Thursday, January 9, 2014

MOOCs in Higher Education: The Heroes & Villains Discourse

The arguments for the adoption of MOOCs in higher education are equal in quantity and fervor to the arguments against the adoption of MOOCs. Where are the facts in the fiction? The rhetoric from both camps is high: professors and public system advocates vs. ed-tech companies and allies. Who the home team is here depends on your social and educational politics. It is important to keep in mind that neither professors nor ed-tech advocates speak in unified voices, as unified communities, but patterns can be seen in the qualitative content in the discourse around MOOCs. Here be rich data.

A significant part of the problem is the binary construction of the ed-tech argument in public discourse. MOOC as savior or MOOC as demon. From classroom to cleanroom. Ed-tech as soul-sucking capitalist tool or ed-tech as access-opening, democratizing tool. Private company capitalism vs. socialist out-of-touch professoriate. Dinosauric professors who erect obstacles against the disruption of their systems of power or professors standing at the ethical vanguard protecting one of the few public spaces that has yet to be fully commercialized, commoditized, marketed, and centralized.

There’s enough blame to go around. The hubris in technology sectors inflames the rhetoric: “If you would just get out of the way so we can revolutionize your lives, likely make your profession obsolete, and make a lot of money for a few of us while we do it…that would be great. Don’t worry, we will still be here as long as we get Series C funding.

Equally maddening is the ivory tower disconnect with the financial realities on the ground. Professors who bemoan the centralization of power and growth of the Suited Class, but balk at the excessive time demands of university service and governance. Professors who want less private funding to run universities, but expect salaries to be paid and campus services to be funded and operative. When “the life of the mind” disconnects from “the life on the street,” we are gonna have a failure to communicate. 

Ed-tech advocates focus on reach, scale, efficiency, and democratization to build their arguments. Important buzz words in the Valley. MOOCs have greater reach in terms of populations, greater ability to scale, are more efficient, and democratize learning via open-access models. Opponents say this is hardly what happens in practice, and one-size-fits-all, super-sized education is not a positive end to pursue.

It’s the numbers we teach” sings the ed-tech advocate. Writing on MOOCs on the Education Stormfront blog, Andrew Barras opines that “A single MOOC can teach more students in one semester than a professor (sic) will teach in his whole career. We are talking about teaching the whole world potentially. In an increasingly global and technology driven world, lifelong learning for everyone is going to be critical to solve the world’s problems.” He continues that many professors are…”educational craftsmen (sic, plural) in a mass education world.”

Who benefits?!” cries the line professor. Enter the critique that centers on the “superstar” academic (often Ivy League/private university affiliated) who has risen in stature to star in the new hit education-reality TV show, MOOCs. Writing for Slate, Professor Jonathan Rees expands on this critique:

“Despite the obvious problems with assessment, some of the best-known faculty at big-name universities across the United States and around the world have decided to become “superprofessors,” the people whose names are attached to these MOOCs because they do most of the lecturing. While very few of them have publicly discussed the compensation that they may or may not receive for their services, my guess would be that most superprofessors became superprofessors because the chance to become higher-education rock stars got the best of them, as the ones willing to talk publicly about compensation are making little or nothing.

Unfortunately for everyone else in academia, their fame will likely come at a very steep price. From an administrative standpoint, the beauty of MOOCs is that they provide an easy opportunity to drastically cut labor costs by firing existing faculty members or simply hiring poorly trained ones—whom they won't have to pay well—to help administer the class. After all, this way of thinking goes, why should I hire a new Ph.D. when I can get the best professors in the world piped into my university's classrooms?”
Gianpiero Petriglieri’s post on the Harvard Business Review Blog on his experiences as a professor with MOOCs and approaches by entrepreneurs is funny, honest, enlightening, and very useful for our discussion here.
“Apparently I have the right profile for a MOOC professor. I’m young enough to be threatened, good enough to be useful, and tech savvy enough to be interested. (Perhaps also vain enough to be flattered). My fondness for the Internet as a public agorá is surely a sign that I want it to become my open classroom as well.

