Tuesday, December 3, 2013

"MOOC+": An ideal plan for MOOCville

After almost a year of reading about MOOCs I am starting to formulate an idea of how MOOCs should develop and become entrenched as institutions in society. I am calling my plan MOOC+. 

Some of the problems that need to be addressed: 

(1) Preparation. 'average' students do not have the best academic orientations or tradeskills to adjust well to online learning. I have been discussing this problem with Laura Joplin (who happens to be Janis's sister) - she has been working on a fix that involves a F2F intervention of perhaps a semester in length. Call this what you want;, "An Introduction to Academic Life, " or Practical Epistemology," or "Academic Tradeskill 101," the idea is to assist learners to figure out what they want out of further education, what they can expect from it, and how it all works.

(2) Cost. Tuitions have risen exponentially and students are paying for all of the wet dreams of administrators and donors for more, and more expensive, facilities, and thus taking on crippling debt. Meanwhile the ACE is certifying the academic quality of many MOOCs. This process needs to be accelerated. We need to identify a core of about 500 free courses or more that can pass muster as free academic course equivalents. 

(3) Accreditation. No mainstream university will offer all MOOC undergrad degrees along with their traditional programs, as this would introduce channel conflict (the cheaper channel will cut into the revenues from the more expensive one). But states, or consortia of states, will no doubt go this route, and seek (and obtain) alternative certifications, just as have University of Phoenix, Western Governors University, and others. 

(4) Mentoring and Tutoring. Students will need personalized assistance with learning, and with forging life plans and adjusting their educational programs to their occupational aims. They will also need personalized tutoring in completing MOOCs, as most MOOCs seem to have units or specific learning points along the way where the learning curve steepens and leaves many behind. The MOOC+ model will charge a small fee (perhaps $200 per course, paid by the learner or through a state subsidy) to cover the administrative and personnel costs associated with mentoring, tutoring, and associated book-keeping. 

(5) Facilities. Boston has partnered with edX to build out 'BostonX' - an institution to support MOOC learning. The city will provide some physical infrastructure - places to use computers, get help, meet and discuss with other MOOC learners. This is like an extension of the contemporary library, with its computers, reference materials, research librarians and meeting rooms. 

(6) Qualifications. Coursera is already operating an employment agency linking MOOC completers to work opportunities. Firms pay Coursera for access to the successful MOOC students. An association of firms in Silicon Valley is already working out arrangements to accept aggregations of MOOCs in lieu of diplomas in hiring and promotion. These efforts need to be somewhat more institutionalized, so that each firm doesn't have to reinvent the wheel. I would like to see the idea of diploma equivalence worked into state law, along with mandates preventing firms from discriminating against MOOC equivalency 'diplomas'. If states build out MOOC+ agencies, they can also facilitate the school to work transitions of MOOC 'graduates' through such legal and institutional means.  

Such programs would not offer everything a college education offers, but would be very affordable, and more than competitive in forging links to workplaces- which is what most students and families want. And with the rapid pace of MOOC innovation, compared to the snail's pace of university innovation, MOOC+ programs could be far more flexible and adaptive than traditional colleges and universities in adjusting learning opportunities to workplace needs. 

So in brief, MOOC+ =  An in-person preparatory program + ACE approved MOOCs + Mentoring and Tutoring + Credit for MOOCs + CityX dedicated meeting and studying spaces + MOOC to Work programs + Recognition of MOOC-based diploma equivalency. 

Friday, November 29, 2013


At NeoAcademic, Professor Richard Landers  complains that MOOCs exploit students by using them to generate data (something that is standard in 'real courses' but also regulated by informed consent).

I find the word "exploit" in this context offensive. Suppose the MOOC leaders say upfront: "We will be asking you some questions and hope to use the data in our research studying XYZ. We hope you will also learn from these exercises. Mooc participants will also collaborate on creating an online archive of games." And then ask you to check a box before participating in the MOOC. I think this is sufficient informed consent.

The providers are offering something and I see no reason why they can't ask for something. No one (at least for now) has to take any MOOC. The university also offers something, and asks anywhere from $500 to $2500 per CREDIT. Most employers now mandate possession of a college degree even for jobs that do not require the capabilities acquired through college (and which can be gained in other ways). And in the U.S. the total student college debt exceeds $1 TRILLION. If we are looking around for something exploitive, why not start with university education.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

MOOCs and the Manufactured Crisis of Higher Education

Over at Slate, authors Christian and Calvin Exoo argue that MOOCs represent the entry of large, dominant corporations into the Education space. They paint Coursera, edX and Udacity as emerging giants - controlling education as Big Pharma and Big Oil now dominate their industries. 

The big MOOC firms claim to be responding to the problem of restricted access to higher education. But, the authors claim, the U.S. has no such problem - the MOOC firms are 'manufacturing' the problem through their press releases to blind us from reality. A huge percentage of kids, the authors counter, gain access to some form of higher education. The real problem, the authors state, lies in retention: kids drop out because they are unprepared for college and can't afford tuition. The solution they propose is adding lots of remedial services and extra financial aid around the margins for disadvantaged kids. These two steps could get a huge percentage through college. MOOCs provide neither financial aid or remediation, and hence offer nothing for the "real" crisis. 

Leaving beside edX's non-profit status and its decisive move to open source, and Udacity's apparent exit from the education market to concentrate on corporate training - which leaves only Coursera still standing as a large corporate entity in the MOOC education space, this analysis still seems wrong-headed.  

My response is that it is the authors, and not the MOOC firms, who are manufacturing a crisis.

The real crisis is not that too many kids fail to complete college - but rather that too many kids get forced into college because no other pathways to dignified work exist in our society. If we didn't make college a more or less compulsory job qualification - even for jobs that make no use of college related knowledge or skills - we wouldn't need to push these kids through college in the first place. Then they would not need all of these extra-ordinary measures to graduate.

Suppose we do get these kids through college. They will still be facing both a poor and contracting job market - especially for that fragment that needed even more remedial services and extra tuition help. And those kids would also still be burdened with huge debts, which will cripple them financially for life. These are the real crises, and the authors' solutions completely ignore them.

