Learning vs. Teaching vs. Credentialing

There’s been a couple of interesting developments in higher education news in the last couple of days that has me thinking more about how the “education” part of things in colleges and universities actually works.  First, there’s the announcement that U of M and  several other universities will be offering “free courses” on a variety of different topics for anyone out there on the internets who might be interested.  This is being done through an outfit/start-up called Coursera, which I assume is making money through data mining of its users and maybe by eventually morphing into an actual credit-granting enterprise.  Here’s an interesting quote from the annarbor.com article about this:

For U-M, adapting to the platform gives faculty a unique way to communicate with alumni and prospective students.

“This is a great way for alumni or prospective Michigan students to experience a little bit of what a U-M education is like,” Scott Page, the professor teaching Model Thinking, said in a release.

Added Martha Pollack, vice provost for academic and budgetary affairs: “This is one more way for us to connect with prospective students and alumni.”

The other event– seemingly the opposite kind of thing but maybe not– comes from Inside Higher Ed in the article “Pacing Themselves.”  Here’s a long quote:

The media conglomerate Pearson today announced a partnership with Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana to provide online, self-paced courses that the company says will help Ivy Tech deal with student demand and overcrowding issues in required general education courses.

For Pearson, which already sells modules for instructor-led courses, the move represents a further step in the company’s strategy of inserting itself into virtually every area of e-learning short of full degree programs.

“We thought it was time for us to have a self-paced play that our partners could then plug into their institutions and get more students into higher education,” said Don Kilburn, the CEO of Pearson Learning Solutions.

Meanwhile, the partnership allows Ivy Tech to refer certain students to hands-off self-paced general education courses — which it does not currently offer — without building such courses itself.

“It is a way to test out that modality and see if it works for some students without taking a lot of business risk on our own,” said Kara Monroe, associate vice president for online academic programs at Ivy Tech.

Both of these events problematize in strange ways this mission of education in colleges and universities.  And by “educational mission” of the university, I basically mean three things:

  • Learning, or more accurately, extending to students the opportunity to learn.  Universities are pretty good at that, but so are lots of other things– wikipedia, the public library, about.com and other web sites, a good book, life, etc.
  • Teaching, which is when a professor (or instructor or adjunct or grad student) guides a student in learning something.  There’s really nothing I teach that students can’t learn on their own through some of the things I mentioned as sources for learning, but the advantage students get in being taught a subject by someone who knows a lot about the subject is guidance, interactions with other learners, systematic efficiency (because teaching is really good at steering learning in a way that is less likely to be counter-productive), positive (and negative) feedback, and so forth.
  • Credentialing, which means some sort of evaluation that is recognized by others as having some merit.  Practically speaking, this means a “seal of approval” (e.g., grades) given by teachers for these discreet learning units we call “courses,” which are systematically taken (a “major” which leads to a “degree”) and which are also validated by institutions (say EMU) which are in turn validated by both official evaluators (say the North Central Association) and unofficial but certainly more powerful evaluators (various “top university” rankings like US News, what employers say, word of mouth, etc., etc.).

Now, learning, teaching, and credentialing are obviously all related, though in complicated ways.  For example, teaching someone something is not the same as them learning it.  It takes a willingness to learn and to be receptive to teaching,  and everyone who has ever taught– especially something that is not considered by many “fun,” like first year composition– knows there are a surprising number of students who don’t seem able or willing to take on the learning challenge.  Another example:  a lot of professors are completely comfortable with the teaching and learning part of education, but most would just as soon avoid the credentialing/grading part of what we have to do to make this whole enterprise work.  Faculty get even more squeamish when we talk about the mean cousin of credentialing, assessment.  

Anyway, to turn back to what I think is troubling (at least to me) about both the Pearson Learning Solutions and the Coursera deal.  It seems to me that the Pearson “solution” is a rather cynical way of skipping ahead to just the credentialing leg of the stool and calling it a day.  There’s obviously no teaching involved and with only an e-textbook and “10 free hours of online tutoring support,” it doesn’t seem to me like there’s much of a chance for a lot of student learning here either. Besides that, the credential they are trying to provide here is minimal at best.  I mean, given that the unofficial value of an Ivy Tech Community College is probably pretty low to begin with (certainly relative to the institutions sponsoring Coursera courses), what does this sort of move do to the perceived market value of their degrees?

The Coursera “great minds” courses might seem at first to be a completely different and more noble venture, but it seems to me that this isn’t education.  Sure, there’s a lot of learning potential with these classes, but so what?  There are already plenty of places on the ‘net to learn about science fiction and fantasy literature, for example.   As of right now, U of M (and I suspect the other institutions associated with this) is not really thinking of this as education at all; it’s marketing, something that might connect with alumni and maybe with potential students.

Of course, this could change.  I seriously doubt that U of M would ever accept their own Coursera courses as credential-worthy credit that is the same as their more traditional courses, but that doesn’t mean that Coursera isn’t going to try to sell that credit to someone else.  Inside Higher Ed had an article on all this, and here’s a passage that made me think this idea of Coursera granting credit ala Pearson:

“There are no definite plans yet for what courses, if any, might have certificates and, if they exist, how much might be charged for them,” wrote MacCarthy via e-mail. “That said, if there were to be some monetization and revenues in the future, universities would partner with Coursera in determining any future structure or pricing for certificates.”

Ng, one of the Coursera founders, said “no firm decisions have been made yet” on how the company’s university partners might recognize the achievement of their non-enrolled students. “We’ve had informal discussions with the partner universities about different certificate options, but the final decision will be made on a per-university and per-course basis,” Ng wrote via e-mail.

These certificates wouldn’t be the same as credit– well, at least initially, and at least at a place like the University of Michigan.  I can imagine a scenario where the Ivy Techs of the world say “sure, we’ll count that as credit,” and I can also imagine a slippery slope where all kinds of institutions– maybe never U of M but places like EMU– start counting a certain number of these certificates as transfer for things like general education.

The other thing that both Pearson and Coursera are attempting here is a version of education without teaching.  This is patently obvious in the Pearson/Ivy Tech arrangement, but it is also the case with the Coursera courses.  The idea here is to have tens of thousands of students in these classes– potentially a great learning environment, but not something where you could really expect any meaningful teaching.  At best, the teaching that might take place is in the form of an army of part-timers to watch over those thousands of students participating in discussions and quizzes and the like.  That appears to be the case with their hiring.

So I really don’t think this is the future of higher education on the internet.  At least I don’t hope this is the future of higher education on the ‘net.  I’d kind of like to keep the teaching in education….


3 thoughts on “Learning vs. Teaching vs. Credentialing”

  1. Your comment on the Inside Higher ed piece led me here (though not for the first time; I’m an occasional reader of your blog). Both that comment and your post here are really thoughtful and helpful responses. My own college, SLCC, is flirting with various forms of scaling and what you might call teacherless forms of education (particularly in developmental areas). CCs are particularly susceptible to this trend because issues of prestige aren’t at stake. I’m open to course design experiments of all sorts, but the argument I make again and again is that these new course models must be professionally satisfying to teachers, which is to say there still must be a meaningful role for the teacher.

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