Good instruction, whether in a classroom or a MOOC, provides for the development and integration of knowledge, understanding and skill. It aims to engage students into worthwhile activities and practices by melding “I know,” and “I understand,” with “I can do.” When we think in general terms about the evaluation of particular MOOCs, we want to ask how well these instructional dimensions can be handled through computer software. 
Rees and other academic critics have condemned MOOCs as in effect using the best of 21st century technology to deliver the worst of 19th century instruction. The lectures, they claim, consist of videotaped talking heads. The discussion boards are useless and riddled with spam and flame wars. The problem sets are repetitive, trivial, and exhausting. In short, MOOCs are poor tools for didactic, discursive, and heuristic dimensions of instruction.
But is this critique justified? I will consider each of the three dimensions of instruction, with specific examples from well-known MOOCs.
(1) Didactic Instruction. While MOOC critics may wish to portray live classroom instruction as akin to Mark Hopkins dialoguing with a few students on a log, the reality is generally quite different: faculty members serving up uninspiring lectures to halls full of disengaged students. If talking heads are the problem, academic critics are in no position to pin the blame on MOOCs.
MOOC presentations, however, are not in general talking heads. On the contrary, MOOC presentations are an entirely new form of pedagogical experience. The large data sets and the rich data trails of computerized instruction have enabled researchers to explore new questions, such as the optimum length for lecture segments, and the most effective way of articulating them with readings and problem sets. Research suggests that 6 minutes is optimal. MOOCs now typically break up brief lecture segments with problem sets and free-response questions. Lecture segments are supplemented with interviews, clips from panels at research conferences, interviews with other scholars, research presentations by graduate students, and on-site videos of knowledge use in ‘real-world’ settings. While a single instructor inevitably gives his course subject matters a personal twist, MOOCs offer unique opportunities for presenting multiple points of view.
JonathanHaber, who constructed a complete college education in the humanities– in asingle year - from MOOCs, and thus knows as much about actual MOOCs as any commentator, states:  
MOOCs are often criticized for just transferring a “sage on stage” pedagogy from the lectern to the computer screen, scaling up the worst aspects of oversized lecture classes. But as my year of MOOCs went on, I saw a new visual language developing, as single talking heads were supplemented (or replaced entirely) with conversations among colleagues (the visual style of one of my favorite courses: HarvardX’s   "The Ancient Greek Hero") interviews with experts, on-location shots, and even on-screen performances. Such creativity helped to make lectures one of the most engaging and, ironically, intimate components of massive online courses, while also raising the bar for all other forms of online learning (most of it far duller than your average MOOC).
At their best, MOOC presentations are as engaging as the best television news magazine programs. And this is not surprising, as the universities providing the best MOOCs are investing in cutting-edge production studios and hiring media professionals. The best MOOC presentations are more like segments of “60 minutes” than talking heads.  We may question whether producing “edutainment” of this sort is the best use of scarce institutional funds, but that is another question entirely, and one that completely undercuts the “talking head” line of attack.
(2) Discussion and Feedback. Let’s acknowledge that the MOOC discussion boards are far from adequate substitutes for live discussion.  Even some of the most supportive MOOC commentators have found them to have little value. The good news is that the discursive segments of many MOOCs have moved well beyond the discussion boards to live conversations in physical or virtual spaces.  
Coursera has sponsored “meet-ups” – where students in their MOOCs can get together for course discussion - in dozens of cities. Coursera has also teamed up with the U. S. State Department to run MOOC camps for college age students in many countries. The city of Boston has teamed up with edX to initiate Boston-x, a project providing Internet computers and meeting places for MOOC learners. Other cities have emulated Boston-x, dedicating space in libraries and other public buildings for MOOC study. These efforts parallel those of the Library 2.0 movement; librarians around the world are now re-thinking optimal uses for their brick and mortar building spaces in the age of web 2.0 technologies and digital books, and one answer is meeting spaces for online learners.  C-MOOCs, and now many x-MOOCs well, make extensive use of video-conferencing – e.g., via Skype - to connect group members. MOOCs offering nothing more than discussion boards are simply behind the MOOC curve.