The real challenge is to envision and implement alternative pathways to the workplace. The promise of MOOCs lies in their providing one element in the educational mix aligned with these new pathways. The authors propose to push these kids through a college education. But the kids and their families only seek college education because it has been made into a compulsory qualification. The kids and their families, however, are being sold a bill of goods. There will be no college-level jobs waiting at the end of the compulsory college education. And the kids will end up deep in debt.

The alternative I envision gets these young people more rapidly into workplaces - as apprentices, interns, or small entrepreneurs - and provides the educational backup they need to progress in their work paths without taking on debt. In such arrangements, MOOCs will find one of their most important educational roles

Sunday, November 17, 2013


Peter Sloep says "No". I find his argument unconvincing. 

Sloep argues that third world higher education will shift from their own native universities to MOOC Learning Centers conveying contents from the West, shaped by corporate, rather than individual or public, interests.

There are two problems with his argument. 

First, there is no evidence provided that universities in developing countries are closing down - the key to Sloep's argument. Instead, many international students are supplementing their native educations with MOOCs, while many others are using them for continuing professional education - and some without access to existing agencies of higher education are using them to educate themselves. So the leading premise of Sloep's case seems false.

Second, Sloep ignores the corporate capture of conventional institutions of higher education. There is a huge literature on the topic Sheila Slaughter introduced a couple of decades ago under the rubric "Academic Capitalism". The idea that universities, even state operated universities, are run in the interests of their individual students, the public interest or the interests of the liberal state, has been entirely debunked with data across many countries. Slaughter and her co-workers have shown that on many dimensions of education, and across all classes of participants in universities, corporate interests now dominate and universities as organizations are mimicking corporate behaviors. The Idea that MOOCs represent a shift from the professional and scholar- run agencies to those of corporations serving their own narrow interests is as a result a non-starter.

Besides, new MOOC platforms such as MOOC.org provide all individuals and groups with the technical means to mount any courses they wish. Aggregation sites like open culture  are making MOOCs on all platforms readily accessible globally. No one platform - indeed, no one MOOC format - will dominate.

MOOCs as an institutional innovation are in the earliest stages of their development, and no one can predict how they will play out - there are simply too many causal forces at work. The democratising force of MOOCs is yet unknown. 

But one possibility is the exact reverse of what Sloep predicts - groups of scholars joining to provide a 'counter-education' to the one shaped in corporate interests - that is, an education shaped by communities of scholars and not by universities operating in the academic capitalist mode. The costs of entry will be low, and certifying agencies like ACE will lose all credibility if they discriminate against these MOOCs in favor of the corporate-dominated ones.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Student Recruitment as MOOC Business Model

The University of London has recently declared its MOOC business model a success. Is it really?

The University has offered 4 MOOCs to an unlimited number of students, and attracted 210,000 people from 160 countries. 

Barney Grainger, acadaemic project manager for University of London International Programmes, says: ". . .  we have received, at this point, 45 expressions of interest in our degree courses from students who have taken one of our MOOCs."

He adds: "The fact that there is a conversion from MOOC learning to seeking full degrees would indicate that our outlay on these MOOCs has, in fact, been justified. Our learning journey has commenced, and the MOOC business model can work," Grainger says.

 Let's see: 45 out of 210,000 = .000214, or 2.1 per 10,000. And we are only talking about leads, not conversions. No magazine subscription or mail order catalog campaign would call that rate of response a success.

But what is a success in MOOCville?

Let's first consider the Georgia Tech model, where the all MOOC masters degree program in computer science costs $7,000. 45 actual students (not 'requests for information) would generate $315,000 in revenues. Not much, but the marginal cost of the next student = $0. So much depends on scale-up.

Suppose instead these prospective students enroll in costly F2F on-campus programs with fixed costs already sunk, thus adding little marginal cost per student. According to one source, the average cost of a masters degree ranges from $28K to $38K. Taking the mean, those 45 students would now generate almost $1.5M.

What about the costs?

The cost of funding a dedicated University MOOC production studio has run upwards of $1M. And schools are now hiring MOOC production managers. The new one at Boston University, Romy Ruukel, came direct from edX after a decade at Harvard's Project Zero, so she didn't come cheap.

But some schools have made do with their own personnel and available production equipment valued at less than $2,500.

And then, there are the dedicated course production costs to consider. Talking head MOOCs aren't going to generate many requests for information about degree opportunities. Production values will have to be high - and that is costly.

Whatever the costs, once invested by an institution its MOOC production can be scaled up. A studio and production team that produces 4 MOOCs could produce 40. Universities carefully selecting their 'flagship' programs and adding a lot of sizzle could improve the rate of response. (A successful consulting practice could be built on the mail-order marketing model to assist universities in managing their MOOC-based marketing campaigns).

We will need a lot more information on rates of response and conversions, and total revenue from conversions, before we can assess student recruitment as a MOOC business model. But as the MOOC space expands and competition heats up, such information will probably be very closely held.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Opposition and Social Structure in Moocville

Over at Playable, DSKMAG comments on the oppositions constituting the social structure in MOOCville. Here is the account, lightly paraphrased.  

In the first generation of ed tech, people were represented but could not participate. The structure was built on polar oppositions - expert/audience, teacher/student, etc. But the new media world of web 2.0 challenges these oppositions. All of us can represent ourselves and participate in our own self-representations. We are no longer mere consumers of meanings but also their producers.

We can compare two emerging Internet structures. One is the structure of web celebrities and their audiences, the other is the structure of roughly equal distributed knowers and meaning producers. 

Sir Ken Robinson is a paradigm of the first. He is a media star, and his TED talk is a paradigm of the kind of media object which the rest of us can stand back and marvel at. We participate in his celebrity by absorbing and 'getting' his insights. Compare this with William Shatner or Kurt Sutter who engage with us one-to-one on Twitter. They understand the new power of media, while Robinson understands merely how to use media to grab power for himself. 