Actually, no. It isn’t. When it comes to joining this battle I declare myself a conscientious objector.

Mind you, I am not unsympathetic to the argument for MOOCs and their derivatives — that many people who need knowledge and skills don’t have the resources to acquire them in those expensive and inefficient bundles called “universities.” Nor am I blind to the problems facing business schools and higher education at large, or lacking in my enthusiasm for technology. I am not immune to flattery either.

I can easily concede that for many topics, the right numbers and platform may foster online learning and interactions as meaningful as those that take place in the average classroom or seminar room, specially for students and faculty accustomed to living part of their social lives online. And I believe that the conscious intent of MOOC proselytizers is altruistic.

However, as the Princeton sociologist who discontinued his popular MOOC illustrated, if you are a prominent faculty member at an elite university the idealistic prospect of spreading free knowledge to the masses may distract you from pondering your MOOC’s more troublesome potential social consequences.”
This is some meta-sociological-academic business we got here. Rich data.

Each camp has valid and no-so-valid argument premises, with no shortage of emotion. To be sure, when we reduce complex social issues into black and white, heroes and villains, we deaden our ethical and practical imaginations. And we make it very difficult to find common ground or consensus.

The answer here, as with most social issues, is always both and all. All things will exist and likely will compliment and contradict. To date, in the US, MOOCs can be useful when used judiciously, in a targeted manner, layered with traditional approaches, with focus on learning outcomes and pedagogical freedom.

Take the best of tech and the best of lecture models, integrate, mix, and go kick academic ass.

Easier said than done. This dual integration demands professors that have academic and technological knowledge, while balancing publishing requirements (often soul-crushing), teaching duties, grant writing, department service, university service, community service, student mentoring, and thesis development. It also demands student populations that are tech savvy, have regular access to tech tools, and have campus resources at their disposal when things go pear-shaped. The socioeconomic price tag is starting to rise here.

A critical challenge for MOOCs is that these platforms have proven to be useful mainly for already highly-motivated learners who are tech savvy with regular internet technologies access. Honestly, a no brainer here. It doesn’t take great sociological know-how to figure out that students from higher SES backgrounds are more prepared, have regular access to technology, and know how to use that technology more fluently comparative to their lower SES counterparts. The problem is that MOOCs were supposed to give those same lower SES students (who struggle the most with online platforms) a digital leg-up.

Digital native is a misnomer. Just because students grow-up with Web 2.0 doesn’t mean they know how to utilize and navigate its structures. Consider that because a person grows up speaking English, doesn’t mean they will do well in English class. Sure they speak, but they might not understand any of rules of grammar and syntax that allow them to command and direct that language usage. Huge difference. Replace the word language with tech here and you are getting the picture. BTW – a glance at undergrad papers (and comrade, have I done a lot of that), shows that both of the above are too often correct.

A central issue that the MOOC horde must address is that high SES student populations likely need MOOCs the least. Working-class, poor, and/or marginalized students need greater access, yet are often under-prepared at best, and at worst critics argue, are getting homogenized factory versions of higher education. Nietzsche on discount.

Many professors are concerned about the privatization and subsequent dismantling of public university systems. They are concerned about a growing managerial class making command decisions outside the values of shared governance that are built into the foundations of public universities. They are concerned with the hegemonic control and flow of knowledge and learning. They are concerned about learning outcomes and weary of quick-fixes.

Professor Gianpiero Petriglieri packages this argument: 

“MOOCs can be used as a cost-cutting measure in already depleted academic institutions and become another weapon against battered faculty bodies. They may worsen rather than eliminate inequality by providing credentials empty of the meaning and connections that make credentials valuable.

