You know what would help MOOC articles? Getting the facts and goals right before analyzing

Keith Devlin has an article at Huffington Post today titled “MOOC Mania Meets the Sober Reality of Education”. The premise is that the halting of the San Jose State University (SJSU) / Udacity pilot project and of SB 520 show that naive assumptions on the power of MOOCs to disrupt higher education are insufficient in reality – education is too complex. While the overall article has some good points, the very foundation of the article is flawed.

I have written about both issues – SJSU program and SB 520 – and agree that there were flaws in both. Michael and I co-wrote a position paper for 20 Million Minds Foundation making recommendations to change and improve California legislation, and we have been critical of overly-simplistic views of higher education disruption. But authors should at least characterize the goals of each program accurately before drawing conclusions. The HuffingtonPost article has three glaring problems that undercut its entire message.

Problem 1: Getting the explicit goals wrong

Devlin begins:

Politicians who saw MOOCs as a means to cut the cost of higher education are having to think again after two high-profile initiatives in California recently came to a crashing halt.

Did politicians see “MOOCs as a means to cut the cost of higher education” in both of these programs? Let’s look at the stated goals for the SJSU program:

This marks the first time that a broad and diverse range of students, not just matriculated students, will have access to online college classes for credit from an accredited university at a very affordable price of $150 per course, about the same as a course at the California Community Colleges.

The pilot’s target population includes underserved groups such as high school students who will earn college credit, waitlisted students at California Community Colleges who would otherwise face out-of-state or private options, and members of the armed forces and veterans. [emphasis original]

What about SB 520? From the NY Times article about the introduction of the bill:

Legislation will be introduced in the California Senate on Wednesday that could reshape higher education by requiring the state’s public colleges and universities to give credit for faculty-approved online courses taken by students unable to register for oversubscribed classes on campus. [snip]

“We want to be the first state in the nation to make this promise: No college student in California will be denied the right to move through their education because they couldn’t get a seat in the course they needed,” said Darrell Steinberg, the president pro tem of the Senate, who will introduce the bill. “That’s the motivation for this.”

In other words, the explicit goal of both of these programs is  to increase access to higher education for students who would not otherwise have been able to take these courses. Neither program was intended to replace existing courses with online versions.

You could reasonably argue that SJSU / Udacity and SB 520 sought to meet student demands with existing budgets rather than investing in more of the existing face-to-face courses and that this approach indirectly could reduce cost increases. You could even argue that long-term cost cutting underlies the long-term push for MOOCs or that the sponsors had ulterior motives. But it is misleading to claim cost reduction was the main goal of these two initiatives and not accurately describe the explicit goal of increasing student access.

Problem 2: Getting the facts about SB 520 funding wrong

Furthermore, Devlin conflates SB 520 and the California budget increases for higher education.

The idea behind the bill was to tie funds ($16.9M for CCC, $10M for CSU, $10M for UC) to “increas[ing] the number of courses available to matriculated undergraduates through the use of technology, specifically those courses that have the highest demand, fill quickly and are prerequisites for many different degrees.”

No. The $36.9 million in additional funding for online education was separate from SB 520. The state was planning to increase its investment in online education programs (the $36.9M) and it was planning to pass SB 520 with its own funding. I have written about these dual programs here and here. In my Inside Higher Education article co-written by Dean Florez:

In parallel, Governor Jerry Brown added fuel to the fire by proposing additional funding to the CCC, CSU, and UC with the caveat that certain conditions be tied to the funding. The language in the proposed budget obligated the funds “to increase the number of courses available to matriculated undergraduates through the use of technology, specifically those courses that have the highest demand, fill quickly, and are prerequisites for many different degrees.”

You could even look at the actual text of SB 520:

The bill would provide that funding for the implementation of this provision would be provided in the annual Budget Act, and express the intent of the Legislature that the receipt of funding by the University of California for the implementation of this provision be contingent on its compliance with its requirements. [emphasis added]

That funding to implement SB 520 was to be separate from the $36.9m one-time funds in the FY2014 budget.

