November 29, 2014

Why the fuss about MOOCs? Political, social and economic drivers

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Daphne Koller's TED talk on MOOCs (click to activate video)

Daphne Koller’s TED talk on MOOCs (click to activate video)

The end of MOOCs

This is the last part of my chapter on MOOCs for my online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age. In a series of prior posts, I have looked at the strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs. Here I summarise this section and look at why MOOCs have gained so much attention.

Brief summary of strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs

The main points of my analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs can be summarised as follows:

Strengths

  • the main value proposition of MOOCs is that through the use of computer automation and/or peer-to-peer communication MOOCs can eliminate the very large variable costs in higher education associated with providing learner support and quality assessment
  • MOOCs, particularly xMOOCs, deliver high quality content from some of the world’s best universities for free to anyone with a computer and an Internet connection
  • MOOCs can be useful for opening access to high quality content, particularly in Third World countries, but to do so successfully will require a good deal of adaptation, and substantial investment in local support and partnerships
  • MOOCs are valuable for developing basic conceptual learning, and for creating large online communities of interest or practice
  • MOOCs are an extremely valuable form of lifelong learning and continuing education
  • MOOCs have forced conventional and especially elite institutions to reappraise their strategies towards online and open learning
  • institutions have been able to extend their brand and status by making public their expertise and excellence in certain academic areas

Weaknesses

  • the high registration numbers for MOOCs are misleading; less than half of registrants actively participate, and of these, only a small proportion successfully complete the course; nevertheless, absolute numbers of successful participants are still higher than for conventional courses
  • MOOCs are expensive to develop, and although commercial organisations offering MOOC platforms have opportunities for sustainable business models, it is difficult to see how publicly funded higher education institutions can develop sustainable business models for MOOCs
  • MOOCs tend to attract those with already a high level of education, rather than widen access
  • MOOCs so far have been limited in the ability to develop high level academic learning, or the high level intellectual skills needed in a knowledge based society
  • assessment of the higher levels of learning remains a challenge for MOOCs, to the extent that most MOOC providers will not recognise their own MOOCs for credit
  • MOOC materials may be limited by copyright or time restrictions for re-use as open educational resources

Why the fuss about MOOCs?

It can be seen from the previous section that the pros and cons of MOOCs are finely balanced. Given though the obvious questions about the value of MOOCs, and the fact that before MOOCs arrived, there had been substantial but quiet progress for over ten years in the use of online learning for undergraduate and graduate programs, you might be wondering why MOOCs have commanded so much media interest, and especially why a large number of government policy makers, economists, and computer scientists have become so ardently supportive of MOOCs, and why there has been such a strong, negative reaction, not only from many traditional university and college instructors, who are right to be threatened by some of the claims being made for MOOCs, but also from many professionals in online learning (see for instance, Bates, 2012; Daniel, 2012; Hill, 2012; Watters, 2013), who might be expected to be more supportive of MOOCs

It needs to be recognised that the discourse around MOOCs is not usually based on a cool, rational, evidence-based analysis of the pros and cons of MOOCs, but is more likely to be driven by emotion, self-interest, fear, or ignorance of what education is actually about. Thus it is important to explore the political, social and economic factors that have driven MOOC mania.

Massive, free and Made in America!

This is what I will call the intrinsic reason for MOOC mania. It is not surprising that, since the first MOOC from Stanford professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller attracted 270,000 sign-ups from around the world, since the course was free, and since it came from professors at one of the most prestigious private universities in the USA, the American media were all over it. It was big news in its own right, however you look at it, especially as courses from Sebastian Thrun, another Stanford professor, and others from MIT and Harvard followed shortly, with equally staggering numbers of participants.

It’s the Ivy Leagues!

Until MOOCs came along, the major Ivy League universities in the USA, such as Stanford, MIT, Harvard and UC Berkeley, as well as many of the most prestigious universities in Canada, such as the University of Toronto and McGill, and elsewhere, had largely ignored online learning in any form.

However, by 2011, online learning, in the form of for credit undergraduate and graduate courses, was making big inroads at many other, very respectable universities, such as Carnegie Mellon, Penn State, and the University of Maryland in the USA, and also in many of the top tier public universities in Canada and elsewhere, to the extent that almost one in three course enrolments in the USA were now in online courses. Furthermore, at least in Canada, the online courses were often getting good completion rates and matching on-campus courses for quality.

