16 January 2014

MOOCs and avalanches

'The Merchants of MOOCs', a concise piece by James Grimmelmann in Seton Hall Law Review comments that
A loose network of educators, entrepreneurs, and investors are promoting Massive Open Online Courses as an innovation that will radicaly disrupt higher education. These Merchants of MOOCs see MOOCs' novel features — star professors, flipped classrooms, economies of scale, unbundling, and openness — as the key to dramatically improving higher education while reducing its cost. 
But MOOCs are far from unprecedented. There is very little in them that has not been tried before, from 19th-century correspondence courses to Fathom, Columbia's $25 million dot-com boondoggle. Claims of disruption look rather different when this missing context is restored. This essay examines some common arguments about what gives MOOCs their value, and finds them wanting. There is a sharp division between the features that make MOOCs exciting for education and the features that make them financially appealing to the Merchants of MOOCs.
Grimmelmann begins -
Meet the MOOC.  In 2011, Stanford professors Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun filmed the lectures from their artificial intelligence course and put the videos online. They opened registration to anyone, anywhere in the world The response was massive: more than 160,000 students signed up. Only 23,000 completed the course, but that is still roughly 22,800 more students than would have in a normal semester. And of the 248 students who received perfect scores, every single one was online rather than at Stanford. 
The success of the “Stanford AI course” made MOOCs — Massive Open Online Courses — front page news. It also drew the attention of a group I will call the Merchants of MOOCs: a loose network of educational entrepreneurs investing in bringing MOOCs to the masses. Thrun gave up his Stanford tenure to found Udacity, which has raised $20 million in venture capital; two of his Stanford colleagues founded Coursera, which has $65 million to its name; Harvard and MIT jointly funded the nonprofit edX with $60 million. They, and many others, are promoting MOOCs as a transformative innovation for higher education. 
Consider a typical MOOC program. Columbia University is working with a 14-member international consortium including the London School of Economics and the Smithsonian to offer courses in “computer science and technology, the arts, journalism, and physics” featuring “a wealth of free content usually only available on university campuses and at leading museums and libraries.” It centers around “elaborate online courses replicating the Ivy League experience” that combine streaming video, online texts, and discussion groups. A great many are free, but college students seeking course credit can enroll in more formal courses for a fee. 
Wait. What’s that? Oh. I see. 
Excuse me. I’ve just been informed that I’ve been talking about Columbia's previous venture into online learning, Fathom.com, which launched in 2000. Although some 65,000 people created Fathom accounts, very few of them paid for any courses. Fathom closed in 2003 after blowing through $25 million. Fathom, of course, is completely different from Columbia’s current venture into online learning in partnership with Coursera, which offers Ivy League courses in computer science and economics that combine streaming video, online texts, and discussion groups. They’re free to take, but Coursera offers certificates of completion for a fee. As you can see, Fathom and Coursera have utterly nothing in common, nothing at all — or nothing that anyone involved cares to admit. 
As Columbia’s amnesia about Fathom suggests, MOOCs are far from unprecedented. Almost everything in them has been tried before, often repeatedly. In what follows, I will critically examine some common claims about MOOCs in light of this missing context, and suggest that MOOCs are both far less and far more disruptive than the Merchants of MOOCs would have us believe.
Last year's Institute for Public Policy Research An avalanche is coming: Higher education and the revolution ahead [PDF] by Michael Barber, Katelyn Donnelly and Saad Rizvi argues that -
the next 50 years could see a golden age for higher education, but only if all the players in the system, from students to governments, seize the initiative and act ambitiously. If not, an avalanche of change will sweep the system away. Deep, radical and urgent transformation is required in higher education. The biggest risk is that as a result of complacency, caution or anxiety the pace of change is too slow and the nature of change is too incremental. The models of higher education that marched triumphantly across the globe in the second half of the 20th century are broken. 
This report challenges every player in the system to act boldly. 
Citizens need to seize the opportunity to learn and re-learn throughout their lives. They need to be ready to take personal responsibility both for themselves and the world around them. Every citizen is a potential student and a potential creator of employment. 
University leaders need to take control of their own destiny and seize the opportunities open to them through technology – Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) for example – to provide broader, deeper and more exciting education. Leaders will need to have a keen eye toward creating value for their students. 
Each university needs to be clear which niches or market segments it wants to serve and how. The traditional multipurpose university with a combination of a range of degrees and a modestly effective research programme has had its day. 
The traditional university is being unbundled. 
Some will need to specialise in teaching alone – and move away from the traditional lecture to the multi-faced teaching possibilities now available:
  • the elite university 
  • the mass university 
  • the niche university 
  • the local university 
  • the lifelong learning mechanism.
The pressure of competition on universities is greater than ever, not just because of the global competition between them, but also because a range of new players like MOOCs provider Coursera, skill-educator General Assembly and consultancies that develop people and produce cutting edge research, are now stepping up to compete with various specific functions of a traditional university. 
Governments will need to rethink their regulatory regimes which were designed for a new era when university systems were national rather than global. In the new era, governments need to face up to big questions – how can they fund and support part-time students? Should a student who takes courses from a range of providers, including MOOCs, receive funding on the same basis as any other student? How can government incentivise the connection between universities, cities and innovation? In an era of globalisation how do governments ensure that universities in their country continue to thrive? How can meritocracy be ensured? 
There are three fundamental challenges facing systems all round the world:
1. How can universities and new providers ensure education for employability? A great example of the future is the excellent employability centre at Exeter University in the UK which offers all students sustained advice and promotes volunteering as well as academic success. Given the rising cost of degrees, the threat to the market value of degrees and the sheer scale of both economic change and unemployment, this is a vital and immediate challenge. 
2. How can the link between cost and quality be broken? At present, the global rankings of universities in effect equate inputs with output. Only universities which have built up vast research capacity and low student:teacher ratios can come out on top. Yet in the era of modern technology, when students can individually and collectively create knowledge themselves, outstanding quality without high fixed costs is both plausible and desirable. New entrants are effectively barred from entry. A new university ranking is required. 
3. How does the entire learning ecosystem need to change to support alternative providers and the future of work? A new breed of learning providers is emerging that emphasise learning by practice and mentorship. Systematic changes are necessary to embedding these successful companies on a wider scale.
The key messages from the report to every player in the system are that the new student consumer is king and standing still is not an option. Embracing the new opportunities set out here may be the only way to avoid the avalanche that is coming.