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Friday, October 4, 2013

Friday, October 4, 2013

Waypoints in the MOOC Debate IV: Innovation After MOOCs

The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a section this week called NEXT: The Future of Higher Education. Last year the future was Massive Open Online Courses. This year the future is something else. The shift can be visualized in this graphic, accompanying a piece by CHE Editor-at-large Jeffrey Selingo on a recent poll of professors and college presidents.

The orange bars represent faculty opinion, and the blue, that of the college presidents.  The opinion of both groups is now overwhelmingly negative towards MOOCs--at least as a mode of college education, and MOOCs will carry on and improve in the wider world. A solid majority of college presidents agree with 2/3rds of faculty that MOOCs are a negative force in higher ed, which is not something that I for one would have predicted even six months ago.

On the other hand, hybrid courses do well with both groups, particularly the presidents.  Adaptive and interactive learning technologies do pretty well too.  At a minimum, this poll suggests that nine of ten faculty feel that adaptive and interactive technologies in a hybrid environment will do no harm.  It shows fairly strong levels of faculty interest in learning innovation.  The 2012 MOOC wave had the virtue of getting instruction back on the agenda of many faculty, in large part by making teaching seem more like a site of research, where new discoveries occur and improvements are put in place. This poll confirms the momentum behind better learning. The first thing we can say about this year's CHE future is that it's focused on student learning.

Mr. Selingo identifies a further condition that would help make learning innovation more sustainable. Noting that large majorities of both faculty and presidents would like to see more change rather than less, he writes,
When it comes to driving change in higher education, faculty members overwhelmingly believe that while they should be leading the discussion, politicians were often the ones pushing the agenda. Somewhat surprisingly, presidents also said faculty members should be driving change, and agreed that it's often politicians who control the conversation.
The issues that politicians have driven are preserving access and cutting costs.  This is really one issue: what they want is the same or better access to equal quality at a lower per-student cost.  State politicians have no intention of reversing long-term cuts that left 2012’s (inflation adjusted) per-student appropriations at 70% of what they were in 1987 (Figure 3).   Many know that 1987-level state funding was what enabled the mass access to high quality that built the powerhouse knowledge economy they want to revive.  But they nonetheless can't or won't get to 2007-level public investment, to say nothing of the much higher 1987-levels.  They saw MOOCs as a way getting the quality without the investment.  What we might call the Koller Hypothesis, after the co-founder of Coursera Daphne Koller, was that MOOCs could achieve “a cost of effectively zero dollars marginal cost per student” (“Rebooting Higher Education,” p 3). In our transcript of this event, you can read Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun politely disputing Prof. Koller’s zero-cost hypothesis (p 29), but the idea that online technology could more than make up for all funding declines was firmly embedded in the political consensus--as MOOC business strategy required it to be.

In other words, when universities lose MOOCs as a budget solution, they lose the main source of hope that state politicians had for a free fix of the college cost problem for a less affluent, not wonderfully educated younger generation.  MOOCs were the austerity solution to the mass quality problem.  Without them, tempers will flare, fingers will point, and funding will not be restored. In the meantime, faculty are going to have to lead higher ed innovation anyway, and the good news is that post-MOOC-as-cure-all faculty don't need to focus on the technology to the exclusion of the “human side” of teaching and learning.

The Chronicle’s Next collection has fourteen essays on the subject, and I don't number among the most helpful the one co-authored by innovation guru Clayton Christensen.  His piece focuses on radical cost cutting through goal simplification, while the better pieces, in my view, focus on goal enhancement, which is student development.

But first we need to look at the Christensen innovation baseline. His key insight, in his classic books, The Innovator’s Dilemma (1997) and The Innovator’s Solution (2003), was that in contemporary capitalism truly “disruptive” innovation comes in the form of worse technology adapted to less sophisticated non-consumers. One of his early examples was Canon wrecking Xerox with its pokey, mediocre, home office copiers, which discovered a new market of people who couldn't use or couldn't afford a real Xerox machine.

