Tag Archives: MOOCs

To MOOC or Not to MOOC? What’s In It For Me?

The title of this post is purely rhetorical because no one has asked me to teach a MOOC. In fact, I have not been involved with MOOCs at all, except as an observer from afar. Instead, the title is the result of me wondering why anyone would teach a course with tens of thousands of students enrolled (maybe more), who you would never meet, and for which there is an enormous amount of start up effort (designing the course, filming the lectures, figuring out the grading algorithms, etc., etc.)?

I understand why universities want to get MOOCs out there with their most prominent professors teaching them. Having a big name professor offer a MOOC brings many, many eyeballs to your campus logo (and even better to the website) and helps burnish your image in a global market for higher education. In short, MOOCs are marketing dollars well spent, even if they aren’t yet showing any sign they are good for the bottom line, given the terms that companies like Coursera are offering colleges and universities.

But why would a professor, especially a prominent (and presumably busy) professor, bother to spend all the time and effort necessary to bring a MOOC to market and then, one assumes, have some connection to its implementation? After all, designing a new course or redesigning an old one takes a lot of time in the analog world. When you consider the time required to film lectures, work with an editor to polish up that film and add in B-roll, design online assignments and assessments, and think through how students are going to progress through the various online materials, a MOOC represents a lot of time and effort.

After puzzling on this question, I can think of two answers.

The first is what we might call educational altruism. MOOCs offer faculty members a chance to make their courses available, for free, to the widest possible audience. As scholars we are supposed to be engaged in the circulation of knowledge, and being able to circulate one’s knowledge of a particular subject to 70,000 or 100,000 students, even if only a tiny fraction of them complete the course, is a potentially wonderful thing. I’m not sure that those students learn anywhere near what they would learn in a well designed face to face class, given that MOOCs largely replicate the lecture/listen binary model that is so ubiquitous in large American universities. That model has been demonstrated in countless studies by cognitive scientists to yield only minimal learning gains, even when taught by famous, or brilliant lecturers. But if the purpose of teaching a MOOC on one’s subject is to make one’s expertise in a given subject available, for free, to as many people as possible, that’s a laudable act. I’m not sure how much of this educational altruism there is out there, but I’m willing to admit that it might really exist.

The second reason is more mercenary and involves the sale of books and/or other collateral products. In particular, I wondered whether MOOCs offered faculty members an opportunity to make some serious money on the teaching and learning products that they have created?

To test my idea that book sales might just be part of the reason why some faculty members would teach a MOOC, I randomly selected eight courses across the disciplines and from various universities on the Coursera website. I tried to do the same thing at the Udacity site, but one cannot read the course syllabi there. What I found was that on all eight syllabi, the only readings students were expected to do were from free and open source/open access materials. However, five of the eight professors recommended or suggested as optional books that they had written, ranging in price from $8 to $110. One of the professors recommends only open source works, and the other two recommend books published by others for either $44 or $142.

If we assume for a minute that some fraction of the tens of thousands of students taking part in a given MOOC go ahead and purchase the “recommended” or “optional” book written by the professor teaching the course, the potential for significant earnings via book sales is very real. For the sake of argument, let’s say that I taught a MOOC that drew 50,000 students and I recommended as optional the ebook version of my new book ($19.95). And, for the sake of this same argument, let’s say that 10% of the students purchased a copy. Under the terms of my contract with the press, I would make just under $7,000 in royalties from the sale of those books. While $7,000 is not enough for the downpayment on that beach house I’ve been wanting, it’s still $7,000 in additional income.

Different states and different institutions have widely varying rules (and even laws) governing whether faculty members can require students to purchase a book from which the faculty member receives income. But those rules were made with the standard course for credit model in mind. MOOCs disrupt that model by not offering credit and in the cases I looked at, by having all textbooks be “recommended” or “optional.” Once MOOCs move to the credit bearing/tuition charging mode, it will be interesting to see whether there is any change in this approach. I suspect there won’t be, if only because the openness of a MOOC begins to break down once it starts to get expensive for students.

Future of Higher Education Conference (6)

The fourth panel at #masonfuture included Bryan Alexander of NITLE, Robert Beichner of NC State, Anne Moore and Terri Bourdon of Virginia Tech, and Kevin Clark and Mark Sample of Mason. Their topic is “Beyond the Lecture Hall: Technology and Student Learning.”

