On September 19, Slate Magazine concluded “Online Higher-Education Startup Coursera Is Taking Over the World.” Following Silicon Valley practice, reporter Will Oremus judged Coursera’s success on the basis of the number of customer universities offering Coursera courses. He concludes “Coursera has positioned itself perfectly to capitalize on their eagerness.”
In July, Slate posed the question “Will online education start-ups like Coursera end the era of expensive higher education?” Oremus wrote: “Why would anyone pay tens-of-thousands of dollars for an education at a mid-tier college when they could learn from Ivy League professors online for free (or, at least, for cheap)?”
Former ALT Chief Executive Seb Schmoller commented:
“There is a bubble, in that lots of organisations are thinking that they “have to get on board with MOOCs [Massive Open Online Courses] or be left behind”.
At the same time, more relevant and substantive discussions of the definition and role of MOOCs were held on the U.K.’s Association for Learning Technology forum.
Diana Laurillard, University of London, observed:
“In what seems to be [MOOCs] most common format that I’ve come across so far they are presentational material of some kind with a discussion forum for students. That’s the old technology equivalent of a textbook in a public library. There is no certification of achievement by the student, only of attendance, at best. So in that format it is not ‘education’, which is a useful term whose meaning should not be stretched too far, I feel”.
But MOOCs have an educational role and Laurillard identified the need for further development:
“MOOCs can be ‘educational’ in the way that TV programmes can be, and when we try them out, as I think we certainly should, we should be trying to extend the format to be more supportive of the learner, while respecting the ‘Massive’ aspect. But a genuine MOOC could never provide the kind of personal feedback to the learner that is the essence of education (along with useful certification of what they have learned). That is the labour-intensive variable cost of education that requires the teaching staff to be massive too. Automated intelligent personalised feedback to learners on the basis of their actions is one of the grand challenges that learning technologies have not yet stepped up to, sadly. I do believe there is potential for that [emphasis added].”
Then MOOCs could get closer to being a form of education that requires less faculty effort and reduces cost.
Laurillard’s book “Rethinking University Teaching: a framework for the effective use of education technology,” published in 1993 and revised in 2002, is still current. She speaks with authority and experience. She led the original development of teaching and learning materials and practices at the British Open University. Their work included:
- Content – Open University brought faculty and industry experts together from many universities to answer the question: What should a successful student know when they complete this course? (There is a similar activity by some professional organizations in the U.S. for undergraduate courses). The next step was to develop course materials that best supported student learning in ways their life situation permitted—by charter, OU focused on employed students. These materials included syllabus, texts, workbooks, experimental kits, audio and video recording and now online access. These were all provided to students so that they could select those most useful personally. For student contact OU provided local tutors responsible for student success. Tutors had protocols for what actions should be taken when a student was identified as potentially failing. They also facilitated informal group study and discussion, and assisted students individually.
- Quality – Open University continuously monitors student performance. An early method was to give examinations from and graded by faculty teaching in the traditional universities to a sample of Open University students. OU students scored as well as traditional students. Based on the data from student performance and preferences, OU consistently improved its learning materials and processes. This research led to an OU sponsored major upgrade of the Moodle online learning system—now called a “platform” — made available to all 60,027,325 Moodle users at 67,540 sites in 220 countries (Moodle statistics, 26 September 2012 ).
These same practices were followed by university extension divisions as they moved into online education. The University of California, Berkeley, and now edX partner, is the largest supplier of online and multiple-location technology education in Silicon Valley
Los Rios College in Sacramento, Rio Salado in Phoenix, the Dallas County Community College District, University of Maryland University College, and Athabasca University in Canada today are a constant source of innovation in online learning and are sharing their experience with others. It is not surprising that Harvard edX would be offered by Harvard Extension which has similar experience. And the University of California, Berkeley, now offering BerkeleyX
The edX Consortium may have a superior model.
- Quality – The Harvard, MIT and Berkeley online courses must meet the same learning objectives as the courses offered traditionally. Faculty committees monitor course offerings and student performance. EdX will also have proctored examinations [http://www.immagic.com/eLibrary/ARCHIVES/GENERAL/HARVARD/C120907W.pdf].
- Business model – The edX Consortium is employing the three-level Kirschner model [mfeldstein.com/online-learning-where-is-the-money/]. For example, anyone can access the learning materials free. Harvard online courses, with additional services, are available from Harvard Extension—which requires admission. And, third, the classroom experience for enrolled students.
- Brand – edX President and MIT professor Anant Agarwal said: “We will not water down the courses [to achieve higher success rates]. They will continue to be MIT-hard or Harvard-hard.” This should make the certificate of completion as valuable as classroom participation.
Harvard’s Harry Lewis described the development of CS 20 “Discrete Mathematics for Computer Science”—one of the first two offered by HarvardX—in Harvard Magazine . He described course development:
Thirty-three topic units were a lot to prepare—each includes a slide deck, a recorded lecture, a selection of readings, a set of in-class problems, and homework exercises. The trickiest part was coordinating the workflow and getting everything at the right difficulty level.
MIT’s edX prototype was “Circuits and Electronics,” or 6.002x in MIT’s course-numbering system. It began with MIT Open Courseware materials, but was extended. The discussion groups became so requested that MIT left them open to students after the course ended.
This effort shows the scope and level of investment being made in edX courses.
The edX open-source “platform” is being used by others. “Today the developer of MongoDB, the leading open-source database company, announced today that they will offer two courses on the edX platform.” This expands edX use into professional training. It benefits those who need the specific skills in other to quality for a higher-level position. “Mongo is a hot skill set, usually #2 after generic HTML 5 jobs on recruiting boards.”
Referring to Coursera courses Laurillard observes: “They are free, so there is no business model for their improvement, or sustainability.”
Venture-capital financed startups may begin buying “growth” with free products or services, but at some point a business model has to provide a profit for investors. University customers will likely transition to a Kirchner business model to recover their investment and operating costs; Coursera will likely begin to charge a fee to the universities in the same way that MoodleRooms, a Blackboard subsidiary, charges for delivering online learning using Moodle. An advertising revenue-based model likely would not be acceptable to university customers.
Coursera is a platform, not a learning experience as offered by the edX consortium.
Coursera universities may have difficulty achieving brand recognition as the press references “Coursera courses” rather than HarvardX , MITx or BerkeleyX courses.
Is Coursera taking over the world of higher education? Not yet.
A compilation of the referenced ALT communications is available here.