Sunday, November 24, 2013

The MOOC is Dead, Long Live the MOOC

The recent "Thrun Pivot" as well as a study from U. Penn have thrown cold water on some of the stronger claims for MOOCs. Sebastian Thrun explains that MOOCs just don't work for "certain people" -- you know, the kind of people who find it hard to get a college education. There's nothing wrong with MOOCs, you see, they're great -- there's just a lot of people that aren't smart enough to use them. The solution? Give up on "democratizing education" and instead focus on vocational training for high-tech workers. Not only can smart, well-educated tech types (like Thurn perhaps?) build their skills with MOOCs, well-heeled tech companies will pay Udacity to expand the skills of these workers, and to get access to them for recruiting. It's actually a pretty good business model and, if you're someone who wants to have a successful start-up, it's probably a good strategy. It just doesn't have much to do with "Disrupting Education" or the "Education Revolution" and certainly little to do with "Democracy". (For a fine and witty analysis of Thrun and the Fast Company article about him, take a look at Mike Caulfield's blog.)

At the same time, it's become apparent that Coursera, another bold experiment in Democratizing and Disrupting, also disproportionately works to train those who already have a good education, those who happen to be male and in the upper economic brackets. Coursera can show you some heart-warming stories of “poor kids” from distant places who have changed their lives through education, but when you look at the "big data" it's pretty clear that Coursera's elite instructors from elite institutions are mostly teaching more of the world's elite to be more successful.

For those of us in the more traditional and less-elite higher-education trenches it's hard to suppress our glee. Many of us expressed doubts about the impact and the effectiveness of the MOOC as an pedagogical format. We felt resentment and, if we're honest, some envy as new-comers to the field were feted by everyone from Bill Gates to Barak Obama, and hailed by the New York Times as the great innovators come to show us that everything we thought we knew was wrong. From journalists like Thomas "the revolution is hereFriedman to the chortles of Clayton Christiansen ("50% of higher ed institutions will be in bankruptcy in 15 years") we were told that we had failed, we were obsolete buggy whip makers and we should get out of the way and let the savants of Silicon Valley wash over our ancient, overpriced, privileged institutions and replace them with gleaming virtual castles of technological goodness.

So it's reassuring to see doubts emerge about MOOCs. But I'm worried that some of us will take away the wrong lesson and think we can simply go back to talking among ourselves only about incremental improvement in course design and attracting faculty to the Friday workshop by providing tacos and beer. The great MOOC scare of 2012 has been a profound turning point and there's no going back. Yes, it's true that MOOCs represented much more of an incremental advance than a radical rethinking of higher education. Yes, many (but not all) proponents of MOOCs have been insufferably egotistical and have been rewarded by hagiographic and breathless and very sloppy news coverage. Yes, the rhetoric has been ignorant and ahistorical. And yes, many of them will make the kind of money that few of us higher education trolls can even imagine. (That even includes us overpaid administrators.) 

But there IS something important about scaling up a course so that 200,000 people can take a look at it, even if "only" 10,000 finish it. It matters that there are now experiments underway that will collect millions of data points, not just surveys of 20 or 50 or 100 students. And those people around the world who have changed their lives because all of sudden they could take a course at MIT or Stanford or Michigan, they are real people and they matter and that's really a wonderful thing, even for those who are the elites of sometimes very poor countries.  (Anant Agarwal, president of EdX, did a nice job of pointing out these potential advantages while being mostly open and honest about the challenges at his Sloan keynote last week -worth watching.)

If we can get past the hype and the money grab and apply what we know about teaching students at regional universities and state colleges and community colleges and not just Stanford and MIT undergrads, perhaps we can figure out how to reach more of those students. If we can devise ways to bring together the caring and mentorship of a committed faculty member at a regional college with first-class materials and world-class expertise, how can that be anything but a good thing? 

There's a lot of rough road ahead and more stupid articles ("Can MOOCs cure homelessness?") and hoodwinked educational and political "leaders", but that doesn't mean we should dismiss the possibilities of delivering education at scale using technology. And in the process some universities will crumble or consolidate, and some faculty will decide they'd rather retire than adapt to the new world. But those of us who are the technology and pedagogy leaders on our campuses are the only ones who can make sure that real students will benefit from the unique historical and technological moment symbolized by the MOOC. If we leave it to a few from Silicon Valley it's pretty clear that the outcome will be grim. We can take a few moments for some well-deserved self-satisfaction, then it's back to work. Anyone who said it would be easy was either lying or didn't know what they were talking about.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Sage on the (Ever-Larger) Stage

The assumption that the "best professors" must lead to the best learning outcomes didn't start with MOOCs. It's a reply of patterns that we see time and time again in technology and learning.

It was my provost Carol Matteson at Rowan University in Glassboro NJ in the mid-1990's who first started my awareness of the profound impact technology would make on the higher education process. It was at that time I first heard the now-tired phrase: "We need to move instructors from being 'The Sage on the Stage' to 'The Guide on the Side'". In other words, the massive availability of content, and the affordances of technology enable us to best assist our students as a kind of coach and mentor, rather than a priestly authority figure speaking from an elevated lectern. I have found this idea to be a major inspiration on how I think about educational transformation.

But despite the "guide on the side" rhetoric, the thrust of educational technology has often focused on building a bigger and better stage. The movement to create "smart classrooms" was mostly about giving the instructor bigger and better tools to lecture - projectors, screens, document cameras, a computer (possibly the only one allowed to on in class), even microphones and speakers, all designed to enable a multimedia performance. Yes, there have been some innovations that directly touch the student, but even there they tend to have an asymmetric effect that reinforces the special role of the instructor, rather than putting the student at the center- clickers* come to mind.