Where the two initiatives get confused, most likely, is that the three California systems were implementing their own online initiatives, as we described at IHE:

All three systems have proposed new programs that broadly meet the same goals outlined by SB 520, largely based on the additional funding for online initiatives, with the new emphasis being the introduction or expansion of online courses with cross-enrollment across each system.

In other words, the three systems chose to use the $36.9M funding to create independent online initiatives that removed the need for SB 520 (if implemented fully). As described in the original breaking story about SB 520 at Insider Higher Ed:

The plan’s chief backer, Democratic State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, is no longer trying to advance the measure and will not do so until at least August 2014. Rhys Williams, the senator’s spokesman, said Steinberg is waiting to see the results of new online efforts by the state’s three public higher ed systems – the California Community Colleges, California State University and the University of California. The public college systems are working to expand their online offerings internally and without outsourcing their students to ed tech start-ups with little to no track record offering for-credit courses.

“The UC, CSU, and Community Colleges plans for online course access are a welcome and positive policy outcome,” William said in an e-mail Wednesday evening. “Senator Steinberg is willing to see how they develop and assess whether they’re effective, before making a decision on whether SB 520 remains necessary.”

Problem 3: Getting the facts on MOOC startups wrong

This one is perplexing, because Devlin is a faculty member at Stanford. He writes:

In this connection, it is worth noting that the MOOC explosion came out of two of the most prestigious private universities in the world, Stanford and MIT, where the incoming raw material is preselected to be of the highest quality on the planet! The MOOC platforms that form the basis for the for-profit online education companies Coursera, Udacity, and Novo Ed, and the open-source edX, all came from a Stanford research project (called Class2Go) to develop a range of tools to support flipped classrooms for its own, highly-capable, on-campus students. So it was highly unlikely that those platforms would work immediately with less well-prepared students.

The feature of that platform that initially excited Sebastian Thrun, Daphne Koller, Andre Ng and others (myself included) was not using it as a tool to reduce the cost of remedial courses at colleges and universities, rather the possibility of making quality higher education available to the entire world, for free. [emphasis added]

No. Class2Go was created in 2012, while the foundation for Udacity and Coursera came in summer and fall of 2011. Furthermore, Udacity and Coursera were both founded in early 2012. From the Github page for Class2Go:

Class2Go is Stanford’s internal open-source platform for on-line education. A team of eight built the first version over Summer 2012. Class2Go launched Fall 2012 and since then we’ve hosted several “massive open online courses” (MOOC’s) and on-campus classes.

Also, edX came out of Harvard and MIT and had no connection to Stanford in the beginning, as described in the announcement article.

EdX will build on both universities’ experience in offering online instructional content. The technological platform recently established by MITx, which will serve as the foundation for the new learning system, was designed to offer online versions of MIT courses featuring video lesson segments, embedded quizzes, immediate feedback, student-ranked questions and answers, online laboratories and student-paced learning.

You could argue that Class2Go had the same predecessors as did Udacity and Coursera, but that is not what Devlin is arguing.

Update 8/21: Based on Devlin’s reply on HuffPo and Mike Caufield’s comment below, I think the mistake on this one was one of using the name Class2Go. I suspect Devlin was indeed referring to the common predecessor to Class2Go, Udacity and Coursera. edX did not share this predecessor, however.

Other than the premise, excellent article

These mistakes in Devlin’s article are unfortunate, because he has some excellent points to make:

What both episodes tell us is that, while there may be (I would say there almost certainly are) ways we can use technology to reduce the student costs — and perhaps the waiting lines to get into courses — that currently bedevil higher education, last year’s naïve predictions of an imminent revolution are being replaced by a more sane attitude, including a recognition that the current higher education faculty have valuable expertise that cannot be ignored or overridden roughshod.

