Tuesday, October 1, 2013

MOOCs' Murky Future, and the Liberal Arts

I am no pundit, and I'm hesitant to predict what will happen in the MOOC-o-sphere in the coming years.  Likely MOOCs will improve some.  Hopefully certain totally ineffective approaches to online education will die out (though I wouldn't count on it).  More MOOCs will surely be developed -- some of them quite educational, while others will be a waste of precious time.  There was a lot of hype, and MOOC-providers over-promised.  Many are now taking a more measured view of the (limited) success of MOOCs.  This, in itself, is a promising sign for the academy.  But again, my crystal ball is cloudy, and I won't pretend clairvoyance.  Besides, it's always possible that I can't see the forest for the trees.  So I won't go down that road.

Instead, I'm going to take a pragmatic look at some of the ways that I think MOOCs could interact with a small selective private liberal arts college. 

But first -- a note on variability.  Throughout this discussion, it is very important to keep in mind that MOOCs are each individual courses that vary dramatically.  Some courses seem almost like jokes.

For instance, I haven't really been watching the lectures of this Open2Study course on Game Development, but emails have reminded me to drop by for the assessments.  There are only four graded assessments for the course, one for each "module".  Each assessment consists of answering 5 multiple choice questions, basically all focusing on surface-level vocabulary definitions from the lecture (that I didn't watch).  After years of standardized tests, I'm a pretty good "multiple guesser", so I gave it a try.  First time round, I missed one of the five problems -- thank goodness I can "redo" the same assessment twice more!  Oh wait, 60% is a passing grade.  And I only have to complete three out of the four assessments in order to get a certificate.  That's clearly one to frame, and put next to my diploma!  If I can narrow down the multiple-guess answers to two, what are the odds that I *don't* pass the course?  (I'll leave that as an exercise for the reader).  (I should clarify -- I think there may actually be some decent content in some of the lecture videos... several students praised the course highly on the discussion board, and felt like they'd learned a lot.  However, the assessment and certification process for this course feels like a horrible joke.  It's especially worrisome since Open2Study's partner, Open University, offers accredited bachelor's online programs... I can only hope that those courses are evaluating their students on the basis of more than 15 to 20 multiple choice questions, that students can re-try 3 times each.

Other courses, such as this Coursera cryptography course that I started, before realizing that I didn't have enough time to devote to it, are quite rigorous, with challenging questions (even if some of them are multiple choice) that force you to dig deeper into the material and understand it.  Also, the Coursera Scala programming language course, and the Udacity A.I. for Robotics course both offer examples of how rich/challenging computer programming assignments can be effectively auto-graded by the computer.  Like courses at brick and mortar colleges / universities, but to an even greater extent, the quality of the course experience will vary widely, depending on the professor, the content, and how effectively the course has been adapted to an online format.

MOOCs in the liberal arts environment?

I work at Centre College, which is a fairly small institution, with enrollment between 1300 and 1400 students. Not very "massive".  We also have a fairly selective admissions process, and, despite the best efforts by financial aid to make the college experience affordable, most students/families must pay a fairly sizable tuition check for the students to be here.  Hardly what you'd call "open".  At Centre, we are devoted to giving students a highly personal education.  It's even in the college motto: "Personal education, extraordinary success".  And we faculty do have personal interaction with students regularly, from small classes to one-on-one tutoring during our office hours, to showing up to cheer them on and take pictures at their weekend soccer game.  That sense of the personal, and the learning community that forms in close physical proximity on the college campus, is a central part to what we do here.  Not exactly "online".  By this reckoning, it's hard to see what role MOOCs might play at a place like Centre.

And for these reasons, I don't see MOOCs as causing any fundamental changes to the college experience (barring fallout from the feared "MOOCpocalypse" that causes the higher education sector to melt down completely -- but I find that version of the future unlikely). However, it's worth pondering -- how might small liberal arts colleges take advantage of MOOCs, or the technologies behind MOOCs, without compromising their school's distinctive character?  Here are some avenues to consider:

