November 1, 2014

Sir John Daniel’s book review of ‘Beyond the MOOC Hype’ by Jeffrey Young

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Young's book on MOOCs

Young, J. (2013) Beyond the MOOC Hype: A Guide to Higher Education’s High-Tech Disruption Washington DC : Chronicle of Higher Education, 92 pp (available through Amazon for about $5)

Introduction

Sir John Daniel has kindly offered his review of this book for publication in my blog.

Sir John Daniel’s review

In September 2012, as a visiting fellow at the Korea National Open University, I wrote an essay on MOOCs entitled Making Sense of MOOCs: Musings in a Maze of Myth, Paradox and Possibility. At that moment the phenomenon of xMOOCs was far too new to have generated any scholarly research and there was little academic literature on cMOOCs either, although they had been going since 2008. I therefore had to base my essay on the copious coverage of MOOCs by journalists and bloggers. MOOCs had captured the attention of the news media in a remarkable way, so this reporting was plentiful.

I found one of the best commentators on MOOCs to be Jeffrey Young, who has covered the MOOCs story for the US Chronicle of Higher Education from its beginnings. The thoroughness of his work impressed me. He took MOOCs himself as a learner and also performed a particularly useful service for those trying to make sense of the business model of MOOCs by using freedom-of-information rights to obtain a copy of the standard contract between the MOOCs-platform company Coursera and its university partners.

Young has now distilled his deep knowledge of MOOCs into an eBook titled: Beyond the MOOC Hype: A Guide to Higher Education’s High-Tech Disruption. It is an excellent read, where he endears himself to non-American readers by being aware of developments outside his own country, a rare quality among US education journalists! He took a Manitoba cMOOC as a learner and visited the Indira Gandhi National Open University in Delhi to find out more about open universities.

The seven chapters of the book address all the key issues. At the beginning, calling MOOCs ‘Education’s Jetpack Moment’, he draws an analogy with science fiction predictions that never came true in order to ask whether MOOCs really will stimulate the revolution in higher education forecast by enthusiasts. His concluding remarks carry the title ‘A Fight for the Future of Higher Education’.

He looks at both sides of that fight, his goal being neither to promote free online education, nor to present a critical diatribe, adding wisely that ‘the future is unknown and how things turn out will depend on college leaders, professors and anyone who might one day take a free online course’. For Young, ‘MOOCs matter, whether they work or not, because they have put the future of college into the national spotlight’.

He starts with the basic question ‘what is a MOOC’ and finds that MOOCs take lessons from a fusion of trends that add up to more than the sum of their parts. In chapter 2 he examines the history of MOOCs and tries to put them in the context of the long history of distance education. This leads him to the toughest question: ‘if MOOCs are free to students, who will pay for them?’ There is no assurance that any of the moneymaking schemes proposed for MOOCs will work. The later chapters look at how MOOCs might change classroom teaching, the claim that MOOCs threaten the long-term health of higher education, and whether MOOCs are an effective way to teach.

The book is enlivened by stories from the coalface about teaching and studying MOOCs and about his own experience as a learner, notably through an engaging account of the MOOC he took on song writing, which ‘stirred a feeling of discovery I haven’t felt since my days as an undergraduate’.

In the chapter on whether MOOCs work, he recalls the well-known fact that 80% of Coursera’s students already have a degree of some kind. MOOCs have failed to achieve the lofty objective articulated by their pioneers, which was to bring education to those who never had access before, whether in rich countries or poor. Young notes the growing sense that the US higher education system is broken, with the running costs of colleges – and therefore the levels of tuition fees – growing faster than the incomes of students wanting to go to college. MOOCs are not addressing that problem – at least not yet.

Central to this issue is the question of credit. Young points out that the few institutions offering credit for their own MOOCs have had only a handful of takers, though he notes that these offers had little publicity. Yet he reports that a substantial minority of faculty teaching MOOCs, notably in engineering, maths, science and technology, felt that their students deserved credit. Meanwhile other bodies, such as the American Council on Education, are recommending credit for certain MOOCs.

Some colleges, while not giving credit for MOOCs, will let students graduate in three years instead of four if they earn enough MOOC certificates. In this respect MOOCs can give pupils leaving secondary school the sort of advanced standing that they can earn by taking Advanced Placement tests or the International Baccalaureate, thereby achieving a 25% reduction in the overall cost of college. Other institutions are taking the obvious step of introducing MOOC like qualities – notably scale – to regular, credit-bearing online programmes so that they can reduce fees substantially.

In his summary of the fight for the future of higher education Young addresses three questions: should colleges be run like businesses; who should provide higher education; and how can colleges bring down costs? Noting that the faculty-centred nature of US higher education is responsible for its quality and dynamism as well as its accelerating costs, he makes the telling point that the opening of a new college campus is now extremely rare. This alone suggests that this business model has run its course, at least in the US. On the other hand, the entry costs to online teaching are low: ‘like the difference between buying a food truck versus building a nationwide chain of restaurants’.

This means that new players, not only institutions but also partnerships of faculty members and professionals, can join the higher education enterprise. Presently a key barrier facing them is the monopoly that colleges have on selling credits and degrees. However, the MOOCs explosion is already accelerating the break-up of this monopoly.

By stimulating policy makers to reflect more deeply on the cost structures of higher education, MOOCs have revealed the perverse nature of much recent institutional spending. Investing in technology without revising the classroom-teaching model has raised costs, not lowered them. Furthermore, colleges have tended to add amenities like fancier dorms or climbing walls, instead of improving their educational quality. Online programmes that highlight the quality and effectiveness of their teaching/learning systems rather than the grandeur of their physical plant could gain an increasing edge. Residential colleges will not go away but some will struggle to respond to the challenge of online learning that MOOCs have amplified.

Young completed his book in mid-2013. The MOOCs space is dynamic and there have been significant developments, both in the US and elsewhere, since that time. Nevertheless, his thoughtful commentary on the frenzied phenomenon of MOOCs remains highly relevant to decision makers grappling with its implications for their institutions.

 

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