By emerging from the crowd, the Robinson types lose contact with web users and fail to pick up on the new cutting edge ideas constantly emerging out there. They come to believe too much in their own social authority, and over-rate their correctness. To put this another way, they come to think that knowledge resides in them, not in the network.

I am reminded here of a wonderful line from Picasso. In his famous interview with Christian Zervos, Picasso said "I never buy a picture from myself". He meant that he wasn't all that impressed with himself and his past processes or objects - rather he was tuned in to the world and the art world, and always moving on to the next thing.

The Ken Robinson's by contrast are perpetually buying pictures from themselves. 

xMOOCs, the article contends, constitute the entire human population as 'audiences' - as 'students' being served up "habituated content" by venture capitalists, Scientists, elite universities, and intellectuals. The students, once habituated to the new commodified knowledge forms, are then to be converted into potential paying customers of the next levels of 'education,' as e.g. students in Georgia Tech's Masters degree program, or the business schools of Temple or the University of Cincinnati. And the students are expected to be grateful - they are getting a 'second chance' - or a 'world class elite university course' as a philanthropic gift

xMOOCs, in short, perpetuate the cultural control of experts - those whose status is most threatened by the open access, distributed knowledge potential of web 2.0 and what I call 'education 2.0.' They convey the message that a 'real educational experience' - even for those liberating themselves from the hegemonic structures of schooling - is one provided by an institution - and ultimately at significant cost to the 'student'. In this model learners and knowers remain 'students' who control neither the processes or outcomes of their own learning. xMOOCs thus reproduce the structure of oppositions - expert/ novice and teacher/student and celebrity/audience - in the Internet culture which might undermine them. 

This is certainly a very probing analysis. I see McLuhan and Ivan Illich hovering in the background here. The xMOOC medium is the message.  And the message is that opportunities for learning are scarce. 

I would wish to soften this analysis somewhat. While we can all agree with Stephen Downes that knowledge is distributed and that networks - not their nodes - are the real sites of learning, and then accept that 'experts' and 'celebrities' cut themselves off from the flow of information and cutting edge insights, knowledge is nonetheless never distributed equally. There are people who have spent years on various topics and who are more discerning than most. While like Sutter or Shatner they can engage one-on-one with some of the ‘low rank’ people they cannot be expected to engage with very many of them, simply because of the limits that come with any form of celebrity (where celebrity by definition means having more people being attentive to you than you can attend to) – even the relative celebrity of the leaders and major participants in the Twitterverse and cMOOCs. 

So there is an overdrawn  ‘opposition’ in this account of oppositions in the MOOC space, the untenable opposition between spaces with oppositions and spaces without them. And far from necessarily re-imposing  the polar oppositions of the past, xMOOCs can be valuable tools for self-directed learning and not merely re-habituation into institutionalized, hierarchical forms of 'education.  

Monday, October 28, 2013

Free University Credits Given Away in MOOCville

Well, hello there. Good to see you again!

I've been away from MOOCville for a month, and you all know the old saying, "When the CAT is away the MOOCs will play." (Not sure what CAT stands for - maybe 'cagey ancient teacher' or 'covert anti-technocrat'??') So let's catch up. Today I'll focus on MOOCs for Credit.

More colleges are offering actual bankable credits for MOOCs.  The Baltimore Sun reports that the University of Maryland's University College will accept some MOOCs for college credit. This move is part of a broader study, funded by the Gates Foundation, to discover how students using MOOCs instead of conventional courses will do in further education.The courses will include those already approved by the American Council on Education (ACE) as equivalent to college courses. The students will earn their credits in two ways: (i) by earning verified certificates by taking proctored exams (trhe Coursera Signature Level concept), or (ii) by undergoing 'rigorous prior learning assessment' - essentially testing out - at the UMUC campus.  ACE is, not surprisingly, a partner in the study. UMUC has been offering college credits for life experience for forty years and this is a very natural - one might say inevitable - extension of that effort.

UMUC has been a leader in offering programs for adult and 'non-traditional students. If they can offer credit for diverse work experiences of undocumented relevance for academic growth, why not for actual courses certified by the appropriate body as equivalent to college courses. And if UMUC makes this move, what is to stop other colleges and universities from following? In fact, the acceptance of MOOCs for credit is certain to become a marketing move that other providers will find it difficult to resist. Students will demand to know why schools they are considering refuse to accept these courses, and instead force them to pay ever-increasing tuition fees for the same courses. And they won't belly up if they find good alternatives.

The take-away: the "MOOCs for Credit" trend is unstoppable.

MOOC-based credits as a marketing ploy. The University of Cincinnati has announced that it is offering 2 free credits for students participating in its MOOC, "Innovation and Design Thinking," - for students who gain the certificate of learning and then apply and are admitted to the University's Lindner College of Business. This goes one step further than a development announced by Temple University in Philadelphia (truth in advertising - Temple is my home base) last month to permit students taking its introductory level business MOOCs to test out of the parallel courses and qualify for more advanced standing. In the Temple move, the students do not save anything on their tuition payments but get to graduate with more advanced level courses for the same price. On the Cincinnati gambit the students instead get bankable credits and can thus graduate earlier and at less cost. It will be interesting to see which of these models (or both, or neither) catches on.

Takeaway: Universities will continue to invent and experiment with various alternatives in using MOOCs to make their programs appealing to cost-conscious students.   

Friday, September 20, 2013

EdX and the Convergence of MOOC Learning Management Systems (LMS).

The past week has witnessed an important development in the convergence of open course management systems for MOOCs. 

In September 2012 Stanford released Course2GO - built on top of Stanford Courseware  - as open source software.  

Jane Manning, Class2Go product manager, explained that the idea started with a six-member team in Stanford’s computer-science department. The team built Class2Go using code from Stanford’s Courseware course-hosting platform, a similar platform from the nonprofit Khan Academy, and software for integrated online classroom forums hosted by Piazza

At the same time, Google released its open source CourseBuilder systemGoogle explained that 
Course Builder open source project is an experimental early step for us in the world of online education. It is a snapshot of an approach we found useful and an indication of our future direction. . . . edX shares in the open source vision for online learning platforms, and Google and the edX team are in discussions about open standards and technology sharing for course platforms. 

