Tag Archives: MOOCs

Recognizing excellence in transforming learning?

Not long ago a friend asked me, in the context of the current debate about MOOCs and other forms of supposedly transformational educational innovations, who was awarding prizes to recognize excellence in the transformation of learning, especially in the large class environment?

My response was, “Well…hm…uh…there’s…no. I guess I can’t really think of anyone.”

I did manage to come up with the CASE-Carnegie US Professor of the year awards [I am an off and on judge for these], but these awards are not specifically targeted at innovation in large courses. Some of the past winners, such as Dennis Jacobs (2002) or Michael Wesch (2008), have done some very amazing things in their large classes, but that’s not the specific purpose of these awards. Finding “excellence in undergraduate education” is the brief of the panels reading the final application dossiers.

Because I couldn’t think of anything else relevant, I started scanning around the web looking for that national award for excellence in the use of technology in teaching large courses (or even for using technology in teaching college level courses). I found nothing.

Normally, I’d put that down to my inability to find what I’m looking for online (despite having pretty reasonable skills in that area), but it seems I’m not the only person looking in vain. In a comment on an earlier post on MOOCs, Dominik Lukes wrote:

“I’ve been searching in vain for an educational reform aimed at content or pedagogy that made a transformation of the education system in accordance with its goals. And I could not find one.”

If you know of something that Dominik and I are missing, please let me know and I’ll publicize it here. Rather than seeing lots of time and money thrown at MOOCs, which are largely (but certainly not entirely) using existing technology to push content at students in an efficient manner, I’d love to see some sort of X-Prize competition for academics who want to create new learning opportunities for students that take full advantage of the creative potential of digital media.

The Online Course Tsunami (4)

The one issue I’ve not taken up yet in this series of posts on the sudden enthusiasm of higher education leaders for online education is the matter of teaching. Before I go any further, I have to offer the following disclaimer. I have not, nor do I intend to teach a purely online course. I have been teaching what are often called “hybrid” courses since the late 1990s, when such things were much more difficult than they are today, so it’s not as if I know nothing about the topic of this post. But it seemed useful to point out that I have never taught a course where the students never meet one another in the analog world.

I say that I will not be teaching such a course for a simple reason. I like meeting my students in the analog world. I’m more than happy to interact with people in the digital world. I’ve been writing this blog since 2005 after all. But I just like knowing my students, being in the classroom with them, laughing with them, watching their faces change either with consternation or sudden insight. Were we to interact only online, I would miss all of that and so I choose to not teach that way.

Which is not to say that I think history courses cannot be taught successfully online. Many years ago (January 2001, in fact), I was on a panel at the AHA with my now colleague Paula Petrik and Skip Knox of Boise State University (Stan Katz was the discussant). Skip gave a paper that day about his fully online Western Civilization course and in his presentation said that he felt that the online version of the class was so much more intellectually stimulating than the face to face course. Most of us in the room were, I think, a bit skeptical, until Skip explained all of his reasons for that claim. Since then, I’ve been much more happy to let 1,000 flowers bloom.

However, as Mark Edmundson points out in a recent Op-Ed in the Times, “The Internet teacher, even one who responds to students via e-mail, can never have the immediacy of contact that the teacher on the scene can, with his sensitivity to unspoken moods and enthusiasms.” Unlike Edmundson, I don’t believe that online teaching has to conform to a one size fits all model. Unless, of course, we are talking about MOOCs or video monologues like those available through shops like the Khan Academy. [For a critique of the Khan project, see this piece in the Washington Post.] These sorts of one-way content flows are not, to my mind, teaching. They are content delivery and so are no more “teaching” than is a movie or a book.

What then should we be doing at this moment when our trustees, presidents, and provosts seem to have drunk the online education Kool-Aid?

Given my earlier comments in this series, I think it’s pretty obvious what I think we should not be doing, and that is jumping on the Coursera/Udacity bandwagon. Until someone can show me real assessment data that indicate that the quality of learning taking place through these platforms is equivalent to what happens in the face to face classroom, I’m going to argue against these sorts of massive courses. They are, until proven otherwise, hype. And, as I argue below, the teaching methodologies they promote are wildly out of sync with the reality of our students’ uses of digital media.

The other thing I think we should not be doing is designing online or hybrid courses around single delivery platforms such as BlackBoard. As someone recently pointed out on Twitter (I’d quote them, but can’t find the citation), teaching students to use products such as BlackBoard is teaching them to use a product, not to think critically. Further, these erroneously named “learning management systems (LMS)” impose an outdated pedagogy on instructors and therefore on students. Worse, they are designed to port onto the Internet existing models of teaching and learning, not to help instructors and students mine the potential of the digital environment for new ways of thinking about the material in their courses.