(3) Heuristic Instruction. Academic critics claim that the “can do” element of MOOCs is restricted to monitoring auto-or- peer graded problem sets.
Many actual MOOCs, however, have moved way beyond such mechanized problem sets, making project-based authentic learning central to the MOOC experience. Here are two examples:
(1) At the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, Professor Michael Lenox has offered several iterations of his “Foundations of Business Strategy” MOOC on the Coursera platform. Lenox uses “Coursolve,” a crowdsourcing software program, to connect his course with partner organizations where students work to solve real-life challenges. He says:
 “Entrepreneurs don’t always have the resources to hire external support to address their needs, but we’ve seen firsthand that students are hungry for the chance to apply their knowledge to real-world problems,” Lenox says.  “By collaborating with organizations, students can strengthen their skills development while potentially providing businesses and nonprofits with valuable insights.”
                In the final course project, Lenox invited students to undertake complete a strategic analysis of one of the partner organizations. More than 400 students completed analyses in partnership with 100 different organizations, including established businesses, startups, resource-strapped nonprofits and social enterprises. 78% of those students ended up participating directly with senior managers in the strategic decision-making of their organizations. Reporting on the second iteration of the MOOC, Lenox added,Hundreds of in-person study groups formed in over 50 countries. Students included young entrepreneurs and mature small business owners; non-profit organizers; a study group of Mongolia students led by a Peace Corps volunteer; a group of  unemployed women in Ohio looking to improve their job prospects; a group of students ijn Bolivia led under a program from the U.S. State Department; and a group of Arab and Israeli students participating through the YaLa Young Leaders program building détente through education.”
(2) Cathy Davidson of Duke University is now offering a Coursera MOOC on 'thehistory and future of higher education'. Davidson has been a national leader in pushing the x-MOOC format in creative directions. Because her MOOC has many thousands of students, the student group can take on projects not possible within a classroom context. In one project, her students are collectively creating a rich, multi-media trans-national timeline of higher education since 1800. Each student is contributing reports on significant historical events in higher education in their geographic locations - countries, states, municipalities. The students are learning historical research methods and skills in reporting historical events. Many higher education institutions previously neglected by historians of education, including those long closed, are in this way being entered for the first time in an accessible historical record. The student group is now collaborating on editing and coordinating the information and producing the final online product. [5]
One does not need to love either of these particular skill development efforts to recognize that they go way beyond auto-graded problem sets.
6. Conclusion
My point in the above remarks has been to show that academic critics of MOOCs have relied on a stick-figure caricature. Real MOOCs, even x-MOOCs, are diverse, and many MOOC leaders have addressed the didactic, discursive and heuristic dimensions of instruction in creative ways. The best MOOCs replace the ‘sage on the stage’ stalking head with presentations employing a “new visual language” of instruction; they build in group experiences, whether physical or virtual, with opportunities for interpersonal student dialogue; they make project-based learning the centerpiece of the educational experience.
Of course, not all MOOCs do this. Some do, some don’t. And that is precisely the point I am making. If we want to assess the pedagogical value of MOOCs, we will have to turn our attention to particular courses to see how they handle instructional tasks. The most important dimensions of instruction, the didactic, discursive and heuristic, provide useful pegs upon which to hang such particular evaluative judgments.  