In June 2013 edX released its own open source MOOC management system.  

At about the same time, Stanford announced that it would be closing Course2GO and partnering with edX for further development of open source MOOC management tools. 

According to Stanford's announcement, open source online learning platforms such as edX will allow universities to develop their own delivery methods, partner with other universities and institutions as they choose, collect data and control branding of their educational material.
While Stanford and its professors will continue to use several providers of online courses, including Coursera and Venture Lab, the university will stop developing its own platform, Class2Go. Instead, aspects of Class2Go will be incorporated into the program developed at edX, a nonprofit launched by Harvard and MIT last year. The resulting software code will become available, or open source, on June 1.
In Stanford's news release, edX president Anant Agarwal predicted that the edX platform will now become the "Linux of learning."  
Now edX has partnered with Google to form MOOC.org, a platform to enable all schools, organizations or individuals to author and manage their own MOOCs. 

As Steve Kolowich reports in the Chronicle
The new site, MOOC.org, will provide tools and a platform that “will allow any academic institution, business, and individual to create and host online courses,” says a blog post by Dan Clancy, a research director at Google. In an interview, Anant Agarwal, president of edX, referred to the site as a “YouTube for courses.” 
The resulting open source system will by 2014 enable anyone, anywhere, to develop MOOCs free from dependence upon commercial learning management systems like Blackboard.   

EdX won't be all things for all people, but it promises to be both the Linux and the YouTube for massive online courses.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Foundation Course Sequences - a new paradigm for MOOCville?

In my last post I noted that the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton school is offering its first year courses, bundled into a package, on the Coursera platform.  This significant event suggests a new development in the MOOC space.

Phil Hill over at e-Literate notes today that MIT has joined Wharton in offering not just individual courses, but organized sequences of foundation courses in the MOOC format. 

The upshot is that learners can now gain access to organized courses of study, with certificates of completion, for free. Keep an eye on this development!   

MIT will offer the first of seven courses in its Foundations of Computer Science XSeries this fall on the edX platform.. Then one or more additional courses will be offered each semester. The entire sequence will be available by fall 2015. The three course sequence in Supply Chain Management will begin in the fall of 2014. 

For those concerned about security, MIT plans to implement an identity verification process starting in Spring 2014 that will prompt students to present government-issued identification before standing for exams.  

The concern with security - especially for course sequences - suggests that MOOC leaders anticipate the use of MOOC certificates in consequential decisions such as those by colleges accepting MOOCs for advanced standing, grad school admission committees, and employers.  

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

MOOC Certificates and Diploma Programs

The University of Pennsylvania's Wharton College of Business has just announced that they will put their entire first year course program on line for free, on the Coursera MOOC platform.

This is another breakthrough in MOOCville; for the first time a university is bundling all of the courses in an entire year of its diploma program in MOOCs. Students from all over the world can now take the entire first year Wharton MBA program, from the same professors delivering the courses on campus, for free. And those completing the courses will earn certificates of learning.

This in one more step in the process whereby MOOC certificates will eventually be aggregated, by universities or third party aggregators, and recognized as diploma equivalents.

Let us consider this case: a recent graduate of a major engineering college - say Stanford, Purdue or Georgia Tech - applies for an entry level management job at a high-tech firm. An individual MOOC certificate may not help very much, but a bundled set of Wharton MBA MOOCs tells quite a different story - that this graduate has the background knowledge, motivation and self-management skills to acquire the MBA knowledge base on his (or her) own.

The college or grad school diploma has been used as a job filter because it lowers transaction costs for employers. But as more and more people pass through the filter, the filter has become inefficient - it lets in too many people without strong capabilities. The diploma doesn't sufficiently differentiate its holders from others. And especially now that product cycles are rapid and skills erode quickly, employers are inevitably more interested in specific capabilities than the general knowledge represented by diplomas.

A single MOOC might not be useful as a job filter - after all, what, exactly, does it represent? But a bundled package of certificates from a leading university, representing a full complement of cutting edge knowledge and skill, would be a more efficient filter than a mere diploma.

In my view this progression from individual MOOCs to packages of certificates accepted as diploma equivalents in the hiring process is inevitable. It is a win-win-lose proposition. The firms will win, the students will win - only the Higher Ed sector currently monopolizing job access will lose.

We will not have to wait very long for this process to come to completion: leading high tech firms have recently formed an alliance to explore weighting packages of MOOC certificates as diploma equivalents in their hiring practices.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

MOOCs and the Two Cultures of Educational Reform

Stanley Fish writes in the New York Times of the "Two Cultures of Educational Reform." Citing Derek Bok,
former Harvard president, Fish identifies these as follows: 
The first “is an evidence-based approach to education … rooted in the belief that one can best advance teaching and learning by measuring student progress and testing experimental efforts to increase it.” The second “rests on a conviction that effective teaching is an art which one can improve over time through personal experience and intuition without any need for data-driven reforms imposed from above.”
Fish correctly notes that in the current conversation about educational reform the quantitative side of this debate is winning. And he associates the emergence of MOOCs with this trend. Certainly the pronouncements of edX's Agarwal and Udacity's Thrun support this association - they claim - with unmeasured arrogance - to be searching for - and even finding - the "magic formula" for education. Fish replies that no one really knows how to measure the educational values inherent in higher education - and thus that the quantitative side of this divide rests for now entirely on empty promises.

Fish closes with this meditation:
Daphne Koller, a co-founder of Coursera, argues . . . that with the help of the digital media, “we can release ourselves from the shackles that we have gotten used to in the context of in-class teaching.” This turns out to mean that we can be released from the distracting bother of interacting with actual people. 
What does all of this have to do with MOOCs?

Not very much. The allure of MOOCs does not derive from their demonstrably superior pedagogies - and their problems don't stem from their demonstrable pedagogical limits. Thus all of the discussion of what is gained and lost by learning from MOOCs as opposed to live teachers in largely irrelevant.

