April 16, 2014

Hooray for Janet Napolitano and her views on online learning (and public HE in general)!

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Napolitano, J. (2014) A conversation with University of California President Janet Napolitano Sacramento CA: Public Policy Institute of California

Hiltzik, M. (2014) UC’s Napolitano throws cold water on the online education craze Los Angeles Times, March 26

The conversation

I never thought I would be a cheerleader for Janet Napolitano, formerly Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, and a former governor of Arizona, but in her role as the relatively new President of the vast University of California System, she recently made some much needed comments about the hype around online learning in a ‘conversation’ at the Public Policy Institute of California two days ago (captured in a YouTube video).

The whole ‘conversation’ lasts about an hour, but her comments on online learning come 31 mins 10 secs into the interview and last only two minutes, with another brief comment at 48’15. However, the whole of her comments, about UC and the importance of publicly funded higher education, are well worth listening to by anyone interested in the future of public higher education.

What she said about online learning

She did not (contrary a possible reading of Hiltzik’s headline in the LA Times) pour cold water on online learning. What she said was as follows:

  • it is one tool in the toolbox
  • it’s not easy to do well
  • students need regular interaction online with other students and with instructors
  • so it’s not going to save buckets of money
  • it’s better for students in upper level programs
  • it could help in sharing courses across campuses and in assisting transfers (between community colleges, state universities and UC).

Why what she said is important

There are probably many of you reading this article who like me, would agree with all the points she made about online learning. But these comments need to be seen in the following context:

What she is doing is bringing online learning down to the level of sensible policy – not a silver bullet for all HE’s ills, but one, important, tool in the box. This allows policy makers to focus on the true value of online learning, and also protects it from disappearing off the radar when the next fad hits the USA, or when disillusionment sets in around MOOCs.

What she also said about public higher education

You probably know the feeling of going into a bookstore to look for just one book, then another book catches your eye and keeps you riveted. That’s what happened to me with this video. My intent was to skip through the video until I got to the bit on online learning (not knowing when it would come up). But she held me with her thoughts right from the beginning in two related areas: the value of a strong public higher education system; and the enormous importance of the University of California system, for the USA as a whole. I’ll start with a few points about the UC system (see  New developments in online learning across the University of California system – and the implications for us all for more details)

The UC system

  • the state of California is the eighth largest economy in the world
  • the UC system has 10 campuses with nearly 250,000 students
  • UC’s total operating budget is $28 billion a year
  • 46% of UC’s new entrants are first generation university students, and almost half come from homes where English is not the first language
  • 50% of UC’s students pay no tuition at all, because of scholarships, grants, and a reinvestment of 30% of paid tuition fees into funding poorer students. Students from families earning less than $80,000 pay no tuition
  • 30% of each annual intake transfer in from California’s two year community colleges
  • 70-75% of all UC undergraduates complete within four years (the highest percentage among public universities in the USA)

The value of a public higher education system and UC in particular

I can’t really do justice to her eloquence on this subject, but the main points are

  • UC is an essential component of California’s knowledge-based economy: thousands of top-quality graduates entering the work force each year. In terms of sheer numbers, UC is a critical economic generator for the future in California
  • UC is a powerful engine that drives social mobility (see above).

The need for a public debate on the funding of HE in California

Despite the massive size of the state system, the universities and colleges are turning away qualified high school graduates because all the places are full (the two year college system in particular is hugely oversubscribed in terms of places). There has been continuous and systematic reductions in the state budget for higher education over the last six years, due to tax cutting and a major drop in other sources of state funding. The affordability of HE is a key concern of Californian voters, and a key priority of UC is to keep tuition as low and as predictable as possible. However, this has to be balanced in terms of providing the education that California will need if it is to maintain its position as an economic powerhouse.

Napolitano was cautious about  leading a campaign for a debate or a new state-wide agenda on public higher education,  but if there is a case to be made, I’m sure she’ll make it – and make it forcibly. In the meantime, la-la land may be getting its feet back on the ground.

