Phil has done a great job of covering the news of California’s new bill (or stub of a bill, really) that would create a state-wide system of third-party online courses that would be available to students who would otherwise be shut out of courses that they need to graduate. It’s a good problem to tackle, since it would both make life better for students and improve the long-term state budget situation. Unfortunately, I don’t think the current incarnation of the bill takes into account either the full context and needs of students who find themselves shut out of the core courses or the directions that MOOCs are evolving into. As a result, it offers a bad prescription for the solution. The good news is that the shortcomings can be fixed while remaining well within the spirit of the bill.
What Students Need
Let’s start by reminding ourselves of the real goal here. It is not to offer students seats in courses. It’s to get students to complete those courses successfully so that they can graduate more quickly. But there are a number of aspects of the world that SB 520 would create that conspire to reduce the likelihood of achieving that goal significantly. For starters, online courses in general—not just MOOCs—have lower completion rates than traditional face-to-face courses. They require more self-discipline, better reading skills, and better awareness of when to seek help than traditional classes do. Offering an online class to a student who otherwise would be shut out altogether is definitely better than nothing, but we need to recognize that we are already starting with a solution that has its challenges for achieving a goal of high completion rates, even if everything else is equal.
And everything else would not be equal. Because the courses would not be taught by the faculty of the student’s home institution, there would likely be no opportunity for the teacher to talk the student’s advisor and other instructors, either to gain insights into that student’s needs and problems from people who have already worked with him, or to share information about his needs (e.g., a need for extra tutoring) with his support network. Then there’s the timing. According to the bill, students are only eligible for these third-party courses once it is determined that no such courses are available on their home campus. We don’t know exactly when such a determination would be made, but let’s assume for the moment that it is made at the end of a two-week add/drop period. So, two weeks into the semester, students begin looking outside for new courses. Maybe it takes them another two weeks to find a course, register for it, and begin attending. (We have no idea how easy it will be for students to find and register for these courses.) So now the student is starting an online course four weeks into a fifteen-week semester. That is not a good recipe for success, particularly when the student’s support network is going to be largely out of the loop for the remaining eleven weeks.
And let’s not forget about cost and financial aid. We already saw at the press conference that the bill authors do not yet have a handle on how much these courses would cost. And they didn’t even talk about how the courses would be paid for. Suppose a student has a scholarship at her home institution, but then has to pay $1,000 to a third-party provider for a bottleneck course. Does the home institution have to pay that cost? I’m pretty sure that’s not how scholarship money works now. Changing it to work this way could significantly impact the schools’ ability to give it out. The timing issue I described above could make matters even worse. It’s fairly common for students to go to class without books for the first few weeks of class while they wait for their financial aid checks to come in. If they can’t even file for financial aid until four weeks into the semester because that’s how long it takes them to register for the third-party class that enables them to maintain their full-time status, then they may be held up longer getting their books for every other class. Adding a third-party vendor into the mix inevitably adds bureaucracy. Whenever that happens, there’s a good chance that it will affect the students and their ability to focus on their studies.
So, while SB 520 would probably create a better situation for students trying to get into bottleneck courses than the one they are in now, it may not be a whole lot better in practical terms.
Courses, Courseware, and Course Designs
Interestingly, the one concrete example that Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun gave at the SB 520 unveiling press conference doesn’t fit the model that the bill seems to envision anyway. He talked about SJSU, where local faculty and TAs still teach the course, but they use a Udacity MOOC as courseware. The distinction between a “course” and “courseware” is a blurry one, but basically, if you take the particular instructor out of the course, what you have left is the courseware. If the creator and teacher of a MOOC turns over the keys of the MOOC, with all its videos, assessments, and other materials, to another instructor, then what is being turned over is courseware. If a textbook vendor provides not only the book, but the slides, the lecture notes, and a set of machine-graded tests and homework assignments, organized in a way that a faculty member can adopt without having to modify or supplement it a whole lot, then the publisher is essentially providing courseware. It’s essentially a course in a box that can be used by local faculty to teach local students. And courseware, in turn, is nothing more than a productized course design. If I, as an individual instructor, package up everything I use to teach my course, create videos of my lectures, and write down all the instructions and other details that I usually share informally or keep in my head, then what I have in the package can be called “courseware.” If you think about delivering a course as being like making a meal, then the course design is what’s in the chef’s head and pantry that she combines to make the meal. Courseware is the recipe and box of ingredients provided so that anyone can cook the meal. And a “course” is a particular meal created by a particular chef.