The Ivy League and other highly prestigious universities that had ignored online learning were beginning to look increasingly out of touch by 2011. By launching into MOOCs, these prestigious universities could jump to the head of the queue in terms of technology innovation, while at the same time protecting their selective and highly personal and high cost campus programs from direct contact with online learning. In other words, MOOCs gave these prestigious universities a safe sandbox in which to explore online learning, and the Ivy League universities gave credibility to MOOCs, and, indirectly, online learning as a whole.

It’s disruptive!

For years before 2011, various economists, philosophers and industrial gurus had been predicting that education was the next big area for disruptive change due to the march of new technologies (see for instance Lyotard, 1979; Tapscott, undated; Christensen and Eyring, 2011).

Online learning in credit courses though was being quietly absorbed into the mainstream of university teaching, through blended learning, without any signs of major disruption, but here with MOOCs was a massive change, providing evidence at long last in the education sector to support the theories of disruptive innovation.

It’s Silicon Valley!

It is no coincidence that the first MOOCs were all developed by entrepreneurial computer scientists. Ng and Koller very quickly went on to create Coursera as a private commercial company, followed shortly by Thrun, who created Udacity. Anant Agarwal, a computer scientist at MIT, went on to head up edX.

The first MOOCs were very typical of Silicon Valley start-ups: a bright idea (massive, open online courses with cloud-based, relatively simple software to handle the numbers), thrown out into the market to see how it might work, supported by more technology and ideas (in this case, learning analytics, automated marking, peer assessment) to deal with any snags or problems. Building a sustainable business model would come later, when some of the dust had settled.

As a result it is not surprising that almost all the early MOOCs completely ignored any pedagogical theory about best practices in teaching online, or any prior research on factors associated with success or failure in online learning. It is also not surprising as a result that a very low percentage of participants actually successfully complete MOOCs – there’s a lot of catching up still to do, but so far Coursera and to a lesser extent edX have continued to ignore educators and prior research in online learning. They would rather do their own research, even if it means re-inventing the wheel. The commercial MOOC platform providers though are beginning to work out a sustainable business model.

It’s the economy, stupid!

Of all the reasons for MOOC mania, Bill Clinton’s famous election slogan resonates most with me. It should be remembered that by 2011, the consequences of the disastrous financial collapse of 2008 were working their way through the economy, and particularly were impacting on the finances of state governments in the USA.

The recession meant that states were suddenly desperately short of tax revenues, and were unable to meet the financial demands of state higher education systems. For instance, California’s community college system, the nation’s largest, suffered about $809 million in state funding cuts between 2008-2012, resulting in a shortfall of 500,000 places in its campus-based colleges. Free MOOCs were seen as manna from heaven by the state governor, Jerry Brown.

One consequence of rapid cuts to government funding was a sharp spike in tuition fees, bringing the real cost of higher education sharply into focus. Tuition fees in the USA have increased by 7% per annum over the last 10 years, compared with an inflation rate of 4% per annum. Here at last was a possible way to rein in the high cost of higher education.

Now though the economy in the USA is picking up and revenues are flowing back into state coffers, and so the pressure for more radical solutions to the cost of higher education is beginning to ease. It will be interesting to see if MOOC mania continues as the economy grows, although the search for more cost-effective approaches to higher education is not going to disappear.

Don’t panic!

These are all very powerful drivers of MOOC mania, which makes it all the more important to try to be clear and cool headed about the strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs. The real test is whether MOOCs can help develop the knowledge and skills that learners need in a knowledge-based society. The answer of course is yes and no.

As a low-cost supplement to formal education, they can be quite valuable, but not as a complete replacement. They can at present teach conceptual learning, comprehension and in a narrow range of activities, application of knowledge. They can be useful for building communities of practice, where already well educated people or people with a deep, shared passion for a topic can learn from one another, another form of continuing education.

However, certainly to date, MOOCs have not been able to demonstrate that they can lead to transformative learning, deep intellectual understanding, evaluation of complex alternatives, and evidence-based decision-making, and without greater emphasis on expert-based learner support and more qualitative forms of assessment, they probably never will, at least without substantial increases in their costs.

At the end of the day, there is a choice between throwing more resources into MOOCs and hoping that some of their fundamental flaws can be overcome without too dramatic an increase in costs, or whether we would be better investing in other forms of online learning and educational technology that could lead to more cost-effective learning outcomes. I know where I would put my money, and it’s not into MOOCs.

Over to you

This will be my last contribution to the discussion of MOOCs for my book, so let’s have it!

1. Do you agree with the strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs that I have laid out? What would you add or remove or change?

2. What do you think of the drivers of MOOC mania? Are these accurate? Are there other, more important drivers of MOOC mania?