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

University Course Credits for MOOC Certificates: One Likely Pathway

How will MOOC-based learning aid learners in entering and performing in the workplace?

We may imagine MOOC-based learning to serve as a qualification in two ways: let's call them the (1) certificate, (2) credit routes.

On the first, MOOC aggregations of certificates themselves are offered as significant job qualifications on a par with, or as an accepted substitute for, college and university degrees. I discussed this option in my last post. On the second, the certificates will be accepted for college and university credit, and thus become (like conventional courses) components of degree pathways where degrees serve as qualifications.

Certificates as Qualifications

The first route  - the use of MOOC certificates as qualifications - has been explored with mixed results..

In December 2012 Coursera announced the opening of its Career Services program, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Participating firms, which have included Yahoo and Twitter, contract with the MOOC provider for an undisclosed fee to get data on students' performance on Coursera's MOOCs. Both students and Coursera's participating University partners can opt out of the program. Udacity had already announced a similar program.

In 2013 the MOOC provider edX experimented with its own job service, attempting to place its top MOOC students in jobs with similar companies - the leading high-tech firms. Of the more than 800 top performers that edX placed before these firms, only three received interviews and not a single one was offered a job. Following this failed experiment, edX withdrew from the career services arena.

As I recently argued in this blog, this step may have been premature and ill-founded:

The top-tier firms get thousands of applicants from the best university programs in computer science and information systems for every opening. Why would they be interested in experimenting with MOOC learners when they can take their pick of numerous Stanford, MIT and Purdue grads, who have shown the persistence to earn four year degrees, rubbed shoulders with top professors, and networked with other top students who will soon enter the workforce and connect up with hundreds of other hot prospects? 
Meanwhile,  new business start-ups in Silicon Valley, on Massachusetts Route 128, in New York's Silicon Alley and throughout the country hunger for talent. Most organizations will not be able to compete for the top grads of the top-tier university programs. Is it not possible that edX, which is hardly an expert in the employment agency business, simply directed their efforts at the wrong job market.
 New online job placement services appear - almost daily - to link individuals with skills and firms hungry for demonstrated capabilities. How effective MOOC certificates will prove to be as demonstrations of skill remains to be seen.

Certificates as Transfer Credits 

In this post I want to consider whether MOOC certificates are likely to enter into degree pathways - that is, whether colleges and universities are likely, anytime soon, to accept MOOC certificates as transferable credits in their degree pathways.

It will be remembered that by the end of 2012 the American Council on Education, the body responsible for determining the credit-worthiness of college courses, had, as noted in the Chronicle of Higher Education, begun to evaluate some MOOCs as credit-worthy. The Chronicle quite rightly proclaimed this as a major step - it signaled that colleges and universities failing to recognize MOOC-based learning could not base their rejection on grounds of academic quality.

But to date, few academic institutions have been willing to grant transfer credit for MOOC certificates. And it is not hard to see why! These organizations have become increasingly dependent on tuition dollars for their daily operations. They are naturally reluctant to accept MOOC-based credits into their degree pathways if in doing so they have to forego tuition revenues. If their degrees require, let us say, 120 credits,  at an average cost per credit of perhaps $700, plus fees, then transferring in a MOOC in lieu of a four-credit course would cost almost $3,000. Accepting up to four such transfer courses would cost up to $12,000 per student. If a significant fraction of their students were able to avoid these tuition costs, the organization would be financially strained if not bankrupted.

However, the combination of rising tuition and rising unemployment/underemployment for recent college grads, has radically decreased the private rate of return on the investment in college. The well-publicized trillion dollar student debt crisis has brought this economic fact to public awareness. Most families consider tuition costs as economic investments intended to increase future earnings. As the rate of return on this investment declines (or goes into minus territory) families are reconsidering the value of college education.

According to a Moody's Investment report on the credit-worthiness of colleges and universities released in November 2013, 40% faced stagnant or declining tuition revenues.

Anemic tuition revenue growth has spread to a larger share of the higher education industry, infecting public universities for the first time in decades. At this pace, tuition-dependent colleges and universities will be challenged to make necessary investments in personnel, programs, and facilities to remain competitive over the longer term," said Karen Kedem, a Moody's senior analyst and author of the report.
Moody's key findings include net tuition revenue declines at a projected 28% of public and 19% of private universities, with net tuition revenue growth below inflation projected for 44% of public and 42% of private universities and total enrollment declines at nearly half of public and private universities.
In addition, federal budget negotiations, the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, and performance-based funding may result in further stress on colleges if student aid and loan programs are curtailed to any degree, given that a rising share of students are dependent on these funding sources, says Moody's.     
While many colleges and universities will continue to demand that their matriculated students earn - and pay for - their credits internally, others will now be hungry for any and all tuition dollars they can get. Some, faced with declining enrollments, will welcome students offering MOOC certificates - like other life experiences - for credit. Others will see the transfer of MOOC credits, paradoxically, as a profit opportunity.

Consider the recent decision by Ashford University to accept MOOC certificates for credit!

Ashford University is a for-profit academic organization owned by Bridgepoint Education, with a campus in Clinton Iowa and a large and profitable on-line degree operation. The university recently agreed, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, to accept certain ACE approved MOOCs from Coursera and Udacity, for transfer credit.