Many years ago now, Martin Mull (apparently) said that “writing about music [or maybe he said painting] was like dancing about architecture.” The same could be said about trying to force an existing course into a digital realm that is inherently different from the analog one.

Here’s an example of what I mean: One research study after another demonstrates that when young people use digital media, they use it as much to create content as they do to consume content. Far too many teaching models in the analog world are predicated on push methodologies (professors pushing content at students) and, not surprisingly, the online courses that are taking presidential suites by storm are equally predicated on push methods of teaching.

For the current college-age generation, the digital realm is a creative space. Thus, using digital media to push content at students without giving them the opportunity to create is like dancing about architecture.

Instead of rushing lemming-like toward push platforms like Coursera or the Khan Academy, we should be thinking carefully about how teaching and learning in the digital realm is different. Then, and only then, should we start creating new approaches to teaching and learning. BlackBoard and its ilk won’t help us. MOOCs won’t help us either.

Who then will help us? Our students, that’s who. By involving them in the process of creating something entirely new, something that maximizes the potentialities of digital media as lived by our students (as opposed to cadres of corporate coders), we will have a chance to get it right this time.


The Online Course Tsunami (3)

In the first two posts in this thread, I asked a series of questions about how we might assess both the learning that takes place in online courses and the economic impact of a shift to online courses, especially at a university like mine. Today I want to turn to a consideration of the broader impact of the current mania for online learning on our curricula.

After all, what universities offer students, at least in the intellectual realm, is a curriculum. Start ups, like Coursera and Udacity are offering courses. Of course, one day these platforms might offer entire curricula, but I’m more than happy to bet $50 that most universities will resist offering more than a basket of courses through these sites for the simple reason that our business models at the bricks and mortar universities are predicated on more than tuition revenues. We want students to live in our residence halls, buy food from our food services, pay for parking, and all those other ancillary revenue generators we’ve found to make ends meet.

It’s fine for a business like the University of Phoenix to offer only courses, because their business model was always based on tuition revenue (and possibly other sources such as advertising revenue). Also, the online only universities are not stuck with the fixed overhead factor called tenure. They can upsize or downsize their faculty at will. But the bricks and mortar institutions have physical plants to maintain (and rent out to students) and faculty like me who they are stuck with until we retire.

So, for the foreseeable future, the bricks and mortar institutions are going to be in the curriculum business, not the course business.

What, then, will happen to our curricula if our students begin taking lots of courses–likely introductory courses–through online shops like those just mentioned? While we might thumb our noses at upstarts like the University of Phoenix, can we really tell our students, “Sorry. We can’t accept that online course you took from Harvard/Virginia/Rice through Coursera.”

At George Mason, given our current “study elsewhere” policy, we’ll have to do just that unless our students, once they matriculate, receive prior permission to take these courses, and, according to the policy, those courses must not be available at our institution. Examples of how we grant students permission to study elsewhere are when they are at home during the summer (away from our immediate area) and wish to take a course from their local institution, or if they want to take American Sign Language, which we do not offer. Otherwise, they have to take the credits from us once they have matriculated. At a minimum, this policy will have to change for our students to take advantage of the offerings from vendors such as Coursera.

But more important than a policy shift is the question of what happens to our majors when our students take their basic courses from an online vendor?

History is always a particularly difficult curriculum to structure, especially at a university such as Mason where half our undergraduate students come to us as transfers. It is relatively easy to assume what our students do or do not know when they sign up for a 100-level course (we assume they know next to nothing). But what about an upper level course such as the survey of modern Eastern Europe I’ll be teaching this fall?

If I were teaching a 300 level mathematics or Arabic course, I would already have a pretty good idea of where my students are with the curriculum because they have proceeded through a sequence of courses to get to mine. Not so this August when I meet the students signed up for my East Europe course. I have to spend the first week or so gauging what they know and don’t know before I can really get going. That’s a week I am loathe to give up. As it is, I have to make it from the 1890s to the early 2000s in just 14 weeks.

Because we have a very good working relationship with our local community college systems, I know that whether these students have taken their introductory European history course from one of those colleges or from us, they will arrive in my classroom having taken relatively similar courses. But if those students have taken their introductory European history course from any one of a dozen or more institutions, I’ll have no idea whatsoever about their prior knowledge and skills.

Will such a situation ruin my course? Definitely not. But it will cost me at least an additional week trying to figure out what they know and don’t.