3. Do you even agree that there is a mania about MOOCs, or is their rapid expansion all perfectly understandable?

References

Bates, T. (2012) What’s right and what’s wrong about Coursera-style MOOCs, Online learning and distance education resources, August 5

Christensen, C. and Eyring, H. (2011), The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education, New York, New York, USA: John Wiley & Sons,

Daniel, J. (2012). Making sense of MOOCs: Musings in a maze of myth, paradox and possibility.Journal of Interactive Media in Education, Vol. 3

Hill, P. (2012) Four Barriers that MOOCs must overcome to build a sustainable model, e-Literate, July 24

Lyotard, J-J. (1979) La Condition postmoderne: rapport sur le savoir: Paris: Minuit

Tapscott, D. (undated) The transformation of education dontapscott.com

Watters, A. (2013) MOOC Mania: Debunking the hype around massive, open online courses The Digital Shift, 18 April

A New Zealand analysis of MOOCs

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NZ MOOCs 2

Shrivastava, A. and Guiney, P. (2014) Technological Development and Tertiary Education Delivery Models: The Arrival of MOOCs  Wellington NZ: Tertiary Education Commission/Te Amorangi Mātauranga Matua

Why this paper?

Another report for the record on MOOCs, this time from the New Zealand Tertiary Education Commission. The reasoning behind this report:

The paper focuses on MOOCs [rather than doing a general overview of emerging technologies] because of their potential to disrupt tertiary education and the significant opportunities, challenges and risks that they present. MOOCs are also the sole focus of this paper because of their scale and the involvement of the elite United States universities.

What’s in the paper?

The paper provides a fairly standard, balanced analysis of developments in MOOCs, first by describing the different MOOC delivery models, their business models and the drivers behind MOOCs, then by following up with a broad discussion of the possible implications of MOOCs for New Zealand, such as unbundling of services, possible economies of scale, globalization of tertiary (higher) education, adaptability to learners’ and employers’ needs, and the possible impact on New Zealand’s tertiary education workforce.

There is also a good summary of MOOCs being offered by New Zealand institutions.

At the end of the paper some interesting questions for further discussion are raised:

  • What will tertiary education delivery look like in 2030?

  • What kinds of opportunities and challenges do technological developments, including MOOCs, present to the current policy, regulatory and operational arrangements for tertiary teaching and learning in New Zealand?

  • How can New Zealand make the most of the opportunities and manage any associated risks and challenges?

  • Do MOOCs undermine the central value of higher education, or are they just a helpful ‘updating’ that reflects its new mass nature?

  • Where do MOOCs fit within the New Zealand education and qualifications systems?

  • Who values the knowledge and skills gained from a MOOC programme and why?

  • Can economies of scale be achieved through MOOCs without loss of quality?

  • Can MOOCs lead to better learning outcomes at the same or less cost than traditional classroom-based teaching? If so, how might the Government go about funding institutions that want to deliver MOOCs to a mix of domestic and international learners?

  • What kinds of MOOC accreditation models might make sense in the context of New Zealand’s quality-assurance system?

Answers on a postcard, please, to the NZ Tertiary Education Commission.

Comment

Am I alone in wondering what has happened to for-credit online education in government thinking about the future? It is as if 20 years of development of undergraduate and graduate online courses and programs never existed. Surely a critical question for institutions and government planners is:

  • what are the relative advantages and disadvantages of MOOCs over other forms of online learning? What can MOOCs learn from our prior experience with credit-based online learning?

There are several reasons for considering this, but one of the most important is the huge investment many institutions, and, indirectly, governments. have already made in credit-based online learning.

By and large, online learning in publicly funded universities, both in New Zealand and in Canada, has been very successful in terms of both increasing access and in student learning. It is also important to be clear about the differences and some of the similarities between credit-based online learning and MOOCs.

Some of the implications laid out in this paper, such as possibilities of consortia and institutional collaboration, apply just as much to credit-based online learning as to MOOCs, and many of the negative criticisms of MOOCs, such as difficulties of assessment and lack of learner support, disappear when applied to credit-based online learning.

Please, policy-makers, realise that MOOCs are not your only option for innovation through online learning. There are more established and well tested solutions already available.