Teaching and learning are complex processes that require considerable expertise to understand well. In particular, education has a significant feature unfamiliar to most legislators and business leaders (as well as some prominent business-leaders-turned-philanthropists), who tend to view it as a process that takes a raw material — incoming students — and produces graduates who emerge at the other end with knowledge and skills that society finds of value. (Those outcomes need not be employment skills — their value is to society, and that can manifest in many different ways.)

But the production-line analogy has a major limitation. If a manufacturer finds the raw materials are inferior, she or he looks for other suppliers (or else uses the threat thereof to force the suppliers to up their game). But in education, you have to work with the supply you get — and still produce a quality output. Indeed, that is the whole point of education.

If we want to get beyond the silly point / counterpoint arguments about MOOCs and online education, we owe it to ourselves to characterize the position of others accurately and to get the facts right. Creating straw man arguments based on false assertions, whether intentional or not, does a disservice to everyone involved.

Update 8/21: From Keith’s comment at the HuffPo article in reply to my comment:

“Re the first two points, Phil is an expert on these issues — it’s his job — so I defer to what he says. I gathered my information from online news articles, so they came through filters. Re Class2Go, that is the name currently used at Stanford to refer to that project. I was not claiming the project originally had that name. I don’t recall if it had any name at the start. But the name was certainly in use well before the platform was publicly launched, and all the Stanford spinoff platforms came from that. In any event, the focus of my commentary was, of course, the current status of MOOCs and where they are likely to go next.”

I appreciate Keith’s reply and his clarification about the Class2Go naming.

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About Phil Hill

Phil is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He has written for e-Literate since Aug 2011. For a more complete biography, view his profile page.
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17 Responses to You know what would help MOOC articles? Getting the facts and goals right before analyzing

  1. Great article. It’s time to take a deep breath and figure out what we’re trying to accomplish with innovations like MOOCs. Maybe they’re not appropriate for situations involving learners with less developed study skills or who need to make a personal connection with a teacher to feel motivated to complete the course? But they may work well in other contexts — for example, perhaps for Advanced Placement classes in which students are motivated, demonstrate strong study skills, and for which some data for online course performance might exist?

    I believe there are still much data to gather on how various learners perform in MOOCs and a good deal more analysis to do before we can begin to settle on what is the best use of this strategy in the higher education teaching/learning repertoire. Like most things, all the potential good could be overlooked if it’s scaled too fast, before a clear value proposition is defined and tested and results sufficiently verified.

    Thanks for raising the issues you discuss.

  2. mikecaulfield says:

    It’s interesting, because when I saw the Class2Go part in Devlin’s article, I actually thought — finally, someone is getting this right. You’re correct about the name piece of it, but the fact is that the founders of both Coursera and Udacity were involved with the Stanford online initiative that involved (in part) the software that would later become Class2Go. The CourseWare project, which was the project that really pushed the “interactive lecture quizzes” piece, dates back to 2009 and had served up over 45 courses at Stanford by the time the company spinoffs came in 2011. Other pieces were integrated into CourseWare, which eventually became “Class2Go”.

    You’d have to do some digging on the specifics. I think Koller, for example, used the CourseWare product (which was written by John Mitchell who is now the Vice Provost of Online Learning at Stanford). Andrew Ng certainly used CourseWare in addition to his Open Classroom product. Thrun I am not as sure about, but no matter what software he used, it is certainly the case that his experiment was just one of many going on at the time, and was largely influenced (and maybe even motivated) by the CourseWare/Open Classroom experiments. If anything, Thrun is a bit of a latecomer.

    It’s a piece of the story that has been obliterated from history, due to the quite understandable desire of companies to portray themselves as pitching ideas developed outside the traditional institutional framework, when, in point of fact, they are often simply monetizing initiatives that were already going on in, and heavily subsidized by, traditional institutions.

