MOOCS: 12 Reasons for universities not to panic

Don’t believe the hype?

There has been an extraordinary level of hype in higher education (and beyond) about Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs. Vice-Chancellors and their senior management teams up and down the country have been fretting about the developments and whether they need to get on board with one of the big players to avoid missing out. Two UK universities have recently announced their membership of a MOOC consortium with both Edinburgh University and the University of London signing up with Coursera. Meanwhile in the US the governance chaos at the University of Virginia where the President was forced to resign by governors and then reinstated two weeks later was prompted, at least in part, by differences of opinion on institutional strategy in relation to MOOCs.

At least not yet

As noted in an earlier post, MOOCs are big and new and challenging for universities but in many ways they are a contemporary echo of aspirations for wider access to higher level study from an earlier age. So, if your university is asking whether it’s going to miss out by not joining one of the MOOC consortia or if your senior management team is in a spin about missing the MOOC bandwagon or even struggling to understand what the heck this is all about, here are a dozen good reasons not to panic.

  1. There isn’t a business model for MOOCs that stacks up. OK, there are hundreds of thousands of students enrolled but they aren’t paying a penny for the privilege. And it really isn’t free to design, develop and deliver online provision. The unit cost per student may be negligible but the real up front costs and maintenance are non trivial investments as noted in this earlier blog.
  2. Badges. Universities deliver higher education. We award degrees. MOOCs however adopt the cub scout approach to knowledge acquisition by giving you a badge or a nice attendance certificate if you make it to the end. Accreditation matters. Academic credentials have meaning and currency because of how they are attained and the means by which academic standards and quality are assured. Badges don’t offer this. They are just, well, badges.
  3. While we’re on the subject: Quality assurance – there really isn’t any to write home about. This is not to say that any old garbage will be delivered by anyone with a camera, a cool shirt and a wifi connection but rather that the quality assurance frameworks which govern MOOCs are, inevitably, fundamentally different from those which operate in universities.
  4. Standards. Similarly, it is pretty much impossible at the moment to assure the academic standards of MOOCs. Whilst part of the idea is to encourage collaboration between students and despite the introduction in certain specific cases of supervised examinations, plagiarism is inevitable and there is simply no way to test whether any assessment is genuinely a student’s own work.

    iTunesU

  5. Online isn’t that new and shiny. Lots of universities are already delivering online provision. Just look at iTunesU – there are hundreds of institutions represented and thousands of educational courses and other offerings.
  6. It’s not a revolution. Despite what Moody’s may say, we’ve been here before. From correspondence courses to the launch of the Open University and from Mechanics’ Institutes to the University of London External Programme there really isn’t anything in this which has not been done before, albeit in slightly different ways.
  7. Wastage rates are enormous. 90% plus in many cases. That really isn’t a ringing endorsement. It’s low stakes for the participants. Many people are taking such courses just out of interest or to brush up their technical skills. While this remains the case then wastage will continue to be high and the hold of MOOCs will be tenuous.
  8. Content not education. MOOCs aren’t offering education but rather just content delivery. The classroom and campus experience and the face-to–face interaction with other learners and teachers is a key element of learning. People still matter. Especially in education.
  9. Tech. Computers still aren’t very good at marking essays. Most assessments are therefore more limited and plagiarism is easier.
  10. Inputs matter. Universities select their students for a good reason. They want them to be able to benefit from the course and have a reasonable chance of completing it. Complete open access means that high wastage rates are the norm and you can’t be confident that the ones who finish the course are any better for it or indeed if they did any of the work themselves.
  11. The Open University isn’t panicking. If any institution should be concerned it would be the OU as MOOCs would seem to strike at the heart of their business model. They aren’t. Indeed they seem to be doing better than ever.
  12. MOOCs are nothing without universities (where are all those trendy professors going to be educated otherwise?). And, despite what Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity, predicts there will be more than 10 universities in the world half a century from now.

