Tuesday, June 11, 2013

When a Butteryfly in Cambridge Flaps its Wings

A good friend and former grad school colleague of mine is an Associate Professor of Classics at a small liberal arts college in the Pacific Northwest.  Her college is tuition-dependent, has a very small but spectacular classics department, and depends on faculty to teach not only a 3-3 load but also to take on several additional directed readings courses as well as thesis students.  In addition, she is very involved in the college community through committee work as well as supervising several campus student groups.  During the academic year, she is incredibly, crazily busy.  My job at an R1, in a department with a strong graduate program, takes a very different form from my friend's job, most obviously a lighter teaching load (2-2).  Still, I would assert that I am just as busy as she is, albeit with different kinds of tasks.  Over the years, our phone calls during the semester always seem to revert to a kind of friendly competition over whose job is more exhausting.  At some point, I realized it was impossible to determine because our jobs are simply too different to compare--despite the fact that we are both Associate Professors of Classics.  To really understand one another's position, we would need to trade jobs for a year (at least).

In conversations with this friend and others in my field who teach at a range of different colleges and universities, I repeatedly observe just how different our jobs are--apples, oranges, peaches, and bananas.  This is an important point at this particular historical moment, as we all try to make sense of the MOOC phenomenon and do so largely in terms of our own limited departmental and institutional experience.  The tendency to assume that all jobs are basically the same, apart from the "research" vs "liberal arts" distinction, clouds the issue in some significant ways; and, I think, it's part of what is preventing a more constructive conversation about MOOCs among the academics most invested in the roles they now and will eventually play in higher education.

The conversation around MOOCs has become noticeably polarized in recent months, fueled by academics (including me) who are skeptical of the mode and concerned that it is being viewed as a magic bullet by state legislatures and regents in particular.  Faculty who are providing their courses on the Coursera or EdX platform have been criticized for their complicity in what seems to be a persistent move towards the outsourcing of teaching at public institutions.  They understandably feel defensive and unfairly criticized. The situation was not helped when the Chronicle published an article suggesting that MOOC faculty as a group had given little thought to the potential impact of a more widespread distribution of their courses to other institutions, where they would be offered for credit.  Many faculty, who decided to offer their course as a MOOC--for very little by way of financial compensation and motivated primarily by a desire to increase access to their course--are justifiably feeling victimized by the increasingly hostile, anti-MOOC blowback.

Cathy Davidson recently posted "Clearing up Some Myths about MOOCs", in which she reviews a number of criticisms of MOOCs and offers her response ("so here's an account of what I've learned about the MOOC myths from what I've done and learned first hand.  I don't know what of these things is true beyond my experience but the point of first-hand experience is to counter myths with at least some substance and reality, however limited").  She has several great points to make and many of these points could be expanded on by those who have been students of MOOCs or who have other kinds of experiences with larger scale online instruction.  Yet, at the end, the post only invites those with first hand MOOC teaching experience to contribute their views. Still, it is a far more reasonable and thoughtful engagement with serious criticisms of the MOOC model than the dismissive views of Northwestern Journalism professor Justin Martin.

It is worth pointing out that several of the particular anxieties discussed by Davidson (e.g. concern that MOOC faculty are going to get super rich) are not the source of most of the anti-MOOC anxiety/rage/well-founded concern.  Some of the myths are related to the major criticisms of skeptics--high dropout rate, unproven pedagogy that seems to rely largely on lecture in the majority of MOOCs--but they only skirt around the elephant in the room.  What is that elephant?  Accreditation. If MOOCs had remained in the realm of outreach and non-credit continuing education; if they had simply offered access to skills-based courses to those who would otherwise have no access, most (all?) with an investment in the future of higher education would be supporters.  The problem is, they are positioning themselves as "disruptive" to the traditional system of accreditation (and Congress is listening).

The problem is, the MOOC Incs need to return a profit to their investors, and they are not going to do this without a revenue stream.  That revenue stream requires accreditation that leads to some end (e.g. certificate, degree).  Whether it is by some sort of licensing agreement with less prestigious universities (San Jose St. and California more generally is ground zero for this model); by creating very inexpensive degree programs (e.g. the MS in CS at Georgia Tech, with corporate sponsorship from AT&T); or by forming partnerships with selected public institutions, the apparent intention of the MOOC Incs is to function as a middleman between the producer and consumer of course content. I agree with the defenders that the current MOOCs--many of them only 6-7 weeks long--are unlikely to be packaged and marketed to less prestigious institutions (though some may be).  Far more likely to happen: Coursera, Udacity, and EdX will trade on the hype generated by their elite partners in order to persuade less elite partners to select a small number of "superstar" faculty to use their platform to develop courses in house and deliver them to thousands of students at a time, across entire state systems.

