By Phil Hill
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
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.