By accident, a microphone was left switched on at a medium sized state university’s Board of Governors meeting last week. In the best tradition of WikiLeaks, I am pleased to share a transcript with you.
Madam Chair. ‘Next item. Mr. Gedrich asked for this item to be included on the agenda. As a result, I have asked President Grimface to provide a briefing to the Board on MOOCHes’
President Grimface: ‘MOOCs, madam chair.’
Madam Chair: Ah, yes. Over to you, President Grimface.’
President Grimface. I think everyone here today is well aware that 10 top universities in the USA, and two from foreign countries, have joined an organization called Coursera, that is planning to offer massive open online courses, or MOOCs, to hundreds of thousands of students around the world. In addition, MIT and Harvard have created an organization called edX, and two Stanford professors have created their own organization called Udemy, all more or less to do the same thing.
There are no entry requirements, anyone can take the courses, in most cases they are free to the learners, and participants can even take an exam at the end for a certificate or letter of completion from the university. However, these courses do not count for credit, and the value of the experience is entirely dependent on the quality of the content and the name of the university by association. Nevertheless, there are indications that many employers, desperate for workers with knowledge in specific areas, will look kindly on learners with such qualifications.
Mr. Gedrich: Well, why aren’t we offering MOOCs then?
President Grimface: A good question, Mr. Gedrich. As a result of your request for a briefing, I have consulted widely within the university. There are in fact a variety of views about whether we should get involved, so before I come to a recommendation, I would like to lay out some of the pros and cons.
We have, as you know, a number of idealistic professors who believe that MOOCs will enable millions of people free access to the quality content that we offer. The way MOOCs are designed means that one professor can handle an unlimited number of learners, with the help at most of a couple of teaching assistants.
Mrs. Dowtful: But how does the poor man mark all the assignments?
President Grimface: Ah, but that’s just it, Mrs. Dowtful. The computer does the marking. The computer also collects data on all the student responses to the computer-generated questions, so the professor can see what most students have understood and what they haven’t, so it can be corrected or improved the next time round. For other questions that do not have such clear, correct answers, other learners provide feedback to those that get things wrong or don’t understand, through an online Facebook-type page. With so many learners on a course, somebody is bound to know the answer.
Mrs. Dowtful: But if they already know the answer, why are they taking the course?
President Grimface: Well, although some students will already be familiar with some parts of the course, there will be other parts that are new to them. And some students may already have learned the same material elsewhere, but they haven’t got a letter of completion from Stanford or Harvard.
Dr. Hardnose. This all sounds terribly risky to me. How many people end up with certificates or letters of completion?
President Grimface: Well, for the first courses, less than 5% of those who started actually completed, but these courses are very new.
Dr. Hardnose: Don’t we offer online courses already? And what are the completion rates for those?
President Grimface: I’m glad you asked that, Dr. Hardnose. We do in fact have over 300 online courses, both at undergraduate and graduate level, and the completion rates are around 85%, almost the same as for our classroom-based courses. But these courses are part of degrees, for credit, and students have to meet our admission requirements. We also limit the class size to a maximum of 30 per instructor, so that there can be lots of online interaction, discussion and feedback between the instructor and the students. We’ve found that’s essential otherwise students don’t complete.
Madam Chair: It sounds to me that we are talking about completely different things here. The MOOCs – is that right? – are really non-credit courses and since the universities don’t take money off the students, and don’t give formal credit or degrees, it really doesn’t matter if many students don’t finish the courses.
Dr. Hardnose. What’s the point then? They might as well just wander into a library. And don’t the students feel cheated if they do lots of work and still don’t understand? Just because it’s offered by some Stanford professor doesn’t necessarily make it a satisfying educational experience.
President Grimface: I think that’s a bit hard. These courses are very new. Mistakes are inevitable to start with. The main thing is that the content is often simply not available from anywhere else. These are often the main experts in the field, drawing on their latest research. That’s part of the attraction for many of those who sign up.
Mr. Gedrich: Exactly. Don’t we have some leading researchers and experts? Why aren’t they sharing it with everyone?
Dr. Hardnose. But if the university did that, these professors wouldn’t have time to teach their own students. In fact, didn’t some of the professors quit Stanford to set up their own business around MOOCs?
Mr. Gedrich: That’s my point. Why isn’t the university using MOOCs to generate more money?
Mrs. Dowtful: But aren’t they free?
Mr. Gedrich: Ah, Mrs. Dowtful, that’s where having a business brain comes in. You don’t sell the steak, you sell the sizzle.
Mrs. Dowtful: I beg your pardon?
Mr. Gedrich: Look, you’ve got hundreds of thousands of people ‘hooked’. You give them the course free, but you sell advertizing (think Google), or you hook them up with employers desperate for quality employees, who pay the university a commission for getting access to these people (particularly the several thousand who still manage to get a letter of completion). Or just charge the students a stiff fee for the exam at the end. After doing all that hard work, they’ll cough up. There’s lots of ways you can make money on this stuff – and it’s free education! Think what it will do for the university brand – you’ll look good and make money at the same time.