New developments in online learning across the University of California system – and the implications for us all

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The University of California system

The University of California system

To, K. (2014) UC Regents announce online course expansion, The Guardian, UC San Diego, undated, but probably February 5

The University of California system continues to struggle with providing a system-wide approach to online learning. This is a report of decisions made at a UC Board of Regents meeting on January 15.

The California public higher education system

The UC system consists of a number of publicly-funded Tier 1 research universities such as Berkeley, UCLA, San Diego, Davis and Irvine, spread across a very large state. Altogether there are 10 campuses with nearly 250,000 students. In addition, the California State University system, with 23 campuses and nearly 450,000 students, operates mainly at undergraduate level, although many campuses also offer masters and Ph.D. programs. Lastly there are 72 community colleges, with 2.4 million students, focusing primarily on vocational education and training.


First though a little background, because what the UC Regents are trying to do – create economies of scale by sharing online undergraduate courses across the different institutions – is really important in terms of productivity and effectiveness. A number of other jurisdictions or state-wide systems, such as the University of Florida, and here in Canada, the province of Ontario, are trying to do something similar. Many institutions have had online graduate programs, but these new initiatives are focusing on online undergraduate education, which for many institutions is a new development. Even more controversial is the idea of sharing courses, so that a course developed at one campus will automatically be accepted for credit in another.

UC Online

In January 2012 the Regents set up UC Online after a two year pilot. This program now offers 11 courses for cross-campus enrollment, so it’s pretty modest. More importantly, not all of the UC campuses are participating in this endeavour. For instance, UC San Diego and UC Santa Barbara have decided not to participate in the program because of issues around student admission and enrollment.

The Innovative Learning Technology Initiative (ILTI)

This is a new initiative launched in early 2013, helped by grants totalling $10 million that Governor Jerry Brown allotted to the UC and to the California State University systems in July 2013, to offer more undergraduate courses online with an emphasis on high-in-demand and prerequisite classes, i.e. extra money specifically for online courses.

At the recent Regents meeting three critically important decisions were made:

  • the establishment of a cross-campus enrollment webpage, i.e. one-stop shopping for potential students
  • funding for an additional 30 courses to be created
  • the development of an approval process for cross-campus course credit.

Under the ILTI, the regents intend to create 150 credit-bearing online and hybrid courses by 2016. Presumably these will be in addition to ones already on offer from the individual campuses themselves. (In 2011-2012  UC campuses individually offered over 2,500 online courses, with more than 90,000 enrolled students.)

Online courses without human interaction?

One major reason for anxiety within the UC system is the pressure from the governor:

Brown continues to urge for a complete absence of human interaction in online courses. “You say you need human touch — I say, maybe you don’t need it,” Brown told the The Daily Californian on Jan. 28. “The barrier here is the human software, the human thought that we’re putting into the technology.”

Politics and economics

What’s pushing the governor’s support for automated online learning is the large state debt accumulated over many years. California had massive current account deficits preceding and following the recession in 2008. Governor Brown is now able to project a small surplus on operating costs, but only because of massive funding cuts to the post-secondary education system over the last few years. However demand from students has not gone away, so the pressure for a low cost way of providing undergraduate education is a political and economic necessity for Brown.


First, I am more than 1,000 miles away, I don’t work in the system, so I don’t have all the information I need. But the big picture seems to me to be clear, and the implications are much wider than the just for the state of California.

The three decisions recently announced by the Regents are essential first steps to creating a more coherent approach to online learning in the UC system, or elsewhere. However, in terms of the overall UC system, the number of new courses being funded through the ILTI initiative is tiny. The real drive towards online learning is coming from the individual campuses themselves, and it would make more sense to try and co-ordinate these activities than to add a further layer on to an already large and complex system, particularly a layer that is directly funded from the governor’s office and politically driven, with all the risks that are entailed.

Nevertheless we are already seeing other state or province wide public higher education systems moving in this direction and we will see more. There are possible economies of scale to be gained from sharing at least content across high-demand, standard foundational programs, and students need the flexibility to take online courses from different campuses in the same system without unnecessary barriers. It seems absurd to me that UC San Diego would not accept credits for online courses taken from UC Davis or vice versa – they are all part of the same system. This doesn’t mean to say it will be easy. It will need cross campus agreement on combinations of courses for particular programs, and some common admission standards between the campuses, if that doesn’t exist already. While this involves some work, though, it is not rocket science (come to British Columbia to see how this is done, via the BC Council on Admissions and Transfer).