Beichner showed us a model of the “scale up” classroom that they use at NC State that is drawn from the design first pioneered at MIT. Mason has just about finished one of those rooms for our engineering program. Because it seats 80 students, and is largely dedicated to the engineers, and was extraordinarily expensive to install (and will be equally expensive to maintain), we won’t see many of these rooms on our campus in the near future, nor with the folks in humanities and social sciences have much access to it. But I plan to do an observation in the room one day soon when it comes on line so I can see how well it is living up to its potential.

This sort of innovative design of space around learning outcomes is something I’m spending a lot of time thinking about and working on this semester. I’m on two committees — one explicitly devoted to this topic, and another devoted to the design of a brand new building — that are grappling with the intersection between space and learning.

One point I’m been making in those committees is that as our students get more and more connected to the global market for higher education, we need to design new learning spaces that facilitate rather than hinder these connections. So, for instance, I can imagine a future where small groups of students (3-5 let’s say) are clustered around larger monitors in a residence hall or an academic building taking a course in Moscow or Shanghai. We do not have such learning spaces on our campus right now, but are going to need them soon. Very soon.

Clark described his work with gaming and at risk students — using games to help these students prepare for the challenges of higher education. Our game design program is one of the fastest growing at Mason and Clark’s work is bringing an important educational dimension to the work of that program. One of the things I love about this program is that, as I argued yesterday in my remarks, the Internet is now a space of creation for students and this program teaches students to create media rather than consume it.

Moore and Bourdon previewed the “Math Emporium” at Virginia Tech.  Moore ended her brief introduction to the Emporium with a great bit of data — how much money Tech is saving on a per student basis by using the Math Emporium to help deliver mathematics education to very large numbers of students.

Bourdon called the Emporium a “comprehensive learning space,” by which she meant a mixture of traditional space (tutoring lab, etc.), but also online spaces. Tech did this all the hard way — wrote all their own course materials, etc. — which isn’t necessary today given the number of open source tools out there.

Mark Sample told us about his “social pedagogy” and used the example of writing about the word “alien” in one of his classes using Twitter and forcing students to write in just 140 characters. The best takeaway from this presentation in my view, is that we can actually think differently about such key concepts at “writing” and still accomplish our pedagogical goals.

Bryan Alexander then gave a brief overview of the landscape of MOOCs — a much bigger landscape than the over-hyped Coursera/U-da-City/EdX model we’re hearing so much about. One of the things Bryan pointed to is that all of these models are dependent on institutional subvention, but, as he said, it won’t be long before institutions figure out how to start offering credits (Antioch University already is) and new business models that won’t depend on subvention.

A question that keeps banging around in my head — yesterday and today — is how we might be able to un-silo our institution to develop new business models that remain focused on education while being attentive to our bottom line. I am convinced that as long as we live in our institutional silos, we have no chance to prosper in the coming two decades. But shattering those institutional silos, silos that have been in existence for decades (here, centuries elsewhere) is going to be extraordinarily difficult.

Maybe that’s our biggest challenge for the coming decade: how to make it possible for Mason to dance to the new tunes that the advent of a global market for education is performing?

In the Q&A, moderator Steve Pearlstein, pressed the panelists on the institutional political dimension of institutional change. It’s hard when your moderator is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, because he does tend to want people to answer his questions, not the questions they want to answer. The issue he kept pressing on was the speakers to take a position on how much leverage institutional leaders have when trying to get tenured faculty to change how they teach.

To try to get at an answer, he asked which level of administration was going to have the best change to bring about change: president, provost, department chair. Bourdon’s answer was department chair. Moore said department chair, but only if the dean stood behind them. Sample said “enthusiasm is not what gets [faculty to change].” Instead, it’s seeing other people being successful, which is why our teaching needs to be as open as possible. Given that I’ve been making this same argument since 1999-2000, I have to agree.

The Future of Higher Education Conference (4)

The third panel of the #masonfuture conference was titled “Alternative Frameworks for Educational Delivery” and included Burck Smith, founder of StraighterLine, Andrew Rosen, Chairman and CEO of Kaplan, Inc., Sally Johnstone, VP of Academic Advancement at Western Governor’s University, and Jeff Offutt and Tyler Cowen, professors here at Mason.

I’m interested to hear how the reps of Kaplan and StraigherLine will respond to the argument that their business model is substantially threatened by the advent of MOOCs. If you could take an economics course from Tyler Cowen or from StraighterLine, which will you choose?