Madam Chair: I don’t want to stop discussion but I’m conscious that we have a full agenda today, and we’re already running late. I believe you have a proposal, President Grimface.
President Grimface: Several of my leading professors have come forward offering to run MOOCs. They like the idea of reaching out to thousands of learners. Some of them already have an online course as part of a degree program, and it wouldn’t be difficult to adapt them so that they could run as a MOOC as well. Some of the other professors don’t yet have an online course, but are willing to move a lot of their classroom material and videos of lectures online as a MOOC, then get the credit students to follow the MOOC and come to class to discuss the topics in the MOOC.
The real problem is assessment or testing at the end of the course. Some of the professors are from Arts, Social Sciences and Business, and don’t feel computer marking is the best way to test students’ knowledge. We did a little research and found that there’s another kind of MOOC developed by some Canadians that is based more on discussion topics set by the instructor around the lectures and readings but which the MOOC learners contribute to and manage themselves. Indeed they can even put their work up and get other students to give a grade for it, so they would get some idea of how well they are doing.
So I’m thinking that we should set up a web site that lists all our intended MOOCs, have a simple log in process where participants register online for a particular course, and then once all the content, and activities like discussion topics, are loaded, we just assign a post doc graduate teaching assistant to monitor the MOOC, with the professor stepping in if there’s a problem. We could start almost immediately, by the start of the next semester at the latest, with 12 MOOCs. We would give participants who ask a letter of completion, but it would carry no value for credit or admission here.
Another reason I’m in favour of this is the knock-on effect it may have on our credit programs. Although we have 300 online credit courses already, this is less than 10% of the total. We’ve found it very hard to get the majority of faculty to move into online learning, even though student demand appears to be strong. Already some faculty who have resisted online credit courses have shown interest in running a MOOC, so this may provide a back door into more online credit programs – a sort of reverse move, from non-credit to credit.
Dr. Hardnose: How much is this going to cost, and where’s the money going to come from? Didn’t I hear that MIT and Harvard are throwing $60 million at developing MOOCs?We’re all aware of the difficult financial situation the university is in at the moment.
Professor Grimface: This isn’t going to be a very expensive move, in the way we are thinking of it. The cost of the teaching assistants would be under $20,000 a year. The CIO and the Director of the Learning Technology Centre assure me that the technology challenges are more than manageable. We would need to spend some money on marketing but that would come out of the existing marketing budget. The professors are already paid and are wanting to do this, without disrupting their other teaching. It seems to us that this is a low risk, high gain strategy.
Mr. Gedrich But where’s the business plan? How are you going to make money in this wishy-washy way? You need to get someone in with a good business brain to set up and run this initiative.
Dr. Hardnose: For once I find myself agreeing with Gedrich, but for different reasons. I worry about how sustainable this is. It relies very heavily on the good will of a small number of professors. It’s bound to detract from their other teaching and even more, their research. You need to have a steady revenue stream to make this sustainable. And does this mean we will eventually move away from our successful, high quality, carefully designed model for our online credit courses to replace them with sloppily designed MOOCs?
And then there’s the law of diminishing returns. Sure the MIT and Stanford MOOCs are getting huge numbers, but there’s only a few of them at the moment and they are getting enormous publicity from mainstream media. With respect, although we’re a good, solid university, we don’t have that kind of marketing clout. Once everyone starts jumping on the bandwagon, and the novelty loses it’s edge, will we get the numbers for our MOOCs?
Madam Chair: (with a sigh): I agree there’s lots of pros and cons around this idea. However, Professor Grimface has come forward with what seems to me a very sensible proposal. We’ve had discussions in earlier meetings that the university needs to find ways to encourage more innovation in teaching and learning. This proposal will allow us to test the water without taking a large financial risk. Indeed, I don’t think we even need to put this to a vote. We’re not being asked to approve a budget proposal above the President’s discretionary limit, and I see the proposal fitting well within the spirit of the strategic plan.
Dr. Hardnose. Madam chair, if we’re going to rubber stamp this proposal, I think we should at least request a report back from the President within 12 months that provides us with some firm figures about costs – both direct and hidden – participant numbers and some evaluation of the quality of the learning from this exercise.
Mr. Gedrich. I support Hardnose on this, and would like to add that the President provides us with a proper business plan when he next reports back on this, otherwise we run the risk of missing out on a wonderful opportunity to bring in some money for this cash-strapped institution.
President Grimface: I will of course be more than willing in 12 months time to provide a full report to the Board on how our MOOC initiative has developed.
Madam Chair: Good. Thank you, President Grimface. Now the next item: the parking crisis on campus.