So, don’t panic. Yet. Because before we get too dismissive of the hype surrounding the game-changing, paradigm-shifting, revolutionary nature of MOOCs there are several reasons to pause for thought:

  • Numbers. There really are very large numbers of people following MOOCs who traditional higher education is not reaching. Internationally and locally there are opportunities for universities to reach new audiences which they really should be considering.
  • Ethos. The aims of the MOOC consortia in terms of promoting accessibility, participation and democratization of learning are laudable and should not be dismissed lightly.
  • Avoiding complacency. The services we offer to students who do enrol, study and stay on our campuses can always be improved. Students do have a choice and we need to ensure they get maximum value from their university experience.
  • IT. Many universities struggle to harness technological developments to support student learning. We can still do a lot better.

There is no need to panic therefore. At least not just yet. But setting aside the hype there are lessons to be learned and universities will want to consider how to raise their game. Just to be on the safe side.

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Not Guilty, Your Honour: students and cheating

Honour codes and cheating

Two fascinating stories recently about students cheating and responses to it. All universities face the issue of how to educate students on the importance of honesty and integrity in academic study and avoiding plagiarism and other forms of cheating. Many US institutions have what is called an Honour Code to which students are expected to adhere and which covers all aspects of their behaviour in academic and non-academic activities. Similar statements can be found in the registration or matriculation agreements signed by students on arrival at UK universities. These also relate to the disciplinary regulations covering academic and other offences which describe the powers the university has (which may range from fines, to mark deductions to expulsion) to respond to behaviour which breaches these agreements.

The first of these pieces, in The Chronicle of Higher Education describes how Coursera, one of the big MMOC providers, has moved to add an “honour code prompt” in response to reports of widespread plagiarism by students following its courses:

Specifically, they must check a box next to this sentence: “In accordance with the Honor Code, I certify that my answers here are my own work, and that I have appropriately acknowledged all external sources (if any) that were used in this work.”

Only a few courses that are now under way include essay assignments, so just three courses are affected (though tens of thousands of students are enrolled in each one). Officials say they may add the honor-code prompt to other types of assignments in the future. Students in all Coursera courses already agree to its honor code when they sign up for classes.

“A large part of the plagiarism arises from lack of understanding of the expected standards of behavior in U.S. academic institutions, especially among students who have not been trained in such institutions,” said Daphne Koller, a co-founder of the company and a Stanford University professor, in an e-mail interview. “We believe that this language will be quite helpful.”

It is interesting that the view here appears to be that this is really an issue about cultural difference and alternative norms about what is and is not acceptable in terms of academic work. This is likely to be a factor when there are so many students, from many different backgrounds and educational traditions, taking a course. It is a challenge faced and addressed in traditional university education too. What is different here though is that the nature and operation of MOOCs means that plagiarism and other forms of cheating is inevitable. With huge numbers of students taking each class and automated or peer marking and no quality assurance then it is simply impossible to be confident about the integrity of the assessment process. Such an invitation to students to sign a pledge looks, at best, a little tokenistic.

Meanwhile, Harvard University, which has never had an honour code, is to consider instituting one as it investigates whether at least 125 undergraduates cheated by working together on a take-home exam according to this piece in The Washington Post:

Officials said they intend to start broad conversations about academic honesty, including why it is vital to intellectual inquiry, in the wake of what is believed to be the largest such episode in recent school history.

Harvard University is investigating whether dozens of undergraduate students cheated on a take-home exam last spring.

“We really think we need to work harder,” said Jay M. Harris, dean of undergraduate education. “We do think it’s an opportunity to really put out before the community how much we value integrity.”

School officials said Thursday they discovered roughly half of the students in a class of at least 250 people may have shared answers or plagiarized on a final. They declined to release the name of the class or the students’ names.

“These allegations, if proven, represent totally unacceptable behavior that betrays the trust upon which intellectual inquiry at Harvard depends,” President Drew Faust said.