Avenue 1. Professional Development.  Various surveys (like this one) suggest that the audience of students who enroll in MOOCs is commonly people who've already earned their bachelors degree or higher.  Morever, I would argue that it is continuing education and professional development that are most likely to be heavily impacted by the rise of the MOOC.  There is no shortage of post-college people who have jobs, but need or want to learn new skills.  The low-cost high flexibility structure of MOOCs is very conducive to this.  What does this have to do with a small private liberal arts college like Centre, whose student body is primarily 18-22 year olds fresh out of high school, and not professionals taking evening classes in accounting?  Well, professors need professional development too.  This is especially true in a field like computer science, where the landscape of languages and technologies keeps shifting, and (like Alice) I must run as fast as I can just to stay in the same place.  As such, I view MOOCs on new languages (like the Scala course) as an extremely valuable and productive way to keep up-to-date on my own skills, and thus also my teaching.  And while less crucial, I suspect even classics professors could benefit from taking another course on the Oresteia now and then, just to get a new perspective. 

Avenue 2. MOOC-as-a-textbookMOOC-wrapping.  Blended learning.  The flip-flopped classroom.  Whatever you'd like to call it.  The central idea here is to use the MOOC as a resource that students would participate in outside of the classroom, within the context of a traditional college course.  It would serve as the course textbook, giving students both lecture-ish video material, quizzes, assignments, an online forum, etc.  But students would still meet as a class with a professor, and this is where the real discussion would take place.  Furthermore, students would engage in projects that go beyond the MOOC.  Some see this as the final step in the convergence between textbooks (which have been trying to become more multi-media for years) and MOOCs (which don't live up to their promise of being a real course).  This model has quite a bit going for it.  Students could benefit from a wealth of high-quality instructional materials that have been organized, sequenced, and scaffolded online.  At the same time, they could benefit from guided discussions and deeper conversations with their peers, in a physical classroom setting, and the professor's personalized feedback (which is an element sorely lacking from MOOCs).  There are potential caveats, however.

A) Do the video-lectures of a MOOC provide enough detail that they really supplant  a textbook?  In most cases, I would say not.  But other written texts could easily supplement the MOOC as well.

B) Will the physical professor (e.g., I) lose authority in the classroom, if students are looking to the superstar MOOC professor in the videos as the main source of knowledge?   Again, I am not too concerned.  As long as I really do have knowledge that goes beyond the material that is being covered, I feel confident that my students will continue to trust and respect me.  A similar case could be made regarding the textbook author, who may have greater depth of knowledge about the subject than I do.  And it's not like students haven't had access to the Internet for years, with the ability to seek out higher authorities than myself on just about any subject matter I might be teaching.  Nevertheless, the students have an educational relationship with me that they don't have with the Internet, and they can't with Dr. Superstar Online.

C) Most seriously, such use of the MOOC materials may be prohibited by the profit-seeking MOOC providers, without some form of licensing structure.  Which, perhaps, just brings us even closer to the textbook analogy?  But letting one or two powerful MOOC companies control the terms of licensing seems like a dubiously strategic move for the academy to make, especially when there is the arguably superior alternative of truly open educational resources.  There's a can of worms here, but the upshot is that the "free" part of MOOCs isn't as "free" as many people think it is -- it isn't free if you want to get a "verified" certificate from Coursera (who recently made $1 million off of this), and it won't be free (for someone) if you're doing the MOOC as part of a regular college/university course.  In short, it seems that any way that you might get real credentials out of the MOOC is going to cost you money.  All that said, supposing licensing a good quality MOOC for classroom use only costs $10 / student, that pales in comparison to the skyrocketing textbook costs that students often pay these days.

Avenue 3.  Advanced independent/directed studies.  Being in a small academic program (3 faculty, 2 full time equivalent) at a small school, I am painfully aware of the challenges of offering very many special topics courses for students, beyond the core computer science curriculum required for majors/minors.  Thus, we often have talented students that are interested in exploring areas of the discipline that we can't offer courses in.  The simple truth is, if these students had gone to a large state university, they would have a much broader range of courses/topics to choose from.  Personally, I hate to see student interest stifled, so this term I am (without receiving any additional teaching credit) overseeing five students doing independent studies (three students working on learning Android phone app development, and two studying the intersection of robotics and drama).  I love doing things like this, but it can take time, and students can get a bit lost-at-sea if I don't give them enough direction.  Wouldn't it be nice if the students could do an online course on a relevant topic that they could work through on their own, and which would support their work on their independent project?  Yes, yes it would.  Would I still meet with them weekly to discuss their progress on the project, and help them to apply what they would be learning in the MOOC?  Yes.  But would they learn more, better, faster?  I think so.  In fact, I think there's a lot of great potential here, for augmenting the (sometimes limited) course offerings available small colleges with hybrid independent-study/MOOC combinations.  It has the benefits of high-touch interaction with the professor and independent project-based learning, combined with the benefits of structured content, dynamic lectures, and automatic assessment from the MOOC.  Any problems?

