Sunday, July 22, 2012


MOOCs from Here

The normally sober Tim Burke had a bit of a meltdown on his blog about MOOCs and their attendant hype.  (MOOCs are Massively Open Online Courses, such as the ones offered through Coursera.)  He rightly called out the techno-utopians for their eager willingness to believe that the latest techno-toy will Change Everything, and offered helpful reminders of previous techno-toys that were supposed to Change Everything, and didn’t.  (Sunrise Semester, anyone?)

My view is probably closer to Burke’s than to the true believers’, but in some ways, I’m much less worried about it than he seems to be.  

MOOCs, at this point, are webcast courses that anybody can follow online for free.  The most popular ones are based at name-brand universities and have online viewers from around the world.  (In fact, the vast majority of the students who stick with the MOOCs seems to be from outside the United States.)  They don’t offer academic credit, although some universities are starting to experiment with ways of including MOOCs in packages that include credit.  And, of course, anyone could follow a MOOC for a while and then test out of a class for credit.

Given the ways MOOCs work, they strike me as absolutely wonderful supplementary resources for students who are already taking classes.  But outside of a small number of very high-achieving autodidacts, I don’t see them replacing what we do in their current form.

For the insanely gifted but isolated student in East Nowhere, a high-end MOOC is a chance to both pick up great information and even prove something.  That’s terrific, but that’s not our core demographic.  Our core demographic, here at the community college level, is the average student.  This is the student whose K-12 preparation was anywhere from “pretty good” to “you’d really rather not know.”  More of our students place into developmental math than place out of it.  They are not busting down the doors to take Intro to Engineering at MIT in their first semester.

Many of our students show up with learning disabilities -- some documented, some not -- and/or some bad study habits picked up in high school.  Others simply have habits of weak performance that become self-fulfilling expectations, unless somebody intervenes.  And others are perfectly capable, but just need structure.  They’ll study when compelled, but they don’t make a habit of seeking out supplementary texts in the library, let alone watching 45 hours of online lecture.

At the community college level, we’re finding, student success is very much about replacing bad habits with good ones, and low expectations with high ones.  That’s partly an academic function, but it’s largely about emotions and expectations.  Students who form study groups and stick with them do much better than students who don’t.  For that matter, students who join extracurricular activities tend to do better academically than students who don’t.  It doesn’t appear to be entirely a function of self-selection, either; student feedback, and the scholarship I’ve seen on it, suggest that having allies makes a difference.  

The contribution I can see MOOCs making at this level is supplemental.  Many students, especially those with certain kinds of learning disabilities, already rely on lecture-capture technology to help them review outside of class.  Having an expensively produced MOOC as an option gives that student another resource on which to draw.  (Our tutoring center already uses certain Khan Academy videos that way, especially for algebra.)  To the extent that a well-produced MOOC can help a student visualize a concept, or review it, I see it as a plus.  But it’s a useful extra, rather than a replacement.

To me, the relevant parallel is the public library.  It’s already possible for students to go to their local public libraries -- or, yes, the internet -- and read ahead on concepts covered in classes.  That has been possible for a long time.  But most don’t.  The few who do tend to be the ones who would do well anyway.  Some companies have sold cassettes (!) of lectures at high-profile universities for years; they haven’t displaced high-profile universities.  I’d be afraid of MOOCs if I were afraid of BOOKs.  I’m not.

If anything, MOOCs in the right courses could be incredibly helpful in enabling faculty to experiment with flipped (or semi-flipped) instruction.  To the extent that MOOCs might enable professors on site to focus more on helping students get through knotty issues, rather than just explicating the same old stuff at the board, they could add value. (Alternately, they could give an exasperated instructor an option to refer the slowest-moving student to, without making the entire class wait.)  But the structure, the pacing, the human connection, and the institutional legibility all still need to be provided first by the professor, and subsequently by student support folks -- advisors, counselors, etc.

We already have online courses, but they aren’t MOOCs, and the difference matters.  Our online sections are either the same size, or smaller, than their onsite counterparts, and each one has an actual human being teaching it.  (Despite the overheated fantasies on both sides, online courses don’t actually save faculty labor costs.  They do save facilities costs.  It’s cheaper to add server space than to add classroom space.)  They’re highly interactive; faculty here report that an online course takes at least as much time to teach as an onsite one, even if the time is spent in smaller chunks.  Onsite courses here are as much about student interaction and engagement as they are about presentation.  That’s why we’ve managed to keep our online course completion rate at the same level as our onsite rate.  

The real threats to community colleges aren’t MOOCs.  Yes, we may lose the occasional prodigy who is suddenly able to show Harvard what he’s got.  But those come in ones and twos.  When I lose sleep about the fate of my college, it’s because of finances, legislative blind spots, clunky federal rulemaking, and the general political trend towards framing higher education as a private good.  It’s not because of MOOCs.  I’ll save my meltdowns for the real threats.

I thought a big part of Khan academy was automated testing and frequent feedback to the student. Books don't really do that. Why doesn't this save tutor time? Why doesn't something similar partially replace an online calculus or chemistry instructor? Maybe in a few Yeats it will?
Thanks for the link. That is a must read, DD!