What is perhaps most surprising about this incident is the scale of it with half of a class of 250 said to be involved. The key difference between this and the Coursera response is that the University detected the possible cheating and is acting on it in order to maintain the standard of its awards. That’s not something we can expect to see from a MOOC provider in the near future (of which Harvard is of course one, albeit indirectly, through its partnership in edX).

The other rather dispiriting conclusion we can draw from all of this is that human nature is such that many people will, if you give them the opportunity, cheat.

The Beginning of the End for Traditional HE?

Will MOOCs kill universities?

The future for universities?

No.

Forbes carries an expansive piece on the implications of MOOCs and asks “Is Coursera the Beginning of the End for Traditional Higher Education?“.

Could high-quality MOOCs eventually do to traditional colleges and universities what Craigslist has done to classified advertising in newspapers and what Wikipedia has done to encyclopedias? In other words, could Coursera and its ilk replace a $250,000 college degree and decimate the world of brick-and-mortar colleges and universities?

A previous post highlighted many of the issues and challenges associated with MOOCs. In summary, some of problems with these developments include:

  • There is no proper academic quality assurance: by and large anyone can offer any course they want without any need for approval.
  • Self-selection: courses are offered by self-selecting academics and followed by self-selecting students.

  • Drop out rates are inevitably very high.
  • There isn’t any meaningful or quality assured assessment.
  • Non-accreditation: completion will get you an attendance certificate or a virtual badge rather than credit or a real qualification.

Of course this Forbes piece is just the most extreme example of the overblown hype surrounding MOOCs. As suggested in the earlier piece on these developments, MOOCs have more in common with the growth in adult education and the expansion of Mechanics’ Institutes in the late 19th Century. Unlike classified ads in newspapers and encyclopaedias, universities are built on more enduring foundations. Yes there will be challenges from the new online provision but the idea that Coursera and the like will kill off universities is just absurd. And all that content has to come from somewhere.

The most entertaining response to this kind of piece I have seen is over at the Easily Distracted blog. Under the headline “Listen up you primitive screwheads” we find the following spot on observatopn:

Again, pundits, let’s talk. MOOCs are damn interesting, you betcha, but seriously, if you think they’re about to solve the labor-intensivity of higher education tomorrow with no losses or costs in quality, you have a lot of learning to do. Not just about the costs and budgets of higher education today, but about the history of distance learning. Right now you guys sound like the same packs of enthusiastic dunderheads who thought that public-access television, national radio networks, or correspondence courses were going to make conventional universities obsolete via technological magic. And hey, if you’re that keen on the digital, skip the drinks, I’m happy to educate you via email.

Hear, hear.

I’m looking forward to when the fuss dies down a little and we can assess more soberly the contribution that MOOCs might make to higher education more generally. In the meantime I guess we’ll just have to put up with this kind of ‘is this the end for universities?’ silliness.

The Imperfect University: Massive Open Online Confusion?

The Future of HE? Or Massive Open Online Confusion?

For the latest Imperfect University piece a few thoughts on a topic which is attracting considerable comment at the moment: the growth of the Massive Open Online Course or MOOC. There has been a huge amount of hype around the new models of online provision or MOOCs, much of it significantly overstating the likely impact of such offerings. The numbers involved are impressive though with hundreds of thousands enrolled on some courses (hence the “massive” descriptor). Will MOOCs transform higher education as we know it? Or are they in fact closer to more traditional models of education than their proponents admit?

Disruptive innovation, a theory originally developed by Clayton Christensen to explain how new entrants to markets could take the lead through innovation and supplant traditional businesses, has been frequently applied of late to higher education. There has been much talk and many exciting conference presentations and magazine articles about how these new online providers will disrupt traditional models of learning and bring about the end of the physical university.

A paradigm shift?

Among the most extreme views on the likely impact of MOOCs we have Sebastian Thrun who has set up Udacity, a major new online provider, which has emerged from Stanford University with much fanfare. Quoted in a recent edition of Wired he predicted some change in the higher education market:

Fifty years from now, according to Thrun, there will be only 10 institutions in the whole world that deliver higher education.