The problem that has brought MOOCs to the forefront is two-fold: (1) the use of the college degree as a job filter regardless of the actual knowledge and skill requirements of the job, and (2) college tuition outstripping middle class ability to pay.

The ultimate promise of MOOCs is a free equivalent to a college diploma. This will not require high quality education. And significantly, it will not even require credits and degrees for MOOCs. It requires no more than employers accepting aggregations of MOOC certificates - among other achievements -  in lieu of the diploma. 

The reason the diploma has been used as a filter is that it is a very cheap way for employers to reduce their transaction costs (search and assessment) in hiring. As we move in the direction of universal higher education the diploma is failing as a filter. As a simple matter of logic, as more students graduate from college the diploma becomes less differentiating. Employers will need new, more discriminating filters.

This brings us to the current situation. The new global network occupational system is gravitating from full time jobs with benefits to contingent work for even professional knowledge workers. These "free lance nation" types can get in there, do the job efficiently, and leave - without encumbering employers with benefit packages. Thus employers are more focused on finding specific capabilities than the general levels of knowledge associated with diplomas.

And with new search capabilities, they can find what they are looking for. Meanwhile, job candidates can develop searchable digital portfolios, demonstrate their capabilities, and be found through online search. MOOC certificates will fine tune their educational credentials for employers, and thus reduce employer transaction costs more than diplomas.

These are the emerging dynamics of the market for post-secondary education. The other strands in the MOOC conversation, about "poetry," "teaching as an art," "magic formulas," "measurable learning objectives" and Daphne Koller's Brave New World, are side shows.  

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Feminist Anti-MOOC - Something New in MOOCville?

Scott Jaschik in Inside Education, in "A Feminist Anti-MOOC," reports on a new MOOC-like course, Feminism and Technology, developed by a consortium of professors at 17 colleges and co-led by Anne Balsamo, dean of the School of Media Studies at the New School.

Unlike the now-standard x-MOOC, the course will feature a distributed model based on 'feminist pedagogical principles.' It will be labeled a DOCC - a distributed open collaborative course. The DOCC will be available for credit at each of the 17 schools and  anyone with Internet access can watch the videos and access the materials. 

The DOCC explicitly challenges the top-down, hierarchical, patriarchal model of xMOOCs. Facilitators assume that every participant brings expertise and unique capabilities, which can then be used collaboratively to study the place of women in technology - no more sage on the (virtual) stage.
The backbone of the course will consist of a series of videos - lectures and interviews created by participating faculty. But faculty in each college will build their own courses, and set their own grading standards, in accord with their own institutional expectations. Each of the 17 sites will involve between 15-30 for-credit students. Thus the total number of full participants will be limited to around 500 - the course is explicitly non-massive.  

Collaboration will be key to course learning - students will exchange their ideas and expertise and collaborate on the course project, 'Storming Wikipedia,' in which all students will research women in technology and then create or edit wikipedia articles on these women. The end result will thus be a rich, easily accessible information resource on the course topic.

This looks to be an attractive template for collaborative teaching and learning using the Internet. Especially interesting is use of what amounts to an 'invisible college' in the field of technology studies as a collaborative teaching faculty. Here are a few comments and questions for further discussion:

1. Full participation will require enrollment in the for-credit DOCC. The facilitators claim to be challenging the role of money in the development of the highly publicised MOOCs like Coursera, but this DOCC, like typical college courses, shifts the expenses primarily to tuition paying students. thus it doesn't address the pressing money challenge in the MOOC space - how to make quality higher education accessible for those now priced out. How can DOCCs help address this problem? 

2. The leaders of this DOCC claim that the distributive model differentiates it from xMOOCs. It doesn't. Cathy Davidson of Duke, as I noted in a MOOCville post a few weeks back, uses distributive learning principles in her Coursera course - her use of her massive learner base to create a highly-detailed database for the history of higher education throughout the world is very similar to the 'Storming Wikipedia' project. A course from the Darden Business school at Virginia that I described recently also uses connectivist principles within the xMOOC framework. 

As Stephen Downes noted in a comment to the IHE article, 'DOCC'  is just another term for cMOOC - the original MOOC framework that he and others developed in Canada some years ago:

 " This is a cMOOC. This is exactly what Siemens and I built, and have written about for years." 

So while this course is a welcome development, it is really not much of an innovation; its just another variant of a familiar MOOC design. One question is whether smaller, more circumscribed DOCC participant groups can add something special to online distributive learning? 

3. The distributive learning model, while quite central to feminist pedagogy, pre-dates it by many decades. It lies at the heart of John Dewey's Democracy and Education, where the interactions of individuals from distinct ethnic and religious communities in dealing with selected common subject materials ARE the curriculum. So a question is whether laying claim to distributive learning as a 'feminist' alternative to patriarchy advances either the understanding or uptake of distributive pedagogical principles?. 

4.  What lessons can we learn from this DOCC? 

A faculty of explicitly feminist teachers, engaging feminist students in a course on feminism, is likely to generate sustained conversation and collaboration, because the free-wheeling exploration will be bounded by shared understandings and constraints. 

But many students in mass online higher education do not engage in course discussions or chat at all; discussion boards frequently degenerate into bitching sessions and flame wars. Creating such a communicative environment in more typical college environments may prove difficult, without shared learning aims or pedagogical principles. Do the DOCC leaders plan to extend this experiment beyond their own favorable settings?    

Thursday, August 22, 2013

A Serpentine Procession in MOOCville?

David Riesman, in Constraint and Variety in Higher Education (1956), once described the development of American Higher Education as a "serpentine procession" with Harvard at the head and all other colleges crawling behind Harvard's lead. 

So it goes with MOOCs. The Harvard MIT EdX partnership - along with Coursera, out of Stanford and partnered with Princeton and other elite universities - created the first wave of excitement. Now a host of other MOOC platforms are following in the procession - and a multitude of colleges at all levels are crawling into MOOCville.  

The newcomers will not be able to compete on reputation. And given that MOOCs are free and open, no one will be able to compete on price. As a result, the newcomers will have to find specific niches to gain attention.  