Ashford University depends for its tuition revenues largely on students with federally guaranteed student loans.Relatively few of its students complete their degree programs. According to Wikipedia, "as for-profit colleges have come under increasing scrutiny, a U.S. Senate report in 2011 listed Ashford's parent company, Bridgepoint, as having one of the highest withdrawal rates of any publicly traded school in the industry." Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa has said of Ashford  "I think this is a scam, an absolute scam."   

Nonetheless, Ashford is on to something! According to its website, "The mission of Ashford University is to provide accessible, affordable, innovative, high-quality learning opportunities and degree programs." Let's first focus on "affordable". Ashford's website states prominently that students can transfer in up to 90 credits. That is a generous transfer policy. On the face of it, the policy implies that Ashford is willing to forego tuition revenues for these 90 credits. But consider that that leaves 30 or more credits in the degree pathway - credits for which Ashford can collect tuition revenues. That is very likely 30 credits worth of tuition that the university would not, without its generous transfer policy, otherwise hope to collect. 

Turning to "accessible," more than 95% of Ashford's students are enrolled in its anywhere/anytime on-line degree programs consisting of high margin, readily scalable on-line courses. Students will be paying tuition for courses  with low marginal costs per student. That generous transfer policy, with its embrace of MOOC certificates for credit, looks like a pretty good deal for the university. 

And it might also be an attractive deal for many students. Ashford is aggressively defending its policy of accepting ACE-approved MOOC certificates for credit as a boon to students, and its defense makes a lot of sense. "Requiring students to assume debt and repeat course content they have already mastered does not serve the individual student, the future employer, or the community," said Dr. Lori Williams, Ashford University provost. "Our job as an educational institution is to maximize learning and facilitate development for each student. In turn, students are more likely to complete their programs, have greater independence from debt, and ultimately get into the workforce more quickly."

Ashford and its students will hardly be the only ones to find this deal appealing. Remember those "total enrollment declines at nearly half of public and private universities." Why will those universities not follow in Ashford's footsteps and offer generous transfer policies, including transfer of MOOCs?

Monday, February 3, 2014

MOOC Majors: An Alternative Route to the Workforce

What is the MOOC Business Model?? That was one of the burning question about MOOCs in 2013. In 2014 we may learn that no one business model will prevail, but MOOC Platform firms will develop a number of promising and complementary revenue streams. 

MOOC Sequences and Specializations

One of these revenue streams will be the Sequence Certificate or MOOC-Mini-Major. Last year several MOOC platforms introduced course sequences. The most heralded is the Georgia Tech Udacity masters degree in Computer Science, sponsored by AT&T. 

But the MOOC firms also introduced several notable mini-courses-of-study that did not carry university credit or connect to a degree pathway. One notable example is the sequence of foundation MBA courses from University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, announced by Wharton and Coursera last September. These courses, like others from Coursera, were offered free of charge. In January 2014 Laurie Pickard, a master's degree graduate of my university, Temple, was featured in Fortune magazine for patching together an entire MBA-type program from such MOOCs. 

In January 2014 Coursera announced their Specializations Certificate Programs. These programs package a number of distinct MOOCs - from 3 to 9 - offered by the same institution, plus a final capstone project and exam. Students pay for each course in the sequence, complete the capstone project and exam, and earn a certificate not just for each course but for the entire sequence. The sequences are thus MOOC-based near equivalents of college majors, at least in the sense that the courses are designed by a single institution's faculty to fit together in a sequence and to generate capabilities currently demanded in the economy. 

Two good examples of the new Specializations programs are the four-course sequence in cybersecurity, a hot field with a bright future, offered by the University of Maryland with a certificate available to those who pass all four, complete a capstone project and pay $245 and the sequence of nine MOOCs in data science offered by Johns Hopkins, with certificates available to those who pass all nine, complete a capstone project and pay $490.  

MOOC Mini-Majors

It is not difficult to imagine students in the near future offering up two, three or four of these Specialization certificates in lieu of a university "major". But obstacles remain.

