The latest promises and perils of MOOCS: California and “eLearning and Digital Cultures”

Two mostly unrelated readings and thoughts about MOOCs this morning.  First, via the book of face, comes from Gregory Ferenstein at TechCrunch, “How California’s Online Education Pilot Will End College As We Know It.” Here’s how it opens:

Today, the largest university system in the world, the California State University system, announced a pilot for $150 lower-division online courses at one of its campuses — a move that spells the end of higher education as we know it. Lower-division courses are the financial backbone of many part-time faculty and departments (especially the humanities). As someone who has taught large courses at a University of California, I can assure readers that my job could have easily been automated. Most of college–the expansive campuses and large lecture halls–will crumble into ghost towns as budget-strapped schools herd students online.

Certainly alarming and dramatic, but is this true? Hard to say since we’re talking about a pilot program, but I have my doubts, mainly because Ferenstein (who is a TechCrunch staff writer and not someone who appears to know a whole lot about how education works) makes some interesting and problematic claims along the way.

He starts by pointing out that San Jose State University provost Ellen N. Junn says that 50% of entering students are ill-prepared in high school and thus don’t meet the “basic requirements” for classes like math and English (writing). That may very well be true, but  that sure seems like a problem with secondary schools and not universities. Anyway, because of the poor graduation rate (48%) and expenses and such, the governor and everyone else in California are desperate to try something– thus a MOOC experiment. And really this part of things makes sense to me. Given the problems, why not try a bold experiment?

But then I think Ferenstein’s argument gets a little more mooshy.

First, there’s this:

A review of research by the Department of Education in 2009 found that “students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction.”

What that meta-study found was that online classes were either slightly better or about the same, but the best results came from “hybrid” course formats. Further, different teaching techniques worked better than others and what did not appear to help people learn were the things that are common in these MOOCs: a lot of video lectures and quizzes. And beyond that, two of the reasons for the results that come out of this study are that students spend more time engaged in the course and students self-select (and are thus more motivated) in online courses.

Then there’s this:

More recently, a pilot of MIT and Harvard’s joint online educational initiative, EdX, found that blending SJSU classes with world-class online lectures reduced the number of students who received a C or lower by 31%.

That link to the New York Times article suggests that this isn’t quite the results of that study. What really seems to be the case is the EdX course was used in one of the SJSU courses more or less as a textbook and that was more effective. That makes a fair amount of sense.

And that leads to this:

In other words, computers can–and have–successfully replaced teachers.

That link is to a stoopid CNN article that says nothing, and the logic overall here is along the lines of “therefore, Ray Charles is God.”

I’m not trying to suggest there is nothing to what Ferensten is claiming; it’s just that there’s a lot that has to fall into place for this to be the beginning of the end. For starters, this pilot program has to succeed, and I for one am extremely skeptical about the chances of a MOOC being a good solution for remedial learners. Second, even if this does work (and that’s a big if to me), I think what it signals is more of a redistribution of the labor forces: that is, part-timers will be working more for the Udacities of the world and less for universities, which could have both bad and good impacts. And third, the rest of the world (university accrediting agencies, employers, parents, students themselves, etc.) have to buy into all of this for this shift to happen.

So worry, but the sky isn’t falling quite yet.

And then there’s “eLearning and Digital Cultures,” which is a post about the MOOC of the same name that starts a week from today. It’s a post by an education tech specialist named David Hopkins who is one of 36,000 students signed up for the course. Ten of those thousands includes me and my students in English 516 this semester.  516 is an online graduate course about teaching with technology, and I’ve build into the course taking this MOOC for the next five weeks. It promises to be very meta: students in an online course take a MOOC about online learning as part of the requirements for that first online course.

We’ll see how it turns out, but I like to think this is the real possibilities of MOOCs. As a substitute for a “real” course, MOOCs seem like a bad idea, which is why I don’t think the sort of thing being tried in California (and lots of other places) is going to work, even thought that might seem like the most obvious uses of MOOC. I think instead MOOCs will prove to be useful for something we haven’t really anticipated yet, and/or they will be useful as textbooks and as online gathering spaces that tie into smaller classes.  That’s one of the reasons I want my students and I to give this MOOC a try as a space where we can share with others around the world our thoughts on “eLearning and Digital Cultures.”



2 thoughts on “The latest promises and perils of MOOCS: California and “eLearning and Digital Cultures””

  1. Excellent analysis Steven. I too am extremely skeptical about MOOCs as an effective tool for teaching remedial students, but I’m also pretty cynical about the money people doing an honest assessment of this program. I think the people in power are bound and determined to thrust MOOCs upon the lower half. I foresee gov’t and educational leaders looking up in twenty years and realizing MOOCs have only made our problems worse.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.