The analogy with higher ed is obvious--every college charging $20,000-$50,000 a year are ripe to be picked off by innovative disrupters, except for the Harvard, Swarthmore, and Stanford-style premium brands.  Christensen's cure is always for the incumbent--especially in the middle tiers--to focus on “a critical job to be done” and stick to that. In The Innovative University (2011), the two viable types of college are Harvard and BYU-Idaho: the latter revived itself with a 4-season all-teaching faculty that created shorter, straighter lines to cheaper BA qualifications by dumping peripherals like sports teams, and ending traditional working conditions and teaching schedules to focus on modularized, highly sequenced programs in which all effort and investment is focused on highly programmed goals.

This is a perfectly fine kind of college to have, but it is cheap because teaching-only undergraduate programs with limited majors are indeed cheap. As many have pointed out, college doesn't cost so much because standard teaching costs so much: the costs are mostly elsewhere, and only some of them are unjustified in relation to the “critical job.” In reality, the university’s critical job is usually comprised of a complex bundle of jobs, all of which cost money.

If you define your “critical job to be done” as “creativity learning,” as I do for knowledge economies in general, and also as “public good research,” as public research universities must, then the cost savings of radical simplification are simply not available.  “Understanding” is a complex activity that requires a variety of inputs, and what we don’t want is even more stratification than we already have in which only expensive, selective, elite universities are allowed to teach complex thinking with the full range of needed practical implementations, while the children of the ex-middle class are given the mechanisms of lesser capabilities.

Higher ed needs a plurality of innovation modes—Harvard and BYU-Idaho and BYU-Provo and Michigan-Ann Arbor and Michigan Tech, etc., but not where plurality  means two or ten grades of cognitive skills. It also needs honesty about costs—doing research and intensive teaching with many small courses or “flipped classrooms” drive costs up--so that we don’t spend half our time defensively explaining why UNC-Chapel Hill will always cost more than Western Governor’s University.  

Prof. Christensen’s theory has been used to say that the 99% need always to scramble downmarket.  In fact, their institutions need differentiation and universal upgrading.  Let’s just say that he and his co-author try to call a truce around disruption, and look at the other articles without trying to force them into the mold of adapting to low-cost disruptors.

When we do, what do we find? Descriptions of all sorts of interesting programs that are student-centered in the best sense, while connecting university work to learning structures in the rest of the world.   The key premise appears in a piece on remaking career centers: a center at Franklin & Marshall College
has moved from the old-fashioned "transactional" model—which focused on helping students complete specific tasks, like writing a résumé—to a developmental model that works with students over time.
Learning is at bottom human development.  It is the most immediately transformative thing that universities (and their partners) can do. One example is the Olin College of Engineering, which offers a curriculum that is historically oriented, project-based, user-focused, and entirely personal.
Before they arrived at the workshop, participants interviewed students from their home campuses to create composite "personas," which described how different types of students approach their education, what they want from it, and where they encounter difficulty. That exercise was an example of how user-centered design could be applied to curriculum planning.
Two possibly-unacknowledged insights of ethnic and feminist studies-- the importance of experience and standpoint-- seem here to have joined with practice-based theories of technological innovation to create an undergraduate curriculum that is not behind, below, and apart from research, but is research itself.  Learning is research as research-learning. The practice of it makes it clear that it can and should be available to students regardless of the price and selectivity of the particular college.

Most of the articles have moments like this: the University of Delaware creating “preceptors” to mediate between lecture and lab and to help individual students create their own intellectual trajectories.  There are the “guide on the side” reversals of questions and answers at Southwestern University, the “start-ups for all” program at RIT that aims to help students author and “self-publish” their career trajectories, and even the rolling chairs that help make Michigan state classroom groups more flexible so that, as part of a complex chain of interactions, students will have better capabilities for “communication and teamwork and problem solving in areas they haven't seen before.”
Only two questions nagged me as I read these testimonials of all the interesting things all sorts of universities have put in place. First, basic research is nearly invisible.  How does that fit in at universities where it is a major focus?
Secondly, all these real innovations cost money. In public universities, our funders wanted free ones.  How will we talk them into the kind that the public will need to pay for?