Much more worrying are the political aspects. I am sure Governor Brown will find many distinguished computer scientists and California-based companies such as Coursera and Google who will tell him that university teaching can be fully automated – but they are wrong. They do not understand how learning takes place. Someone needs to get the message through to Governor Brown that the research on online credit-based learning shows clearly that for high level learning, student and instructor interaction is essential, as well as student-student interaction. So you run a real risk then of poor quality outcomes if you try to automate online learning, at least given the status of artificial intelligence now and well into the future. At the same time, there are opportunities for economies of scale, but mainly on the transmission of content side and sharing of courses and programs.

This leads to my last point. None of this will be satisfactorily resolved without some clear vision for California’s public higher education system. What we are seeing is tinkering around the edges, without a clear picture of what the goals are other than cutting cost. What kind of system does California want for the future, and where does online learning fit within this vision? For instance, does it want to be the best public post-secondary education system in the world – which it could well be – or does it want a mediocre, low cost public system with the private institutions carrying the heavy load in research and status? Only when Californians make up their minds on this will we see a coherent system-wide strategy for online learning in California.


Book review: The Smartest Kids in the World

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Ripley bookRipley, A. (2013) The Smartest Kids in the World – and How They Got That Way New York/London/Toronto/Sydney/New Delhi: Simon and Schuster

OECD (2013) PISA 2012 Results in Focus Paris: OECD

Amanda Ripley’s book isn’t about online learning at all, but it was the best book on education that I read in 2013, and there are lessons for online learning.

What the book is about

This book is an exploration of the OECD’s PISA tests, what they mean, and in particular, why students from the USA do so badly on the PISA math tests. Amanda Ripley is a journalist, not an educator, and doesn’t even specialise normally in education stories. But she had a good question: why are some kids learning so much – and others so little? In particular, why do kids in Finland, Korea and Poland do so much better on math tests than students from the USA?


First, she examined the history and methodology of the PISA tests, interviewing in particular Andreas Schleicher, who helped create the PISA math test. Readers of my blog will know that I am somewhat sceptical about PISA testing, not so much the tests themselves, but in particular how they are often interpreted, especially by national media. Differences between countries’ scores may be statistically significant because of sample sizes, but small differences in average scores between countries over different time periods can result in large drops or gains in comparative rankings, and differences within countries are often greater than differences between countries, due to a wide range of factors.

It became clear from talking to Schleicher that what may have seemed obvious factors, such as children from low income homes will do worse than children from high income homes, just didn’t hold true, particularly when cross-country comparisons are made. Other factors were at work that influenced a nation’s PISA scores that could not be explained by the statistical data alone.

So Amanda Ripley hit on the brilliant idea of tracking several American high school exchange students and asked them to describe the differences in their experience between their home schools in the USA and their foreign exchange school. She picked kids who had gone to Finland, South Korea and Poland respectively. The three exchange students came from three quite different schools and home backgrounds in the USA as well. These students were tracked and interviewed over a period of nearly two years,, both in the USA and abroad. Ripley also visited all the schools these students attended, both in the USA and abroad, and interviewed other students, teachers and administrators in these schools.


The mini case studies were very revealing both about the USA school experience and the school experience in the other three countries. It was clear that many different factors are associated with student performance in math. Amanda Ripley herself is cautious about jumping to conclusions and you have to work out some of the conclusions for yourself, but some clear patterns emerged from the case studies for me:

