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
product.

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.