Not knowing much about StraigherLine before today, I was very interested to learn that their courses are “tutor supported” rather than “instructor supported.” In other words, students taking their courses are not being taught by individuals with deep content knowledge, but rather than by “tutors” who are knowledgeable in how to guide students through the online models created by the company. It’s certainly a very cost-efficient model, but what happens if Student X has a question that we might call an example of “critical thinking”? How can one of those tutors, who knows a lot about how to help students complete the models in the curriculum, respond to such a question? Probably not very well.

As Jeff Selingo sort of alluded to during the morning session, here is a crux of the value proposition of higher education. How we make that value proposition clear is going to say a lot about our prospects for success in the future.

Sally Johnstone of Western Governor’s University explained the WGU model of having students advance through a degree based on successfully completing a series of assessments rather than “completing a bunch of courses.” I think this is a very interesting model, but a quick look at their curriculum indicates that all of their degrees are in fields with external accreditation (nursing, business, education, etc.). In the humanities and social sciences (the fields I know best) we have very few of these external accreditations and so implementing such a model would require us to create those assessments ourselves — or found consortia, perhaps around our professional associations — that could create those for us.

In the history business, I suspect such assessments just can’t work for the simple reason that the whole process of developing history assessments has become so politicized (think the “history wars” of the 1990s) or the Florida legislature’s decisions about how history ought to be taught. We can certainly agree on skills, but we’ll never be allowed to agree on content.

Andrew Rosen from Kaplan argued for a very capitalist model around learning outcomes — “We need incentives around learning outcomes.” To what degree, I wonder, will the traditional universities be willing to cooperate with for profits such as Kaplan in an economic model like the one he proposes? Probably very little, because we have paid a lot for the expertise of our faculty. The only reason we’d be willing to license that expertise to a for profit competitor like Kaplan who might then use the results of that expertise against us in the future. I’d say that only if we had the sorts of strongly worded contracts that, say, two technology firms might have if they cross-license their patents.

Jeff Offutt told us about his experiences teaching online, but there wasn’t really much new in what he said, other than that his experience was good, his students are achieving a lot, and that he’s a fan. By contrast, Tyler Cowen’s presentation of MRUniversity laid out how to do what they do in very low tech and simple ways. What is not simple or low tech is developing the Tyler Cowen brand which, as he said, is the result of 10 years of co-blogging with Mason colleague Alex Tabarrok, and many well reviewed publications over the years. As Tyler and Alex are examples of those faculty members with “individual brands” that Jeff Selingo referred to in the morning  session.

One of the geniuses of the MRUniversity approach is that, as Cowen points out, economists around the world are contributing content, often at the level of a single video or resource, rather than being required to create an entire course as in the Coursera model. This gives MRUniversity much greater reach than Coursera.

A reasonable question is what is the value of MRUniversity to Cowen’s employer (Mason)? Certainly we get visibility out of it, but since Cowen seems to be sticking to his “we’re not charging anyone” for the content, how can Mason capitalize beyond exposure? This is a bigger question for universities in general about how to deal with faculty with strong individual brands who wander or step purposefully into the online educational marketplace?

Now, here’s a meta commentary on the event thus far. It seems to me that one of the messages being delivered today is based on an assumption that the audience in the room ranges from skeptical to hostile to online educational delivery and that the audience needs convincing that online delivery isas good or better than face to face instruction. I think that may be a misperception. Most, but certainly not all, of the faculty I know are not hostile to online education. Many are skeptical, but remember, academics are trained skeptics, so their skepticism is no surprise. Most, but certainly not all, are willing to see many flowers bloom, so long as the students seem to be learning to similar levels in either model.

Apocalypse Soon?

Off and on over the last four years I’ve been speculating in this space about the future of the educational enterprise at colleges and universities like George Mason where I work. Mason is a so-called “mass market university” that has a large enrollment (over 30,000), an amazingly diverse student body, and offers most academic programs available in higher education today (with the big exception of health programs other than nursing). There are hundreds of state funded universities like ours around the U.S., and many more privately funded institutions that, while smaller, are quite similar to us.

All of the mass market institutions in the U.S. are in big trouble. The sky isn’t falling, but there are definitely cracks in the firmament.

Why are we in trouble? The answer is both simple and very complicated. The simple answer is that institutions with much better brands than ours have thrown themselves head first into the MOOC swamp and already we are seeing signs that in the coming year or two many, if not most (or even all) of these institutions will find ways to offer academic credit for what are now free courses. Once that happens, our students are going to vote with their feet (or fingers on keyboards) and will start taking increasing numbers of courses from these institutions–both because these courses are convenient, and because they are from institutions with better brands.

