Thursday, May 30, 2013

Imperium Sine Fine

After the news of Coursera's new incursions into university education (and especially public, erstwhile state-supported state institutions who are struggling to find new revenue models), this comic seemed apropos.  I suppose we can all just hope that somewhere, after all our trials and travails (not to mention the temptation to stay in Carthage with Dido), we will find a Rome where we can build a new and great city, an imperium sine fine.  Oh, wait, but that's what the MOOC Incs are trying to do.  Hmm....

The MOOC Monster Morphs

Yesterday Coursera announced that it had formed partnerships with ten state universities and university systems.  These partnerships are distinct from the deals cut with elite, MOOC provider institutions (some of the details of the contract are discussed here).  These deals are about making Coursera's platform the exclusive provider of online content to these  institutions. That is, as Phil Hill points out, MOOCs as courseware and are entirely about the push to monetize their product (see also Mike Caulfield's blog post on this topic, his Educause post, and The Ed Techie).  The contracts allow for faculty at these partner schools to be producers of content; but the main intention is for these cash-strapped, formerly state-supported public institutions--and their students--to consume content that is produced especially by the more elite Coursera partners (e.g. Penn, Duke, Brown, Yale, Michigan, Cal Tech, etc.). Thus, the contracts have detailed provisions for "adopted" and "guided" courses on these new partner campuses.

Steve Kolowich describes a typical scenario, "In a typical case, the company would charge the university a flat fee of $3,000 for "course development." After that, Coursera would charge a per-student fee that would decrease as more students registered for the course. The first 500 students would cost the university $25 per student; the next 500 would cost $15 per student; the university would pay the company $8 for each student beyond that.  Payments to Coursera for use of "adopted" courses—those developed elsewhere—would be similarly tiered. Under the contract, if the university charged each student in a course the same tuition rate, it would get to keep a greater share of tuition revenue as it enrolled more students in the course."

One obvious thing here: the fee structure encourages extremely large classes.  After decades of pushing to reduce student-instructor ratio at public institutions, we are apparently embracing the Massive.  It is difficult to see how these universities could offer much by way of additional interaction with instructors or classmates without driving up the cost of these courses substantially.  State universities have long known that large lecture courses are a sub-optimal form of instruction.  Instead of trying to improve on that, to "hack the large lecture", they are giving up entirely and handing over the keys to private ed tech companies like Coursera.  Sure, for now, administrators can say that they have no plans to use Coursera content to remake entirely the residential college experience; but my suspicion is that it's only a matter of time before the temptation becomes to great--a temptation driven by a combination of state disinvestment in higher education and the false belief that MOOCs are the only answer to the real problems of cost and efficiency at public institutions (the comments on Kolowich's article are worth reading for additional concerns about the logistics of implementing Coursera MOOCs on campuses and across state systems).

Why am I pretty confident that this is how it will play out?  Because it is incredibly expensive, time-consuming and labor-intensive to produce a MOOC (my own institution is finding this out as they prepare to roll out the first set of UTx MOOCs in the fall).  Administrators are cutting these deals with Coursera to cut their instructional budget, not to spend more money developing content in-house.  Indeed, if it was about developing content in-house, there are a number of other and better platforms that could be used (e.g. Instructure's Canvas).  What we have here is Coursera bringing in partners to act as consumers of the content that their producer partners are creating.  Coursera is the middleman who will take a cut of revenue on both sides of the transaction (As Ry Rivard reports, "A network of universities will be creating or using and buying or selling course material from each other, with Coursera in the middle as a content broker, consultant and host.")

Why is Coursera pursuing these partnerships, which involve the implementation of their content on campuses?  Because they have realized that, far from providing education to those without, the MOOCs appeal largely to people who already have degrees, who already know how to learn (and more to the point, who are unlikely to become paying customers).  Daphne Koller tries to put a more altruistic spin on things, claiming that the move into public institutions is about helping to solve problems: "If you're looking to really move the needle on fundamental educational problems, inside and outside the United States, you're going to need to help people reach the first milestone, which is getting their degrees to begin with," Ms. Koller said.  She continues in this vein in the New York Times coverage of the new partnerships: “Our first year, we were enamored with the possibilities of scale in MOOCs.... Now we are thinking about how to use the materials on campus to move along the completion agenda and other challenges facing the largest public university systems.”