I generally describe our demographic as the "second quartile", but since the fourth quartile are dropouts, it might be better described as the middle third of HS graduates. (The top group goes directly to 4-year schools.) But I could be wrong, because I suspect many of the more motivated half go directly into trades instead of college. Now I'm curious what the HS rank of our students actually is.

I love your analysis about structure and high expectations. I wish there was a way to convey that (effectively) during new student orientation.

One thing I discovered about the pre-MOOC resource of Lewin's MIT physics lectures was that one group of students who watched them discovered they were getting most of the same content in my class. Instant credibility. Too many of the kids who are preparing to fail don't believe that CC profs know what they are doing. Maybe a compare-and-contrast essay assignment on a particular topic we both cover would help fix that.

Side comment to Morgan Price @7:30PM -
Many books for calculus and chemistry come with homework systems that (if used properly by the student) provide just the feedback you describe. If Timothy Burke knew what those things cost students and added that to the cost of the college-wide CMS, the full value of open-source solutions would be even clearer.
i've said this before.

i took many classes in college that revolved around reading a handful of books. the prof would lecture on them, and we'd take a test. the professor's lecture provided some insight into the books, but it was nothing that couldn't be read from a website or pamphlet dedicated to that book. we, as students, could have read the book, and then read a 10 page essay on the book, and we would have been just as knowledgeable as we would've been by sitting through the lectures.

in those cases, what was the value gained by taking a course? what value did the prof provide? none.

this is where your online courses are great. this is where colleges need to unload their curriculum to online courses. they need to admit that a lot of the courses that kids take are crap, and that the professors themselves provide no more real-world value than a few 10-page essays on the books they assign.

you need back-and-forth in calculus. you need back-and-forth in english (essay critiquing and whatnot). but if the issue is pre-civil war american indian history, offload that stuff to an online course. free up department resources for the courses that really need them, and streamline.
I agree with Dean Dad that MOOCs can be a useful supplement to existing courses, especially if places like Coursera offer an online course that is similar or even identical to one that is being presented in a conventional bricks-and-mortar classroom.

But I don't think that they can be considered as a viable substitute for a conventional course, especially if the course requires a lot of back-and-forth between the students and the instructor. Where does a MOOG student go if they are having difficulty in understanding the material?

However, I remember back in the day when I was a physics graduate student. The instructor very often would simply read the textbook to us in class--I figured that I could actually do this on my own and I really didn't need a "sage on the stage" to do this for me. All that I really needed was to know was when the final exam was going to be and what would be covered.

One of the problems with MOOCs is that it is difficult to forsee a the creation of a business model in which the courses can somehow be run for a profit and if a way can be found to offer such courses for actual academic credit. In addition, it may be difficult to organize tests and examinations in such a way that plagiarism and cheating are not so easy.

I remember that ran at a loss for a long time when they first offered books for sale online, and a lot of people predicted that it would never be a viable option to conventional bookstores like Borders. But eventually managed to turn around run in the black, and now bricks-and-mortar bookstores are rapidly vanishing.

So disruptive technology can often take a while before it becomes a real challenge to the traditional way of doing things.

I have found that the short videos offered on Khan Academy are a useful supplement to the transitional mathematics course that I teach. But I don't imagine that they could be a substitute for me standing in front of the class and answering questions from students who are having difficulty in understanding the material.
Perhaps MOOCs will play a big role in the home-schooling phenomenon. Many parents want to drop out of failing public schools, but can't afford pricy private alternatives. The parents can supply the discipline DD notes, the MOOCs can provide the course structure and substance.

Kids wouldn't need to be autodidacts to become remarkably successful such an environment. Home schooling could move from the fringe to the mainstream.

MOOCs could also be an affordable way for public schools to restore classes for the talented and gifted. Our school district provided such classes once, and we have plenty of kids who would profit from them today, but the budget won't permit it.

I suspect that MOOCs are a bigger deal than past education innovations.
I love Khan academy. The practice problems and on-demand video lectures are great. I recommend them to my statistics students all the time as a brush-up.

But I don't find they do a great job of teaching new material to students who are struggling. And, especially with math, there's a frustration threshold issue. I teach many students who have years of experience of being "bad at math" and all the emotional anxiety and baggage that goes with that. Teaching them is not just about helping them understand specific functions; it is also about helping them develop self-confidence that they can and should stick it out.

Additionally, Khan is great for practice but not great for fostering independent application. Yes, you can practice a particular skill set over and over again. That doesn't mean you will understand how and when to apply it to a problem in the real world, where there are no prompts. Much of the value of what I teach is in application to the students' real world questions. Online video courses and MOOCs in general can't do that.
Dean Dad: What evidence do you have for this statement? "At the community college level, we’re finding, student success is very much about replacing bad habits with good ones, and low expectations with high ones."

That's a very strong statement that says the "value-added" part of our field is largely cultural. It wouldn't be surprising, given that many of the best-touted pedagogical & structural "interventions" give only marginal improvements in student outcomes. If you've got research to support this, especially anything that shows causality, please share!
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