Typically, faculty don't need to worry about what is happening at other institutions around the country or world.  What happens at Cal State Northridge has little to do with what is happening at Harvard or Oxford. Yet, in the specific instance of MOOCs, institutions (and faculty) do not operate in isolation but rather, as part of a larger and even global ecosystem. Suddenly, what happens at Harvard may well have quite a lot to do with what happens at Cal St. Northridge. It is not enough to assume that academic standards will dictate administrative decisions; and that face to face instruction will always remain the most common form of instruction just because it produces the best learning outcomes. Still, the extent to which individual faculty--much less institutions--are responsible to the community at large will be debated.  But it should be debated rather than sidestepped.

In the face of severe budget shortfalls and an apparent unwillingness of states to invest in education, public institutions are desperately searching for ways to cut costs.  The MOOC model (not necessarily the existing MOOCs themselves, but the model of large scale courses) is, at least at first glance, very appealing: expertly delivered content that only requires a teaching assistant to walk the students through the details of the course.  While this may strike faculty at elite, private institutions as an extremely unlikely outcome, I suspect it will begin to happen in various forms over the next several years at public institutions like my own.  Exactly what role faculty at Harvard and Yale and Penn and Duke are going to play in all of this is unclear (and, most likely, up to them).  More clear is the fact that public institutions are determined to cut instructional costs.  They have to continue to teach large numbers of students with fewer faculty than ever.  Expertise is expensive and public institutions have long led the way in scaling up class sizes as a way of cutting instructional costs.  It is inevitable that large-scale, platform-supported courses will become one way of addressing this problem, at least to start.  The effect this will have on important factors like student learning, retention rates, and  time to degree are entirely unclear at this point. 

I agree with Cathy Davidson, Al Filreis, Noel Jackson, and others that support cautious experimentation with MOOCs and other kinds of larger scale online instructional modes.  I appreciate the potential benefits of MOOCs in terms of increasing accessibility, but my immediate concern is more personal: the role that MOOCs will play in the curricula of public institutions like my own.  We need to know better how these work (and don't work); and we need to ground the discussion in evidence rather than speculation (one hopes that the MOOC Research Hub, funded by the Gates Foundation, will be useful in this regard).  We need to be developing a good sense of best practices for different disciplines and types of content.  We need to understand the differences between learners who come to a MOOC with a college degree and well-practiced learning behaviors versus those without any of these skills.  We need to better understand what we gain and lose when we shift to a large-scale mode of content delivery/instruction with little opportunity for student engagement (because, if we could afford the instructional support that is required for meaningful student engagement, we wouldn't be resorting to this format in the first place).  For all of this to happen, we need to be having a thoughtful, engaged, sometimes combative conversation that involves everyone who has a stake in the outcome.

6/14/2013: Roundtable discussion of MOOCs in LA Review of Books.  Perfectly illustrates this phenomenon of supporters and critics speaking at cross-purposes.  Everything each person says is valid and true, but they do not advance the discussion of how to deal with the MOOC incursion into public higher ed.

Not to pick on CD, but this tweet captures my point brilliantly: there's no debate at all (and it's not live, it's in the very dead form of print).  These are four "position papers" in which each party carves out their space in the debate.  There's no real debate at all.  Now, hopefully, that debate will come in the follow-up tomorrow and in the form of comments from readers.  But thus far, because there's so little attempt by anyone to engage with the arguments of others, it seems more likely that people will endorse positions they already hold rather than truly collaborate on a set of approaches, best practices, etc.  But perhaps I am being pessimistic...

6/13/2013: Colleen Flaherty, "It's My Business" ("MOOCs – or massive open online classes championed by many as a way to democratize education and lower costs, and criticized by others for what they see as the courses’ potential to diminish educational quality and supplant the role of the professor – and other online education initiatives have forced an alliance between professors across disciplines, Nelson said, in their growing concerns about intellectual property and academic freedom.")

Peter Schmidt, AAUP Sees MOOCs as Spawning New Threats to Professor's Intellectual Property

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