What California needs to overcome the bottleneck course problem in the most effective way possible is not new courses but new course designs and courseware that can be adopted by local faculty to meet the needs of the students they know. It needs recipes for nutritious meals that can be served at scale (like Jamie Oliver’s school food revolution toolkits). It needs new approaches for using technology in the classroom to enable the human instructors to focus on what they do best for more students, but assembled into a polished package that would be straightforward for local faculty to adopt. Such packages could come from a variety of sources. Certainly, MOOC providers and textbook publishers are both good candidates. And, of course, faculty can create these packages themselves, either on their own or with the help of third-party facilitators such as the National Center for Academic Transformation or Lumen Learning.
The variety is important because one size will not fit all. Suppose you have a school that is turning 75 students a year away from a core course. Is the problem that they can’t afford enough teachers or that they don’t have enough classroom space? Are the teachers trained in the technology solution that would help? Does the school have the right equipment? What is the bottleneck subject, and what approaches for scaling that particular subject work. (Math is very different from writing, for example.) Is there a high percentage of at-risk students in the class? Or ESL students? Different answers to these questions will yield different prescriptions for a good solution. The local institution should be both empowered and responsible to solve the problem using their understanding of the details and the full power of the institutional student support network. If some faculty member somewhere has figured out how to teach 1,000 students effectively using a MOOC, and that solution will work effectively for the 75 students at a particular school who are locked out of a course, then chances are good that it will work more effectively for those students if the same course is facilitated and supported by a local faculty member who is on campus, knows their advisors, has been proven to be a “good cook” with experience addressing the local tastes and nutritional needs, and doesn’t have to teach 1,000 students at a shot in order to solve the local bottleneck.
What a Good Bill Would Look Like
In and of itself, the original impulse to require the availability third-party courses is a good and important part of a complete solution. It applies pressure on the schools to come up with better solutions and gives students a better-than-nothing safety valve. Nor would I bend over backwards to accommodate faculty pressure regarding which courses to certify. If students have no chance of completion now because they are shut out of courses, then the primary emphasis of the third-party provisions should be on providing them with chances of completion that are at least incrementally better than zero. The quality standard should be as high as is practical, but the minimum standard of “better than nothing” is…well…better than nothing. The point of the third-party course option is not to have a great solution. It’s to have a better-than-nothing solution when all else has failed. Having this option in place is both right for the students as a last resort and essential as a mechanism to put pressure on the various stakeholders at the schools to solve the bottleneck problem themselves, lest they lose control of the educational experience and, potentially, funding dollars.
But while the third-party course option is an essential backstop, it is far from an optimal solution for the students. The main focus on the bill should be on minimizing the chances that students will be forced to take the third-party courses by mandating, supporting, and funding the development and/or licensing of courseware that empowers faculty to solve the bottleneck problem locally, where that solution can be tuned to the particular needs of the local student population and plugged into the students’ support network at their home institution. Teachers’ unions, for their part, should push to ensure they have the funding and autonomy to take responsibility for solving these problems themselves. They need to be the champions for real and effective change that embraces the possibility of using technology to scale effective education while also being the experts in the room who can distinguish between a real solution and snake oil. They should insist on funding for courseware evaluation, course design development, and faculty training. Rather than fight against the push to use technology to help solve the access problem, they should fight for the ability to lead the change, and to shape it. They should insist on the opportunity to provide better solutions for their students than the third-party option, and then they should prove that they can do it.