Sunday, July 14, 2013

Reflections on MOOCs

WGU Texas Chancellor, Mark Milliron
in discussion at the
Innovation in Teaching & Learning Social
Think Tank
hosted by Dell and Intel during the
2013 NISOD conference in Austin.
(photo courtesy of
Dell Flickr)
*The original version of this post was published on the WGU Texas Blog on 7/9/2013

Over the course of the last month, I’ve been a part of a number of interesting conversations regarding Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and their place in the quickly changing landscape of higher education. The first was at the Dell Social Think Tank at the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development (NISOD) conference in Austin (TX). The second was at an Executive Committee of the Midwest Higher Education Consortium in Indianapolis (IN). Moreover, there have been a number of interesting background pieces published on MOOCs recently that are absolutely worth the read—Kevin Carey’s in particular.

You can count me as someone who is intrigued by MOOCs—especially the more personalized, social-network fueled, and analytically informed approaches being explored. However, as we engage in these conversations and read these explorations, it becomes clear there are some key issue areas that need to be considered as we go forward.

Conflation Issues

Because of the institutions involved—the elite Ivy League, in particular—and the technology being leveraged, MOOCs have dominated education press coverage for the last year. However, in that coverage, there are two key conflation challenges. First, MOOCs are often used as the lead exemplar of all of online learning. More troubling, some of the reporting makes it seem as though online learning itself is new to higher education.

Of course, anyone close to the field knows that online learning was new and innovative in the mid-to-late 1990’s. Indeed, that’s when Western Governors University was launched. Based on data from Sloan-C and a host of others, online learning is relatively mainstream in higher education, with almost 1/3 of all students taking one or more courses online. WGU, for example, now has close to 40,000 students in all 50 states. Moreover, most students in US higher education have their on-ground courses supplemented by significant online systems (i.e., learning management systems) or are taking hybrid/blended courses. Beyond just being a normal part of higher education, the variety of models of online learning are almost as diverse as the variety of models for on-ground learning--e.g., a large lecture hall is not the same on-ground experience as a small-group, in-person graduate seminar.

The second major conflation is with the world of “open.” In conference conversations in particular, the open movement tends to get short shrift when MOOCs come up. Open education is not new. The Open movement has a long and strong history well beyond MOOCs and is keenly focused on more granular curricular resources as well as full courses. Indeed, the host of Hewlett-Foundation-funded projects of the last decade or more, not to mention the Capetown Declaration on the international scene, long predate the more modern MOOC movement.

Promising Issues

The conflation notwithstanding, there is much promise in the MOOC movement. First, and probably most obvious, MOOCs are a 21st Century update to the long-standing extension services of many universities. These universities see making their best and brightest and some of their key research applications more accessible to the broader population as part of their core mission. MOOCs are arguably doing that in a BIG way.

Beyond extension, the opportunity to innovate and examine possible new, engaging, lower-cost, and broadly accessible learning models is intriguing. As said, the designs that are far more than just digital broadcasts of lectures with simplistic testing, e.g., the ones that are using social media, customization, and analytics to take what is big and make it smaller and more personalized, are compelling. Moreover the ability to weave MOOC resources into existing educational models as curricular resource—simply making the MOOC an element of courseware—are gaining ground in conversations. WGU in particular is interested in wrapping the mentor model around high-quality MOOC resources.

There is much to learn from these innovative adventures. We can’t oversell the promise, however. Few can show a clear path to broad sustainability of many of the models or how standalone MOOCs will substantially impact degree completion rates for low-income students, which is clearly a glaring problem is US higher education. Nonetheless, it is absolutely worth taking the time to innovate and learn together what might be possible.

Perilous Issues

But the perils of irrational exuberance in this case are real, and we need to deal with them with eyes wide open. In the conversations on MOOCs, some thoughtful challenges have clearly emerged. For example, there are scarce R&D dollars for innovation in higher education at the moment. Funding is not on the rise, but tuition is. This means that a good deal of the public resources that will be put into MOOCs will be taking striving-student tuition dollars that are often drawn from students taking on debt and using these scarce resources to invest in a model that has yet to show a path to significant impact on student outcomes. Is this the best innovation bet out there to make a significant difference in US higher education? It may be. But all other innovations are being held to this tough-minded standard; indeed, over the last five years, a host of foundations and associations have promoted the idea of “path to scale” as a requirement for innovation investment decisions (e.g., see AAC&U's recently published "four big goals"--number three in particular). MOOCs have to be held to the same standard for strategic investment.

More important is the concern around reifying an already uneven higher education system. While many MOOC advocates tout the ability of these models to touch the masses, models are already emerging that will charge extra fees for those students or institutional partners that want to have a path to credit or to receive key student support. This could have the horrible unintended consequence of creating MOOC gated communities and ghettos. This issue is particularly concerning given that a good deal of the “MOOC mania” is the result of the involvement of Ivy League institutions, not the impact of MOOCs on improving learning or pathways to degree completion. There has to be a more compelling reason for the time, effort, and money involved than simply wanting to be associated with lead “brands” in education.

Continuing the Conversation

The conflation, promising, and perilous issues surrounding MOOCs make this an important conversation. If nothing else, MOOCs have put educational innovation conversations into high gear, which is welcome. However, we do need to take the time to dive deeper. At their worst, MOOCs are elitist cat-nip that draw press and funding because of who is involved, not who is served; at their best, they hold the promise of pushing our thinking, changing our models, and opening the doors of learning for millions. There likely will be some rowdy conversations as we learn together how to make the most of these models, especially as we work to reach and teach striving students in the months and years ahead.