    It’s also unfortunate, because Devlin’s point, that this type of scenario was only one of many things Stanford was looking at, is particularly important. What Thrun and Koller are pitching is a sliver of what was going on at Stanford, and what is going on at Stanford is less than a sliver of what is going on in most universities. These people walked off with a bunch of features to market, but missed the larger point and context. That’s the real shame, and the reason why it’d be nice to get the history right.

    Here’s some more info here if you’re interested. Maybe we can all work to fix the history?

    Initial press release on the

    And a slideshow about CourseWare from 2011:

    And an alumni newsletter description of how Koller, Ng, and others were using it:

  3. mikecaulfield says:

    Actually to correct my wording in the last comment — what is going on at Stanford is not a “sliver of what is going on at most universities” but rather “a sliver of what is going on at universities as a whole”.

  4. Phil Hill says:

    Sean, thanks for the note, and I agree that for MOOCs the focus should be on determining where they are appropriate and where they are not – based on learning need and types.

    Mike, you make an excellent point, and I have updated the post somewhat. It is unfortunate that the name Class2Go was used, as it distracted from the actual point that the Stanford pre-MOOC work was based on flipped classroom for Stanford students and not for remedial students such as in the SJSU and SB 520 concepts.

    That gets to my main point, however. It would help tremendously if people would get their facts straight when writing analysis pieces. By calling the work Class2Go, it distracts from his main points. Why not do a little research and describe the efforts accurately as ClassX, CourseWare and Open Classroom, with a link as you have done? Why combine edX into the same grouping? Why not reference what SJSU & SB 520 sponsors said were their goals before saying it was cost-cutting?

    As much as I typically respect and enjoy Devlin’s writing, his reply to me is troubling. “I gathered my information from online news articles, so they came through filters.” There were plenty of news articles that got the facts right – we should do basic research and ideally use original sources where possible. And when a mistake is discovered – update the post with a correction.

    I’m looking forward to your upcoming article that describes the Stanford origins :}

  5. Laraine says:

    I’d like to think that where MOOCs are concerned people are writing “analysis pieces,” but from the get-go, the writing on MOOCs– with a few exceptions, most of them found on E-literate– has been pretty immune to analysis. A year ago, the obsession with MOOCs was rightly called “MOOC Mania,” and I was wondering when someone would claim that a student involved in a MOOC had, by chance, found a cure for cancer. Now the opposite has occurred, and I keep reading that the signs and portents are there: MOOCs won’t work (Apparently the people who poured millions into Coursera a few months ago aren’t reading what I’m reading.)

    Except for this particular Web site, where I discovered, thanks to the terrific PDF “Making Sense of MOOCs,” that there were actually two kinds of MOOCs, and most of America was enraptured by probably the least effective of the two, I think the money making/saving possibilities along with the threat to academic jobs made it hard for many people who wrote on the subject of MOOCs to do anything close to a nuanced analysis. They were either the best thing to come down the education highway since Gutenberg’s press or clearly the devil’s work.

    Having taken several MOOCs, I absolutely think there is a place for them, and a big one in the education of students who are already pretty good at being schooled online or off. God forbid, they be used, even in the European version, which is how I think of c MOOCs, for students that are struggling to read and write.

    Maybe now that the mania in favor has died down and the more recent, “It’s getting pretty obvious that MOOCs are never going to work” attitude dissipates, we can actually get the analysis this subject needs and figure out what role MOOCs will play in education, because I’m betting they will play a big role.

  6. VanessaVaile says:

    Campaign for the Future of Higher Education posted an article responding to your coverage but took it down. CFHE is syndicated to the New Faculty Majority Facebook page that I manage and NFM is a CFHE partner. I supplement with reference links in comments when syndicated posts are ‘off’ ~ a relief not to have to this time, but I’m ready with this one if it returns.

  7. Phil Hill says:

    Laraine, thanks for your note and comments about e-Literate.

    Vanessa, interesting – I hadn’t seen the CFHE piece. Do you remember the title of the article so I might search some caches for it?

