Monday, January 7, 2013

Enter the MOOC

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC's) Popular, If Not Lucrative Yet:

In August, four months after Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng started the online education company Coursera, its free college courses had drawn in a million users, a faster launching than either Facebook or Twitter.

The co-founders, computer science professors at Stanford University, watched with amazement as enrollment passed two million last month, with 70,000 new students a week signing up for over 200 courses, including Human-Computer Interaction, Songwriting and Gamification, taught by faculty members at the company’s partners, 33 elite universities. 

In less than a year, Coursera has attracted $22 million in venture capital and has created so much buzz that some universities sound a bit defensive about not leaping onto the bandwagon. 

Other approaches to online courses are emerging as well. Universities nationwide are increasing their online offerings, hoping to attract students around the world. New ventures like Udemy help individual professors put their courses online. Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have each provided $30 million to create edX. Another Stanford spinoff, Udacity, has attracted more than a million students to its menu of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, along with $15 million in financing. 

All of this could well add up to the future of higher education — if anyone can figure out how to make money.
I haven't written much about this, simply because it's so new and the data on the courses and their effectiveness is either incomplete or damning (less than 10% of MOOC students complete the course, and most major universities, even those offering them, won't accept the courses for credit).

Nevertheless, the article is a good summary of where the MOOC's are heading in their attempt to "democratize higher education" (whatever that means).
The Coursera co-founders have become oracles of higher education, spreading their gospel of massive open online courses at the World Economic Forum in Abu Dhabi, the Web Summit in Dublin and the Aspen Ideas Festival. They describe how free online courses can open access to higher education to anyone with an Internet connection; liberate professors from repeating the same tired lectures and jokes semester after semester; and generate data, because the computers capture every answer right or wrong, that can provide new understanding of how students learn best.

Many educators predict that the bulk of MOOC revenues will come from licensing remedial courses and “gateway” introductory courses in subjects like economics or statistics, two categories of classes that enroll hundreds of thousands of students a year. Even though less than 10 percent of MOOC students finish the courses they sign up for on their own, many experts believe that combining MOOC materials with support from a faculty member or a teaching assistant could increase completion rates.  
That will be the real key: how many universities will license away the remedial/introductory courses, and how many students will complete the courses (as well as pay for those for credit).

My opinion on this is mixed. While I don't see MOOC's "democratizing higher education" (which I think is a euphemism for "watering down content," see below), I do believe their value as a continuing education conduit cannot be overstated. They offer individuals a chance to brush up on certain skills, learn a new skill set, or simply explore a subject they were always interested in but never got to when they were younger. They offer companies a relatively cheap way to re-train workers and improve the skill set of their employees.

I think they also give students who are self-motivated a venue to further their studies. I've graded/shepherded online distance learning courses for over ten years now and most of the students who completed the courses wrote wonderful essays and did very well on proctored exams.

But it's a venue that really only works for those kinds of students. Data on the MOOC's show the dropout rates are high, not everyone is as self-motivated as the MOOC prophets claim they are, and underlying all of it is a continuation of the "customer is right" mentality which has pervaded higher education for a decade now (and is getting worse).

Students today view universities, professors and courses as products, and expect those things to conform to their guidelines and tastes for consumption. Universities now do everything they can to "service the customer" (the student, the parents) to make sure they graduate and complete their studies.

This is a vastly different way of thinking of higher education than even ten or fifteen years ago. When I was an undergraduate in the 80's (and in grad school in the 90's), the idea that a professor would be "expected" to cater to your every whim or demand would have been laughable. You sunk or swam on your own, with no one in instruction or administration mollycoddling you and "checking in" to see how things were going. Other than an occasional meeting with an advisor, what you did with your time in higher education was up to you. The fact that you were "paying for it" was irrelevant and certainly didn't guarantee you anything other than a seat in the classroom and a fair shot.

Now it's the diametric opposite. The sense of entitlement (related to money, but more ingrained in Millennial culture via their Boomer parents as well) reverses the higher education dynamic. Students are customers who demand to be satisfied, and politicians who pass state budgets that fund higher education demand colleges and universities "do more" to ensure their student's success. It's now our job to make sure they succeed, which is more analogous to vocational education, or a continuation of secondary education, than it is the mission of higher education.

The MOOC's fit that McDonalized "you can have it your way" paradigm perfectly, and from a completely dystopian point of view, promise more government social control in the classroom (only the most "popular," i.e. what we say is acceptable, courses will get funded). Do you think Marx & Capitalist Revolution 101 would draw big venture and government capital?

But whatevs, as they say. If one of these MOOC companies offered me a nice chunk of change to film my courses and enroll thousands of students in them, I'd probably take the jack and walk off into my 15 minutes of Youtube infamy.

But so far, none have made me the offer (the fools).


roy said...

Todd, interesting piece. Higher education does need to be something you achieve, not something you consume. We have been doing research on what happens in MOOCs (and related innovations) for some time, and have come up with a 'footprint' template to describe the dynamics of learning. Might be of interest:

Anne said...

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