A) See the licensing caveat from Avenue 2 above.

B) Would I trust the MOOC alone without an additional project?  i.e., Would I feel comfortable awarding a student Centre College credit just for having completed a MOOC?  I think not.  First of all, as I mentioned way up top, the low level of effort needed to complete some MOOCs is ridiculous.  So it would need to be carefully vetted.  But even if it were, there's the potential for cheating.  I don't think that problem has been solved yet.  So I think it's important that the professor meet with the student, and have the student demonstrate what they are learning in some manner, outside of the context of the MOOC.  There are many ways that the newfound expertise might be demonstrated, but a project of some kind has a lot to recommend it, especially if it can force the student to apply conceptual knowledge to solve a problem that's grounded in the real world.

C) Many MOOCs are not the equivalent of a full college course.   That's fine for two reasons: 1) there's the additional project/work to complement the MOOC, and 2) students can simply be awarded less than a full course's worth of credit.  Most of the independent study projects that I do now only award the students 1/3 of the credit they would get for a regular course.  The students aren't doing it "for the credit" -- they're doing it for the incredible learning experience, which is as it should be!   (And having the independent study course title listed on their transcript will be a good thing for their future employment, etc.)

Avenue 4:  MOOC creation?  Creating and running a quality MOOC takes a lot of effort and money, and it's not clear whether this is the kind of game that small liberal arts colleges should be playing.  However, the possibility of creating an educational experience that your students could take part in along with other students from all over the world is a tantalizing one.  And there could be situations where it would make sense for a faculty member of a small liberal arts college to design and run a MOOC.  However, there's a more exciting possibility.  I was just talking to a colleague the other day, who said that if he were going to do something with MOOCs, he would want to build a MOOC *collaboratively with his students*.  That's right -- his students would get the experience of designing a course for people around the world to take.  The end result could be amazing, or it could fall to the ground in a flaming mess.  But either way, I feel confident that it would be an incredible learning experience for the students building the course.  There are interesting possibilities here for teaching our students to be producers of knowledge as well as consumers.  Perhaps the MOOC revolution will only come full circle when everyone is creating their own courses for everyone else.  Or maybe that's already happening at Udemy, and it's not the panacea for all the world's educational problems after all (surprise, surprise!).  But I insist -- there are interesting possibilities here to consider.

Avenue 5: Taking the M.O. out of MOOCs?  As the technologies related to MOOCs and MOOC-authoring improve, these same tools may be used in Small Closed Online Courses.  That is, I may be able to put together a few videos (or audio-over-powerpoint slides, or audio-over-tablet-scribbling), with integrated auto-graded quizzes, which I could incorporate piecemeal into my own more traditional courses.  Right now, that feels like a lot of work to go to, for probably not enough gain.  But as the tools improve, it may become easy enough that it's worth doing.

Avenue 6:  Combining some of the avenues above, it may become worthwhile to do some collaborative online course-sharing between small liberal arts colleges (say, within a consortium like the ACS).  This would still be a small course (say, fewer than 20 students), but they could be spread across 3 or 4 campuses.  Again, this could be beneficial for upper-level special topics / elective courses that small schools can't offer regularly on their own.  The technology for live video-streaming needs to come along a bit more, but there's hope.  The students might be able to all meet with the professor (or several faculty from several schools) via a Google Hangout for discussion, while completing MOOC-like videos & other materials outside of class.

Am I convinced that all of these avenues are good ideas that will work well for a place like Centre?  No, certainly not.  Do I think that we need to "jump on the bus" and drive down all of these roads at break-neck speed so that we don't get "left in the dust"?  Absolutely not - that's a recipe for disaster!  But I do think that we ought to try taking a few deliberate steps down at least some of these avenues.  Just because these paths might lead us into the woods, that doesn't mean that the view from these paths isn't worth seeing.