Outlier is a good reason why my book will still relevant

One of the challenges of having a book about MOOCs coming out in Fall 2019– More Than a Moment: Contextualizing the Past, Present, and Future of MOOCs is it’s easy to write it all off as being “over.” It’s certainly a fear I had when finishing this book, especially compared to the book on MOOCs I co-edited, Invasion of the MOOCs, which came out  in 2014. That was only a year after there was honest to goodness fear big corporate MOOCs would replace gen ed college courses, and not so long after serious people predicted the end of higher education as we know it. Now that fear has passed, so who cares about MOOCs?

And then something like Outlier comes along. No, it’s not a MOOC, but the similarities are kind of obvious.

As Inside Higher Ed reported in “Online Education Start-Up, Backed by Research University Credit,” yet another Silicon Valley education entrepreneur start-up promises to disrupt higher education with high quality online courses. Here’s a long quote from the beginning of the IHE article:

Aaron Rasmussen, co-founder of MasterClass, whose cinema-quality how-to courses from celebrity experts like Serena Williams, Dustin Hoffman and Margaret Atwood have been taken by many thousands of Americans, has turned his sights to the for-credit market with his new company, Outlier.org.

The company aims to market its courses mostly to would-be community college students and others seeking to transfer into selective universities.

The modest boast on its home page: “The World’s Best Online Education.”

“Why don’t we have a great online university — something we all know and love and see as both amazingly high quality and extremely affordable?” he says in an interview. “That’s what we’re trying to build.”

Rasmussen et al are focusing on two common general education courses, introductions to psychology and calculus. I find the reasoning behind the calculus course emphasis interesting:  a lot of people who need to take calculus fail it– Rasmussen estimates it as a “billion dollar” a year loss in tuition spent. Outlier’s approach is to build a better experience with the kind of classy and high-end video that has made MasterClass a hit.

Rasmussen had a kind of amusing promo video, which I tweeted last week:

Anyway, besides all of the other reasons why I don’t think this is going to work (buy my book in fall 2019 for more details), three other thoughts:

  • The partnership between Outlier and the University of Pittsburgh for a pilot of their calculus class seems remarkably similar to the failed experiment between Udacity and San Jose State in 2013. It’s not clear to me why either Outlier or Pitt thinks this is going to turn out differently.
  • There are many complex reasons why a lot of students fail calculus (or lots of similar classes), but I am very confident in asserting that the production values of the course materials have little to do with it. No one ever said “Jeez, if there had only been more professionally produced videos in my calculus class I would have passed.” Don’t get me wrong– I do think there is value to taking advantage of the affordances of the media in online courses of all sorts, and I write about that in my book. A lot of the early MOOCs I took, studied, and wrote about were (and still are, I might add) just talking head videos and slide shows. But good video is not a substitute for a solid curriculum and an actual human to work with students– particularly those students (like me) who do not get complex math.
  • There is a significant difference between the kind of Masterclass “Edutainment” courses Rasmussen et al have produced and a course like calculus– and since I teach another one of these courses that a lot of college students struggle with and/or love to hate (first year composition and rhetoric), I feel like I know of what I speak.

Masterclass is edutainment, with a strong emphasis on the entertainment part. They have classes in magic with Penn and Teller, acting with Natalie Portman, comedy with Steve Martin, filmmaking form Spike Lee or Ron Howard, writing with Neil Gaiman or Joyce Carol Oates or Aaron Sorkin and many others, cooking from just about every famous celebrity chef you could think of, etc., etc. Those all sound like fun! As an avid home cook, looking through the cooking class offerings even makes me want to sign up for a series of videos from someone like Thomas Keller! Beats the hell out of what’s on FoodTV nowadays.

On the other hand, no one— not even people who are good at it– ever said “I think it’d be a lot of fun to sign up for an online calculus class,” and “famous calculus teacher” is an oxymoron (as is the case with “famous freshman composition teacher” I might add).

And again in terms of the argument I’m trying to make in my book: MOOCs are/were not “new”. They were the continuation of a history of distance education experiments dating back at least 140 or so years. Some element of these experiments (particularly correspondence and online courses) have been incorporated into the mainstream of higher education, and some of these experiments (radio and television courses) have faded away. The innovators behind these approaches– and I include Rasmussen in this group too– all seem to be motived by a sincere desire to extend the opportunity for access to higher education to otherwise disenfranchised students, and simultaneously, by the desire to make a buck.

So hey, maybe Outliers will break this pattern with a better mousetrap. Somehow I doubt it though.

Why Kevin Carey is (mostly but not entirely) wrong (again)

Last week, HuffPo published an article by Kevin Carey called “The Creeping Capitalist Takeover of Higher Education,” and, if that title wasn’t provocative enough, it also included these two sentences above the story/as a subtitle: “Just a few years ago, universities had a chance to make a quality education affordable to everyone. Here’s the little-known and absolutely infuriating history of what they did instead.”

The basic contours of Carey’s argument here are based on his book The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere. I talk about this book in a book I have coming out in fall 2019 about MOOCs and distance education, More Than a Moment. In his book and in this article, Carey makes a lot of good points, but he is just as often quite wrong– and he was/is really wrong about the potential of MOOCs to make college free and “everywhere.”

First off, some things Carey is right about.

It’s hard to disagree about college tuition being too high. Carey’s assertions as to why tuition is high and his solutions to this problem are way way off, but no sensible observer of American higher education would disagree that college is too expensive.

He’s also right that Online Program Management firms (OPMs) are potentially troubling. I think his characterization of OPMs is simplistic and he forgets that non-profit higher ed has had some complicated and fraught arrangements with for-profit enterprises for at least the last 150 years. Carey is alarmist in this article, I suppose in part because it’s HuffPo. It is true that the arrangements between OPMs and universities are often problematic. EMU’s relationship with the OPM Academic Partnerships is an example of this– and besides talking about this in the last chapter of my book, I blogged about it a while ago here,  and I take this issue up again toward the end of a presentation I gave at the Computers and Writing Conference in 2018. 

So he’s not all wrong. But Carey is spectacularly wrong in other places in this article.  I’ll focus on three of these claims.

