Thomas Friedman’s editorial “Revolution Hits the Universities” underwhelms.
He commits the same error as others have in data-less, selectively anecdotal editorial contributions on the subject of MOOCs, primarily that of describing one side of the platypus as though it sums up the entire beast. This kind of reduction can be dangerously confusing.
MOOCs themselves are not a game changer.
They are a natural next step in the progression of the democratization of higher education, begun in part by the extension, outreach, and continuing education efforts of universities that have scaled over time through improvements in technology.
For more than 100 years, technology-enhanced higher education has offered access and opportunity to non-traditional learners including those requiring particular accommodations, those in limiting geographical or social circumstances, those wishing to move along at a different pace from the norm, and more. Advancements in technology have always characterized these outreach efforts from correspondence courses to broadcast and satellite delivery to web conferencing and online delivery. Lest we think we own the trajectory, our peers in countries such as the U.K., Brazil, China, and Turkey have their own versions of the open access and online education movement to tell.
Fully online and hybrid education offerings grew beyond the extension unit fifteen years ago to include degree completion and professional Master’s degree programs. And ten years ago, the market watched with great interest the scaled uptake of online credentials by adult learners seeking career enhancement from for-profit institutions. This arrival of publicly-traded higher education institutions with missions of creating shareholder value coupled with economic and demographic shifts that created revenue pressure on non-profit institutions led the entire industry to pose the same urgent questions: how do we balance access and quality, cost and value, and efficiency and effectiveness in higher education? And how on earth are we going to explain what we are doing to policy-makers, students, and employers?
In the past year, MOOCs have moved into (finally) mainstream conversation as a possible answer to all of those urgent questions. But MOOCs have become shorthand for several experiments and transitions happening at the same time.
Enter the platypus problem.
We can discuss the potential of a pedagogical/andragogical sandbox in which we play with models of education delivery and interactivity. By removing the “fourth wall” of the classroom, MOOCs inspire all stakeholders of higher education (faculty, students, employers, policy-makers) to participate in debate on the merits of the flipped classroom, peer grading, the ubiquitous lecture, and cheater-proof assessments. Discussions on these topics have raged in smaller circles on these topics for years. But in many ways this contribution of discourse by MOOCs to those outside of higher education is the most satisfying.
We can discuss the pros and cons of disaggregating a “core” liberal arts curriculum from highly specialized, advanced, and professional courses. For example, can MOOCs deliver less costly remediation and 101-style survey courses, freeing individual college and university faculty to teach advanced courses that require more individualized coaching, feedback, and assessment? Here we must begin to tease out the finer details. MOOC providers, like Coursera, will explain that MOOCs are not the same thing as university courses and should not be confused as such. They describe MOOCs as course elements – something akin to a digital textbook with interactive assessment tools – which institutions can use to prepare students for content discussion and activities in classes that still require dedicated teaching staff by the institution. While economies of scale are possible, this model is not the same as replacing instructional staff.
While we can also debate the merits of our current degree credentialing system, we can say with certainty that MOOCs are not currently a replacement for that model either. Those who think that first-time undergraduates are ready to fashion their own degrees out of delightful-sounding courses from MOOC providers have not surveyed that population in meaningful numbers nor witnessed their information-seeking behaviors.
MOOCs will evolve undoubtedly beyond what we can anticipate. But we are creating potential harmful confusion by conflating MOOCs, which function most elegantly as just-in-time learning modules and lifelong learning supplements, with an articulated course pathway and progression scaffolded by co-curricular learning resources.
This confusion leads us to the final side of the platypus: MOOCs and learning analytics as signals for employers.
For decades, employers have been the most skeptical and jaded about the prospects of anything but traditional face to face classroom learning techniques and credentials. Now with renewed venture capitalist investment in alternative education delivery and scathing critiques of the efficacy of traditional higher education, employers are confounded. What are the “right” credentials and demonstrations of competency to help employers evaluate prospective hires if the bachelor’s degree is in question? In the race to own the future of credentialing, gaining employer buy-in is critical.
While thought leaders consider the swirl of alternative credentials and measures of cognitive and non-cognitive performance, the hiring marketplace grows increasingly anxious. For example, students will offer GRE scores as proof of mastery to eager recruiters, even though no evidence supports these scores as predictive of success on the job. MOOCs seeking some source of revenue offer to serve as matchmaker between learner and employer, but without offering much buy-side guidance on how to translate learning analytics to industry outcomes. A model may be emerging for identifying talent among experienced professionals updating skills through MOOC participation; however characterizing performance the same way for pre-experience learners is a much thornier task. The dollar value of such information is yet to be determined – either for vendors or for students offering their own data for benchmarking purposes to prospective employers.
MOOCs offer a wonderfully inclusive gateway into these fascinating conversations, but the time has come to put some stronger definitions in place for what is at stake for those newer to the table.