Others have compared existing universities to companies which failed to adapt to new technology, such as Kodak. as for example, this story in the Washington Times notes:

The recent bankruptcy declaration by Kodak, one of the nation’s most trusted brands for consumers, which once held a market share in excess of 90 percent, is stunning. Kodak mistook America’s century-long love affair with its products as a sign of market permanency, missing the fact that camera phones, flip cameras and online sharing would erode its brand and render it irrelevant.

So it’s clear that even though the reservoir of public trust for higher education is deep, it certainly isn’t bottomless. That means colleges and universities must do all they can to keep and sustain the public’s confidence in higher education.

Colleges and universities also must focus on increasing higher education productivity – but not the kind that is about budget cutting to serve fewer students or about making individual institutions more selective. Instead, the true definition of productivity is one that offers a substantial increase in high-quality degree and certificate production at lower costs per degree awarded, while improving access and equity for underserved populations.

Ultimately, though, higher education must take control of its own future. The world is indeed changing, rapidly, and colleges and universities must seize the moment to meet the rising demand for high-quality skills that are vital to our collective well-being as a nation. If they don’t, they, like Kodak, risk the chance of being gone in a flash.

So, is this a once in a generation paradigm shift which will sweep away the some of the longest established organisations in the Western world? Or is it an over-hyped bubble?

Udacity

Looking first at Udacity, established by the aforementioned Professor Thrun, it claims an impressive 160,000 students from around the world enrolled on on its first course in artificial intelligence. It summarises its mission thus:

We believe university-level education can be both high quality and low cost. Using the economics of the Internet, we’ve connected some of the greatest teachers to hundreds of thousands of students all over the world.

A glance at the curriculum for one of the Udacity classes gives a sense of what is on offer:

CS262: Programming Languages

Description: This class will give you an introduction to fundamentals of programming languages. In seven weeks, you will build your own simple web browser complete with the ability to parse and understand HTML and JavaScript. You will learn key concepts such as how to specify and process valid strings, sentences and program structures. Then, you will design and build an interpreter – a program that simulates other programs.

WEEK 1:
String Patterns
Finding and specifying classes of strings using regular expressions

WEEK 2:
Lexical Analysis
Breaking strings down into important words

WEEK 3:
Grammars
Specifying and deconstructing valid sentences

WEEK 4:
Parsing
Turning sentences into trees

WEEK 5:
Interpreting
Simulating programs

WEEK 6:
Building a Web Browser
Interpreting HTML and JavaScript

WEEK 7:
Wrap-up
Exam testing your knowledge

It all looks rather good. However, it’s difficult to escape the impression that there is a significant element of ego in here on the part of those leading this. Who wouldn’t want to be loved by hundreds of thousands of students instead of just one or two classes a year?

Coursera

Similar to Udacity is Coursera, which includes courses from Princeton, Stanford, Michigan and Pennsylvania Universities. The Coursera mission is nothing if not ambitious:

Education for Everyone.

We offer courses from the top universities, for free.

Learn from world-class professors, watch high quality lectures, achieve mastery via interactive exercises, and collaborate with a global community of students.

You can see the introductory video here:

Again, all jolly exciting.

Khan Academy

Khan Academy, which for a few years has been offering huge amounts of content leading to a range of “badges”, is another major player in this area. A recent piece about how “Bill Gates’ Favorite Teacher Wants to Disrupt Education” gives a flavour of the approach taken by its leader:

How would he change education? By turning it upside down. First, he says, we should “decouple credentialing from learning.” Instead of handing out degrees, standardized assessments would be the measure of employee competence. Anyone could learn at their own pace in their own way: in an internship, as an entrepreneur, or at home on the Internet. Then, everyone, no matter how they were educated, would be equal before the evaluation. Additionally, he thinks the assessment could be more meaningful than whatever abilities a college degree actually signals to employers.

The Khan Academy site explains more about how they recognise learning through badges:

As soon as you login, you’ll start earning badges and points for learning. The more you challenge yourself, the more bragging rights you’ll get.