Here is a useful example. The Eco-Tech Institute of Aurora Colorado brands itself as the first and only college in the country entirely devoted to preparing graduates for careers in renewable energy and energy efficiency. The institute offers associates degrees in  such fields as solar technology, wind technology, green facilities management, and business administration/sustainability. 

This two-year school has just completed its first MOOC- on Sustainability - offered on Instructure's Canvas Network platform.   The course aims to develop critical thinking about environmental sustainability at all levels from the corporate and governmental to the personal. 

From an article in The Ground Report:

"Students came from “all walks of life and from around the globe,” according to Kyle Crider, Ecotech Institute’s Program Chair and Manager of Environmental Operations, who led the course. There was a diverse mix of men and women in the class, ranging in educational background from high school to Ph.D., about half of whom had never taken an online course before. Many participants were so engaged that they actually requested that the class continue beyond the ten weeks.”  

This is a good example of a niche school using a MOOC as a tool to spread awareness and brand itself as niche leader. The well-publicized MOOC is an attempt to capture the attention of Ph.D. scientists, industry leaders, and concerned publics. It will be interesting to see whether this marketing through MOOCs increases Eco-Tech's global recognition, student enrollment, and its own institutional sustainability.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Can it Be Real -- A Free All-MOOC University Offering Credits and Degrees?

The New Indian Express reports on World Education University (WEU) a non-profit that opened earlier this year and promises to offer free MOOC-based degree programs in many fields. The university was incorporated in March 2012 and according to Curtis Pickering, the founder and CEO of WEU, students will be able to  enroll for both for-credit and non-credit courses, undergraduate and graduate degrees and certificate programs. Schools will include Colleges of Arts and Humanities, Business, Education, Engineering and Computer Sciences, Health Sciences, Hospitality, Tourism and Retail Management, Legal Studies and Psychology.

One unique feature of WEU, Pickering states, will be a social justice theme running across all courses and degree programs. Pickering added that "WEU will revolutionize education by changing the financial structure of the industry. Free education will be made available to anyone, at any time, and any place." 

The non-profit firm seeks to raise revenue through ads, and by selling student information to its sponsors. It plans to lease courses from an accredited university, but so far has not released any further information about either its courses or the university behind them. 

Steve Kolowich, reporting in Inside Higher Education, notes that WEU has alarmed both high-tech and traditional educators. Ellen Wagner of  the Cooperative for Educational Technologies - a non-profit that  promotes the effective use of technology in education, says 
“I don't know that I would call it ‘snake oil’ exactly, but it is certainly na├»ve . . . And opportunistic.”

Meanwhile, WEU will have to jump the accreditation hurdle or it's courses and degrees won't be recognized in the current system.  O
nly when accredited can they call themselves a "university," according to Alan Contreras, a former watchdog for Oregon’s Office of Degree Authorization. Until then, says Contreras, WEU is merely the sum of its marketing rhetoric. “If they are not issuing degrees or academic credits, they are not a degree mill.” At the same time, “they are not a university, either . . . They are a sack of vapor until they get authorized,” Contreras stated in an email to Kolowich. 

Meanwhile, WEU continues to 'enroll' students - 50,000 have signed on so far - and gather their data, presumably for re-sale. 

There are two questions that must be considered in evaluating WEU's chances for success.
The first is whether they can get accredited? 

Skeptics may declare that WEU is a fraud that will disappear without a trace. I am not so sure. John Sperling faced both skepticism and endless setbacks in his effort to get his degree programs for working professionals established at traditional universities - because the accrediting agencies threatened to withdraw accreditation - and then at the University of Phoenix. But eventually The University of Phoenix gained accreditation and for-profit convenience universities immediately had a profound effect - for better or worse - on higher education. For now I share the skeptics uneasiness, but i wouldn't be too quick to count Pickering out of the accreditation process even before he gets started. 

The deeper question is whether Contreras is correct to think that the current accreditation system is the only game in town.  I think not. With firms seeking highly specific capabilities to meet well-defined short term needs, and able to locate these through online search at low cost, the university degree no longer has a monopoly as job filter. Learners can build digital portfolio resumes, complete with MOOC certificates and videos demonstrating capabilities, and compete against those able to demonstrate only a standard, general level of knowledge through a diploma. Meanwhile, those learners uneasy about the lack of a university degree on their resumes, may be enabled to fill in that 'line' with a 'degree' from an unaccredited university and pass through the personnel department's filter.  

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Cathy Davidson of Duke on Opportunities for Creative and Collaborative research within the xMOOC context

Cathy Davidson from Duke notes in this podcast interview from degree of freedom that teaching and learning in the xMOOC space have so far been governed by hierarchy - famous professors from elite universities handing down culture to the great unwashed masses. This has been a deplorable backwards step. She adds that the one great allure of lectures by great thinkers is being in a room with a lot of people who are simultaneously being inspired. xMOOCs don't even have that.

But she contends that even the xMOOC medium can be used in creative and collaborative ways. In early 2014 she will be teaching a MOOC on the Coursera platform 'the history and future of higher education'. Because she will have many thousands of students signed up, the group will be able to create a rich, multi-media timeline of higher education since 1800. Each student will contribute notes on several significant higher education events at their specific locations - countries, states, municipalities - and the group will collaborate on editing and coordinating the information and producing the final online

These are among the many insights in this useful podcast interview.

Friday, August 9, 2013

If MOOCs Are (or Are Not) the Solution, What Is The Problem?

Steve Kolowich writes in yesterday's Chronicle of Higher Education that MOOCs may not be the disruptive technology they are being hyped to be. He notes that many recent attempts to translate MOOC certificates into college credits have crashed.

California bill SB 520, introduced in May, which would have required public universities in the state to grant credits for designated MOOCs, was first de-fanged - a successful amendment restored to the universities to power to accept or reject the MOOC certificates as they chose - and then withdrawn. Its sponsor, state senate leader Darrell Steinberg, gave in when the universities agreed to expand their on-line offerings.