Fortunately, Coursera is there to facilitate this process.  Unfortunately, there is absolutely no evidence that anything they are doing is going to do more than make a few people very wealthy and further disadvantage the very population they claim they are trying to help.  Koller and her associates seem not to grasp that education is not a commodity and it involves much more than making content accessible (cf. William Bowen's remarks in the same New York Times article: “We have encouraged Coursera to work with the large state university systems, and the large state university systems to work with Coursera, because that’s where the numbers are, and that’s where there are the biggest issues in terms of cost, completion and access,” said Dr. Bowen. “It’s still exploratory, but this partnership has the potential to make real headway in dealing with those issues.”)

There is undoubtedly a place for MOOC content in the classrooms of public universities.  I suspect that it will be most effective in courses that benefit most from short concept lectures and lots of instructor and TA-guided in class problem-solving (as was the case for the Introduction to Electrical Engineering course that San Jose State piloted using MITx content).  I have a much more difficult time imagining this model succeeding in a history or philosophy or government course.  That's part of the problem with this conversation, in fact.  The MOOC Incs seem unwilling to concede that the process of learning (and, therefore, the pedagogy) differs from discipline to discipline.  They have created a one size fits all product and seem blind to the flaws of this approach. Ifstates are willing to credentialize whatever Coursera and the other MOOC Incs offer (and however low they set the bar), however, the absence of real learning will only be a problem for the student, uh, customer (and, of course, those charged with playing the role of instructor in this scheme). 

Paul LeBlanc, the President of Southern New Hamphire University offers a pretty reasonable guess on how this will ultimately play out: for all the idealistic claims of the founders, the push to monetize will win out and, eventually, content production and, likely, a large part of course delivery and curation will be in the hands of private companies.  In the inimitable words of Tressie McMillan Cottom, "If you can divorce yourself from your ideological leanings you have to recognize the elegant beauty of a perfectly executed hustle."  Indeed (and don't miss her awesome "Disruption playlist")!  It remains to be seen exactly how this will play out on the campuses of these new partners as well as future public institution partners.  My educated guess: not very well apart from a narrow selection of highly technical courses.  But even then, institutions will realize that their students require intense, f2f engagement with content specialists if they are going to actually learn the course content.  Content delivery is the easy part of teaching; facilitating learning is the hard, expensive part and none of the MOOC Incs have indicated that they have any ideas for solving that particular problem.

See also Jonathan Rhees' perceptive comments on the ways that the MOOC INCs, including Coursera, have contributed to the decline--in some places, utter destruction, of shared governance at colleges and universities.

5/31/2013: Alex Usher, Coursera Jumps the Shark (further expanding on the point that this new set of partnerships indicates Coursera's return to the stratosphere, efforts to compete more directly with established for-profit Ed Tech companies like Pearson)
6/2/2013: Kate Bowles, Business as Usual ("Education is a goldfield for opportunists, and MOOC providers are on it, head-to-head with LMS platforms who are also diversifying into hosted open learning. Both are able to exploit the fact that traditional higher education institutions acting competitively—which seems to be the only way we know how to behave—can only provide services at a scale calibrated to traditional staff-student ratios. And this is why the growth potential in these new markets is still tethered to the resourcing costs of academic labour.  The disruptive intervention by which commercial platforms have secured their startling competitive advantage is simple: they have done away with service labour costs.")

6/3/2013: Luke Walzer, "Assessing Coursera, the LMS" ("The most troubling aspect of the MOOC hype has been how quickly this approach to teaching and learning with technology has been seen by a variety of constituencies as a tool/excuse for slashing public funding for higher education....The second most troubling aspect of the hype is how poorly informed by the scholarship of teaching and learning so much of what’s happening in the xMOOCeshpere has been.")