We’ve heard of students spending hour after hour watching physics videos and 5th graders relentlessly tackling college-level math to earn Khan Academy badges. Some of the smaller badges are very easy, but the most legendary badges might require years of work.

Will these badges become more meaningful than degrees? Will higher education be turned upside down?

edX

MITx, the online offshoot of MIT, started its ball rolling in late 2011, then more recently joined up with Harvardx to form edX, described thus:

An organization established by MIT and Harvard that will develop an open-source technology platform to deliver online courses. EdX will support Harvard and MIT faculty in conducting research on teaching and learning on campus through tools that enrich classroom and laboratory experiences. At the same time, edX also will reach learners around the world through online course materials. The edX website will begin by hosting MITx and Harvardx content, with the goal of adding content from other universities interested in joining the platform. edX will also support the Harvard and MIT faculty in conducting research on teaching and learning.

Interestingly, the very laudable aim of edX to support research about learning rather sets it apart from the other developments mentioned here. The edX – FAQs offer some more insights into the approach:

How is this different from what other universities are doing online?

EdX will be entirely our universities’ shared educational missions. Also, a primary goal of edX is to improve teaching and learning on campus by supporting faculty from both universities in conducting significant research on how students learn.

Who will lead edX?

EdX is a priority for the leadership of both Harvard and MIT, and it will be governed by a board made up of key leaders from both institutions, appointed by each university’s president. MIT Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Anant Agarwal will be the initial President of edX and will report to the board.

Does the effort have a staff?

EdX is a significant undertaking that will require significant resources. The full scope of the staff has not been determined, but there will be a dedicated staff to the initiative.

Who can take edX courses? Will there be an admissions process?

EdX will be available to anyone in the world with an internet connection, and in general, there will not be an admissions process. For a modest fee, and as determined by the edX board, MIT and Harvard, credentials will be granted only to students who earn them by demonstrating mastery of the material of a subject.

Will the certificates be awarded by Harvard and/or MIT?

As determined by the edX board, MIT and Harvard, online learners who demonstrate mastery of subjects could earn a certificate of completion, but such certificates would not be issued under the name Harvard or MIT.

Some of the problems with these MOOCs

There are a number of problems associated with these developments:

  • There is no proper academic quality assurance: by and large anyone can offer any course they want without any need for approval or monitoring by an academic body. It might be good, it might not but you’ll have to try it to find out. However,  edX argues that the standards are the same as for regular MIT and Harvard courses:

Will MIT and Harvard standards apply here?

The reach changes exponentially, but the rigor remains the same.

This may be true in terms of the content but they are not assessed in the same way and, as noted in the edX FAQs above, certificates will not be issued in the names of the universities.

  • Self-selection: courses are offered by self-selecting academics and followed by self-selecting students. Again there is no quality assurance in relation to either.
  • Drop out rates are very high: most people simply won’t stay the course. It’s easy to enrol but even easier to drop out.
  • It’s something of a popularity contest: what’s new and exciting is what’s popular. Robotics and artificial intelligence are the hot topics to study along with lots of related IT stuff. However, Sociology and Greek Mythology can also be found.
  • Non-assessment: there isn’t any meaningful assessment. This is one of the biggest problems with this kind of large scale offering – the assessment methods seem to be basic at best. There is a need for something beyond multiple choice – undoubtedly we will get more sophisticated assessment tools in future but scaling up will be difficult.
  • Non-accreditation: completion of all of the work will mean you get the equivalent of an attendance certificate or a virtual badge. These may have currency in certain businesses in some sectors (mainly IT) but it is not clear that they will achieve wider recognition. (See an earlier, rather critical, post on this topic.)

Terms and conditions

To be clear about what is not offered, let’s look at some of the terms and conditions from Udacity:

you acknowledge that any letter of completion awarded will not be affiliated with any college or university and will not stand in the place of a course taken at an accredited institution;

you acknowledge that instructors of any Online Course will not be involved in any attempts to get the course recognized by any educational or accredited institution; and

you will abide by the Student Conduct Policy listed below.