Continue reading “Why Kevin Carey is (mostly but not entirely) wrong (again)”

Actually, Higher Ed is Not That Similar to the Newspaper Industry

This week’s Chronicle of Higher Education weekly feature “The Edge,” usually written by Goldie Blumenstyk but this time written by Scott Carlson, is about the “warnings” higher education should heed from what happened with the journalism business. It’s called “What Higher Ed Can Learn From the Newspaper Industry.” Carlson writes:

Newspapers are generally for-profit enterprises; colleges in most cases are not. But the parallels between journalism and academe are striking: We both deal in knowledge and have public service at our core. We have legacy institutions (Harvard, The New York Times) and upstarts (Coursera, Vice Media). Smart, intractable, and often underpaid people — professors and reporters — form the foundation of our industries, taking complex or specialized information and breaking it down for an audience. For many of those people, their academic or journalistic professions are all they ever imagined doing with their lives. To watch their industries crumble is a source of great heartache.

That first point– for-profit versus not-for-profit– is an important difference between journalism and higher ed that unfortunately gets left behind in the rest of the essay. But there are of course other important comparisons. Both journalists and professors tend to think of their mission as a “higher calling” and one that doesn’t necessarily square with everyone else’s views on the purposes of journalism or higher ed. Quoting Jeremy Littau, an associate professor of journalism at Lehigh University, Carlson writes academics think of themselves as discovering and distributing knowledge, when people just want the credential and a job. “We pin our value,” Littau says, “on things that I don’t think the audience is thinking about.” Carlson also cites a CHE report on “Mega Universities” (tl;dr yet)– places like Southern New Hampshire, Liberty University, and Arizona State University– which threaten traditional universities as their enrollments grow to 100,000 or so students, mostly because of aggressive marketing and robust online programs. And so forth.

This is all something I touch on in my book More Than A Moment: Contextualizing the Past, Present, and Future of Massive Open Online Courses, which will (crossing fingers) come out from Utah State University Press in the fall. I think part of what Carlson and (indirectly) Littau is talking about is true. The higher ed “business” is definitely going through a rough time that is comparable to the rough times in journalism and mass media generally. Technology is changing the way both education and journalism are “delivered,” and colleges and universities– particularly the less prestigious ones like EMU– need to innovate in terms of delivery and programs to keep the doors open.  But for me, that’s about where the comparison ends.

I think there were two things that permanently transformed journalism, neither of which has a clear comparison to what’s going on in higher ed. First off, there’s Craig’s List, which I do not think gets enough credit (or blame) for disrupting one of the main sources of income for newspapers, the classifieds. Newspapers– particularly local ones– made a tremendous amount of money from classified ads back in the day. All of those $20 or so a week ads for selling your car or renting an apartment added up. Second, the rapid rise of social media, Google news, and similar forums dramatically changed the way people found, read, and expected to receive news for free.

But beyond that, there are a number of ways in which the “business”/institution of higher ed is quite different from journalism. These are things that I talk about in more detail in the book in relation to MOOCs, but I think it applies to the comparison to journalism as well.

First off, while content “scales,” education and assessment do not– at least not all the time, and not well enough. Certainly higher education has A LOT of content– research, textbooks, tests, writing assignments, etc. But if education was primarily about “delivering” “content” to an interested audience, then the need for schooling– particularly in higher education– would have started its decline with the development of literacy. The real value of higher education comes from the interaction between students and teachers (face to face or online), the assessment of students and their work by experts, and the credentialing of those courses which lead to a recognized college degree. That credential matters a lot. I think Littau is right in that too often, faculty think that our value is the abstract life of the mind, in “discovering and distributing knowledge.” Nonetheless, even if this is what faculty tend to favor and emphasize, we all know students wouldn’t come to universities for the life of the mind and knowledge alone. They certainly wouldn’t pay for it if the credential wasn’t worth something.

Second, I think people who make this comparison to journalism (or who thought MOOCs were going to take down institutional higher education) underestimate the depth and breadth of higher education. In my book, I quote David Labaree (who quotes someone else) about a claim that there are around 85 institutions in the western world  established by 1520 that continue to exist in similar (albeit evolved) ways today. These institutions include the Roman Catholic Church, a few parliaments, and about 70 universities. All of the top 25 universities in the world (as ranked by Times Higher Education) are at least 100 years old, and many much older– Oxford and Cambridge were founded around 1200, Harvard 1636, and comparable “new kids” Stanford and Cal Tech in the 1890s. Lots of universities in the U.S. were founded in the 1800s, including the one where I teach. So why, if higher education is so bad at innovating and if it is an industry “ripe” for disruption or failure, why are so many universities so old?

And then there’s the breadth issue. There are around 4,700 institutions of higher learning in the US– especially if you include all the proprietary schools, cosmetology schools, and the like. That’s almost four times as many newspapers as are published now, and it’s probably more than were published in the 1940s, before the rise of TV and then the Internet.

Third, while most people seeking news don’t like to pay for it, almost all would-be college students (and their families) are more than willing to pay. In the book, I go into some detail about how the cost of attendance has never been the deciding factor new students cite for why they decided to attend a particular college. While COA has always mattered and it matters more now to students than it did in my generation, students still value the quality of the institution and the success of an institution’s graduates more. This is why MOOC providers could not interest traditional undergraduates in taking their courses: even when the costs of taking a MOOC for transferable college credit is dramatically less than taking a course at a more traditional community college or college or university, students didn’t take the MOOC courses in part because the credential wasn’t “worth it.”

Which brings me to my last point for now: as is still the case with MOOCs, the students interested in attending these “mega universities” and other online providers are not the same as the ones interested in attending more traditional colleges and universities. Rather, most (probably a majority) of the students attending places like Southern New Hampshire or Liberty are older students who are coming back to finish their bachelors degree, or they’re starting college later in life, or they’re people who already have an undergraduate degree and they’re now seeking an additional credential or certification. And again, there has always been a lot of “non-traditional” students seeking education or training outside of “traditional” and institutionalized higher education. In the 1920s and 30s, when correspondence schools started to take off in a major way, there were many many more students enrolled in those courses than there were enrolled in institutional higher ed, and a lot of those students were the same kind of non-traditional student interested in MOOCs and online mega-universities now.

