MOOCs: The Courage to Say No


University of Hull

University of Hull

Silicon Valley has enthusiastically promoted MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), but some universities have decided MOOCs are not effective or appropriate for their students.

In the summer of 2012, The Wall Street Journal reported 160,000 students signed up for Sebastian Thrun’s Artificial Intelligence course. The course was available as a lecture for enrolled students on the Stanford University campus and simultaneously on the Internet as a MOOC. (Later reported as over 170,000 students). Andy Kessler wrote:

Twenty-three thousand people finished the course. Of his 200 Stanford students, 30 attended lectures and the other 170 took it online. The top 410 performers on exams were online students. The first Stanford student was No.411. (That is, 0.25% of the online students did better than the best enrolled Stanford students attending the lecture).

And he quotes Mr. Thrun:

“The AI class was the first light. Online education will way exceed the best education today. And cheaper. If this works, we can rapidly accelerate the progress of society and the world. If you think Facebook’s neat, wait five to 10 years. So many open [education] problems will be solved.”

Kessler also reported: “Mr.Thrun’s cost was basically $1 per student per class.”

At the same time last year some colleges and universities had to explain why they were not participating in the MOOCs.

Many college and universities have online learning. Some believe these online pedagogies are more effective for their students. They do not say that MOOCs have no role in global learning. Most agree MOOCs can, as Thrun believes, make a major contribution to global learning, especially where there are limited educational opportunities.

If Thrun’s cost estimates are representative and if the MOOC technology is implemented throughout U.S. higher education as suggested, $138 billion per year could be saved. Universities believe there can be cost savings from online learning technologies, but not the savings promised by the most enthusiastic MOOC supporters.

Three cases show how the universities responded to last summer’s MOOC-mania (here, subscription required)—the University of Southern California, University of Oklahoma, and the “Big Ten plus one” Committee on Institutional Cooperation—by saying “no.”

One of the motivations for MOOCs was potential cost savings. If Kessler’s reported cost estimate is projected for all higher education, there could be substantial cost savings.

Assuming that all instruction were offered by MOOCs, using Mr. Thrun’s cost estimates, then $138 billion of direct instructional expenses would be saved. That would be 29.3% of total expenditures by colleges and universities reported by NCES as $472 billion. If this were true, about 1 million teaching positions would not be needed.

Not likely.

But it is useful to consider the endpoint of Christensen “disruption.” For context, current national averages $1,853 for the direct costs of instruction for a three-unit course at a public college or university and $3,892 for a private non-profit college or university. Total costs are $2,826 and $6,540 respectively. Total costs include fully allocated costs for academic support, student services, and institutional support. (Condition of Education 2013 reports private for-profit colleges and universities have lower costs. This may be from the differences in financial reporting).

Kessler’s computation of $1 per enrolled student likely is accurate for the Coursera-like course. The course included the online lecture, 10 to 20 minute video segments, and lesson and final assessments. Course materials were developed by Mr. Thrun and his colleagues. Some of the materials came from previous instruction. The MOOC platform was simplistic as compared to the fully-supported online courses currently offered by colleges and universities and courses offered by firms for their employees, called “corporate training.”

Though MOOCs clearly provide learning, MOOCs may not meet the criteria of quality that include success in the current course, successful performance in subsequent courses, rewarding careers, and the public benefits expected from a college degree.

As Kessler and others were reporting on the results of the first MOOCs, several colleges and universities elected not to join the MOOC movement.  Three are explored here.

  • The University of Southern California finds online courses not acceptable for undergraduates lacking the learning that occurs in the social environment of a residential university. USC offers online courses and degrees for graduate students who meet the admission requirements for the graduate program and whose online courses provide comparable learning performance.
  • The University of Oklahoma is evolving its use of online education as an alternative or supplemental resource for the classroom learning experience, but is skeptical of online courses without faculty support.
  • This summer the CIOs (Chief Information Officers) of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (15 major research universities) outlined their approach to online learning. This includes MOOCs. The CIC universities are continuing their efforts to improve learning and lower costs through collaboration. Their efforts are one of the few that have successfully implemented sound and historically successful projects to cope with the impact of digital technologies on learning and research. University of Maryland CIO Brian Voss presented the CIC CIO perspective to the Association of Governing Boards for Universities and Colleges in March of this year.

University of Southern California

The University of Southern California “Memorandum to The USC Community” titled “Online Education—Hype and Reality” is a model of substance, explanation, and relevance. It summarizes—3 pages—the University’s use of learning technology based on the effectiveness of learning technologies for its students. President Nikias writes:

Quietly and without fanfare, the University of Southern California has developed a global online graduate education enterprise that features academic breadth and economic viability—one that expands educational access broadly, while maintaining all-important standards of academic rigor, integrity, and quality. Total annual revenues for online USC professional, graduate, and continuing education programs are expected to reach $114.5 million (his emphasis) this year—a figure that may be unprecedented for a top American research university.