  • setting high standards and expectations is critical for success in teaching math;
  • successful schools and teachers expect all their students to succeed/meet the standards set; no excuses (low income parents, immigrants, race, learning styles, learning difficulties, illness) are accepted
  • high standards mean that most students, at some point in their school career, will fail; this is an important lesson in itself (successful schools of course provide extra help for students who fail, so that they don’t fail next time)
  • successful schools have teachers who are highly qualified in both math and teaching. Finland is the best example of this: the highest scoring high school leavers are chosen for teacher training; the opposite is true generally in the USA. Salaries reflect the status of teaching also within a particular country – low salaries, low status.
  • it is not necessary to cram or take extra tutorial help outside school to succeed if the schools are doing their job properly – indeed such private, outside school cramming undermines the public schools
  • Korea may have high scores, but the methods used to get these high scores – cramming, late night private tutorials – destroy childhood. There are social and cultural as well as educational choices to be made, but this need not compromise high academic standards if the right choices are made – see Finland again
  • learning was taken far more seriously by students in Finland, Korea and Poland, where students seemed to be more aware of the importance of doing well academically, than in the USA, where success in sport ranked higher than in education; again, this is an expectation set by both the school system and by parents.

What are the lessons one can take away for online learning from this book, which after all is about campus-based education? Here’s what I take from this:

  • the quality of teaching matters. This means both having highly qualified subject expertise, but even more importantly, high quality teaching methods
  • online learning should aim if anything for higher standards – better outcomes, higher completion rates – than classroom teaching;
  • this requires using well qualified, well paid and well trained instructors for online learning
  • these expectations and standards need to be clearly communicated to, and understood by, students entering online learning for the first time.

What about Canada?

Hey, it’s not all about you. Indeed, there is very little about Canada in this book, but it is clearly different again from both the USA (Canada does much better on PISA scores) and the other three countries (Canada does worse, but not a lot worse).

In fact, removing individual cities such as Hong Kong, Singapore or Shanghai, Canada was fifth, after Taiwan, Japan, Korea and Switzerland, in the PISA 2012 math rankings. (Finland, Poland, Estonia and the Netherlands scored almost the same as Canada). However, Canada’s overall math score has dropped from an average of 534 in 2006 to 518 in 2012. (The tests were given to 15 year olds). It’s difficult though to know what this means – have the tests got harder over the years, is the average affected by a high rate of immigration, etc? Who knows. This seems to be a trend with all the major countries who scored higher in 2006. Which is the problem with PISA tests – they tell you what, not why, which is why Ripley’s book is so useful.


This is a fascinating, extremely well written book. Anyone who cares about PISA testing, what it means, and how to interpret the results, should read this. Particularly fascinating was the description of the Korean system, with late night vigilante raids by government agencies on cramming schools operating after a midnight curfew. But I also found the in-depth descriptions of USA schools and school systems very enlightening and hugely depressing at the same time.




Examining the potential and reality of open educational resources: the 2013 COHERE conference

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Panel: Robert Clougherty; George Veletsianos; Johan Fridell; Diane Salter; Rory McGreal

Panel: Robert Clougherty; George Veletsianos; Johan Fridell; Diane Salter; Rory McGreal

COHERE (Collaboration for Online Higher Education and Research) runs one of my favourite annual conferences. It is relatively small (around 75), the participants are mainly leading practitioners in online learning, and the sessions are excellent, usually encompassing leading developments in online learning, research reports, and extensive discussion from people in the front line of online learning. (Click here for a report on the 2012 conference.)

This year, the conference, jointly sponsored by the Canadian Society for the Study of Higher Education (CSSHE), and held at Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Richmond campus in British Columbia, focused on ‘Open Resources, Open Courses: their Impact on Blended and Online Learning’.

The two main keynote speakers this year were Cable Green, the Director of the Creative Commons, and David Porter, the Director of BC Campus. Here is a summary of my closing remarks which aimed to review the conference (although I was able to attend only 25% of the parallel sessions – I can do any time, anywhere, but not yet two places at the same time).

To get copies of the slides of presenters, you will need to get a Dropbox invitation from Stacey Woods. I don’t have my own slides – just the notes below.

Creative Commons

This seemingly simple idea, of an ‘author’ creating a license enabling people to freely access and adapt copyright material, without charge or special permission, is one of the great ideas of the 21st century. This does not take away someone’s copyright but enables that copyright holder to give permission for different kinds of use of their material without charge or any bureaucracy. There is no real legal or technical barrier now to making educational material free. It does though require a particular mindset among both copyright holders – i.e. the creators of materials – and users – i.e. teachers and instructors who could use this material in their teaching. Thus the main challenge is one of cultural change.