Getting ready for the EDEN Research workshop

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Oxford: City of Dreaming Spires (Matthew Arnold)

Oxford: City of Dreaming Spires (Matthew Arnold)

I’m now in England, about to attend the EDEN Research Workshop on research into online learning that starts tomorrow (Sunday) in Oxford, with the event being hosted by the UK Open University, one of the main sources of systematic research in online learning. (EDEN is the European Distance and e-Learning Network)

This is one of my favourite events, because the aim is to bring together all those in Europe doing research in online learning to discuss their work, the issues and research methods. It’s a great chance for young or new players in the field to make themselves known and connect with other, more experienced, researchers. Altogether there will be about 120 participants, just the right size to get to know everyone over three days. I organised one such EDEN research workshop myself several years ago in Barcelona, when I was working at the Open University of Catalonia, and it was great fun.

The format is very interesting. All the papers are published a week ahead of the workshop, and each author gets just a few minutes in parallel sessions to briefly summarise, with plenty of time for discussion afterwards (what EDEN calls ‘research speed dating’). There are also several research workshops, such as ‘Linking Learning Design with Learning Analytics,’ as well as several keynotes (but not too many!) I’m particularly looking forward to Sian Bayne’s ‘Teaching, Research and the More-than-human in Digital Education.’ There are also poster sessions, 14 in all.

I am the Chair of the jury for the EDEN award for the best research paper, and also the workshop rapporteur. As a result I have been carefully reading all the papers over the last week, 44 in all, and I’m still trying to work out how to be in several places at the same time so I can cover all the sessions.

As a result I’ve had to put my book, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age‘, on hold for the last few days. However, the EDEN papers have already been so useful, bringing me the latest reviews and updates on research in this area that it is well worth taking a few more days before getting back to the strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs. I will be much better informed as a result as there are quite a few research papers on European MOOCs. I will also do a blog post after the conference, summing up what I heard during the three days.

So it looks like that I won’t have much time for dreaming in the city of dreaming spires.

 

 

WCET’s analysis of U.S. statistics on distance education

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IPEDS 2

U.S.Department of Education (2014) Web Tables: Enrollment in Distance Education Courses, by State: Fall 2012 Washington DC: U.S.Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics

Hill, P. and Poulin, R. (2014) A response to new NCES report on distance education e-Literate, June 11

The U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences operates a National Center for Education Statistics which in turn runs the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). IPEDS is:

a system of interrelated surveys conducted annually by the U.S. Department’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). IPEDS gathers information from every college, university, and technical and vocational institution that participates in the federal student financial aid programs. The Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended, requires that institutions that participate in federal student aid programs report data on enrollments, program completions, graduation rates, faculty and staff, finances, institutional prices, and student financial aid. These data are made available to students and parents through the College Navigator college search Web site and to researchers and others through the IPEDS Data Center

Recently IPEDS released “Web Tables” containing results from their Fall Enrollment 2012 survey. This was the first survey in over a decade to include institutional enrollment counts for distance education students. In the article above, Phil Hill of e-Literate and Russell Poulin of WCET have co-written a short analysis of the Web Tables released by IPEDS.

The Hill and Poulin analysis

The main points they make are as follows:

  • overall the publication of the web tables in the form of a pdf is most welcome, in particular by providing a breakdown of IPEDS data by different variables such as state jurisdiction, control of institution, sector and student level
  • according to the IPEDS report there were just over 5.4 million students enrolled in distance education courses in the fall semester 2012 (NOTE: this number refers to students, NOT course enrollments).
  • roughly a quarter of all post-secondary students in the USA are enrolled in a distance education course.
  • the bulk of students in the USA taking distance education courses are in publicly funded institutions (85% of those taking at least some DE courses), although about one third of those taking all their classes at a distance are in private, for-profit institutions (e.g. University of Phoenix)
  • these figures do NOT include MOOC enrollments
  • as previously identified by Phil Hill in e-Literate, there is major discrepancy in the number of students taking at least one online course between the IPEDS study and the regular annual surveys conducted by Allen and Seaman at Babson College – 7.1 million for Babson and 5.5 million for IPEDS. Jeff Seaman, one of the two Babson authors, is also quoted in e-Literate on his interpretation of the differences. Hill and Poulin comment that the NCES report would have done well to at least refer to the significant differences.
  • Hill and Poulin claim that there has been confusion over which students get counted in IPEDS reporting and which do not. They suspect that there is undercounting in the hundreds of thousands, independent of distance education status.

Comment

There are lies, damned lies and statistics. Nevertheless, although the IPEDS data may not be perfect, it does a pretty good job of collecting data on distance education students across the whole of the USA. However, it does not distinguish between mode of delivery of distance education (are there still mainly print-based courses around)?