The threat of MOOCs disrupting higher education as we know it has largely passed, but more people are enrolled in MOOCs in 2019 than there were at the height of the “year of the MOOC” in 2012. I quote Cathy Davidson’s claim that in 2016, Coursera alone had 25 million students start at least one course on its platform, which is about four million more students enrolled in traditional colleges and universities in the US. My point is the threats to higher education that Carlson and others have identified are not at all new and not actually “threats.”

Don’t get me wrong– there are definite problems in higher education. As has been the case in the U.S. for at least the last 150 years, there will be institutions that will struggle and that will close or merge with others. Regional and opportunity-granting universities– like the one where I work– will continue to face a lot of challenges, things like even further reduced public funding and falling enrollment. Higher education will continue to change. What it means to “go to college” in the 22nd century is likely to be quite different– much in the same way that going to college in the 19th century was quite different from it is now.

But no, higher education is not as similar to the newspaper business. It certainly isn’t as similar as many journalists like to believe.

 

The close of my summer off/FRF semester and the return to teaching

The book manuscript is getting real.

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During the week between Christmas and New Year’s, this weird “out of time” time where it’s not always clear what day it is or what’s open or what’s on TV or when it is socially acceptable to drink a beer, I usually end up writing some kind of post reflecting on the year that was. But I’m not really in the mood for that now, maybe because most of my year that falls into the public part of my life is already out there on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter.

Instead, I’m in the mood to reflect on finishing a copy of the manuscript of my book with the working title MOOCs in Context: (insert catchy post colon part of title here). I am reluctant/too superstitious to share much more about the details of the book beyond the title, other than I have a deal with a publisher and it is due to them at the beginning of the new year. I printed off the copy pictured here because a) it’s a lot easier for me to get help from Annette with the copy-editing and initial feedback if it’s on paper, b) it’s easier for me to re-read/revise like this, and c) it’s cool to see the whole thing as a physical object.

I wrote a bit about this at the beginning of the semester. I didn’t teach this past summer, and this past fall, I had what we call at EMU a “Faculty Research Fellowship” (FRF), which buys faculty out of teaching for a semester. It is not quite a sabbatical but close. So from about June until late August, I was doing program coordinator stuff and then I quit for a while (largely because of some department politic nonsense) and then I started doing that work again (again, more department politic nonsense). So far, this coordinator work has been done without compensation/out of the goodness of my heart. All of which is to say that I’m someone who is a combination of a team player who wants to help out, a control freak who wants to make sure things are done “right,” and an idiot masochist who just doesn’t know how to say no. Much of this coordinator work will continue through the end of winter term (though I’m getting course release then), and then I am hoping to be done forever at least for a while with quasi-administrative duties.

I’ve complained a lot about EMU lately, especially with the junk around trying to jack up our teaching loads and saddling us all with a shitload of bureaucratic work, aka “equivalencies.” But I have to say that EMU is still pretty generous with support for research in the form of sabbaticals and FRFs, especially since EMU is teaching-centric and the bar for what we have to do in terms of scholarship for tenure and promotion is ridiculously low. I was on sabbatical in 2015 (where I was working on the earlier stages of this project) and thanks to this leave this past fall, I finally was able to “finish” a draft. So I’ve got that going for me.

should have been done with this a while ago– at least in my own mind. I was hoping to finish it in the summer of 2015 after my sabbatical. Originally, the deadline I had with the press that will publish this (knocking on various things) was August 2017, which I was able to renegotiate and extend to January 2018 in part to argue for the FRF. And the supportive publisher in question didn’t raise any issues at all about extending the deadline, maybe because they knew before I did that my initial goals were unrealistic, and/or because extending deadlines in academic publishing is pretty much the norm.

I also would have liked to have been finished with the manuscript in October because it would have given me a couple solid months during the fall term to goof around. I’d like to blame the previously mentioned administrative bullshit and program coordinating work, but the reality is I just needed the time. I worked pretty steadily the whole semester, but from about the beginning of November through about December 20 (not counting the Thanksgiving break) I was pretty diligent in putting in a couple of hours a day on it. I haven’t written anything this long that has this much of a “narrative” to it since my dissertation (the textbook doesn’t count for me since that’s a lot more disjointed). I generally try to write in the morning, but with this project, I found myself doing other things first– putzing around with email and the news, going to the gym, running errands and shopping, etc.– and I often didn’t get down to actually working on the book until early afternoon.

Anyway, it’s finished– well, “finished.” Annette is reading it to give me her feedback and copy-edits. I need to do some copy-editing of my own. Then it needs to go to the publisher who will send it out to readers who will (presumably) make suggestions for changes. Those will hopefully be minor, but again, still not finished finished. Then there’s an indexing process, which I am contemplating trying to do by myself but which will probably involve me paying someone to do. Then there are proofs and whatever is involved in discussing a book cover and marketing and all that, then there’s the physical (perhaps digital too?) printing before it gets into peoples’ hands to read level of finished.

And what’s next? Well, the short-term is I have to get kind of serious about contemplating what I’m going to be teaching this coming winter term which starts January 3. I am looking forward to getting back to it, though at the same time, I feel quite ill-prepared. As far as writing/scholarship goes: we’ll see. I’ve been telling most anyone who asks or who is willing to let me talk at them about it that I want to try to write something different that isn’t necessarily academic– maybe fiction, maybe some op-ed pieces, maybe some non-fiction essay kinds of things, etc. I might try to reboot my textbook project into something self-published, and I have a different kind of writing textbook kind of thing I might try to do– though again, I’m not interested in trying to deal with the textbook publishers. I learned my lesson on that one way back when. I might try to reboot my dissertation too, though that’s pretty long in the tooth at this stage.  Maybe just more blogging.

Academic Partnerships, “False EMU” in the news, and finding a concluding “hook” to my book project

EMU is in the news once again for the wrong reasons, and interestingly enough, the latest problems are helping me find a conclusion to the book I’m working on. But before I get to that, let me try to explain a bit what’s going on here.

