Yet another MOOC reading round-up

Before I post more about the Duke Composition I MOOC (maybe tomorrow?), I thought I’d also catch up a bit on some of the articles and other things MOOC-related I’ve come across lately.  More or less in the order of how closely I read them….

•  There’s a new leader in the “punniest” use of “MOOC” in the title of a MOOC-related issue:  Andrew Delbanco’s “MOOCs of Hazard: Will online education dampen the college experience? Yes. Will it be worth it? Well…” from the New Republic online.  Heh. MOOCs of Hazard.  Heh.

This is one of the better overviews of MOOCs I’ve read and I’d recommend it for anyone seeking an introduction to the whole thing. Besides being clear and well-written, it is full of useful links to other key MOOC articles. In my reading, I keyed in on these paragraphs, I guess because of other things I’ve been reading:

There are many reasons why college costs continue to soar: the expense of outfitting high-tech science labs, the premium placed on research that lures faculty out of the classroom (and, in turn, requires hiring more faculty to teach classes), the proliferation of staff for everything from handling government regulation to counseling increasingly stressed students. At some institutions, there are also less defensible reasons, such as wasteful duplication, lavish amenities, and excessive pay and perks for top administrators and faculty.

But the most persuasive account of the relentless rise in cost was made nearly 50 years ago by the economist William Baumol and his student William Bowen, who later became president of Princeton. A few months ago, Bowen delivered two lectures in which he revisited his theory of the “cost disease.”1 “In labor-intensive industries,” he explained, “such as the performing arts and education, there is less opportunity than in other sectors to increase productivity by, for example, substituting capital for labor.” Technological advances have allowed the auto industry, for instance, to produce more cars while using fewer workers. Professors, meanwhile, still do things more or less as they have for centuries: talking to, questioning, and evaluating students (ideally in relatively small groups). As the Ohio University economist Richard Vedder likes to joke, “With the possible exception of prostitution . . . teaching is the only profession that has had no productivity advance in the 2,400 years since Socrates.”

This is a true statement—but it unwittingly undercuts its own point: Most people, I suspect, would agree that there are some activities—teaching and prostitution among them—in which improved productivity and economies of scale are not desirable, at least not from the point of view of the consumer.

I know first hand that Delbanco is right that teaching does not scale; I can only guess the same is true for prostitution.

One of Bowen’s favorite analogies in the whole “cost disease” argument is that of a string quartet: that is, there’s not a whole lot you can do to make higher education much more efficient, thus academia is on the same trajectory as string quartets.  But I find this cost disease argument/string quartet argument irritating for at least two reasons (besides the “doesn’t scale” argument that Delbanco highlights).  First, the main forces driving up the costs of higher education are not the professors. Rather, the main forces for driving up costs in public higher education in the U.S. has been the decrease in public funding, but both public and private ed costs are rising because of bloated administrators (both too many of them and too highly paid), bloated regulations, assessments, and other examples of time-consuming “administrative creep” (which is perhaps the only justification for more administrators), sports, campus amenities that have turned many universities (particularly private ones) into something akin to an all-inclusive resort for early 20-somethings, and the kinds of things that have driven up costs for every other employer.

Second, the analogy misses the importance of higher education in the U.S. right now, especially compared to string quartets. The minimum requirement for entry into the white collar/middle class in the U.S. is a college degree, which is why enrollment in universities in the U.S. is still robust– even with all the problems, rising costs, and free alternatives. So I look at it like this: if the minimum requirement to get a job in middle-management was season tickets to a string quartet, there’d be one on every corner and the media would be full of articles regarding the crisis in chamber music.

•  From the CHE’s “Wired Campus” blog comes “California State U. System Will Expand MOOC Experiment.” The short version is San Jose State University had a pilot program where they were using an edX MOOC called “Circuits & Electronics” as part of a “flipped classroom” for an introductory course in electrical engineering. To quote:

The university offered three versions of the course: two conventional face-to-face sections and one “blended” section, in which students watched edX videos on their own and then participated in group activities, sans lecturing, during class time. The pass rates in the two conventional sections were 55 percent and 59 percent. In the “flipped” section with the edX videos, 91 percent of students passed.

This seems to me to be a pretty strong critique against “conventional” lecture hall instruction more than anything else, and it also strikes me as another example of how MOOCs might perform best as something akin to textbooks.

•  According to this piece in Inside Higher Ed, Stanford and edX are teaming up to eventually make an open source MOOC/online teaching platform.  More in the battle between profit-motivated and for “nonprofit,” though sometimes the differences between those two categories is fuzzy, especially in higher education.

•  Phil Hill has a good post on e-Literate called “Emerging Student Patterns in MOOCs” that I think describes well the ways in which students participate (or mostly not participate) and why the reported high numbers for MOOC enrollment are mostly useless. Of course, I don’t know if this is based on any real data since I don’t think the likes of Coursera are giving out information like that about student patterns.

•  Dave Cormier has an interesting post, “MOOCs to cultivate networked textbooks part 1,” which is basically about using MOOCs as a development platform for open source projects like textbooks. So not just as textbooks but also to make textbooks.

•  Speaking of this textbook angle:  from Inside Higher Ed “Digital Rescue,” where (among other things) former Tufts University President Lawrence S. Bacow spoke about online education and MOOCs.  He predicts that MOOCs will evolve into course materials that professors can customize and that MOOCs are probably too limited to provide the same kind of benefits of a “liberal arts education.” Here’s my favorite passage:

“We need to able to document, to explain very clearly what it is that one gets from spending four years confined under temperature and pressure with other students and faculty,” Bacow said. “We not only need to articulate what it is, we need to able to document why it is of value. In the end, that’s a big chunk of the differential that people are going to be paying for when they come to our campuses.”

He added, “While online education may be perfect for the nontraditional student, I don’t think most parents want their 18 to 21 year old sitting in their basement looking at their computer for four years.”

Spot-on in both of his points.

•  From CHE “Alone With Thousands of Other People” by Isaac Sweeney.  Sweeney is also in Composition I at Duke, and I think he and I are sort of alone together. To quote:

This video experience sounds lonely, and I’m beginning to see the paradox of the MOOC, which is that I’m alone with thousands of other people. I watch the videos alone, but Coursera has an efficient and effective discussion forum for all of us. We’ve had to participate by posting a low-stakes piece of writing and responding to the writing of others. And while I know these other people are out there in the world, this discussion-board experience doesn’t offer the same kind of collaborative learning that a classroom offers. I still feel like I’m by myself.

I have a paragraph almost exactly like this in a short piece forthcoming in the CCCs about MOOCs and also in an essay called “Blogs as an Alternative to Course Management Systems:  Public, Interactive Teaching with a Round Peg in a Square Hole,”  which is a chapter in Designing Web-Based Applications for 21st Century Writing Classrooms, a book that was supposed to come out last year. I that essay, I make a comparison to taking an online class to online shopping: something done usually alone and at night.

•  And last is going to be something I’m going to have to read later but that looks quite promising along these lines:  Stephen Downes on his “other blog” Half an Hour, “The Great Rebranding,” which includes lots of summaries on the recent EDUCAUSE MOOC conference.


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