The spectrum of Creative Commons licenses

The spectrum of Creative Commons licenses

Open textbooks

In some ways, open textbooks are a no brainer. There’s probably no greater racket than the school and college textbook industry (other than the research journal industry.) Often these textbooks are not ‘original’ work, in the sense of new knowledge, but carefully written and well illustrated summaries of current thinking in the different subject areas.

Students and governments, through grants and financial aid, pay billions of dollars each year on textbooks produced by people who are largely already employed in the public education sector (and who in any case are lucky to get 10% of any revenue generated). A student in Canada spends on average about $800 a year on textbooks, even more in the USA. In some subject areas, the cost is well over $1,000 a year per student.

Nothing seems more absurd to me than the sight of hundreds of students lining up for up to an hour every day for the first week of the semester at the UBC bookstore to buy their books. This is time lost studying. Cable Green pointed to research that shows that when first year math students have their textbooks from the first day, they do much better than students who often don’t get the key textbook until three weeks into the course. He also pointed to research from Florida Virtual Campus that indicates that many students (over 60%) simply do not buy all the required textbooks, for a variety of reasons, but the main one being cost. Indeed, students are often reluctant to take their books to campus in case they lose them (although he was referring to k-12 children here).

So why shouldn’t government pay the creators of textbooks directly, cut out the middleman (commercial publishers), save over 80% on the cost, and distribute the books to students (or anyone else) for free over the Internet, under a Creative Commons license? What’s not to like (unless you’re a publisher)? In his presentation, Cable Green came up with a great ‘vision’ for open textbooks: 100% of students have 100% free, digital access to all materials on day one.

So it was good to hear from David Porter that BC Campus is developing 40 open textbooks for first and second year university courses, and another 20 for two year college vocational and technical courses. BC is also collaborating with Alberta in Canada, and Washington State and Oregon, in the USA, to avoid duplication and to increase sharing of open textbooks. Explore the BC Campus web site: at the time of writing this post there are already seven open textbooks available, and perhaps more significantly, faculty from 20 of the 24 post-secondary institutions in B.C. are participating in the creation of open textbooks. Someone asked the question: what is Ontario (Canada’s largest province) doing about open textbooks? The answer to date is: nothing.

However, there were some cautionary concerns from some of the participants about open textbooks:

  • Elizabeth Murphy, from Memorial University, questioned the whole idea of textbooks, whether open or not. She saw textbooks as a relic of 19th century industrialism, a form of mass broadcasting. In the 21st century, students should be finding, accessing and collecting digital materials over the Internet. Textbooks are merely packaged learning, with the authors doing the work for students. Nevertheless, it has to be recognized that textbooks are still the basic currency for most forms of education, and while this remains the case, open textbooks are a much better alternative for students
  • others (including myself) questioned the likely impact of ‘open’ publishing on creating original works that are not likely to get subsidized by government because they are either too specialized, or are not yet part of a standard curriculum for the subject; in other words would it impact on the diversity of publishing? What is the incentive for someone now to publish a unique work, if there is no commercial reward for the effort (especially if you believe that open publishing will eventually wipe out commercial publishing, as I do)? Writing an original, single authored book remains hard work, however it is published.
  • although there is now a range of  ’open’ publishing services, there are still costs for an author to create original work. Who will pay, for instance, for specialized graphics, for editing or for review? How can these costs be recovered? In particular, in what format (pdf, html, Word, ePub, xml, a wiki) should original work be created so that it can become interactive, easily re-purposed, and multimedia? Much more work still needs to be done to support the open publishing of original work in book format, at least – or is the book itself a relic of another time? If so, what does that mean for how knowledge is created, disseminated and preserved? (Answers on a – digital – postcard, please).

Although these are all important concerns, they seem to me to be manageable. Just getting a proportion of the main textbooks available to students for free is a major step forward.

