Higher Ed

Inside and Outed

Here a MOOC, there a MOOC, everywhere a MOOC, MOOC . . .

CJ Westerberg, April 18, 2013 7:56 PM


image above: Cow Eating Lettuce - Pelmof

"Power is shifting away from selective university admissions officers
into the hands of educational consumers,
who will soon have their choice of attending virtually any university
in the world online.

-Nathan Harden

16 Possible Effects of MOOCs
The good, the bad and the ugly

DSC_0163-1_2.jpgby C.J. Westerberg

During the second half of 2012, conversations within the ed-tech world were all a-Twitter linking and blogging about MOOCs at a fever pitch, identifying them as the impending disruptor in higher education. It wasn't until November that it seemed the more mainstream press finally covered it with the big headline, such as The Year of the MOOC  (a primer for those who have not been following this story - maybe glossing over yet another acronym favored by the education industrial complex).  Yet it takes the Brit sensibility for our chosen highlighted quote from Learning New Lessons via The Economist.  Excerpt: 

Spires not wires

Some of Europe's best schools are determinedly unruffled. Oxford says that MOOCs "will not prompt it to change anything", adding that it "does not see them as revolutionary in anything other than scale". Cambridge even says it is "nonsense" to see MOOCs as a rival; it is "not in the business of online education".

Such universities are likely to continue to attract the best (and richest) applicants who want personal tuition and the whiff of research in the air. They have other benefits too, including sublime architecture, better marriage partners and a huge career boost. For these places, MOOCs are chiefly a marketing opportunity: once customers taste the lectures, they may pay for the rest of the bundle.

But elsewhere change is likely to be more disruptive. Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor and author of "The Innovative University", predicts "wholesale bankruptcies" over the next decade among standard universities.

For a bit of fun, we feature a humorous 16-second video below that captures the spirit of our Oxbridge educators quoted above. Do check it out.  (Also, If you are familiar with MOOCs, you can skip to the second half of this post with my 16 effects of MOOCs.)

In brief, MOOCs are massive open online courses being offered, generally free, by the likes of MIT, Harvard and Stanford taught by the same professors who teach at these marquee-name universities. Get used to names, such as Coursera, Udacity, Edx, MIT OpenCourseWare, Harvard Medical School Open Courseware, along with non-university-affiliated learning sites, such as Code Academy, or learning communities, such as Stack Overflow for programmers. Some incorporate discussion groups and forums, games and other opportunities for engagement and feedback, along with assessments.  Credentials are being offered, as are credits in some cases; professors and lecturers are becoming brands; the impressive number of users touted gives one pause about the pent-up demand (e.g.: two million in five months via Coursera); while the number of users who actually complete the courses (10% cited) reveal the flawed promise of the initial MOOCs, although the latter numbers are still significant. Assessment and cheating are issues to be refined, as is the lecture as main delivery mode.       

The traditional college track, system and process has been due for a major challenge and disruption.  We've published numerous posts on this development and one need look no further than the spate of "Is College Worth It?" articles appearing daily. What was once a topic relegated to the inside pages of mainstream news outlets as a novelty has become the front page headline.  We are bombarded daily with its implications. (Do check out our new section Higher Ed: Inside and Out.)

The tipping point happened when college debt exceeded credit card debt showing how college tuition costs were way out of whack with household earnings and compared to other cost increases in a stagnant economy.  The paralyzing cost of college became more even more unpalatable when other "dirty secrets" unfolded, such as the surprisingly low college completion rates; the increased time many students were now taking to complete a typical four-year degree - being pushed to five years and beyond, also upping debt; the realization that many adjuncts were now doing the teaching once thought to be the province of professors; the question of what and how much is really learned in college, and the recognition that much of under-grad college is geared for those heading toward grad school work, leaving many of those with undergrad degrees not only in debt but serving up latte at the local Starbucks after graduation.  In other words, the investment payback is not as crystal-clear as it was once, especially those without advanced degrees or those not in the maths or sciences.

The University System

The university system is probably the last institution to be shaken to its core when one recognizes that we've knocked over just about every other revered institution over the last decade or so.  It's due for some ivory tower cleaning.  Nathan Harding paints a picture what to expect with The End of the University as We Know It:

Power is shifting away from selective university admissions officers into the hands of educational consumers, who will soon have their choice of attending virtually any university in the world online. This will dramatically increase competition among universities. Prestigious institutions, especially those few extremely well-endowed ones with money to buffer and finance change, will be in a position to dominate this virtual, global educational marketplace. The bottom feeders-the for-profit colleges and low-level public and non-profit colleges-will disappear or turn into the equivalent of vocational training institutes. Universities of all ranks below the very top will engage each other in an all-out war of survival.

Who can find flaws with the basic premise of MOOCs?  After all, they do provide opportunities for life-long learning and a possible way to democratize education - offering access to those students and families who do not have the physical or financial means (hopefully, having access to technology) alleviating the cost the education without incurring debilitating debt. Yet we know there is always the "other" side to these too-good-to-be-true offerings.

MOOCs seem to have the most immediate sustainable success with those who are committed to education and have degrees already - the natural student.  I'm not so sure that this is true thus far because the actual lecture-as-lesson format is not exactly the most compelling one, or  if it is that we are so culturally wired to do the diligence of "learning" only when there are extrinsic rewards (grades, test scores, parental or peer pressure, the company training program requirements) that we've lost the curiosity and will to learn because it's just not worth the effort without some sort of extrinsic recognition.  I hope not. 