6/3/2013: Lisa Lane, Why DeMoocification Won't Work ("As much as I don’t want to say this, I don’t think there’s a chance in hell that MOOCs will die on their own. I can’t think of any trend which saved large institutitions money and trouble, then died a natural death.")

6/8/2013: Report of the New America Foundation, The Next Generation Universities ("a handful of "Next Generation Universities" are embracing key strategies that make them models for national reform. The report The Next Generation University comes at a time when too many public universities are failing to respond to the nation's higher education crisis. Rather than expanding enrollment and focusing limited dollars on the neediest of students, many institutions are instead restricting enrollments and encouraging the use of student-aid dollars on merit awards. But, according to the report, some schools are breaking the mold by boldly restructuring operating costs and creating clear, accelerated pathways for students.")

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Running an Online Discussion Board for 400 students: The Teaching Assistant Perspective

I asked the two teaching assistants, Stephanie Craven (an advanced PHD student in classics) and LJ (a 3rd year Medical Student who was volunteering her time) to write a guest post about their experiences with the online discussion board component of my Intro to Rome class.  Stephanie was responsible for moderating and grading while LJ moderated.  The addition of an online discussion board was a new component to the course in Spring 2013; and it was one that, from my perspective, was tremendously valuable for getting the students to think hard about the course material.  It also gave me a great way to see what they were thinking on various topics.  Frequently, I discussed their comments and ideas during class and sometimes expanded on unexpected observations they had made.  At the same time, the tool I used--Piazza--is still in development and is not entirely user friendly for a humanities course.  As well, for a class of this size, where few students knew one another, intense moderation and frequent interventions were required to keep the conversation from lapsing into summaries of the course textbook or lecture.  Stephanie and LJ did an amazing job on that front but, as they explain, it was very time-consuming.
The Piazza portion of Intro to Rome involved two discussion threads per week, each being opened two days before and promptly closed at 9am on the day of class. Students in the 400-person class were expected to post 5 times over the course of the semester, with two of these being before Spring Break. The discussion thread questions were broad (dissertation-sized, even!) and dealt with the material that was due in class after the thread was closed, which generally forced students to read ahead in order to be able to participate. The posts had to be written in clear English, could not be disrespectful in any way, and had to add something to the discussion, either by responding to someone else or by saying something that had not been said before. The net result should be an evolving discussion; it should not look like, nor should it be graded like, a short essay question on an exam.

In order to facilitate this in such a large class, we (Stephanie and LJ) would monitor the thread during the time in which students could post; the idea was to give public feedback for previously written posts, but also to toss open another aspect of the question to another student who had not made it to the board yet. In practice, we tried to make sure that almost every sub-thread ended with a post from us, to either urge students to think more deeply into a subject, or to get them to think about something slightly different when one topic had already been exhausted. This left places where the latecomers could join the conversation; they just had to think a little harder, and maybe look in sources other than the lectures and the textbook.  Here is an example of how our comments interplay with student posts:

During the 43 hours in which the thread was open, we were vigilant about incoming student posts. Initially, we thought that we might only need to check perhaps 3 or 4 times a day. (LJ:) One of the big things was getting my schedule to align with the number of posts per week. At first, this was hard to gauge, but after we got to Spring Break (when the first two posts were due), it became clear that there would be a deluge of posts starting 2 weeks before the deadlines. On the slowest weeks, it might be okay to check Piazza a few times a day; on the busiest weeks, my phone application would give me new post notifications about 20/hour. I would go to bed at 10pm and wake up at 4am, and there would be 40-50 new posts. (Stephanie:) And thank goodness LJ kept those hours, because those students were nocturnal. Midnight to 4am had some pretty heavy traffic! This is one of the reasons why it was very good to have two of us doing this job.