EdX recently experimented with matching more than 800 top-performing MOOC learners with top-tier technology companies. The results, as reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education, were not merely disappointing but disastrous. Despite the sponsorship of edX, only three received interviews, and not one was hired. Subsequently edX has withdrawn from the 'employment agency' business.

That step may have been premature. The top-tier firms get thousands of applicants from the best university programs in computer science and information systems for every opening. Why would they be interested in experimenting with MOOC learners when they can take their pick of numerous Stanford, MIT and Purdue grads, who have shown the persistence to earn four year degrees, rubbed shoulders with top professors, and networked with other top students who will soon enter the workforce and connect up with hundreds of other hot prospects?

Meanwhile,  new business start-ups in Silicon Valley, on Massachusetts Route 128, in New York's Silicon Alley and throughout the country hunger for talent. Most organizations will not be able to compete for the top grads of the top-tier university programs. Is it not possible that edX, which is hardly an expert in the employment agency business, simply directed their efforts at the wrong job market.

One is reminded of Prof. Michael Lenox's Coursera MOOC on Business Strategy offered in February and March 2013. Lenox, a Professor at University of Virginia's Darden School of Business, used crowdsourcing techniques to locate business firms and non-profit organizations willing to involve his MOOC students in their strategic planning. As Lenox said at the time:

"The concept can be applied in any number of domains, Imagine a course on graphic design where students prepare solutions for real nonprofits or a computer program course where students develop code for small startups with limited budgets. The potential is enormous."

As it turned out, the potential was enormous -  more than 100 small firms and non-profits participated in Lenox's MOOC, and close to 80% of the active student participants contributed to these organizations' strategic planning.

Now imagine a large scale effort by one of the big MOOC Platform firms to source similar organizations to provide short-term internships or apprenticeships for top performing MOOC students who have earned one or more Specialization Certificates?   My guess is that, unlike the failed edX effort with Google, Intuit, Yahoo, and other top tier firms, a crowdsourced effort to connect top MOOC learners and hungry organizations would place many learners with MOOC majors in the workforce.

* * *

In my next post I will consider the new promise of MOOCs in providing near equivalents of course credit that some universities, faced with declining enrollment and loss of tuition dollars, can accept as transfer credit to forge efficient and affordable 'mixed-mode' degree pathways. 

Friday, January 31, 2014

The Big 2014 MOOC Re-Boot

The big MOOCPlatforms are undergoing a large scale re-boot at the beginning of this new year. If 2012 was "the year of the MOOC" and 2013 the "Year of the Deflation of MOOC Hype," then 2014 may well be the "Year of MOOC's Second Chance." Here I focus on new efforts at Udacity and Coursera that are designed both to improve the learning experience and generate revenues.


Udacity, which performed its famous "pivot" in mid 2013, and labeled its first efforts a "a lousy product" turned to revenues from corporate training. Since that time, Sebastian Thrun has continued to offer Udacity MOOCs free to the general public, but has emphasized the need - and availability for a price - of auxiliary services including mentoring and tutoring. The new, re-booted Udacity website puts these coaching services front and center:

Learning is a collaborative process, and we're here to provide you with guidance every step of the way. We'll help you select the right class, navigate challenging content, and improve your projects and code.

Given the major emphasis on mentoring and tutoring in my account of online learning in Education 2.0, this is hardly a surprise. Most learners, at least those with little prior academic experience and success, and lacking well developed self-directed learning habits, are unable to get much value from MOOC-based learning unless aided by mentors and tutors.

The mentors help them focus down on why they are learning, and what they need to be learning to move forward with their lives and achieve their aims - and even how to formulate some basic life goals.

The tutors then help them focus down own on how to learn, on how to overcome misunderstandings, on how to motivate themselves to get through those course segments when the learning curve steepens - in addition to how to solve this or that problem or remember how to define this or that concept.

Both are necessary for most learners - not just those from disadvantaged communities. Kids who take to academic work and thrive without some of this hand holding are out-liers. It will be very interesting to see how the new MOOC on "Preparing for Uni" on the FutureLearn" platform will fare. Can we bootstrap MOOC-based Learning through MOOC-Based Learning? Or will we require some personal interventions with real humans?