Openstax open textbooks

Openstax open textbooks

Getting faculty to use OERs

Increasingly faculty are creating open educational resources, or making resources freely available for others to use under a Creative Commons license. There are increasing numbers of depositories or portals where faculty can access open educational resources. Faculty have a number of choices:

  • create your own digital resources, and make them available to others (there are plenty of guides on how to do this.)
  • take OERs selectively from elsewhere, and incorporate or adapt them into your own teaching
  • take a whole course from elsewhere (e.g. a MOOC) and provide learner support and teaching around those materials (such as San Jose State University is doing, or as in the Carnegie-Mellon Open Learning Initiative.)

There is a lot of evidence to suggest that the take-up of OERs by instructors is still minimal. Diane Salter of Kwantlen Polytechnic University led a discussion on how best to get faculty to incorporate OERs into their teaching. Many of the suggestions made will be familiar to anyone concerned with change management in higher education: there was the discussion of the need for the move to be both top-down and bottom up; I argued the importance of these kinds of decision being made at a program level; faculty development and workshops are essential.

However, Keith Hampson raised a much more important barrier and that is how university faculty see themselves. They don’t see themselves as ‘just’ teachers, but creators and disseminators of new or original knowledge. Therefore their teaching needs to have their own stamp on it, which makes them reluctant to openly incorporate or ‘copy’ other people’s work. We can argue that this is absurd – we all stand on the shoulders of giants – but it’s the self-perception that’s important, and for research professors, there is a grain of truth in the argument. It makes sense for them to focus their teaching on their own research. But then how many Richard Feynmans are there out there? The problem is that OERs can easily be associated with ‘packaged’, reproductive knowledge, and not original work, changing faculty from ‘artists’ to ‘artisans’.

One practical step that could increase greater adoption of OERs would be some open course design templates into which OERs could be dropped, with examples, and places for instructors to add their own resources. These design templates could range from more didactic teaching somewhat similar to an open LMS (some of which exist already), to more open or more flexible designs where students find, analyse and apply open resources within an overall teaching framework. I would hope such templates would include spaces for student activity, and multimedia resources. This would take something like CoursePacker to the next level.

The problem remains though that even when faculty adopt OERs, they are often inside a closed teaching environment, such as an LMS. What the OERu is doing is opening up this whole process so that students can openly access whole programs and receive full qualifications from the participating institutions. In fact, the OERu was launched yesterday at Thompson Rivers University, in Kamloops, British Columbia (more on this in another post).

The panel responding to David Porter’s presentation also raised several interesting points. While open education activities were reported from both Memorial University and the University of Ottawa, they tended to be outside actual course design, focused on library initiatives or open publishing in journals. Incidentally it seems bizarre to me that institutions are paying up to $3,000 an article for publishers to make the article open access within a journal, when the research has been publicly funded (what David Porter described as ‘openwashing’).

Ron Owston reported on the dead hand Access Copyright has had on using secondary sources for teaching, having taken York University to court over its interpretation of fair dealing. This is a must win case for Canadian universities and if York is successful it should sue Access Copyright for wasting the court’s time and the university’s resources after an earlier clear decision by Canada’s Supreme Court.

Ron also raised the question of the poor quality of much of the OERs available a the moment – reams of text with no interaction, course design, or media other than text, often in PDFs that cannot easily be changed or adapted. If OERs are to be taken up, they will need to be better designed.

Research and development on MOOCs

Ah, MOOCs. Funny how these came up. Well, there were some interesting presentations on this topic.

WideWorld Ed

WideWorld Ed is a new Canadian, online open education platform, the main driving force behind which is Jenny Heyman, who gave an interesting presentation at the conference (declaration of interest: I’m on the Academic Advisory Board). Its first MOOC is a six week course: Online Instruction for Open Educators, which opened on October 14. The instructors include some famous names: Terry Anderson, Athabasca University; Dave Cormier, University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI); Bonnie Stewart, UPEI; Jenni Hayman, Wide World Ed; and Sean Gallagher, Wide World Ed. Interestingly, sponsorship for the course comes from Desire2Learn.