One of the things that happened at the end of the Fall 2016 semester (thanks in part to the knuckleheads who were in charge of the EMU-AAUP back then) was the administration entered into a deal with an operation called Academic Partnerships (AP). AP agreed to market nationally an online Bachelor of Science in Nursing program (BSN) along with an online Bachelors of “General Studies” program. In exchange, AP would collect around 50% of the tuition collected from these online students. As I wrote back in February when I went to an informational meeting on all this, I saw a lot of problems with this arrangement with AP, and the new leadership of the EMU-AAUP had LOTS of problems with the deal. The new EMU-AAUP leadership said that the arrangement with AP goes well beyond marketing and that ultimately, AP would be doing a lot of the teaching and curriculum work of these courses under the name of EMU and without faculty control, The administration has argued this isn’t happening and isn’t going to happen, that AP is just marketing.

The administration didn’t want to negotiate this at all, so the EMU-AAUP essentially took them to court: that is, a labor arbitration process where a judge/arbitrator hears the case and makes a ruling. I know that was in process, which might explain the timing of the EMU-AAUP’s PR campaign right now. So far, that campaign has been pretty effective. The Chronicle of Higher Education picked up the story here, “Faculty Members at One More University Push Back at Online Programs.”  Here’s a longish quote from that article:

As an online program manager, or OPM, Academic Partnerships has contracted with Eastern Michigan to market and recruit students for its online programs. Typically, OPMs — which also include 2U and Pearson Education — build a college’s online enrollment and bring in more revenue than the college arguably could bring in on its own. But critics argue that such partnerships can result in a lower-quality education and fewer consumer protections.

According to a recent report on the industry from the Century Foundation, “the involvement of a third-party — particularly a profit-seeking entity — in providing services so intertwined with the actual teaching and learning … presents potential risks to quality and value in the education.”

That “recent report” from the Century Foundation is perhaps something more interesting to me and my work on MOOCs than most quasi-casual observers of this arrangement with EMU, but among other things, OPMs are a lot more common and far-reaching than I thought. It’s pretty damning of the deal EMU has made, but also of the deal that many many universities have made.

Also in the press today is this piece from Michigan Public Radio, “Faculty unions fight EMU online degree contract with ads.” EMU’s spokesperson/PR guy Geoff Larcom is quoted saying that EMU won’t be using any AP “coaches,” and he went on to say this:

Larcom says initiatives like this are necessary, because Michigan’s population of college-bound students is projected to shrink over the next decade.

“Regional universities like Eastern Michigan, like our peers, are needing to think of ways to further enhance revenue,” he says.

Just as a slight tangent here: first, whenever anyone associated with the EMU administration says anything about the institution’s finances and then they don’t say anything about how much money EMU wastes on athletics– particularly football– I stop listening. The bottom line is the upper-administration and the Board of Regents cannot have it both ways. Second, universities like EMU need to recall that we are a state-operated and non-profit university and our main purpose is to educate students. We’re not about generating “revenue” generally, and if Michigan’s population of college-bound students does indeed go down over the next decade or so, then maybe EMU should think more about graceful strategies for getting smaller rather than “growing revenue.”

The story also got picked up by this piece from EdSurge, “Professors Take Out Ads Protesting Their University’s Online Degree Programs.” I came across this piece because Larcom posted a link to it on the EMUTalk Facebook page– he offered it as an example of how this article demonstrates faculty input and control in the process. I don’t think that’s what it says at all, but let me quote from the end of this article because I think this is what Larcom is referring to here:

“They wanted to know, ‘Do you really need letters of recommendation for students?’”[Ronald Flowers, Department Head of Leadership and Counseling in the College of Education] recalled. But he said he always pushes back in such situations. “Our faculty make the decisions about who gets in, and that process hasn’t changed at all.”

“There’s been a perception that Academic Partnerships has dictated some things,” he added. “But I’ve been in the room when we’ve had conversations where I’ve said, ‘This would threaten our academic integrity and we won’t go there,’ and they’ve said, ‘Fine.’”

He said that the charges made in ads placed this week by faculty groups about the university’s arrangement with Academic Partnerships are “not accurate.”

“I appreciate the concern about the nature of privatization of public education—I get it,” he said. “We don’t dispute that it’s a good conversation to have. But it shouldn’t necessarily be a conversation stopper.”

For union leaders, though, the biggest concern seem to be what might happen as these for-profit entities move closer to the academic core.

I suppose you could read Flowers’ recounting this exchange with AP as an example of how faculty (though in this case, I’d say administrators since a Department Head at EMU is technically not a faculty member but an administrator) can “push back” against AP. But the fact that this relationship with AP requires any faculty to “push back” is a huge problem. And all it would take for AP to get their way on lowering the standards is a less forceful administrator– which is why I think the EMU-AAUP’s fears are valid. It’s also the conclusion of that report the CHE article links to, “The Private Side of Public Higher Education.” One quick quote from that report relevant to this quote:

If institutions—public and nonprofit alike—are not careful to monitor these contractors, students and taxpayers who thought they were working with a relatively safe public institution may find that they have been taken advantage of by a for-profit company. More so than other contracting arrangements, OPMs represent the outsourcing of the core educational mission of public institutions of higher education, threatening the consumer-minded focus that results from the public control of schools.

But what about your MOOC book? Oh yeah, that. If you’ve read this far, I guess I can go into that a bit…

My book project has the working title “MOOCs in Context” and it’s about the rapid rise and fall of Massive Online Open Courses viewed from the instructor experience (I interviewed a bunch of people who created and taught MOOCs), the student experience (I took a bunch of MOOCs and write about that), and also from the historic experience (I compare MOOCs to previous technical innovations in distance education.)  I guess I have two basic arguments: first, there has always been a disconnect between what MOOC providers hoped/thought MOOCs could be and what MOOC students and faculty hoped/thought MOOCs were. Second, MOOCs are not “completely new” (a claim made repeatedly by MOOC providers and pundits); rather, they are part of a long history of distance learning technologies that have happened in higher education in the U.S. over the last 150 or so years.