Quality and financial viability—two points missing from almost all discussion of MOOCs and online learning. He describes the University’s strategy for online learning in five points:

1. USC’s focus is on master’s and graduate degree programs, along with executive and continuing education.

2. Online programs must preserve academic rigor, integrity, and excellence above all other considerations.

3. Online degree programs will use USC’s normal admissions standards and charge regular tuition rates.

4. While partnering with outside education entities, our faculty and schools will retain sole responsibility for ensuring academic quality.

5. USC will not offer online degrees at the undergraduate level.

Although USC will use learning technology extensively, for undergraduates USC believes

Face-to-face intellectual and creative encounters, inside and outside the classroom, create the greatest impact. This immersive, undergraduate approach is performed best on a broad and comprehensive research university campus such as ours, where knowledge is continually created, tested, and challenged within a dynamic residential community. Technology will enhance, but not replace, the traditional campus undergraduate educational experience.

And for graduates:

It is at these levels that top research universities have a meaningful role to play in the online education revolution. Within the post-undergraduate phase of lifelong learning, technology makes distance irrelevant; students can increase their knowledge while working and living anywhere on the planet, as they learn new skills and move from obsolete industries to new ones.

USC has a clear vision of two separate student bodies—residential undergraduates and knowledge workers as lifelong students. USC is focused on learning outcomes, not the number of students enrolled in MOOCs or other online learning. “… there is scant evidence that free online classes or viral lectures produce worthy educational or career outcomes.” “Our goal will always be to produce true academic value, for the fullest benefit of our students.”

“Our goal, by contrast, is to ensure that the educational experience is reserved for only those students with the requisite interest and ability to meet our faculty’s high expectations. Every remote student seeking to pursue a degree program must meet the regular admissions criteria of the USC School offering the diploma.”

The responsibility for quality assurance is made clear:

School and university curriculum faculty committees will directly assess the rigor of online programs, as they do with traditional on-campus graduate programs.

Both Harvard and MIT have similarly given the faculty responsibility for quality in the HarvardX and MITX edX courses whether or not they are offered for credit. Most universities have not made this faculty role clear to students and the public if faculty are given that authority.

The University’s view of learning technology:

Technology must be used to facilitate and enhance, but never dilute, the intellectual encounter between and among faculty and students. The online curriculum must be as rigorous as the conventional curriculum. No two-tier curricular approaches will be utilized, and the online courses will feature the same high caliber of faculty as the classroom versions.

All programs must ensure integrity in testing and learning assessment.

Perhaps a good example of the University’s “equal treatment” of residential and online students was shown by this comment: “About 200 persons have signed up for the special health insurance program we established last year for remote students.” Offering this service is a remarkable symbol that online students are equally important to the University and will not receive any less of an education or services. Nikias further commented: “[Graduates on the online programs] are becoming, in all respects, full and valued members of the Trojan Family.” And he reported: “Professor Warren Bennis wrote about USC ’s online enterprise in Business Week, calling it ‘the world ’s first online education model that is both academically and financially viable.’”

If MOOCs are not held to high quality then elite universities may be risking, not enhancing, their reputation by their use of MOOCs.

USC has taken an innovative approach to international learning that shows dedication to quality. USC will not establish university centers in other countries. USC wants students to experience other cultures by students enrolling in their universities and learning from their faculty. The iPodia innovation also respects their culture rather than attempting to impose a U.S. culture in another country.

The Viterbi School of Engineering innovation has developed a unique iPodia Global Classroom. The Daily Trojan campus newspaper describes the program: “Through iPodia, students from different cultures and time zones can come together—in the classroom.”

Professor Stephen Lu conceived of the program. “…in an iPodia classroom, students review the lectures for homework and come to class for interaction and discussion.” Each session is both taught by faculty and has students from USC and the other two other universities. The classrooms are connected by video. This innovation treats the three universities as equals. In addition to the cultural exchanges during class and online communication among the students, a final meeting of all students at one university reinforces the global exchanges. Lu’s innovation prepares engineering students for collaborative international research and development that is becoming increasingly important to business.

Here is an example of the universities as described to students last year for this academic year year:

Session A involves a partnership with Peking University in Beijing and the Korean Institute of Science and Technology in Daejeon, South Korea. Session B will include students from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel and the RWTH Aachen University in Aachen, Germany.

USC exploits technology to enhance a strong residential undergraduate program and as an alternative for graduates who cannot take classes on campus. The focus is on achieving learning outcomes needed for success in a global context.