I do worry about the long-term implications of MOOCs - that the benefits of a personal, residential college "experience" will again be reserved only to those who can afford the luxury, or to those with connections and legacies, leaving marginal open spaces for others. A chilling thought, but if we are to go "back to the future", just check out this classic piece by Malcolm Gladwell about the SATs and how these assessments emerged from influx of new students able to attend higher education (along with another main premise which is off-topic here).  In other words, the residential college experience becomes only for the elite again, after we built this country with an enormous influx of new college students from the middle class able to attend  due to the largesse of the GI Bill after WWII.

The Flipped Classroom
Beyond the is-college-worth-it relevance to MOOCs discussed above, the other issues  intersect many of the same topics we've discussed about the flipped classroom and Sal Khan's Khan Academy  (videos, lectures, homework, pedagogy) for grades K-12.  In fact, in a moment of self-promotion that also reveals the interest in the subject, The Daily Riff's posts about the flipped class have generated over 275,000 views to-date since our first early posts on the subject in January 2011. 

The Daily Riff's posts about the flipped class
have generated over 275,000 views to-date
since our first early posts on the subject in January 2011.

While we have featured several posts on the subject of the flipped class, at the same time, I have watched and listened to some of the worst attempts at the flipped class - boring, droning, monotone video presentations by educators which are mere attempts and illusions replacing real teaching, disguised as teaching enhancements and thoughtful homework reinforcement when they only serve as a crutch, no better than assigning an extra chapter in some dry textbook as an example of "more rigor". In other words, it's all in the execution, quality and overall engagement. A textbook, worksheet or video are all different venues for delivering information and access to these tools does not mean a student is learning.   

We featured examples of the flipped classroom from teachers who constantly work through the concept and are in a process of consistent critique, conversation and refinement of how the flipped class can be utilized to the student's best advantage.  This is what we admire.  Not the "here is my video-taped explanation and now you can learn" used as a crutch or an assurance or insurance that the knowledge was imparted and understood, or worse yet, "the material was covered."  We've heard these stories, too, sadly.  Students and teachers have a limited amount of time in class and how best to maximize that time should be the purpose of the flipped class.

  MOOCs take the flipped class concept to dramatic new levels.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for cow-abstract.MOOC.jpg MOOCs will never be better than a great in-person teacher-student learning relationship and experience. Yet, how often does this "perfect" scenario exist?  In average to less-than-average situations, are MOOCs lacking by comparison?     

One hundred years ago, we may have called the library a MOOC as the disruptor in the sense that it provided knowledge to so many who wanted "in".  We know that MOOCs can provide new options to earn education credentials and, at the very least, give us opportunities to walk the essential "life-long learning" talk that every educational institution espouses.  Time will tell.

 16 and Counting . . .

But what else can MOOCs do?  Here are a few thoughts, including the good, bad and the ugly, often depending on your interpretation.  Let us know what you think:

1)  Magnify what we do badly in school. 
Bad lectures are REALLY bad in video.
Long lectures are REALLY long in video format.
Schools, in general, are generally aesthetically challenged when it comes to graphics, design and environment.  We still see multiple pictures of 1950s graphics and jammed text in textbooks that are incredibly stressful.

More is not more.

2)  Gain a heightened sense of perspective and understanding of how important the relationship is between teacher and student.

3)  Embolden the appreciation of how essential one-to-one personal time has become in our increasingly on-line world.  Personalized does not necessarily mean personal.  Virtual, real-time, and life-like do not substitute our humanness.

4)  Create the conditions for a fresh view of pedagogy - what works and what doesn't in teaching . . . and learning.

5)  Exhibit a new format for teaching, sharing knowledge and expertise giving those with the talent and skills that translate well to video to shine, model and share to a broader audience.

6)  Allow those outside the educator silo to innovate new ways to teach and learn, which may further expand opportunities for students, introduce positive innovative partnerships but which can also bring out unsavory and corrupt practices, companies and characters.

7)  Create a sense of urgency to reevaluate and improve how to make college worth the cost.  The sense of competition may make the residential college experience that much more effective.

8) Emphasize the importance of communication skills across multiple platforms as an integral part of teacher professional development. Public speaking and video training are important venues that are also important to model to our students.  However, see #9.

We've all watched TED videos which may have given us transformative moments, yet we've also watched others which may have left us thinking, "Meh".    
9) Lessen the value of educators who connect with students in a classroom setting masterfully, yet who simply do NOT shine in the video lime-light.  A bad thing, indeed, if video production becomes yet another teacher "requirement."  MOOCs should ideally be another resource. 

10)  Become a great way for educators to share lessons, learn techniques and to collaborate, ideally.  An extreme outcome or dark side of MOOCs, however, could be the increased sense of competition among educators like branded merchandise where the sales, PR value and number of followers can become more important than the education of our students. 

11)  Open up a multitude of opportunities for life-long learning, in and out of college.

12)  Provide a platform where student interests and experts intersect.

13)  Expand credentialing and options for earning credits. 

14)  Create new name competition to education beyond the marquee names of the Ivies and other known colleges and universities.

15)  Ease the insanity and stress associated with the college application and admissions process due to increased higher education options.  With more options for students in higher education, perhaps the
SAT score as the over-arching decider for college will diminish as the over-arching decider for college.

16) Loosen the myopic K-12 track of rigid subject units by grade.  
Will MOOCs be the catalysts to change high school curriculum?  Since higher ed dictates so much of what we do and how we approach K-12, when the former gets disrupted, so goes K-12 . . .
Will MOOCs be transformative to higher education as other technologies were to other industries and sectors?  What's your riff?

Check out video below!

Orig. published January 27, 2013 The Daily Riff

Related The Daily Riff:

Rethinking College - new post by Joseph Ganem Ph.D. about MOOCs

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