I’ll spare the details for now, but MOOCs “failed” in the sense that they will not be altering the way that higher education works in the foreseeable future. They will not, as some pundits predicted just a few years ago, close down universities. But a lot of what I’m trying to do in the last chapter of this book is to ponder the “fuzzy future” of what comes after MOOCs. It’s obviously tricky, but one of the things I think the “MOOC moment” should teach us about the future of higher education is to be weary of the “transformative” promises of for-profit entities like AP. So from my point of view, this EMU “current event” story will fit in well with the end of my book. We’ll wait for what the arbitration says, but I hope it’s a happy ending.

 

Where was I? Oh yeah, MOOCs

Slowly but surly (surly but slowly?), the MOOC book project I’ve been working on continues. I don’t want to jinx it by saying too much, but I am hoping to finish a manuscript by late summer/early fall fall/early winter, which I think is completely possible since I have a “Faculty Research Fellowship” from EMU coming up. This means that I’m not teaching this fall, which is probably a good thing for me with all this nonsense about equivalencies.

I wrote about this a bit last year here and also here, and I am sure it will come up again. I’ve always been pretty positive about Eastern as a place to work (albeit a place that has always had problems), but I have to say I feel like it’s kind of a dark time at EMU right now. If I were “new” here, I’d probably pay pretty close attention to what other positions are coming open. It all does make me contemplate what I really want to do for the last third or so of my career and/or working life. But that’s a different blog post.

But where was I? Oh yeah, MOOCs.

So MOOCs are still “a thing,” as they say, though they are no longer the kind of red-hot existential threat of a thing they were when Charlie Lowe and I were putting together Invasion of the MOOCs in 2013, let alone during the downturn/“Trough of Disillusionment” they were in when the book came out in early 2014. MOOCs have changed a lot, which actually kind of helps the argument I’m trying to make with the book I’m trying to write right now.

It seems to me that one of the biggest changes that has come about in the last year or so is the ways in which the discourse about MOOCs have been merging with/melding into other forms of online and/or distance education. For example, there’s the Handbook of Research on Writing and Composing in the Age of MOOCs edited by Elizabeth Monske and Kris Blair that came out late last year, which is as much about online instruction more generally as it is about MOOCs. (Not to brag too much, but a ton of the chapters in this book cite chapters from Invasion of the MOOCs, which was nice to see). Elizabeth Losh has an edited collection coming out later this month that I think will try to capture these shifts, MOOCs and Their Afterlives: Experiments in Scale and Access in Higher Education (and spoiler alert: I have a chapter in that collection). I think this sentence in the book blurb on Amazon gets at in terms of how MOOCs are changing: “The collection goes beyond MOOCs to cover variants such as hybrid or blended courses, SPOCs (Small Personalized Online Courses), and DOCCs (Distributed Open Collaborative Course).” That’s funny: I thought I was just teaching small online courses as part of my regular teaching at EMU for the last dozen or so years. Turns out I’ve been teaching SPOCs!

I think that was part of what was going on with some articles that came out recently about an experiment in MOOCs online courses at MIT. The headline in the Inside Higher Ed article, “For-Credit MOOC: The Best of Both Worlds at MIT?” is sort of understandable, but it wasn’t really a MOOC. Based on what I’ve read in the executive summary of the experiment, what was really going on here is there was a special online course within the MOOC structure for a course on Circuits and Electronics at MIT. Basically, a small group of students– it ended up being a total of 27 who finished– were allowed to take the course with the MOOC materials though in a decidedly not “Massive” format with lots and lots of attention. Among other things, these students had regular interactions with the course TA, weekly homework and lab assignments, and students who seemed to be lagging behind were encourage to complete the work via personal emails and/or to come to campus office hours.

In other words, these students took an online/quasi-hybrid course and it worked out well. Oops, I mean a SPOC. So clearly, one of the lessons learned here is the scale, the class cohort, and the support for that cohort beyond the MOOC content all make a big difference. But I’ll also say something I (and lots of others) have said before: one of the positive things to result from the rise/fall/leveling of MOOCs has been the realization by the “Flagship” universities in the US that online and/or hybrid courses (which have been offered at places like EMU for a long time now, of course) might not be such a bad idea after all.

But online courses are of course not the same thing as face to face courses. It’s about the affordances of the formats, and you’re mileage will vary in all kinds of important ways. That is kind of the conclusion of a study sponsored by the Brookings Institution, “Promises and pitfalls of online education.”  I’ve only read the executive summary (one of the reasons why I’m linking to it here is to read it later) and Inside Higher Ed had a good piece of various experts reacting to the study. The two basic takeaways I have right now (neither of which is exactly earth-shattering) are a) yes, online courses are not a “one size fits all” solution, and b) under-prepared or otherwise marginal students struggle in college and need a lot more attention to succeed.

(As a slight tangent: while I often disagree with him, I think Fredrik deBoer highlights the often ignored basic requirements people need for academic success, which has nothing to do with the medium or format of how we offer college courses and everything to do with the luck of our births. Those of us who had parents who went to college, who grew up middle-class, who don’t have some sort of cognitive or developmental disability, who weren’t exposed to lead or born premature, and who weren’t abused or neglected have a much better chance at being academically successful than those who didn’t have this luck. All of which is to say it’s a whole lot more complicated than a class being online or face to face.)

But where was I again? Oh yeah, MOOCs.

One of the things I want to do as I start wrapping up this project is to revisit how I became interested in MOOCs in the first place: I want to take a couple more MOOCs. I haven’t completely decided yet, but I am leaning toward two different approaches to MOOCs that have emerged in the last year or so and that are different from the MOOCs I took before. I’m interested in the MOOCs that are happening at edX in association with Arizona State– ASUx. I’m also planning on doing something different from what I did before by signing up for a self-paced course in something I know I am really quite bad at, College Algebra and Problem Solving. My lack of math skills is one of the main reasons why I ended up as an “English major” way back when. I could pay the “verified certificate” fee of $49 and then, if I pass the course with a “C” or better, I can pay $600 for the credit which is valid at ASU or, presumably, transferable to other universities. Since I don’t really need this course for anything, I think I’ll pass on that– though upon registering, I see I can “upgrade to verified” later on. And I’ll be curious if there are things built into the course to “motivate” me to keep going with it.