DISCLAIMER OF WARRANTIES.

You expressly acknowledge and agree that your use of the Class Sites, the Online Courses and all content and services available on the Class Sites is at your sole risk and responsibility. THE ONLINE COURSES (INCLUDING ANY CONTENT) IS PROVIDED “AS IS” AND “AS AVAILABLE” WITH NO REPRESENTATIONS OR WARRANTIES OF ANY KIND, EITHER EXPRESSED OR IMPLIED, INCLUDING, BUT NOT LIMITED TO, THE IMPLIED WARRANTIES OF MERCHANTABILITY, FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE, AND NONINFRINGEMENT. YOU ASSUME TOTAL RESPONSIBILITY AND THE ENTIRE RISK FOR YOUR USE OF THE ONLINE COURSES AND CONTENT.

WITHOUT LIMITING THE FOREGOING, WE DO NOT WARRANT THAT (A) THE CLASS SITES, CONTENT, OR THE ONLINE COURSES WILL MEET YOUR REQUIREMENTS OR EXPECTATIONS OR ACHIEVE THE INTENDED PURPOSES, (B) THE CLASS SITES OR THE ONLINE COURSES WILL NOT EXPERIENCE OUTAGES OR OTHERWISE BE UNINTERRUPTED, TIMELY, SECURE OR ERROR-FREE, (C) THE INFORMATION OR CONTENT OBTAINED THROUGH THE CLASS SITES OR THE ONLINE COURSES WILL BE ACCURATE, COMPLETE, CURRENT, ERROR-FREE, COMPLETELY SECURE OR RELIABLE, OR (D) THAT DEFECTS IN OR ON THE CLASS SITES OR CONTENT WILL BE CORRECTED. YOU ASSUME ALL RISK OF PERSONAL INJURY, INCLUDING DEATH AND DAMAGE TO PERSONAL PROPERTY, SUSTAINED FROM USE OF THE ONLINE COURSES AND CONTENT.

OK it’s a free offer, and students are able to learn for nothing and do get an attendance certificate or a badge but there are no guarantees that anyone will recognize either (in fact there are seemingly very few guarantees at all). Will employers start favouring these? I doubt it even if some companies eventually employ the brightest of the hundreds of thousands taking some courses who manage to stand out and then receive a recommendation from a tutor.

Perhaps not that revolutionary after all

It’s all very exciting and has prompted breathless commentary about the imminent demise of traditional universities. Yes, these developments will have an impact but MOOCs will not replace universities – rather they will offer a different avenue to self-improvement. MOOCs are an interesting new delivery method and offer education at scale in a way that traditional universities find hard but really this is more of a contemporary variation on the Adult Learning/Continuing Education model. The expansion and democratization of learning which MOOCs represent is thoroughly laudable but they are in reality an extension of education offerings rather than a replacement for established universities.

The new Mechanics’?

Despite all the hype, this new provision may offer real value for many. MOOCs can be seen as the internet equivalent of the Mechanics’ Institute, which started in the 19th Century as vehicles for self-improvement for working men unable to gain access to conventional education.

Leeds Mechanics’ Institute (now a museum)

Some of these institutes formed the foundation of universities (including UMIST, Heriot Watt and Birkbeck for example) and provided routes into higher education for those usually excluded. But for many people such institutes, which often included libraries, provided a means of improving technical knowledge to enable advancement at work or more general self-education. This philosophy still underpins the largely part-time provision at Birkbeck.

Such institutes often depended on philanthropy for their resources as do some of the online startups we’re seeing now. Will these new providers last as long as some of the Mechanics’? Perhaps. They do offer something new and interesting for which there is clearly demand.

So, we should embrace MOOCs as a welcome additional contribution to education in the great adult education tradition. But will they sweep aside traditional universities? (Or all but 10 of them?) I don’t think so. Things are likely to be a bit confusing for a while therefore.