WideWorld Ed’s mission is to deliver well-designed and effective online courses and open education resources to diverse learners around the world. In particular it hopes to attract course providers from Canadian institutions and organizations, a Canadian edX.  In particular, I can see a real market for NGOs, charitable institutions wishing to get better outreach for their services, and public institutions seeking wider audiences.This is a brave start-up effort, and I hope it gets the support it deserves from Canadian universities and colleges, venture capitalists and other sponsors. Now if we just had a Federal Department of Education to put some money behind it…..


Athabasca University’s research on MOOCs

Marti Cleveland-Innes gave a presentation on Athabasca University’s research program examining MOOCs, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This is just starting and the aim is to address the research gap by evaluating MOOCs, and how they impact teaching, learning, and education in general. There has been an rfp for proposals administered by Athabasca University, and the successful applicants will be presenting their proposals at a forthcoming conference at the University of Texas Arlington December 5-6

Research into students’ experience of MOOCs

George Veletsianos, who recently moved from the University of Texas at Austin to Royal Roads University, BC, and who is a leading researcher on emerging educational technologies, has also been conducting research on MOOCs, from the learners’ perspectives. George’s take on MOOCs is interesting. He sees the MOOC phenomenon as a result of chronic failures in the post-secondary education system (I’m not sure if he was talking generally, or just the USA). Among a range of failures he cites the lack of impact of educational technology research on course design, and the failure of educational technologists to make any impact on practice (ah, well, there’s a lifetime’s work down the toilet). It’s hard to disagree with him, though, given his results from interviewing MOOC students: that MOOCs suffer from a lack of course design, that instructor’s presence during the course (beyond a recorded lecture) is important, etc., results that to be honest are highly predictable from the research that was done before MOOCs were launched.

But is that the fault of educational technologists, or computer science professors who blindly failed to do any literature research into online learning or how students learn, or even talk to educators before launching their products? Talk about arrogance and ignorance combined, especially given Keith Hampson’s comment that the Carnegie Mellon Open Learning Initiative, based on cognitive science research and best instructional design practices, generally leads to a minimum of 25% improvement in student performance when colleges follow their approach (results also found by Carol Twigg’s course redesign studies.) To re-quote G.K. Chesterton, it’s not that research into educational technologies has been applied and failed – it’s never been applied by most instructors. That’s because we don’t train them in teaching, not because we don’t disseminate the results.

It’s great that both Athabasca and George are doing research on MOOCs. This is sorely needed. However, they are applying evidence-based research and rational analysis to a phenomenon that is political, emotional and largely irrational. For a true understanding of the MOOC phenomenon, we probably need a socio-cultural analysis, so their research could easily end the way that George has portrayed previous research into educational technology: ignored, though it is highly relevant.

Is open education becoming a tool of the right?

So here’s my socio-cultural analysis, for what it’s worth.

The reason that MOOCs have received such media hype is because the USA in particular has been destroying its own public higher education system through budget cuts and an unwillingness to pay taxes. If elite universities can deliver MOOCs for free, why do we need crappy state universities? The risk is a sharply divided two tier system, with a relatively small number of elite universities catering to the rich, and the masses going to MOOC-delivered courses with state universities providing minimal and low cost learner support for such courses.

This would be both a social and economic disaster, because it would fail to produce learners with the high-level skills that are going to be needed for good jobs in the the coming years – unless you believe that automation will remove all paid jobs except for a tiny elite (is this the hidden agenda?).

It should be noted that even for credit-based online program, content accounts for less than 15% of the total cost over five years; the main costs required to ensure high quality outcomes and high rates of completion are spent on learner support, providing the learning that matters most. The kind of MOOCs being promoted by politicians and the media fail spectacularly to do this.

We do need to be careful that the open education movement is not used as a stick by those in the U.S. (and elsewhere) who are deliberately trying to undermine public education for ideological and commercial reasons. Open content, OERs and MOOCs do not automatically lead to open access to high quality credentials.

In the end, a well-funded public higher education system remains the best way to assure access to higher education for the majority of the population. Having said that, there is enormous scope for improvements within that system. Open education and its tools offer a most promising way to bring about some much needed improvements. That is my main take-away from this excellent conference.

