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.