A question for another post: Can MOOC platforms - or at least the non-profit ones - figure out a way of providing personal mentoring and coaching through some combination of crowd-sourcing and what Clay Shirky calls the Cognitive Surplus. If Yahoo Answers can elicit dozens of answers to each of thousands of questions daily, and Wikipedia can elicit encyclopedia articles, edits and additions on every conceivable topic, and open source enterprises can call out the collective talent of software engineers, then why can't either the MOOC Platforms or some auxiliary enterprise (like all those wonderful add-ons to Twitter) figure out how to source online (or even offline) mentoring and tutoring for MOOC learners?


Coursera's new front-line product is its Specializations Program. The Platform organizes course sequences which collectively build a skill with current workplace demand. The Specializations Page showcases ten of these programs. Coursera and edX - and other MOOC platforms, have already offered course sequences - most dramatically, entire foundation year MBA course sequences from top business schools like Wharton. What is new with the Specializations is (1) the specific skill- with-workplace-demand promise, and (2) the price tag per each course in the sequence. Specialization courses can still be taken for free, but only those enrolled in the signature verification tracks can complete the final projects and get the certificate for the Specialization.

So for now, Coursera, like Udacity, continues to offer its MOOCs in a cost-free version, but pins its hopes for revenue generation on add-ons.

Like all disruptive technologies, MOOCs start with one set of core images and expectations forged by founders, and gravitate to other images and expectations in the inevitable back and forth of 'social construction'. It took the telephone a few decades to become what we have long since been familiar with. Some of the early adopters thought it would be a device for listening to classical music! The MOOCs will settle in, and as always, public uses and private ventures and their revenue streams will be the key determinate of what they ultimately become for us.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Can MOOCs Reduce the Cost of College?

Professor Keith Devlin has recently argued on his MOOCtalk blog that MOOCs will not stem the rising costs of college education. MOOCs are proving useful for continuing education, but they simply cannot replace the experiences packaged into a first class college education, and we will need such high powered college education to prepare those who will fuel economic growth. Thus we have to be prepared to bear rising costs for college, as we previously had to bear the costs of gasoline, hiways, and insurance to live in auto-industrial society.

Devlin's basic idea, that the cost of a college education will continue to rise, is unsupported, and his analogy with the auto-industrial era leaves much to be desired. Much about the cost of college will depend on how we redesign our educational provisions - including how MOOCs enter into the equation - and what will count as a "college education" or even a "first class college education".

That said, the rising cost of this "first class college education" raises questions that Keith does not address here. The first is, how will "society" pay for the rising cost of college, when the current cost is already ringing alarm bells? The second is, how many people will have access to college on Devlin's assumptions?

One current problem is the eradication of many previously "college level" jobs by outsourcing and technology. Fewer jobs + rising cost will both contribute to a declining rate of return on private investment on a college education.

Tuition dollars, however, now fund an increasing share of college education. The declining rate of private return implies that fewer people (at least those with an iota of economic rationality) will make the investment, driving down the flow of tuition dollars. Without these, how will colleges get funded?

So this leaves the question: what fragment of the young adult population should go to college?

With the declining private economic benefit, we have to ask about the public benefit of a college educated population. If there is a social benefit in an educated population beyond the economic growth provided by an educated workforce, then this cost should be borne by public investment, not private tuition fees. I don't see anyone arguing for a free or highly subsidized higher education anymore, because the emerging workforce no longer needs many of what came to be regarded as "college level" skills. The social benefit that most college professors assure us of appears invisible to policy makers and the masses of tax-conscious citizens.

If our economic policy and occupational arrangements emerge in such a way as to richly reward that declining number of people possessing college-level skills the economy really needs, then those few who attain those skill levels will be paid back with interest for their investment in education, and should pay the requisite private tuitions. But then what happens to those who will be excluded on that basis?

The most obvious answer is that we should (1) imagine new educational provisions for those priced out of college and unable to gain from college level skills in the emerging economy; and (2) ask those who eventually share directly in the wealth created by economic growth to contribute, through higher taxes, for expanded social insurance - and perhaps a social minimum of support - for those facing the risks of work in the contingent labor force: low wages, lack of job security and benefits and possible lifelong unemployment. .