Worst of all, they may become a convenient excuse for giving up on the reforms needed to provide broad access to affordable higher education. The traditional kind, that is, which for all its problems still affords graduates higher chances of employment and long-term economic advantages.

Seen from this perspective, the techno-democratization of education looks like a cover story for its aristocratization. MOOCs aren’t digital keys to great classrooms’ doors. At best, they are infomercials for those classrooms. At worst, they are digital postcards from gated communities.”
These are serious concerns that need to be more fully addressed by ed-tech advocates, and not with altruistic, meritocratic rhetoric, but with the hard work of social science and critical thinking. We need data homie. One of our most considerable problems is the lack of actual data on MOOC application and learning outcomes in varied situations with varied populations. The data we do have is not (as of yet) promising. Ed-tech advocates will say (and not without merit) that these tools are version 1.0, and as the tools develop, so will the user. The latest android phone is miles better than its first iteration. Professors will retort that education is not a cell phone, and rapid innovation and iteration can impact student learning outcomes in negative ways.

Importantly, many US universities have been founded on the idea of shared governance, with particular emphasis placed on the importance of faculty who are highly visible and present in decision making processes across the university. This socialist model of human-work grouping sits at odds with capitalist constructions of human hierarchies in private sectors. And sure, there is a whole lot of heterogeneity in university structures in between.

As has been documented in many places, we have seen the rise of the managerial class in US universities. The growth in Provosts, Deans, and the administrative cadre that follows forth. The traditional academic model has been for tenured faculty to turn to administration at the end of academic careers, shifting the career focus toward university and community service with less emphasis on research, teaching, and academe responsibilities. Now, a professional class of manager has developed, many who have never published nor taught in the classroom. This worries the professoriate (“not one of us, what are they up to?”).

Now certainly, this is a generalization to help frame the narrative. There have been a few paths for traditional faculty: those that teach only, those that teach and research, those that research only, those that teach and administrate, those that only manage and administrate. This later group is at the heart of this discussion around MOOCs though, and must be considered.

This is something I am not sure that those outside university clearly understand. The shift toward online learning is not only challenging traditional pedagogical practice, but is also challenging the professoriate itself. Not only in terms of jobs and academic freedom, but power and control of universities and knowledge. And at a deep level, who we are as an intellectual nation.

Professor Dennis Hayes argues the philosophical end of the professor push-back against MOOCs.

“If going to university now means no more than paying for and getting a qualification, then neither MOOCs nor campus universities necessarily offer an education. But it is only campus universities that offer even the possibility of a higher education. Why?

The lesson we have to learn about MOOCs comes not from any think tank or university marketing department but from Socrates, who taught us what the essence of education is. He refused to write any of his thoughts or arguments down because, for him, education was entirely a personal relationship between the tutor and the student or students. What he had in mind was not an emotional or therapeutic relationship but an intellectual one. You have to know your students’ minds and how they think; in turn, students have to come into an apprenticeship relation with the teacher’s mind, knowledge, understanding and intellect.”
Ed-tech advocates will often retort, “yes, this is true, for those who can afford it. Also, if that shit was written down, maybe we could share it and more people could access it and benefit from it.”

Some of the counter-arguments by university admins and ed-tech execs are not without merit. Being an excellent researcher or teacher does not at all guarantee that one will be a good administrator in terms of scheduling, managing, budgeting, and the daily gray suit business of management. The counter-argument to the counter here is that managing is not all that difficult, critical thinking skills and analytic skills go a long way, and it is imperative for university leaders to have had ties to research and teaching in order to fully appreciate the philosophy and deep-seated structural meaning of the modern university.

This is a pretty age old debate. Art vs commerce. How do you put a monetary valuation on the communal and national development of citizenry? We have many ways now.

Much if this is driven by state budget meltdowns, a larger attack on public social systems (California I am looking at you), and consistent reductions in funding to higher education in the forms of loans, subsidies, bonds, new faculty hiring lines, etc. There is simply not enough money to keep the lights on.