So we now have two totally independent analyses of distance education students in the USA, with a minimum number of 5.5 million and a maximum number of 7.1 million, i.e. between roughly a quarter and a third of all post-secondary students. From the Allen and Seaman longitudinal studies, we can also reasonably safely assume that online enrollments have been increasing between 10-20% per annum over the last 10 years, compared with overall enrollments of 2-5% per annum.

By contrast, in Canada we have no national data on either online or distance education students. It’s hard to see how Canadian governments or institutions can take evidence-based policy decisions about online or distance education without such basic information.

Lastly, thank you, Phil and Russ, for a very helpful analysis of the IPEDs report.

Update

For a more detailed analysis, see also:

Haynie, D. (2014) New Government Data Sheds Light on Online Learners US News, June 13

 

The success or otherwise of online students in the California Community College system

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 Online offerings vary widely across subject

Johnson, H. and Mejia, M. (2014) Online learning and student outcomes in California’s community colleges San Francisco CA: Public Policy Institute of California, 20 pp

I’m not a great fan of studies into completion rates in online learning, because most studies fail to take into account a whole range of factors outside of the mode of delivery that influence student outcomes. However, this study is an exception. Conducted by researchers at the highly influential PPIC, it takes a very careful look at how well students across the whole California community college system (CCCS) do in online learning, and there are some very interesting findings that may not come as a surprise to experienced observers of online learning, but will certainly provide fodder for both supporters and skeptics of online learning.

Why the study is important

Several reasons:

  • California’s community colleges offer more online credit courses than any other public higher education institution in the country. By 2012, online course enrollment in the state’s community colleges totaled almost one million, representing about 11 percent of total enrollment
  • Over the past ten years, online course enrollment has increased by almost 850,000, while traditional course enrollment has declined by almost 285,000.
  • Community colleges are more likely than other institutions of higher education [in the USA] to serve nontraditional students. These students often have employment and family obligations and therefore may potentially benefit the most from online learning.
  • The state of California is investing $57 million over the next five to six years for online learning initiatives within the California Community College system
  • The California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office (CCCCO) provided … access to unique longitudinal student- and course-level data from all of the state’s 112 community colleges

Main findings

  • Between 2008–09 and 2011–12, total credit enrollment at California’s community colleges declined by almost a million. The scarcity of traditional courses has been a factor in the huge increase in online enrollments. With the state cutting support to community colleges by more than $1.5 billion between 2007–08 and 2011–12, community colleges experienced an unprecedented falloff in enrollment 
  • online course success rates are between 11 and 14 percentage points lower than traditional course success rates.
  • in the long term, students who take online classes tend to be more successful than those who enroll only in traditional courses…students who take at least some online courses are more likely than those who take only traditional courses to earn an associate’s degree or to transfer to a four-year institution.
  • for students juggling school, family and work obligations, the ability to maintain a full-time load by mixing in one or two online courses per term may outweigh the lower chances of succeeding in each particular online course.
  • if a student’s choice is between taking an online course or waiting for the course to be offered in a classroom at a convenient time, taking the online course can help expedite completion or transfer
  • participation in online courses has increased for each of the state’s largest ethnic groups—and online enrollment rates for African American students, an underrepresented group in higher education in California, are particularly high. However, these rates are much lower among Latino students.

Main recommendations

  • move from ad hoc offerings to more strategic planning of online courses
  • improve the ability to transfer credits between community colleges and between colleges and the state’s universities
  • improve the design and provide more consistency in the quality of online courses between institutions
  • adopt a standardized learning management system across all colleges
  • collect systematic information on the cost of developing and maintaining online courses

My comments

This is another excellent and succinct research report on online learning, with a very strong methodology and important results, even if I am not at all surprised by the outcomes. I would expect online completion rates for individual courses to be lower than for traditional courses as students taking online courses often have a wider range of other commitments to manage than full-time, on campus students.

Similarly, I’m not surprised that online course success is lightly lower for community colleges than for universities (if we take both the figures from Ontario and my own experience as a DE director) and for certain ethnic groups who suffer from a range of socio-economic disadvantages. Online learning is more demanding and requires more experience in studying. Post-graduate students tend to do better at online learning than undergraduate students, and final year undergraduate students tend to do better than first year undergraduate students. Nevertheless, as the study clearly indicates, over the long term online learning provides not only increased access but also a greater chance of success for certain kinds of students.

I am worried though that online learning in California has ‘succeeded’ because of the massive cuts to campus-based education. It is better than nothing, but online learning deserves to be considered in its own right, not as a cheaper alternative to campus-based education. Online learning is not a panacea. Different students have different needs, and a successful public post secondary education system should cater to all needs. In the meantime, this is one of the most useful studies on online completion rates.