Tuesday, January 7, 2014


Over at the New Republic, Nora Caplan-Bricker reviews the progress of the Black Mountain Self-Organized learning Environment (SOLE), which has set out to use MOOCs in place of live instruction. 


Oddly, the SOLE (for self-organized learning environment) is housed at buildings formerly serving the famous Black Mountain College. (Martin Duberman has written a revealing history of the College: Black Mountain An Exploration in Community. 

But the similarities end there. Black Mountain was organized by some of the most important artists and poets and thinkers of its time. This reincarnation of Black Mountain is the day dream of two ill-prepared dreamers. Black Mountain attracted the most creative intellectual and artistic leaders in the country and abroad - this non-college has so far attracted a motley crew of drifters. Most important, despite the idea of the MOOC background, it appears that nobody actually takes MOOCs - they are too demanding. Instead, navel gazing appears to be the main pre-occupation of most students in the arts and humanities, while the more entrepreneurial students spend all day working on their start ups. 

As Caplan-Bricker sums up the fuzzy logic of the organization, 

Black Mountain attracts a hodgepodge of Merrell-wearing commune veterans and aspiring Silicon Valley transplants. The language of the Blueprints borrowed from both: a trip to the bathroom was a “bio break,” but “to execute on” was a ubiquitous compound verb. The classroom walls were lined with scribbled brainstorming webs and statements of purpose on easel sheets. “THE FOUR PRINCIPLES,” said one, in blue and green marker. “Whoever comes are the right people. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have. Whenever it starts is the right time. When it’s over, it’s over.” 
At the bottom, it proclaimed “THE ONE LAW,” which is “The Law of Two Feet”: The school’s “SOLEmates”—its term for students—can attend what they choose and leave when they please.
Anyone reading this failed experiment as a test case for MOOCs hasn't paid the first scrap of attention to it.

Sunday, January 5, 2014


Today I want to shift my attention from MOOCs to another promising form of online education, virtual schools. I have some personal experience with these, as my son is a graduate of one - PA Cyber in Pennsylvania. 

Houston C. Tucker, over at E-learning Industry, proposes three ways to improve virtual schools: treat the students as honored guests, stay flexible, and train your virtual teachers to deliver every instructional message with as much love and care as they can muster. These ideas are sound, and I wanted to think about them in relation to the virtual school I knew at first hand.

So let me say up front I am a big supporter of virtual schools. They fit the special needs of come young people and their families. As a pluralist, I oppose all one-size-fits-all policies. (Of course this does not mean I support just any virtual schools - only the good ones).

Some may counter idea by saying that that young people are NOT guests in school but instead are there - by force if necessary - to be subjected to some important lessons - whether algebra or democratic values or whatever.

There is no credible evidence that high school students cannot learn algebra on line as well as in a conventional classroom. Further, no one can learn democratic values in a compulsory, prison-like institution. The whole institutional message is passivity, docility, obedience. One reason I like virtual schools is because in the home environment parents can zero out a lot of those messages.

My son Sjoma attended PA Cyber. It did a great job on #1 - it treated its students with great respect, providing lots of course choices and formal academic mentoring. But is t also was demanding. When he fell behind his mentor called him - and then us - and demanded that Sjoma show up at the learning center for faced-to-face academic counseling. Between his mentor and his counselor he got back on track. 

It also had an excellent college-study program - students could begin to take in-person or online college courses as soon as they were ready. So it got an A+ on flexibility -- until the commonwealth of PA came in and dictated that virtual schools, unlike their conventional counterparts - could not offer college study programs. So in this case PA got a flat F. 

Unlike many virtual schools, PA Cyber offered no courses of their own - all were outsourced to educational provider firms. Some teachers were better than others, but I doubt that all content messages were delivered with maximum love. On the other hand, none of the teachers was cruel or incompetent - market logic pretty much took care of that - for better or worse - by provider firms hiring their teachers on a contingent basis and eliminating those low on the star system.

And of course there are many problems about that, but so far as i could tell they did not include low quality teaching or teachers not well-adjusted to the online context.

The obvious question is whether the states could provide virtual colleges - let's say PA-Cyber College in Pennsylvania - for free or at a very low cost, using MOOCs as the backbone?  This would be one concrete step to ending the student debt problem.