An explanation of how ACE accredits MOOCs

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ACE2 Book, P. (2103) ACE as Academic Credit Reviewer–Adjustment, Accommodation, and Acceptance WCET Learn, July 25

Over the next few weeks, WCET will publish a series of blog posts on Massively Open Online Courses. This, the first in the series, provides a detailed explanation of how ACE (the American Council on Education) assessed five Coursera courses.

ACE represents the presidents of U.S. accredited, degree-granting institutions, which include two- and four-year colleges, private and public universities, and nonprofit and for-profit entities.

Pat Book, the author of the post, is a Former Assistant Vice President at the American Council on Education, and led the process for assessing the courses.

Highlights from the process

For those of you who wonder how the accreditation process works in the USA, this is fascinating reading. Here are some highlights from Pat Book’s post:

ACE finds itself in the awkward position of advocating for the best interests of their institutional members while at the same time serving as a shadow accrediting body distributing the ACE imprimatur (defined by those very member institutions) to a host of newly emerging for-profit ventures whose mission and goals are very different.

Reviewing academic courses taught by faculty at top tier universities was a new venture for ACE as its CREDIT recommendation service was not designed for nor … ever had been deployed for this type of review.  ACE leadership was anxious, as was Coursera, to address the major topic of discussion last year about whether or not MOOCs were credit-worthy.

The initial courses subject to ACE review were selected by Coursera in consultation with their partner universities (which included the University of California at Irvine, and Duke).  Coursera and the partner universities chose courses that were already offered on campus or were using content similar to an on-campus course.

All five courses reviewed received credit recommendations based on ACE’s review criteria.  The five courses received math and science recommendations, one at the developmental math level, that is, three-credits of pre-college, three at the lower division baccalaureate level, all three credits, and one two-credit recommendation at the  upper division baccalaureate level.  Faculty reviewed all course exhibits including learning outcomes, competencies, and assessment methods.  Faculty made suggestions regarding perquisites and offered other notes.  While ACE has recommended academic credit, it is up to each university or college to review these credit recommendations and determine how they may align with their general education requirements or degree programs.  There is no guarantee that any university of college will accept the ACE credit recommendations.

 ….it seems like a foregone conclusion that the courses Coursera self-selected for review would be highly likely to receive an ACE CREDIT® recommendation.  They were courses developed by faculty and already reviewed for credit in their university system in some cases and just being offered in a new delivery method albeit to a massively scaled audience.

The review process doesn’t evaluate learning outcomes, but is a course content focused review thus obviating all the questions about effectiveness of the pedagogy in terms of learning outcomes. 

 MOOCs currently serve largely an international audience who already hold college degrees and have reasons other than degree attainment motivating them.   The jury is still out on the value for the vast majority of American students who need developmental education and/or are seeking affordable access to college credentials.


First, thanks to Pat Book for making this process transparent. We are better informed about the meaning of ACE’s accreditation for MOOCs as a result.

My concern though is that ACE accreditation misleadingly suggests that Coursera courses have been approved by the American post-secondary system (represented by ACE). In fact what the ACE accreditation does (as explained by Pat Book) is merely accredit courses from institutions that are already accredited. However, it seems that a commercial organization (Coursera) has consequently received enormous marketing value for almost no cost (the article makes it clear that reviewers are paid almost nothing to do the reviews.)

More importantly, the article makes it clear that the MOOCs were accredited solely on the quality of the content. This though does nothing to address the main criticisms of MOOCs: that they employ unsuitable pedagogy for online delivery, and that the student assessment process is fundamentally flawed. ACE accreditation in essence does nothing to assure learners that they might actually be able to complete successfully such courses, or that if they do so their certificate will be transferable for credit within regular programs.

I think that we really need to squash the idea that Coursera MOOCs offer a meaningful, radical alternative to conventional higher education, and focus on their value as educational broadcasting, notwithstanding their important value in forcing many elite institutions to take much more seriously for the first time the potential role of credit-based online learning.