In my last post, I described a vision for combining elements of MOOC-like scale with a more traditional face-to-face classroom experience, as articulated by Pearson’s Adrian Sannier. (Full disclosure: Pearson is a client of MindWires Consulting.) A couple of months ago, I suggested in an interview with Josh Kim for Inside Higher Education that this is where MOOCs would go next:
Question 6. Will MOOCs replace accredited curriculum? Why or why not?
I don’t know how to answer this question, because I’m not convinced that we know what a MOOC is yet. Will there be massive elements that are integral to many curricula? Almost certainly, although I don’t know how much of it we will see in 2013. Will the curricula be all massive? Probably not in most cases. Will we consider the mix of massive and non-massive elements to be “MOOCs”? I don’t know.
The problem that we have right now is that we have very few models for how this might work. So when Sannier mentioned a course called Habitable Worlds being developed by Professor Ariel Anbar and Lev Horodyskyj at Arizona State University that will eventually be brought to OpenClass to support this model, I asked to speak with Professor Anbar in order to get some specifics. The conversation shed some light not only on possibilities for the mixed model, but also on possible futures for the liberal arts and the role of the professor.
A Quest for Intelligent Life in the University
The core organizing principle of Habitable Worlds is something called the “Drake Equation,” formulated by astrophysicist Frank Drake during the early days of Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence (SETI) as a discipline. Anbar describes it as “a way of organizing our ignorance about what we need to know in order to figure out whether there is intelligent life in the universe.” It has seven variables, ranging from things we know quite a bit about, like the rate of star formation in our galaxy per year, to things we know something about, like the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets, to things we know almost nothing about, like the average lifespan of a technically advanced civilization. Through a series of interactive exercises, the students learn about each of these variables. They are also each given a unique, computer-generated star field. Their ultimate quest for the course is to come up with an estimate of the number of planets within that star field with which communication might be possible (which is the result of the Drake equation).
It’s fair to say that Habitable Worlds is an attempt to rethink Gen Ed. It’s designed to satisfy the quantitative general science requirement, counts for laboratory credit at ASU as a fully online course for non-science majors. Phil Regier, Dean of ASU Online, gave Anbar permission to start from a blank sheet of paper (and, apparently, something relatively close to a blank check). For his part, Professor Anbar confessed his interest was in “teaching science as a process, not a bunch of facts.” “I wanted to design a course around a quest or a game-like concept where you have to solve a problem,” he continued. “A good lab does exactly that.”
Let’s pause here for a moment and consider the implications of this statement. The rap against liberal arts in the current political environment is that students don’t learn skills and knowledge that are useful for employment. For the moment, let’s leave aside the question of whether that is the only or the most important purpose of higher education. Let’s focus instead on the question that the critics raise. Is it true that liberal arts fail to teach job skills? And to the degree that it is true, is it inherent in the notion of the liberal arts education, or is it due to the way we currently structure the college experience? “Liberal arts” tends to be interpreted as shorthand for taking music and sociology and art history and a bunch of other topics offered in the smorgasbord that is today’s undergraduate course catalog. It is often taken to mean breadth of knowledge producing a “well-rounded” person. But Professor Anbar offers a very different notion of liberal arts here. Habitable Worlds is a science class for non-science majors designed to teach them how to solve problems like scientists do. Is this skill set one that would be useful in the workplace for people in non-science careers? You bet it would. The work of liberal arts is done not by running through a checklist of knowledge that a student should be exposed to, by crafting an experience that is focused on enabling the students to acquire skills that a student may learn from exposure to a particular discipline. That change in emphasis requires a different design both of the curriculum or “major” as a whole and of individual courses. A good lab teaches problem solving. But how many labs are designed and taught with that goal in mind? What are the odds that a typical liberal arts student in a typical liberal arts program is going to be deliberately and thoughtfully exposed to the problem-solving skills that science can teach? If the liberal arts are to survive, the answer needs to be “close to 100%”.
Anbar also talks about creating a self-sustaining knowledge community among the students. That is a core course goal, and implicitly, a core skill set that students need to learn. In this regard, he thinks that the standard survey-level courses are particularly bad candidates, because they don’t naturally stimulate the kind of interest and discussion that what he called “integrative curricula” like climate science or SETI does. So again, this suggests a need for a shift in emphasis in liberal arts from content to skills. Some of this has already been happening for quite a while, piecemeal, through Gen Ed and core competency efforts, but there hasn’t been a real wholesale shift in mindset yet.
For the expository portions of the course, there’s heavy use of video and interactive media. For example, there’s a “virtual field trip” to Shark Bay, Australia, where students “walk around” the beach and explore various icons, some of which include David Attenborough-like narrations from Anbar. The exercises are built on a platform called SmartSparrow. (More on that in a bit.) One of the more interesting aspects of the course design is the twist on the use of robo-grading that comes when you think about it in terms of a game. The students are trying to make progress in a challenge game, which essentially robo-grades their exercises. “Assessment is done by the simulators, like levels in a game,” says Anbar. “There are a huge number of A’s, even though there was a lot of anxiety, because if you put in enough time, you can make it through. Teacher and TAs mainly decide what the grade boundaries are and fix things when they don’t work.”