The limitations of MOOC technology as currently practiced do not meet the University’s criteria. As Julie Bourbon wrote in her article in the Association of Governing Boards Trusteeship magazine:

[President C.L. Max Nikias] advice to the boards of other institutions is simple: Stick to your principles and have a viable business model. “What is the mission of your institution?” he asked, and then answered it himself. “We want to be a key player in the area of lifelong learning.”

With 50 years of online learning beginning with television courses, the University has the experience and expertise to make informed decisions. The University has communicated their choices clearly and widely. A refreshing approach.

University of Oklahoma

On August 14, 2012, University of Oklahoma President, David L. Boren, sent a letter to the faculty concerning the use of instruction technology. (Lecturer Laura Gibbs provided a copy). Boren expressed the University’s positive view of the potential learning technology:

Technologies that enhance educational experiences are advancing at a rapid pace. Exciting opportunities to apply these technologies to research and instruction abound.

The University of Oklahoma is a leader in the application of new technologies. I am aware of programs in each of our colleges that are at the forefront in the exploration of learning innovations.

Our direction for implementing emerging learning technologies is clear. We embrace online classes as a way to educate students who are simply not physically able to participate in the dynamic learning experience in our classrooms.

Yet Boren made clear the technology would primarily be used to supplement and extend classroom instruction. He wrote:

When distance is not a consideration, we should not adopt technology to replace classroom learning but, rather, we should use new technologies to enhance the overall educational experience for our students. Students should be encouraged to be present for lectures and class sessions through attendance policies while also accessing technology enhancements.

Boren is one of the very few that have commented about “attendance policies.” There is evidence that many students will attend a lecture even if a video version is available and some evidence that fewer than half the students will attend without an attendance policy. Students in law tend to both study the video presentations and attend classes. Some even study video presentations of other faculty members teaching the same course. Described earlier Sebastian Thrun taught his class in artificial intelligence at Stanford both as lecture and online as a MOOC. The Wall Street Journal reported only 30 of the 200 enrolled Stanford Students attended the lectures.

Boren acknowledged other universities were announcing their plan to offer MOOCs using the same Coursera technology, instructional design and practices. He writes:

I am aware of the actions of other excellent universities that are placing course content on the Internet for the world at large. While we also answer the call to broadly advance the frontiers of knowledge, I am very excited about the opportunities brought by new technologies to individualize and improve the educational outcomes for the students who fill our classrooms. While some digital strategies make course content available to an ever greater population of learners as in mass production, we must challenge ourselves to use technology, through videos and dynamic online course materials, to make more time available in the classroom/laboratory for discussion, student engagement, hands-on experiences, active peer learning and undergraduate research. In this digital age, a [University of Oklahoma] education can be more unique, more individualized, and more powerful than ever.

As a Rhodes Scholar, Boren attended Oxford University following his graduation from Yale University. The Oxford education encourages extensive interaction with tutors and both formal and informal collaboration with other students. (Wikipedia: Tutoring is a role for faculty in Britain, typically in weekly meetings with one to “a few” students). From his experience, Boren would be more aware of the value of the residential experience than most U.S. university graduates.

The University also understands the challenge of implementing and effectively using digital instructional technologies. Boren: “I will also name a task force to coordinate and advance our academic and administrative digital initiatives.”

Committee on Institutional Cooperation

For over half a century, CIC members have collaborated to advance their academic missions, generate unique opportunities for students and faculty, and serve the common good by sharing expertise, leveraging campus resources, and collaborating on innovative programs. Members include the Universities of Chicago, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska-Lincoln, Wisconsin-Madison, and Indiana, Michigan State, Northwestern, Ohio State, Pennsylvania State, Purdue, Rutgers Universities.

In June of this year the CIC CIO’s issued a report “CIC Online Learning Collaboration: A Vision and Framework.” The report did not support or criticize MOOCs but rather provided context for a university strategy to use the digital learning technologies.

In March, Brian Voss, CIO of the University of Maryland, prepared a report “Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs):  A Primer for University and College Board Members” for the Association of Governing Boards drawing on the CIC briefing from late 2012 and his participation in drafting the report.

He cautioned the Boards:

As Boards seek to grasp the significance of MOOCs and their impact on colleges and universities, they should focus on two fundamental ideas. First, while information technology (IT) is the medium through which disruption of the academic enterprise is taking place, that disruption is not about IT. IT is an enabler of almost every aspect of life in the 21st century —on our campuses, in our workplaces, and in our homes. But what is most important for higher education is the transformation of teaching and learning.

The strength of CIC is the ability to work together to achieve instructional quality and lower costs. CIC describes its current online offerings:

CIC universities collectively deliver over 112 online master’s degrees, account for over 16% of all MOOCs offered by Coursera, and have been sharing over 50 less commonly taught language courses to nearly 800 students from a distance.