I’m also going to sign up for a Udacity course– not part of their “Nanodegrees” but something free. Udacity made a pretty hard shift really away from higher education to more of a training model a few years ago and in some level of partnership with various corporate partners. Take the Digital Marketer nanodegree, for example: this program is supposed to take 3 months to complete to (presumably) make you eligible for jobs with salary ranges between $42K and $182k a year, and it is offered in collaboration with Facebook, Google, Hootsuite, and others. Since the “full-immersion” nanodegree is $1000 and the “self-study” version of the program is $600, I don’t think I’ll be going there– though like I said, the way things are going at EMU, maybe it would be worth the investment.

Anyway, for now, I’ll stick with something for free that still might be useful for me, Intro to JavaScript. We’ll see where that (and a math class!) takes me.

 

Once again, the “International MOOC Colloquium: The MOOC Identity” (a conference recap)

I am writing this (or I at least started writing this) post while flying back from Italy where I was at the second conference I have attended in Anacapri in the last two years, the “International MOOC Colloquium: The MOOC Identity” sponsored by Federica Weblearning at the Universitá di Napoli Federico II (here’s a PDF of the program).  I of course didn’t have to do this on the plane, but a) because it’s the first day of classes, including for my online one, I thought it was worth it to to pay the money and do some teaching/worky-work stuff over the Atlantic and b) I wanted to do my best to stay as awake as possible to adjust to the time difference once we get home (more or less mission accomplished on that one).

Once again, I wondered why I was invited in the first place (pretty much the same reason as before, the Invasion of the MOOCs book and also because I was there last year), and once again I was one of only a few Americans (though also once again there were a few Canadians and folks from South America, too), and this time, I think I might very well have been the only “teaching classes on a regular basis” kind of professor.  Everyone else was some version of administrator, entrepreneur, policy analyst, researcher, and/or educational tech person. Originally, there had been some people on the program from Africa and India, but it didn’t work out for them to be there for one reason or another.

Here’s a link to my presentation (slides incorporated into the Google Doc that was more or less my script– the live version was a little different of course). A general recap of what happened after the break:

Continue reading “Once again, the “International MOOC Colloquium: The MOOC Identity” (a conference recap)”

As Koller Exits Coursera, Thinking About What’s Next with MOOCs in Context

Besides preparing for the start of the Fall term here at EMU, I’m also preparing for a return to Capri for the second International MOOC conference being sponsored by the University of Naples Federico II. No one is more surprised about this than me. As I wrote about/recapped last year, I assumed that my invitation last year was one of those once in an academic career kinds of things I got to recall while I was getting to retire or something. I guess now I get to tell the story of how I was invited twice.

The theme of last year’s conference was “The Future of Learning at a Distance and the Role of MOOCs,” and a lot (not all) of the talks were about the ways that MOOC were going to figure into changing higher education as we know it. The theme of this year’s conference is about “MOOC Identity,” concern with the fast changing nature of MOOCs, the role of professional and “less scholarly” MOOCs, and the evolving “corporate” and “academic” partnerships. Last year’s conference was great and I’m sure this year’s one will be too, but once again, a lot has changed with MOOCs in less than a year.

Which brings me to my point: as Rolin Moe discusses here and as Jonathan Rees discusses here, Coursera’s Daphne Koller’s is leaving and going to Calico (which is a Google/Alphabet company). On the one hand, she’s just the latest. Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng left in 2012 (though both remain involved in Coursera on their board), and Sebastian Thurn stepped back from Udacity earlier this year (though he too remains involved, just not as directly).

On the other hand, Koller’s departure is different and important because she has been the face and driving force behind Coursera. She was the one who gave a TED talk where she said Coursera was going to bring the dream of higher education to the slums of South Africa.  She’s the one who (at least as quoted in Keven Carey’s The End of College) said something along the lines of “If only 2 percent of all the people in the world are willing and able to pay $74 for a service, that’s $10 billion a year, which is a lot of revenue for a company that can fit all of its employees into one part of one floor of a commercial office building in Palo Alto.” And she’s the one who later claimed that the hype around Coursera was always overblown and the company was doing well by pivoting as a credential provider, the kind of thing professionals might list as an achievement on their LinkedIn accounts.

Moe’s point is that MOOCs are a myth/dream/hope the EdTech world continues to chase:

We push MOOCs not because they have any chance of solving whatever it is which needs to be solved, but because we want to believe there is some one-click option that we could employ and it would create the solution we desire.  [T.S.] Eliot is the oft-quoted but wrong lens.  It is better to consider Barthes’ view of myth and the resurrection of the falsely obvious.  In his preface to Mythologies (1972), Barthes notes how the dominant cultural nodes throughout everyday life conspire to “dress up” our reality to contextualize it in terms of history.  This history should not be considered objective, factual or just but rather the determination of the dominant social climate of the time.  As Neil Selwyn (2013) notes, the expansion of technology (and the rise of EdTech) coincides with a growth in libertarian ideals and neoliberal governmental policies, a one-two punch of individual exceptionalism and belief in the power of the outsider.  We believe in the spirit of the entrepreneur, the perspective of the organization and the power of the technological.

Rees’ metaphor is of the abandoned ship, though he references the mysterious case of the Mary Celeste which was discovered abandoned but none of the crew members were ever found. The “MOOC ship” has/is being abandoned because it never lived up to the hype of the initial “mania,” but it is more than that:

If teaching were like most activities, it might be capable of being automated and scaled. But unfortunately for the MOOC providers, teaching isn’t like most activities.  Every dedicated professor – even those of us who do not meet the MOOC provider’s definition of “superstar” faculty – can provide a learning experience that’s superior to watching pre-recorded lectures alongside tens of thousands of people from around the globe.