            For each of the questions, we did not have a list in our heads of what we were looking for, per se. Some weeks, Dr. Ebbeler would let us know afterwards that we had covered the main points of what she was looking for… but prep consisted of reading the assigned material, thinking about it on our own, and looking at what students were posting. Both of us are experienced enough with Roman History that we can deal with its concepts beyond the class material. Sometimes students came up with the main points on their own or, even more thrilling, they came up with things that we hadn’t thought of; usually, though, we would look for things that they had not seen, or aspects that seemed to be misunderstood, and focused our comments and pass-along questions on bringing out those missing elements.

(Stephanie): We graded students based on 0, 1, or 2. I was fairly lenient: 2 ranged from excellent to just saying something new; 1 for so-so quality of thought and use of materials; and 0 for lack of thought or complete repetition of others’ points. Part of the leniency was admittedly due to the fact that there were so many of them, and they could try to post as many times as they wanted until they had five 2s. There were few complaints with the grading. Only one person ever contacted me after a bad grade to ask how he could make his posts better; however, the ones who started posting earlier in the semester generally had a decent learning curve. (That said, having done this once, it will be a lot easier to establish criteria for the next time around.) My grading process was to read through the thread in the order in which students had posted, using Piazza’s Note History tool. This process could take me anywhere from less than an hour on slow days to 8 hours on the last post; I kept a full record of all the posts on a separate spreadsheet and generally reported the grades on the day that the post closed. The bottom line is that the grader needs to be able to move through posts quickly while grading, but still have to be prepared to spend a lot of time with it.

(Stephanie:) One fun thing that came out of Piazza was that it was a way to add supplemental material that wasn’t intrinsic to the core material but was interesting to both instructors and students. Sometimes this happened with students asking questions (one student, for instance, asking about Rome and science) or instructors who just wanted to talk about something (I did a post about piracy with photos from my trip to Cilicia); eventually, LJ and I started asking toss-out questions on the threads about things that were interesting to us but not in the body of material that students were expected to know (for instance, some went to find out about Vespasian and the urine tax). We actually started receiving researched responses from students about things we tossed out. In addition, we began to get thoughts from students who applied knowledge from other disciplines.


(LJ:) One of the requests that students had made in the Fall 2012 semester was for more links to modern ethical scenarios. When we decided to post two final, last chance “clementia” threads at the end of this semester, we had them discuss biomedical ethical issues such as mandatory vaccination and clinical trials. This sort of discussion had been incidental in one of the penultimate threads, about Hadrian’s ban on circumcision, so it looked like a promising discussion topic. It was exciting to me to see students with science or pre-health professions backgrounds pull from what they’d learned in their other classes or extracurricular experiences and use it in the discussion. I was warned beforehand to not go too in depth with the medical or scientific discussion, but I felt this was warranted when students made posts that demonstrated an understanding of the prompt that clearly went beyond the scope of this course.

The Piazza system is really good for allowing students see each other’s work and ask questions as a group, but it’s still developing and definitely could use some adaptations before it can be used more widely in the humanities. The system is equipped with the expectation that students will be graded on the number of times they post rather than the quality of those posts, and can be a little cumbersome (but not preventatively so) for someone grading based upon content. Aside from some issues with the Note History tool, which was changed for the worse in the middle of the semester, my main recommendation would be a starring system within threads, so that instructors can more easily highlight examples of good student posts within the discussion. Still, I think it’s a workable system, the support staff at Piazza is very responsive, and it’s far superior to the discussion tool on Blackboard, especially for a class this size.

For our own logistics, we would recommend a policy next time that would distribute students posts more broadly across the semester; this would make for more interesting discussion and for more fluid grading.

            On the whole, we feel that this was something fun for us to work on; it allowed us to put our knowledge of Roman History to work, and even gave us a venue to introduce students the supplemental details that make the discipline so much fun for us (i.e. the instructors), but without being intrusive or detracting from the main ideas of the course material. For a class this size, it did require a lot of vigilance and time on our part, and it ought to be run by someone who is experienced with the material.