The CIC universities include those that have had online learning initiatives for several years. For example, the University of Maryland’s University College (UMUC) “… offered 941 distinct online courses for over 262,000 online course enrollments in academic year 2011-2012. UMUC offers 100 bachelor’s master’s degree programs and certificates.” The University of Michigan and Indiana University, with MIT and Stanford University, developed the open-source Sakai learning system used by over 350 educational organizations. The Sakai CLE and Sakai OAE software products are now Apereo Foundation projects.

The economic advantage of CIC cooperation is shown by offering 50 “less commonly taught language courses” to 800 students—an average class size of 16. These courses include students throughout the 15 participating institutions. None could support these languages individually. Many are very important languages for global business and national security.

CIC has been sharing instructional technology and expects to share course materials. In every case the increased numbers reduces the unit cost of the materials. Unlike the current MOOCs, the materials can be selectively used and modified for the content and pedagogy must effective for a specific course and any of the universities.

CIC is committed to using online learning technologies for both more effective pedagogies in classroom-based instruction and to serve the life-long learner that cannot participate in residential instruction. The CIOs summarize:

New technologies and course redesign present higher education, in general, with an opportunity to improve instructional quality, enhance student learning outcomes, and extend the reach of campus instructional offerings. All of these would be welcome advances, but their accomplishment is not simply a matter of pouring existing course content into a new delivery system.

The fifteen universities have been evolving online-learning technologies on their campuses, validating instructional effectiveness as the technologies are diffused into the curriculum. There is a substantial record of accomplishment and leadership. Whether those CIC universities will find benefits in their participation in MOOCs is uncertain. But participation will provide data that can be used to evaluate those choices.

The three examples here have avoided MOOC-mania by carefully evaluating the use of technology for the teaching and learning of their students based on evidence of instructional effectiveness and their institutional mission. They are sharing and gaining the economic benefits where it is appropriate to do so.

These are examples of higher education managements making informed choices even if they don’t make the front page of the Wall Street Journal.

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Jim Farmer is an engineering economist at instructional media + magic inc. His interests include educational technology, academic research, and information standards. He also writes for Intellectual Property Magazine. For more information, see his profile page.
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3 Responses to MOOCs: The Courage to Say No

  1. Stephen says:

    In light of all the arguments for and against MOCC, iPodia can be seen as a “transitional” step from the current state of education to a future paradigm which is yet to be discovered. Being transitional as a strategy, the impact of iPodia, however, is transformational.

    With the rapid developments of technology and globalization, no one doubts that the century-old education must be changed. MOOC is just a very “radical” response to this call for change. On one hand, it serves quite well as a wake-up call and a brave experiment for us to see how far the technology can take us in changing the education. On the other hand, as many people have began to realize, it is clearly too drastic a step to be pedagogically practical and financially sustainable. This suggests that a “transitional” approach, like iPodia, may be the best bet at this historical turning point.

    When taking an iPodia class, students can study the online course “contents” offered by MOOC at home before coming to the iPodia classroom on campus to collaboratively engage in various interactive exercises as global learning cohorts. iPodia allows students to co-construct contextual understandings of the subject content and, at the same time, develop mutual understanding of each other. Together with MOOC, iPodia provides students with the best combination in education, enabling them to learn the best subject content from the best teachers (via MOCC) and develop the best contextual understanding with the best classmates (via iPodia). The more MOOC, the better for iPodia!

    At a somewhat philosophical level, what is happening on campus today is very similar to what happened in American factories in the early 80s’. Three decades ago, many US factories turned to computer technologies (e.g., automation, robots, etc.) as “the” solution to save their bottom-line (i.e., making profits). Only after investing heavily in hardware and seeing many skilled jobs being replaced by machines, did they start to realize that this fully-automated thinking was a mistake and would not yield any long-term returns in profits. As a result, factory automation efforts in recent years have become much “smarter”, in that they focus on using intelligent machines to empower, not replace, bright people.

    In some ways, those fully-digitized MOCC course-ware are much like the modern “robots” of teaching, which threaten the people (e.g., teachers) in education. Putting a fancy robot on your factory floor (i.e., jumping onto the fashionable MOCC wagon) may be good for showing outsiders your commitment to change; but when your insiders are scared of losing their jobs, no positive change and improvement can occur. In a sense, iPodia is the “smart automation” approach in education – it empowers teachers to do more and allows students to get more, without threatening anyone (except those old hardheaded and MOCC enthusiasts). iPodia links classrooms across traditional boundaries to enrich what happens in each classroom. By flattening the landscape of learning, iPodia brings out healthy competitions between teachers and students around the world, making everyone better for the future.

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