Gerry Barnett said...

I would not assume that legislators are not ready to restore funding to public higher education. As one state legislator says, "Our decisions are only as good as the information we are provided with." There is a continuing problem with the information put out by university officials.

A stripped down approach to instruction is the reality at most community colleges. One could augment community college programs by bringing most of the contingent instructional staff into full-time/tenure positions, paid at reasonable rates, add 4 year degree programs in selected areas of study, add some departmental research and professional development funding, and one still is running with tuition under $5K/yr. With restored state support, and running the financial aid bankers out, or adding a pay-it-forward tuition strategy, like Oregon has just adopted, one could have an essentially cashless, robust community college system to provide access to higher education for anyone capable and interested and willing.

Big public research universities will oppose any such effort. They have leverage with state legislatures, and as "leaders" take more than their share of funds. They occupy all discussions of direction to make sure the discussion ends up focused back on their voracious needs--to expand, to shine the brand, to ignore fiscal discipline, especially in administration. Students, generally, do not need their brands, or their "excellence" or their extramural research or their chains of hospitals and luxury-box stadium bling. Nor do state legislators see the point, if state budgets are limited and research universities want more bling.

If sponsored research and hospital chains are so important, why not just abandon the undergraduate program at research universities and franchise the pretty brand to community colleges? My sense is that the only reason undergraduates are still at the big research universities is that the university administrators need their money to supply all the other things, the apparently way more important than teaching things, that research universities aspire to do.

Call it the pharaoh syndrome: students go deep into debt to build research university pyramids but have no prospect of benefiting from their contributions over the cost of instruction, which go into the pockets of administrators, bankers, developers, construction companies, and investors. It's a nice deal--if you are a pharaoh.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

In other news, a solid majority of rabbits opined that coyotes are bad.

Of course university presidents and faculty fear the MOOC. MOOCs are aimed at bettering students and would be students, not professors or university administrators.

Gerry Barnett said...

Funny, then, Pig, that the MOOCs don't show any "bettering" and for all that, there's nothing in the MOOC contracts with universities directed at bettering students.

It's nice to ascribe a sweet motive to something, and then argue that we should reason from that sweet motive as if it is fact, or that a motive should stand for the outcomes. The MOOC standard of success is financial, not student bettering. Check with the investors on that one if you are unsure.

The implication of your comment appears to be that MOOCs exist because faculty don't care about bettering students, and faculty objections to MOOCs have nothing to do with bettering students. Is that where you are heading with this?

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

Gerry Barnett: Your estimate is not at all my attitude. I've been a college teacher (Adjunct type) and a student forever. I loved my students and I'm sure most Profs do. But MOOCs allow me to take classes from people and Universities I could never hope to see otherwise. I completed 5 MOOC courses and am taking a bunc more right now. Quality is uneven (but I had the same experience with real schools) and the best have been fantastic.

But MOOCs and similar ideas pose a real threat to the traditional brick and mortar U precisely because they are cheap, extremely convenient (You can take a class at night, after the kids are asleep!) and offer a global perspective - I'm currently taking a great course from a guy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and another from U of Tokyo).

Toby Higbie said...

It's great that you are learning from MOOCs. But you are already a college teacher with at least some post graduate education I assume. So you're not typical of our undergraduate students.

The question is how do these more typical undergrads do in MOOC style courses. And the evidence seems to suggest they don't do well.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

Toby Higbie -

I'm a retired physicist, I have enough degrees and I don't claim to be a typical student. MOOCs are probably not for everybody and almost certainly not for every kind of course. But they are great for many students, including ambitious teenagers in Mongolia and Africa, and great for busy people who can't be full-time students.