Kolowich offers several similar examples, and concludes that political, regulatory, administrative and faculty barriers to credit for MOOCs have proven to be quite high. Nonetheless, Russell Poulin of The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education Cooperation in Educational Technology states that "Credits are the coin of the academic realm, and if that's where the coins are, these companies (the MOOC platforms) are going to drive there." Kolowich concludes that "given the institutional monopoly on credit granting privileges" MOOCs will be "catering to colleges rather than attempting to undermine them."

Sebastian Thrun of Udacity seems to agree with this assessment. He has actively been forging partnerships with universities to generate credits for Udacity's MOOCs, saying that a learning medium where only web-savvy, highly motivated people sign up and only 10% succeed "doesn't strike me quite yet a solution to the problems of higher education."

This raises an interesting question: If MOOCs are (or are not) the solution, just what IS the problem?

We might define the problem in terms of the need for affordable yet effective universal higher education. If that is the problem, the recent crash of the San Jose State University use of MOOCs to teach remedial math could be seen as a serious setback. (For those not familiar with this episode, SJSU partnered with Udacity, with Gates Foundation funding, to pilot a MOOC for developmental courses. In a follow up study it was revealed that 74% of the students in the face to face group passed, compared to only 51% in the MOOC. In the aftermath, SJSU put its MOOC efforts on hold.) Of course, it might also be argued that the results from this pilot effort cannot be generalized. The LA Times editorialized that the project was "practically a model of how to do online education badly . . .rushed into existence and sloppily overseen". But let us grant that if we are trying to educate the least prepared college students well at low cost, MOOCs are not the solution.  

But maybe that's not the real problem. Think of it this way. When only 20% of American 18 year olds possessed a high school diploma, the diploma meant something. It differentiated its holders from 80% of the population, and could be used as a job filter to reduce transaction (search and selection) costs for firms with jobs to offer. Today 77% of the age cohort receives a diploma. At that rate, the diploma can hardly serve as a proxy for high levels of knowledge or skill - even the GED is more demanding. And more to the point, it doesn't differentiate diploma holders from anyone who would compete for a job. As the rate of graduation increased, the socio-economic advantages of the high school diploma decreased. Today a person with high school but no further education is little better off than the high school drop out, and the differential continues to shrink every year.

 As a result of the high school diploma's failure as a filter, employers turned to the college diploma as a job filter. But as more and more people gain college diplomas, they too differentiate less and less. As a result the college diploma also becomes less and less valuable as a job filter - it no longer can be used to decrease transaction costs. Adding to the proportion of diploma holders by providing access to the least prepared students will only make the problem worse - like the high school diploma, the college diploma will lose all differentiating value. Employers are already in need of new, more effective filters than college diplomas.

And this is where MOOC certificates enter the picture. In the age of the Internet, individuals can make themselves visible on line through websites and blogs and videos and comprehensive digital portfolios, and employers can use search capabilities to locate them. And in today's rapidly changing economy, employers are more interested in specific and demonstrable capabilities than markers of a standardized level of knowledge such as college degrees.

So maybe Thrun is simply wrong. Maybe a  learning medium where only web-savvy, highly motivated people sign up and only 10% succeed is the precise solution to the problem of higher education. It provides the next job filter for the highly competitive global economy, an economy no longer capable of providing jobs for all college grads that seek them.

This transition from diploma-based to capabilities-based filters will take some time. But MOOC certificates, as elements of digital portfolios, will play an important role in the process - connecting those with highly specific knowledge and skill demonstrated through certificates to employers with matching needs. To track this transition, keep your eye on Coursera's expansion into the employment agency business.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Combining x-MOOCs and Connectivism

Over at the Harvard Business Review's blog network, a recent article "A New Use for MOOCs - Real World Problem Solving"  by Zafrin Nurmohamed, Nabeel Gillani, and Michael Lenox describes the course Foundations of Business Strategy offered on the Coursera platform from the Darden Biz School at the University of Virginia. The course combines lessons in business strategy with real-world problem solving. 

Using an application called Coursolve, the professors connected course students with small and large business organizations. The final project required students to work with their business partners to solve real world problems. 72 % of the businesses involved students in their currently most pressing and challenging problems.

The take-away from this example is that x-MOOCs, frequently critiqued for relying exclusively on the outdated broadcast model of instruction, can selectively use at least some elements of connectivist learning. The connections are not merely one-to-one connections between students and their business organizations. The MOOC itself, through Coursolve, locates business partners through something like a crowdsourcing app. Meanwhile, in their final reports the students will inevitably make use not merely of course materials but the universe of knowledge and expertise on the web.

One concern with this arrangement is that the businesses are making free use of student labor. However, unlike the predatory internships that have recently been uncovered, the project work in this course is a genuine learning experience in a quasi-academic setting.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

MOOC Mania

William Hammond at Public Service Europe offers some reflections on MOOCs that are worth pondering. Here are his main points (in italics) followed by my comments:

1. MOOC platforms have now grown sufficiently in size and influence to have caught the attention of policy makers. 

This trend indicates that we may start to see some regulation or standardization of the use of MOOC certificates. Policy makers and administrative leaders hate uncertainty. They already feel the need to end MOOC mania. We may already be seeing the beginning of the end of wild experimentation and wild speculation about the place of MOOCs in the higher education landscape.

2. MOOCS are regressing to older and arguably outmoded structural designs. The first MOOCs were guided by connectivist and constructivist principles; experienced scholars provided overall structures but much of the course content was then generated by the learners themselves, using sophisticated digital tools and web 2.0 software applications. These so-called "c-MOOCs" were organized learning communities. But the new MOOCs that have gained so much attention have reverted to the broadcast model using materials - lectures, videos, texts - from existing courses to achieve pre-determined learning goals.

Despite the presumed values and habits and networking capabilities of the so-called net generation, these new so-called "x-MOOCs" still look like "real" courses from "real" colleges. The take-away is that the big MOOC platforms like edX and Coursera, despite their professed interest in improving educational methods, may actually be setting back the shift to an open connectivist and constructivist teaching-learning paradigm.

3. Many participants in large platform MOOCs are highly educated people including those possessing advanced degrees. The popularity of MOOCs may reflect the growing demand for low-cost/no-cost cutting edge learning in today's knowledge economies. 