When that happens, we can expect that more and more of our students will be presenting us with transcripts from Stanford, Penn, Michigan, the University of Virginia, and other similarly better known competitors, and demanding that we accept these courses toward our degrees. Right now our rules make it all but impossible for our students to actually do this, but we can expect a groundswell of demands for change in our “study elsewhere” policy, the relevant passage of which reads:

Students who apply for admission to Mason usually do not seek simultaneous enrollment at another collegiate institution. In those unique situations when a student does seek concurrent enrollment, the student must obtain advance written approval from their academic dean. This process permits a student to enroll elsewhere in a suitable course unavailable at Mason. Catalog numbers and descriptions of courses to be taken elsewhere must be submitted with the request for approval. Students must submit an official transcript for all such course work to the Office of the University Registrar. Note that while credit may be approved for transfer and a minimum grade must be achieved, grades themselves do not compute into any Mason GPA. Students who enroll elsewhere without advance written permission while enrolled at Mason may not receive transfer credit for course work taken at other institutions.

Can you imagine that every time one of our students wants to take a MOOC course from a name brand competitor they have to submit a signed form to the dean’s office for review? Trust me, I was an Associate Dean, and I know that such a procedure is unsustainable.

Or, can you imagine that one of our students takes a course from, say, Stanford University, earns an “A” and presents that transcript for transfer of credit and is told, “Sorry, you can’t do that.” That too is unsustainable.

So, before long, we are going to have to accommodate ourselves to the notion that we may lose 15, 30, or more credits per student to online competitors. We already give up close to half our tuition revenue each year to the local community colleges, because half of our undergraduates transfer to us after completing their AA degree elsewhere. And our “native” students (those enrolling as freshmen) are coming in with credits in hand from AP, IB, and other college equivalent programs. If we end up giving up another 15 or 30 credits to online competitors, there will be such a large hole in our budget that we can’t continue to operate as we do.

How big would such a hole be? Around $10.5 million per year if our first time freshmen end up taking 15 credits from online competitors in their first two years.

To arrive at that figure, I consulted our official enrollment census for Fall 2012, which says that our first time freshmen took 40,087 credits, or essentially 15 credits (14.88) per student. About 20% of our total enrollment is paying out of state tuition, so if we assume that the freshmen class is also 20% out of state, then those freshmen are generating $21,775,258 in tuition this fall for their 15 credits. If those same freshmen end up taking 15 credits online elsewhere during their first two years, that’s a $21 million dollar hole blown in our budget, or $10.5 million a year. For an institution with an endowment worth less than $60 million, that’s a loss we can’t live with.

Why not dive into the MOOC swamp with our competitors you might ask? The simple answer is that we don’t have the brand to compete there and, with our tiny endowment, we can’t afford to give up all but a tiny sliver of our tuition revenue to the platform providers (as Coursera’s contract with its participating universities stipulates). That door is closed to us.

The news is no better elsewhere. A recent report by the accounting/consulting firm Ernst & Young on Australian higher education argues that not one of Australia’s universities can survive to 2025 with their current business models. The report’s authors argue that, among other things, all of Australia’s universities have to make substantial cuts in non-instructional/research staff to refocus their overall staffing on income producers (faculty). I don’t know, but suspect, that the same could be said of many American institutions of higher education. Certainly at Mason we’ve seen a substantial increase in the size of our administrative staff over the decade that I’ve been here.

The Ernst & Young report argues that there are three models that universities might follow to survive to and beyond 2025:

  1. Stay with the status quo, but significantly streamline their operations;
  2. Become a “niche dominator,” i.e., stop trying to be all things to all students and focus on one or a few niches where they have a chance of winning greater market share;
  3. Become “transformers” in which they redefine what it means to be who they are, create new markets for their products, and outsource much of their operations.

As much as I dislike the business-speak of these proposals, one cannot deny that we have to take seriously the fact that we can’t stand pat as disintermediation rolls over our industry.

Mason is hosting a conference called The Future of Higher Education this Friday and Saturday (largely restricted to an internal audience). I’ll be interested to see just how much time we spend on the hard realities of the situation we are facing. I’ll be live blogging the conference, so stay tuned to see what we do and don’t discuss.