  8. Phil Hill says:

    By the way, the CFHE piece came out today at Inside Higher Ed. It was about a recent article I co-wrote with Dean Florez on California SB 520:

    But it perfectly fits into the topic of this post. The article interweaves its criticism of SB 520 with our article (which was really a ‘here’s what happened, here’s what’s next’ rather than a full-on endorsement of SB 520). But it only quotes our article once, that was only a phrase. They couldn’t even quote a full sentence or paragraph to explain our perspective or what we said before denouncing it.

    And this from the steering committee for faculty groups.

  9. It posted 2x today (syndication is not an unmixed blessing). I noticed those flaws, hoped in vain for better, so I get to use this link to reply after all. All are now distracted (dare I say all shook up?) by Obama’s HE “shake up,” which was pretty much what I expected.

  10. Reading both the article and all of the replies, it appears that Phil has the biggest problem getting the facts right. His primary complaint is that Devlin got the basic story backwards – the stuff happening at Stanford actually came AFTER Coursera and Udacity. In fact, as the comments show, it came before, as claimed.

    Maybe it would be best to drop the snarky attitude, take on board that we all make mistakes, and stick with the thorny issues like why has the MOOC phenomenon emerged now, what are the (changing) aims of the players, and who the winners and losers are likely to be.

  11. Phil Hill says:

    Leonard, you and I seem have different definitions of “snark”. I called out three errors that were foundation of Keith’s article, and all three were indeed errors (Class2Go name was wrong, and edX was not from program; I gave Keith credit for the intention of issue 3 and updated post to reflect his clarification). Issues 1 and 2 were actually more important.

    The point of my article was that we (bloggers) need to do a better job of getting facts right and characterizing other’s goals accurately before analyzing. If you want to read that as me having “the biggest problem getting the facts right” and having a “snarky attitude”, well I guess we’ll just have to disagree on that part.

    I do agree that there are thorny issues to address, but there is also a lot of inaccuracies in articles getting in the way of analysis on those thorny issues.

  12. ljwaks says:

    Thanks for the response, Phil. The demand to “get the facts straight” strikes me as casting a chill over analysis. We all sometimes get facts wrong, and we all sometimes get our analyses and interpretations wrong too. And we all have our biases and our particular interests that shape our positions. That is why critical discussion is needed – to correct one another, file off the edges of extreme views, and move in the direction of truths we can live with and stand on to move forward. General pronouncements about “You need to get the facts right” don’t seem helpful to me, and people who live in glass houses (that would be all of us) shouldn’t throw stones. Soi my prescrip[tion would be to critique particulars and stand open to critique. By the way, I have added e-literate to my blog roll for MOOVville.

  13. ljwaks says:

    Ah, make that MOOCville, my blog at blogger.

  14. Phil Hill says:

    Leonard, fair point, and I certainly wouldn’t want my critique / commentary to cast a chill over analysis. Thanks for comments and for new blog to check out.

  15. ljwaks says:

    MOOCville is here:

  16. Rolin Moe says:

    I’m a little late to the dance here, but (to me) part of the problem when debating the definition and history of MOOC is getting stuck in this structural argument, as if the world is a series of abstractions and God shines down to provide us a Eureka! moment. The common factor in CourseWare, edX, Coursera, Udacity, ai-mooc, Stanford, and so on is the CompSci field (specifically the Artificial Intelligence wing) creating a means for their lens of how to solve education. There are subtle differences between edX, Coursera, Udacity, and the predecessors, but there’s a reason everyone in the field 1) is either scrambling to catch up on their education history/theory/pedagogy or 2) doesn’t care about education history/theory/pedagogy. That’s because the AI/Machine Learning history of education is rather different from the edu/psych history, cognitive science the last real link between the two. It makes sense that energies coalesced around this in 2011 because costs were down and knowledge was out there — the economic and human variables had caught up to the AI theory, and it fit a down-economy worldview.

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