Anbar acknowledges that building a course like Habitable Worlds is “expensive.” (The scare quotes are his.) This is where scale comes in. If he were only developing the course design for his own students, the cost couldn’t be justified. But if it becomes a Gen Ed course that all ASU students go through, or if it is adopted by schools other than ASU through Pearson’s OpenClass or some other platform, then the cost can be amortized. This is a different emphasis on the benefits of scale than you get from MOOC providers, where they talk about the benefits of scale in not only production but also delivery. Anbar’s view of scale in delivery, which I’ll get to in more detail later in this post, is more nuanced. But he definitely stresses the value of scale through re-use as a way to justify production expenses.
At the same time, he pointed out some challenges with current tool sets. He sees the biggest cost challenge as the authoring platforms that enable the development of the interactive components. Today, he claims, developing good game- and simulation-based courses is difficult and expensive because “everything you do has to go through the hands of a sophisticated programmer. We all know that as teachers, we’re always iterating and improving, at least if we’re any good.” So working with developers to hand craft simulations is not a good fit, in his view. That’s why he was excited to find the SmartSparrow authoring tool, which he compared to PowerPoint in terms of how it might be used by instructors in the future. “”Five years from now,” he said, “the question will be ‘What’s your authoring platform,’ not ‘What’s your LMS?’ The LMS is your file cabinet or your book shelf. It’s the most boring part of the equation.”
Overall, he was fairly disparaging of traditional LMSs, specifically calling out their “disappointing” and “limiting” discussion engines. (Habitable Worlds uses Piazza.) He liked the idea of OpenClass because “Pearson is designing OpenClass so that it can basically get out of the way. I can have my course experience to take over the entire screen. You don’t want students seeing everything through the lens of the file system.” That said, there is no date yet for when Habitable Worlds will be available on OpenClass because some of OpenClass’ APIs are not ready yet. “Where waiting for OpenClass to be more Open,” said Anbar.
The Role of the Instructor and Scale in Delivery
So where does the instructor fit into all of this? One of the criticisms of the xMOOC 2.0 model, where instructors act as on-site facilitators to support the massive course experience, is that it “reduces instructors to TAs.” I’ve never fully understood what that criticism means, but I wanted to know what Anbar thinks the role of the instructor is—and isn’t—in his model. His answers were interesting. First, he is quite happy to let go of as much of the grading function as he ethically can. ”I’ve turned myself into an expert guide and a coach,” he said. “That’s what I want to be as a teacher, so that’s what I’ve done. I’m not interested in being a judge.” He spends a lot of his course time on the discussion boards. We talked about the difference between the instructor and the TA. So far, he’s taught the course with up to 500 students in it and has a goal of 1000, so TAs are definitely involved. The difference in role he described is subtle and has everything to do with the perception of him by the students as an expert. The TAs are there to coach, but the students respond differently to somebody that they perceive to have deep experience who is there to support them in their course quests. It’s not too far from what old school asynchronous learning researchers might call “teaching presence.” Some of that comes from interactions on the discussion board, but some of it is about the way in which he is presented in the course materials. He was very aware of his voice (literally) as the voice of the course. As he expands the course out to be taught by other professors, he is thinking about either genericizing the videos or making it possible for instructors to put in their own. He also spoke about maybe making the course a little more modular so that professors have more control over the shape of the curriculum, although he didn’t offer any specifics for how this could be done in a course with such a strong organizing principle.
I must say that Anbar was substantially more agnostic about scale than Sannier was. He definitely was imagining the possibility of the course as a MOOC-like “self-organizing online community.” That said, his focus, at the moment, is on the course as a large, but not MOOC-large, online course in which a human instructor still plays a very substantial role as a facilitator. But the role of the instructor is very substantially different from in traditional courses, whether face-to-face or online. Between that and the focus on teaching skills in an interdisciplinary, quest-driven context, Habitable Worlds is a pretty radical experiment.
Update: Professor Anbar has asked me to point out that his co-creator of the Habitable Worlds class was ASU staff member Lev Horodyskyj. He wrote, “It’s fair to say that while the vision is mine, [Mr. Horodvskyj] has had the larger hand by far in the implementation, operating as a sort of super instructional designer and, more recently, course manager. And, as in any creative partnership, there’s been a sufficient melding of minds that I consider him a co-creator of the course.” Accordingly, I have added Mr. Horodvskyj’s name to the introduction of the post. Anbar also asked that credit be given to NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, “ which helped catalyze some of this (especially the virtual field trips).”