Even then, like the Mary Celeste, online courses without a live crew manning them can be very lonely experiences. A good education is an active experience, meaning that your professor can see you and adjust their teaching to the reactions of their audience and the students can respond to their professors in real time.  Watching professors “on demand” on your computer, alone in your room, might make good business sense for Coursera, but it makes poor educational sense for anyone with access to an on-campus alternative. That’s why not enough people will ever fork over enough of their money to keep Coursera afloat for the long-term.

I think Moe and and Rees are slightly wrong, but basically right. I say “slightly wrong” because, as I will be reminded once again in Capri in just over a week, there are many players still involved in the MOOC biz, and the ones outside of the U.S. have different reasons and means of support than the ones inside the U.S. As I learned last year, a lot of the MOOC efforts in Europe are government-sponsored enterprises of various types, and this year’s conference looks to feature speakers from Africa and India, two places that have different goals and needs with higher education generally and MOOCs in particular.

Also, let’s not forget that a) there are some Canadians (paging Stephen Downes, Dave Cormier, and George Siemens) who would argue in different ways that Coursera and Udacity and the like never were “true MOOCs,” b) there are still a lot of other big MOOC players where things seems to be going at least “okay” (EdX, for example), and c) just because someone leaves a company doesn’t mean the company is going under (Bill Gates and Steve Jobs immediately come to mind).

But again, Moe and Rees are basically right in that the hype of MOOCs completely transforming higher education as we know it has proven to be wrong and it was always wrong. For me, that’s part of what makes MOOCs all the more interesting to study as both another innovation– not a disruption– in distance education technologies, and also as a phenomenon about the glaring ignorance of how education “works” combined with ginned up fears of missing out.

A simple and cursory tour of the history of distance education demonstrates that there have been plenty of hyped phenomenons similar to MOOCs in higher education over the last 150 or so years. Some (radio and television immediately come to mind) had their moments but were ultimately transformed into something else– in the U.S., public broadcasting. Correspondence and “traditional” online courses were hyped, feared, and/or critiqued as threats to the foundations of “The University,” but they ultimately became relatively “normal” means of taking college classes in the U.S.

MOOCs have always had a significant student audience problem. Rees is right– a lot of the problem (based on my own experiences and writing about this, at least) is that the MOOC learning experience isn’t at all comparable to the actual college experience, face to face or online. And while talking about dropout rates with MOOCs is tricky for many reasons (Are MOOC participants really “students?” If they poke around a MOOC for a week and decide they aren’t interested, are they a “dropout?” If a participant gets what they want out of a MOOC but doesn’t finish, is that a “failure?”), any mode of instruction where over 90% of participants don’t complete the course for some recognizable and transferable form of “credit” is not going to replace what we’re doing right now.  But it’s more than that. I think it’s always been a problem of the MOOC providers offering a different “product” than what degree-seeking college students want.

As I have blogged about before, there is consistent data about why students choose the institutions they choose, and by a wide margin, the top two reasons incoming students cite for their choices are the school’s academic reputation and the perception that the school’s graduates get good jobs. The cost of attendance as a reason for picking a particular school is more or less tied for third with financial assistance, schools reputation for social activities, and a visit to campus. In other words, while everyone agrees that tuition is too high, the cost of attendance doesn’t turn out to have a whole lot of effect on the choices going to college students (and their families) make. This survey data is very much in evidence in my local community, where the expensive (and the more highly perceived) University of Michigan attracts many more applicants than the less expensive (and less highly regarded) Eastern Michigan University. If costs were more important than perceptions about academic reputation and potential employment, then EMU would be the school turning away more than half of the people who apply.

In any event, Koller et al initially thought (hoped?) they would draw students away from a place like EMU (and maybe even U of M) because their certificate options were so much cheaper. But that’s like setting up a hot dog stand and trying to sell it to people who are trying to go out to a decent and multi-course sit-down meal. Worse yet, almost all of the participants MOOCs have attracted already have college degrees and they’re not that interested in paying for some “infotainment.” To extend my food metaphor a bit more: it’s hard to market hot dogs to people who really aren’t that hungry– oh sure, maybe they’ll have a sample, but they aren’t going to pay for one.

I think there’s also been a disconnect of perceptions of what MOOCs are potentially for between administrative-types (not to mention various pundits and politicians) and the faculty involved in developing and teaching MOOCs. None of the MOOC professors I’ve read, published in Invasion of the MOOCs, or interviewed for my current project think that MOOCs could replace the experience of taking an actual college class. MOOCs might be useful for lots of things (research, community outreach, PR, and maybe even a way to validate “life experiences” for credit of some sort), and maybe MOOCs make the idea of an online class more palatable. But that’s it.

So what I’m getting at is what’s interesting about looking at context of the rise and fall of MOOCs is not about MOOCs themselves. It’s not useful (or smart) for anyone to look at the “end” of MOOCs and to happily pronounce “well, I’m glad that’s over with and I’ll never have to worry about that again.” No, what’s interesting is seeing how the MOOC phenomenon has proven to be similar and different compared to earlier instructional technologies, and what impact MOOCs will have on what’s next.

Clinton’s not exactly brilliant plan on addressing costs in higher ed

There was an article in Inside Higher Ed the other day about presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s “innovation” plan for helping to address costs in higher education. I am sure there is a lot more to this than what IHE was able to summarize, but here’s part of what IHE said:

The plan proposes $10 billion in federal funding (a significant amount in tight budget times, no matter who wins the election) for students to enroll in vetted boot camps, coding academies, massive open online courses and other programs run by alternative education providers, as well as providing unspecified rewards for colleges that accept those programs as credit toward graduation.

For entrepreneurs, the plan proposes letting them and potentially their first 10 to 20 employees defer payments on their student loans, penalty-free, for up to three years “as they work through the critical start-up phase of new enterprises.” Entrepreneurs whose start-ups serve “distressed communities” or “provide measurable social impact and benefit” will after five years be able to apply to have up to $17,500 of their loans forgiven.

There’s also a big emphasis on STEM programs, education toward jobs, etc., etc.