Now MOOCs have recapitulated this same tendency - rather than challenging the notion that, in a connected world, knowledge does not lie only with a special class of priestly individuals, most (but not all!) MOOCs seem to be built around a model that emphasizes the brilliant and noble professor, up on the (digital) lectern above us, enlightening the world. Of course, the phenomenon of the TED conference and videos has proven that we hunger for good (and entertaining) explanations of the world. But the deepest learning takes place when the learner becomes the agent of his or her own learning. The "sage on the stage" pushes us in the opposite direction towards the passive acceptance of expert knowledge and opinion. Just open your brain and let the learning pour in.


Friday, February 1, 2013

Reasons to Hate MOOCs #1: The "Best Professors" Myth

I don't really hate MOOCs* - I think some of them are really interesting innovations. (Others are just old wine in new bottles.) It's more the popular idea of what a MOOC is and why it matters that brings out the curmudgeon in me.

Here's a quote from the irrepressible and supremely credulous Thomas Friedman in his article Revolution Hits the Universities:
I can see a day soon where you’ll create your own college degree by taking the best online courses from the best professors from around the world...
I could write a whole blog just on what Thomas Friedman gets wrong, but let's take a look at this statement. Like so many others, Friedman focuses on the idea of "the best professors" as if it's self-evident that the best learning comes from "the best professors". After all, who wants second-best?

When I was becoming a computer scientist, I became enamored of the books of Don Knuth, a professor at Stanford -  much later Ground Zero in the Great MOOC Explosion of 2011. Knuth was the model of a scholar and scientist who was also a great writer and explainer. Somehow I know this about him even though there were no MOOCs back then, just books.

But I never would have appreciated Knuth if not for my professor Marvin Paull at Rutgers. He helped me develop the intellectual capacity and motivation to appreciate what Knuth had done and the taste to understand why it mattered. He inculcated in me the curiosity to spend hours trying to perform a mind-meld with Knuth's elegant but not-always-easily-absorbed ideas. I may never open Knuth vol. 3 again but it's hard to imagine I'll ever get rid of the copy on my shelf. For me, Knuth - surely a "best professor" - had a huge impact on me and my intellectual development, but so did Marv Paull - for me, he was a "best professor" too.

The idea that "best university" = "best professor" = "best learning" is simplistic, pernicious, and wrong. And that's one reason why it's wrong to equate the MOOC with higher education.

*If you're not familiar with MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) - or you've heard the hype but you're not really sure what they are - I recommend ELI's 7 Things You Should Know About MOOCs for a primer.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

It's Time to Stop Blaming the Faculty

Imagine an enterprise that believes it has created a wonderful, transformational new product. It offers that product to its intended audience, and instead of seeing its product adopted, it finds that after some initial enthusiasm, product adoption stalls and even goes backward. To get its target audience to consider it, the enterprise offers incentives – food, money – and these seem to work for a while, but still, they can’t get most of their potential customers to participate.

How does the enterprise respond? One possibility is to look at the product they’ve designed and honestly analyze its strengths and shortcomings. Perhaps it doesn’t do what it’s intended to do? Perhaps it’s too costly? Perhaps it’s too hard to use? Perhaps they have over-promised and under-delivered? Using the benefits of this analysis, the enterprise could try to redesign and create a better product, one that’s better able to meet the needs of its customer and drive more adoption.

Or perhaps, the enterprise could simply blame the intended customer. “They’re just too lazy. They don’t know what’s good for them. They don’t want to change. They won’t come learn about our product when it’s convenient for us, even when we pay them or give them food.” Surely any enterprise that takes this approach is incompetent and ought to go out of business, right?

Sadly, the later approach has characterized many educational technology initiatives over the last 20 years. Well-intentioned instructional technology departments hire staff, create services, buy and install products, and provide training courses that they believe ought to be attractive to faculty and enable them to use technology in new ways to improve teaching and learning. In too many cases, they hire the wrong staff, build the wrong services, buy the wrong products, and provide ineffective training. Too often, the educational software and products industry has made things worse by creating mediocre tools that are marketed aggressively to unsophisticated academic technology departments. Then, when the initiatives fail or are less successful than projected, the blame is placed on the faculty.

Of course there are many hard-working professionals in the technology field that try to understand and meet faculty needs – some of them are faculty themselves. Making change in any profession is difficult. Of course some faculty are resistant to change – but understanding why this is so is the first step to making change happen. Creating great academic technology services is hard work, and not always appreciated. Most academic technology shops have resource challenges, and many do the best they can with little financial or moral support.

Regardless of the challenges, blaming the faculty just doesn’t work. Educational technology professionals need to look first with unflinching honesty at the quality of what they are providing. If we can’t provide tools that make instructor’s jobs easier and help them reach students more effectively, why should they use them? If we can’t provide effective, concise training at the point of need, instead of long, inconveniently-scheduled in-person training, why should we expect anyone to make use of it?  

If faculty won’t use what we have to offer, perhaps we’re offering the wrong thing.


Welcome to the Edtech Curmudgeon. Hope you like it. A tip of the hat for inspiration in naming the blog to Stephen Budiansky whose Liberal Curmudgeon Blog I enjoyed very much. All opinions are my own and do not reflect those of any employer past, present, and future (except when I'm self-employed).