This demographic fact may reflect an important shift from front-loaded higher education for standard professional 'qualification'  to on-going or life-long education for ever-shifting narrowly defined occupational niche identities.

4. Employers may now be starting to pay attention to MOOCs as qualifications. 

Employers may now find that a package of MOOCs in cutting edge areas of knowledge and skill tells them more about whether a job applicant can perform a narrowly defined work task than a diploma.  Diplomas represent a standard level of general professional knowledge but say nothing about specific cutting edge capabilities.

5. Prospects for the long term impact of MOOCs depend on whether universities will accept MOOC certificates for credit and thus reduce the overall cost of earning a degree. 

Here I must respectfully disagree. Regardless of how universities adjust, it is inevitable that organizations will emerge to aggregate MOOCs into packages that can stand as diploma equivalents or have some comparable meaning to employers. ACE, an organization that certifies courses as credit-worthy, has already certified several MOOCs as worthy of college credit, so the main problem will not be MOOC quality. MOOCs will be sustainable to the extent that employers recognize them as qualifications, and they will do so to the extent that using MOOCs as filters lowers their transaction (search, assessment and training) costs. College diplomas served this function in the age of slowly changing professional knowledge workers. MOOCs may play a similar or parallel role in the age of rapidly shifting tasks requiring rapidly up-graded capabilities.

How do you see these trends? Please add your comments below.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Slowing the Train to MOOCville

Over at Inside Higher Education, Ry Rivard reports that many hgher education leaders, and even MOOC founders, are having second thoughts about the spread of MOOCs.

He notes that Dan Greenstein at the Gates Foundation, which has generously funded MOOC development, now "wonders aloud whether MOOCs are a viable thing or just a passing fad." Greenstein adds that Higher Education is now suffering from "innovation exhaustion" and that MOOCs are part of the problem. He worries that we have skipped a step in the development process - providing a solution before defining the problem. He suggests that before going further we need to figure out where higher education is heading, and where we want it to be in 10 or 20 years.

I do not agree with Greenstein. The problem has been building for a couple of decades. (Greenstein must know this). There is a screaming need for low cost and constantly updated opportunities for learning and knowledge acquisition in today's global knowledge economy. Young people all over the world seek this access. Meanwhile, college education has priced itself out of the market, creating a nasty polarity between haves and have nots. And employers continue to use the college diploma as a filter, to lower their transaction costs in acquiring knowledge workers, forcing more and more young people to go deeply into debt to purchase diplomas which may "qualify" them for employment but do not provide the capabilities required for work success. So no-cost flexible up-to-date education with low-cost certificates of mastery - which inevitably will in one way or another be used as job filters - solves this pressing problem well. And that explains the hundreds of thousands of students from every nation on the globe registering for MOOCs.

In the rapidly changing and complex knowledge economy it is impossible to say what "we" want for higher education in 10 or 20 years, or what we should expect higher education arrangements to be. From the middle ages until the civil war, colleges and universities changed little. Despite the increasingly loud calls for practical education in agriculture, engineering and commerce, the colleges refused to sully themselves with such "trivial" matters. But then brand new institutions emerged: engineering colleges like MIT and RPI, graduate research institutions like Johns Hopkins, and the land grant colleges. In the twenty years following Charles Eliott's ascent to the presidency of Harvard in 1869,  American higher education changed beyond recognition. The entrenched insiders, the "we," talked about "innovation exhaustion" and got rolled over. If change had waited for them to figure out what they wanted for higher education ten or twenty years ahead, it would never have taken place. Instead new men for a new time (wasn't that what Creon announced at the beginning of Antigone) took the lead.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

MOOC Developments in June 2013 - Globalization + NGO Partnerships

Welcome to Moocville Blog.

I will be offering periodic reports on major developments in the world of MOOCs. Today I want to talk about two such developments in June 2013.


 The first is the globalization of the MOOC phenomenon. MOOCS have been associated in the public mind with the large US platforms: edX, Coursera and Edacity in particular. Indeed, many commentators have claimed that MOOCs are an effort by US educational entrepreneurs to dominate the future of higher education globally. Well if that was ever the intent, no such luck!

MOOCs are growing in all regions of the world. Examples include Verduca in Latin America, iversity in (Europe) Germany, Schoo in Japan, WorldWideEd in Canada, and others in Australia and elsewhere.

 The MOOC phenomeonon is now entirely global and spreading. By the end of next year MOOCs will be as familiar to knowledge seekers as universities are today. Many millions of learners will have had some experience with MOOCs, and they will spread the world. The positives and negatives of the MOOC experience will become clear, and the MOOC platforms will respond with better MOOCs.

 The big question is where will higher education move from there. How will other institutions adjust to this change in education?

 One possible answer is found in my second story, the recent partnership of edX with the IMF. Like many NGOs, the IMF is a producer of high quality courseware for their employees and members. IMF courses on International Finance have been enjoyed by central bankers and policy makers in IMF member states.

Now many of these courses will be available free to the general public. In 2013 a few of these courses will be available on the edX platform. By next year, several of them will be available for free to anyone seeking training in International banking. If that floats your boat, these may be just the thing you were looking for.

 The importance of this development should be clear. The boundary between higher education organizations and NGOs is beginning to blur. Of course the IMF doesn't offer an MBA and their courses are not for university credit. Most members of their current audience are chuck full if university diplomas.

 But the IMF, like so many other NGOs, is a storehouse of information products which can be re-purposed as courseware. So when higher education aggregator organizations emerge, as they are certain to, they will without doubt be packaging these NGO courses along with MOOCs from University sponsors to create degree -equivalent qualifications.

 Why would employers pay any attention to these? Well, the diploma is used as a job filter to lower transaction costs. The degree equivalent qualification will serve the same purpose, and maybe better. Tell me, Mr. employer, would you prefer a qualification backed by 30 or 40 MOOC certificates from the world's leading universities, or a diploma from Pugwash State U? Which one will display more initiative, self-direction, and cutting edge knowledge?