The light at the end of the tunnel has been removed due to budget cuts.”
Enter private capital, private companies, and private interest. This worries many academics immensely. Private companies who sole focus is often profit, might have very different opinions on what is best for a university. “Yet, the money has to come from somewhere!,” chides the administrator. Ed-tech swoops in to woo and cut costs.

The reality on the ground is that MOOCs are not going anywhere. Universities are not going anywhere (although they will change quite a bit over the next 50 years, as will MOOCs). These pieces will have to live together and find balance. That balance will be very contextually specific for each university, system, and department. Ironically, it is likely that the implementation of MOOCs will not be a one-size-fits-all model.

The SJSU pilot program with Udacity, the subsequent professor revolt, under-performing students, and frustrated tech entrepreneurs have taught us some useful lessons. MOOC pilot program data from SJSU revealed the potentials and the pitfalls.

As we move forward, if administrators desire smoother transitions into online learning, they will find less resistance if faculty are involved in the process: programming, decision-making, governance, and pedagogy.

A huge part of the picture here is the “sell” and the dialogue around the “sell.” As academics, we are good at talking, and talking a lot. We often excel at systematic deconstruction and analytical critiques. We revel in higher dialogue and debate. We could be better at developing solutions. We are often apprehensive of corporate systems, weary of capital markets, and skeptical of the tools of power.

Conducting a pilot test of a MOOC? Be transparent. Have an attendant dialogue with faculty about the design and implementation. Be very clear with expectations. Expect push-back. Determine who the tech-personality types are on your campus community? Do tech-climate surveys. How many early adopters, resisters, luddites, and agitators etc.? Have sound scientific reasoning and procedural adherence.

MOOCs can be valuable tools along with LMSs such as Canvas et al. Yet, there is some good, bad, and ugly ed-tech out there folks, and whole lot of user-error in the mix.

Technology tools can be integrated with traditional tools to create the best learning outcomes and academic environments. It is foolish not to use technology to enhance efficiency in the classrooms, ease access to knowledge, address modern visual learning models, and integrate the actual tools students will be using in their daily personal and professional lives.

Anecdotally, I use tech in many ways inside and out the classroom, in part to take care of tedious, time-consuming class admin, so I can focus on the roll-up-your-sleeves discussion with students in lectures. Less time on the BS, more time on the Big Think.

Ed-tech tools (not necessarily MOOCs) can augment and enhance the traditional lecture models. It is all about the mix. Some disciplines live more harmoniously with ed-tech set-ups than other fields. Some courses lend themselves to online adoption more seamlessly than others. Some tools fit better with certain course materials than others. It takes time and experimentation and money. 

Complete replacement is as completely irrational as complete refusal.
What are your thoughts?

Where do you sit on the privatization of public schools systems?

Will MOOCs revolutionize learning (and higher education) in particular?

Are MOOCs more hype than substance?

Will MOOCs turn universities into assembly lines or do these platforms free learning from the physical constructs of the brick-and-mortar of campus life? Or both?

Are MOOCs hollow-shell learning that will be fitted onto working-class university student populations?

This blog post focused on US public institutions, I will explore MOOCs on an international level in the developing world in future blog posts. This is just an opening salvo to wrestle with the larger concepts at play.

For the readers still here: Who says the long-form is dead? Data about reading beyond the fold says it is, but hey, you are still here, so there’s hope.

Read links below for a range of opinions on MOOCs.

MOOC Completion Rates: The Data.

MOOC Madness. CHE.

Let Them Eat MOOCs. HBR

The MOOC Racket. Slate.

An Argument Against MOOCs (And My Response). Education Stormfront.

Three Cheers for Mickey MOOC Universities. Spiked.

MOOCs are Usefully MiddleBrow. CHE.

An Open Letter to Professor Michael Sandel From the Philosophy Department at San Jose State U. CHE.

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