I think Alexander Holt has a nice follow-up column to this, also in Inside Higher Ed, “Clinton’s Giveaway to Silicon Valley.” Among other things, Holt points out that more STEM training isn’t automatically “the solution” since there is some evidence that there is actually a larger supply of STEM trained would-be employees than jobs, that the status quo already has loan deferment plans along the lines of what Clinton is proposing, and the last group of students who college students who need financial help from the government is would-be entrepreneurs. To quote:

If Clinton wants to give away money to people who will eventually be wealthy, this proposal is a great idea. People working in tech start-ups will likely go on to earn a fairly high income in life. If a young entrepreneur has a degree from a good school and highly valuable skills, she can still get a high-paying job even if the company fails. If her company succeeds, she will eventually have a lot of money.

And just to add: for the most part, Clinton’s plan to help entrepreneurs is not going to help most of the students we have at Eastern. Most/many of our students are from working class/working poor backgrounds and they are often first generation college students. These students are getting college degrees to get a foothold into the middle-class. Sure, some of our students have Silicon Valley-like savvy and the desire to start their own businesses, but the vast majority of our students are trying to get into an already existing field and business. The same probably goes for most students at most universities, actually.

But speaking specifically about MOOCs and alternative providers: Clinton (and whoever she is listening to on this) is just flat-out ignoring how higher education works. I’ve blogged about this many many times before, and I don’t think I’m saying anything particularly new or controversial. To sum up:

  • MOOCs and professional training enterprises (like Lynda.com) are mostly useful to adults who already have college degrees and jobs who are seeking additional training and credentials, and particularly training and credentials in IT related fields. Traditionally-aged (18-21 year olds, more or less) would-be college students are interested in a degree program, not miscellaneous classes that they cobble together from various MOOCs and “boot camps.” This is why MOOCs have been pivoting to the adult/corporate training market and away from the higher education market.
  • While everyone agrees that college is too expensive and that the costs should be contained, the solution is not to offer cheaper and largely unproven alternatives. Rather, the solution (IMO) is to look at all of the alternatives that already exist. Unlike in a lot of parts of the world, in the U.S. we have hundreds of community colleges and regional universities (like EMU) that are geographically accessible.
  • Furthermore, (as I’ve blogged about before too), while the costs of attendance obviously matters to traditional college students and their families, it is only one factor students make about where to go to college, and it’s usually not the most important choice. The Higher Education Research Institute has been surveying first year students for fifty years, and in answer to the question about what was “very important” in their decision about where to attend college, cost consistently runs behind “the college has a very good academic reputation” and “the college’s graduates get good jobs,” and it is almost tied with “the college has a good reputation for its social activities.” If cost was the most important reason for why students decide to go where they go, Washtenaw Community College would have to turn down a significant percentage of the students who applied and the University of Michigan would be begging people to think about going there. In short, the solutions being proposed– making higher education cheaper– doesn’t address the real problem, which is access to high quality higher education.
  • To the extent that MOOCs are going to be useful for students earning college credit, it is most likely going to be for things like the College Level Examination Program (aka CLEP tests), advanced placement, or for various “experience-based” degrees and credits. For example, Georgia Tech has an Online Masters of Computer Science program that is running more or less as a MOOC. As I understand it, a lot of the students in this program are IT people who are well-versed in the kinds of things they are studying.The students enrolled in this program are there not so much to “learn new things;” they are there to prove to a credential-providing institution that they already know these things. That’s all fine and good, but it isn’t going to help the 18 to 20 year old looking for experience in the first place.
  • While the dropout rates in MOOCs might mean a lot of different things, one thing is for sure: students who successfully start and complete a MOOC for credit have an unusually high level of self-motivation and ability to work independently. Most traditional college students are not like this. Actually, most everyone is not like this.

Now, if Hillary et al were to call me and ask for my ideas, the first thing I would suggest is that they look around them to the solutions that exist in the form of accessible community colleges and regional universities like EMU. In theory, I’m for a system where students can attend universities like EMU for free, though in practice, I worry about the strings that would be attached to that kind of program by the Feds (as if Institutional Assessment of various flavors wasn’t bad enough). Besides, it’s a fantasy to think that Hillary (or Bernie, for that matter) can wave a magic wand and make that happen over night.

What could happen more easily (maybe?) is the Feds could boost the amount of money going into the Pell Grant program, they could ease the restrictions on how students can use that money (let them go to summer school, for example), and they could roll back the cost of student loans to either zero points interest or the same as the prime rate. There is absolutely no reason why the Federal government ought to be making any money off of its student loan program.

But then again, no one asked me, so….

ASU and MOOCs: six months later, I might actually still be right

I noticed this morning an old post of mine had gotten a couple of hits, this post from back in late April, “ASU’s edX MOOC deal: Lots of links and a few thoughts.” This was when Arizona State University announced this big plan with edX to offer a freshman year of college via something they called the “Global Freshman Academy.” This came shortly after a widely publicized deal with Starbucks to offer its employees ASU online courses.  Back then, I quoted Matt “Confessions of a Community College Dean” Reed’s post “What Problem are ASU and EdX Solving?” at some length; among other things, he argued that this ASU deal doesn’t make a lot of sense since community colleges are simply a better deal. Besides agreeing with Reed, I also argued:

  • MOOCs haven’t proven themselves to “work” well for the kind of general education courses part of this initiative;
  • As we’ve seen with other online initiatives, students tend to take online courses fairly locally; and (and this was my main argument),
  • This is an example of how MOOC providers are focusing on the wrong goal and the wrong audience. To quote myself: “students pick colleges first based on academics, second on job prospects,  and then (roughly tied for third/fourth/fifth place) on scholarship opportunities, cost of attendance, and social activities. And as I’ve also blogged about before, all the data suggests that most MOOC takers/students already have a college degree, don’t need or want the credit, and are taking the course for personal enrichment/’edutainment.'”

This ASU deal was big, was supposed to be a game-changer. I’ve interviewed a bunch of people for my (still on-going, not getting done fast enough) MOOC book project, and I can recall at least one interview where this came up as an example of where MOOCs were heading. When I was at that conference in Italy, this deal was brought up a couple of times as something to watch closely.

Well, six-ish months later, I’m still right.  Continue reading “ASU and MOOCs: six months later, I might actually still be right”