Then there is the question of departmental culture. Different academic departments lay out their curricula to emphasize particular skills or canons and therefore work together (generally) to inculcate these ideas and skills in their students. But if our students come to us with what amounts to a willy-nilly set of academic experiences, those common assumptions and priorities we have developed and (generally) agreed to over time may well not be a part of their academic repertoire.

The course I’m teaching this fall includes learning opportunities that help to reenforce my department’s notions of such things as the importance of analyzing primary sources from a diverse set of perspectives. If the instructor(s) of those online courses either disagree with these notions or simply provide no opportunity for students to develop such skills, then the exercises I have laid out in my syllabus will be that much more difficult for my students.

None of these issues are nearly as worrisome as what the advent of these online shops will mean for our fiscal future (see post #2 in this series), but if the online course tsunami does come ashore at the campuses where 80-85% of college students are being taught (community colleges and mass market universities such as Mason), we need to spend some time rethinking our curricula (and academic policies) to keep from being washed out to sea.

The Online Course Tsunami (2)

In my first post on this topic, I raised the question of how we might assess student learning in the online environment — at least in history education. Today I want to raise the question of the possible economic impact of the online course tsunami on the traditional institutions of higher education.

This topic is not a new one for me. Way back in 2008 I raised the issue of what technological disintermediation might do to our universities and reprised it earlier this year. In that reprise, I wondered if we might be heading toward a university business model that Milo Minderbinder would find quite congenial? That is, a model where we lose money on every transaction, but it doesn’t matter, because everyone owns a share.

In that reprise post, I staked out my admittedly naive position on the issue of economic models. Today I want to let real experts, such as my colleague here at George Mason, Tyler Cowen, explain the economics of the possible online/hybrid/analog future facing higher education. What the economists understand much better than I is how to propose analytical models that might explain how the future will unfold as the online tsunami gathers strength.

I particularly appreciated a blog post by Bryan Caplan who lays out three possible models for predicting the impact of online education on bricks and mortar institutions and an addendum by Tyler Cowen offering a fourth model. Also worth reading is a post by Arnold Kling who offers some useful perspective on the comparative advantages of hybrid models over standard face-to-face or online only models of course delivery. I think every university president should read these three posts carefully, because, to my mind anyway, they not only lay out the parameters of the real (as opposed to hyped) landscape of the future of online education and how the traditional institutions may or may not thrive in that environment.

To say that the future is unclear is to significantly understate the matter.

And then there is my alma mater, the University of Virginia. Anyone paying any attention to higher education over the past few months knows that one of the key issues in the dispute between the Rector and the president of the university was the speed with which UVa was (or wasn’t) establishing itself as a player in online education. The university announced today that it had signed on with Coursera, one of the several big players in the online education space.

Which of Caplan’s models, I wonder, do the leaders at UVa (and elsewhere) think will prevail? Is it the Human Capital model? If so, they are signing their own death warrants. Is it the Status Good model? If so, they are admitting that the reason they exist is to teach marketable skills, something universities like UVa have resisted for decades. Is it the Signaling model? If so, they are throwing good money after bad. Or, is it, as I suspect, Cowen’s Hybrid model that they are betting on?

If that is the case, and the online course tsunami leaves in its wake a lot of institutions using some sort of online/hybrid delivery to teach the first years of the college curriculum, then get ready for a radical restructuring of the academic labor force and the landscape of graduate education at second and third tier colleges and universities.

If general education is to be delivered through whatever means (online only/hybrid) seems most cost effective and/or universities opt for a competency model such as I proposed in those long ago posts on the free economy and higher education, then we will eliminate the need for large numbers of junior and/or contingent faculty, because our students will be able to present credentials that demonstrate their mastery of what is currently called general education. Someone, somewhere, will be making money on these courses or course-like options.

Who won’t be making much money on such courses are institutions like George Mason. Why not? Because if a prospective student opts to pursue her general education through a company such as Coursera, what are the odds she’ll select an introductory mathematics or history course from Mason over one from Stanford, Harvard, MIT, or UVa? Close to zero is what I suspect. Brands will out in this space, and institutions such as Mason can’t possibly compete on that playing field.

So, at a place like ours, if the cross-subsidy model proposed by Chris Anderson in Free back in 2008 is the one that prevails, institutions like mine should prepare for a radical downsizing of our faculty ranks over the next two decades.

And, at tuition-driven places like Mason where those big intro courses provide the revenue that supports those tiny courses for doctoral students, we should also prepare for a radical downsizing of our graduate programs.

Will that be a bad thing?

Just ask a travel agent…if you can find one.