Despite not being a universal solution to higher education, MOOCs do seem likely to be transformative. The 300 plus student lecture course is obsolete.

What I advocate is not that professors and universities despair, but that they realize they are going to have to adapt. The traditional US university is almost certainly going to change drastically.

Many professors I say this to seem to be in denial, and think that the only thing that has to happen to restore paradise is for legislators to turn on the money spigots again. I hope we will go back to funding higher ed more generously, but even so, I think that money will be spent a lot differently.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...
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CapitalistImperialistPig said...
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Gerry Barnett said...

@Pig it may very well be that the 300 student lecture course should be dead, but then what makes a 30,000 student MOOC any better? Did the textbook destroy the classroom? No, the problem with MOOCs isn't that. The problem with MOOCs is that they are media objects posing as courses. You aren't "taking a course" when you lurk a MOOC; you are doing something more like watching Hulu.

If Hulu + an IM chat forum makes a university course, then, well, what's the point of hiring folks with PhDs to teach undergraduate anything? My sense is that this is a question some "run like a business" administrators are tossing around. The MOOC situation is just a place to check out the prospects. I would be worried if there were not faculty asking critical questions about MOOCs--and I would like it if they were also asking questions with similar intensity about some 300 student lecture courses.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

@Gerry Barnett

The advantage of a MOOC (compared with the 300 student lecture) is price and convenience. If you choose not to call MOOC courses courses, that's your choice, but the question is really how much learning is taking place. I'm convinced that the answer is plenty. I expect to see some documentary evidence in the next 4 months to a year. Bill and Melinda Gates are spending big bucks to find out.

Michael Meranze said...


If you go back through the posts (mostly Chris's but a few of mine) you will see that there are already studies done on MOOCs and especially larger sets of online courses. The evidence--especially for young people who are likely to be taking them to save money--is not all that pretty.

I have no doubt that Bill Gates is spending a lot of money to prove that this stuff has excellent learning outcomes (although as a physicist you know that experiments work best when people don't have a vested interest in one solution). Of course he also spent lots of money to prove that all sorts of advantages flowed from constant testing in K-12 and from privatization and charters etc and that has not turned out the way he predicted.

I don't think anyone--including Gerry--is arguing against the use of digital tools. I just think the question is what is the best way to reallocate resources (as you point out has to be done). MOOCs benefit the edtech companies. It is not clear yet who else they benefit if we are thinking of them as part of an educational program and not simply as a more effective version of PBS.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

@Michael -

Could you be more specific with a link or three? I searched for MOOC research and MOOC studies and found nothing but a few anecdotes.

Michael Meranze said...


If you go to my post at http://utotherescue.blogspot.com/2013/04/paved-with-good-intentions.html (sorry it isn't live) and go down you will see live links to studies on online efforts in Virginia and Washington. These are not MOOCs but they give you a taste of some of the issues surrounding online education with the student populations which are being targeted.

You might also look at Leslie Barry's two posts and also at Chris' posts on the Udacity issue. He covers, I think, the less than overwhelming success at San Jose State and the confirmation that the most important issue concerns time with teachers and blending. The economics is important (and therefore the Udacity contracts are important) because as you say a lot of this is driven by concern over resources and their use.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

OK, I did find your post: here, though my browser shows your links in pretty much the same font as everything else. I agree that online is not equal to in class, especially if you have to pay big bucks for it.

I don't like the idea of trying to substitute MOOCs for basic courses - the ones least likely to have academically polished students. I strongly object to regulatory capture as a tactic.

Despite all that, I think the MOOC is a superb resource for some, and that it will ultimately change education in a big way.

Smith said...

Hi Chris Newfield, One Doubt? how do these additional typical undergrads liquidate MOOC vogue courses

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