Monday, September 10, 2012


Competing with “Free,” Part Two

If non-elite colleges and universities want to avoid the fate of travel agencies and film companies, what should they do in the age of free MOOCs?

I’d suggest focusing more clearly on what they can offer that MOOCs can’t.  That means having people around to help students get through the perplexing parts of courses; having advisors who can help students knit together disparate courses into coherent programs; organized tutoring; in-person collaboration and projects; ‘flipped’ classrooms; and specialized facilities.  It absolutely does NOT mean large lecture halls.

In fact, the flipped classroom – in which the lecture is delivered online, and class time is devoted to doing the work, with a professor available as a resource – could work beautifully with a MOOC.   Freed from the burden of having to explicate the basics over and over again, on-site faculty could use class time to shore up weak points, pursue deeper understandings of the material, and even have students apply it.  The professor could provide context.

Of course, some pushback is likely.  Faculty who were trained as t.a.’s in grad school might recoil at being put back into that role, with the sage on the stage replaced by the sage on the screen.   Some of that is to be expected, but if the job of the professor is to help the student succeed, then the results will settle the issue.  And to the extent they don’t, the marketplace of tuitions will.

If I’m anywhere close to right, then the role of the non-elite institution will be to level  the educational playing field.  Strong, well-prepared students will do just fine without much help, but most students coming out of the k-12 systems that actually exist don’t fit that mold.  They need structure, and support, and a fair amount of customized, human interaction to be successful.  I know humanists hate this phrase, but that would be the ‘’value-add” of colleges.

Community colleges are actually in a good position to get in front of this shift, if they’re willing.  They already focus on teaching, and they usually have smallish classes anyway.  (At Flagship State, where I got my doctorate, the undergrad Intro to My Discipline had 300 students.  Here it has 30.)  If community colleges are willing to accept the reality of change – a major ‘if,’ but still – they could recast themselves to take full advantage of the new, free resources.  Institutions that rely on 300 student lectures may have a harder time.

Colleges will also have to remember the non-academic side.  My brother recently forwarded me a wonderful description of it, from, of all places:

If even half of what you learn is in the classroom, you're not doing things right. College is also the ultimate self-discovery school, a Brownian personality-builder that bashes you off other people to help you all stop sucking. The most important part of education is learning who you are because no, shut up, you really don't know. Not a clue. And that's awesome! Imagine how terrible the world would be if every 17-year-old was actually right about what's important.

It’s funny because it’s true.  Some of the most important elements of college, for me, happened outside of class.  It’s hard to replicate that in a commuter college, obviously, but all the more important to try.  To the extent that college is reduced to the content of classes, something important is lost.  

Focusing on the student experience may require rethinking some of the more indefensible habits into which some places have fallen.  (Flagship State had 60-minute parking meters outside a building with 75-minute classes.  And yes, the students noticed.)  That’s probably for the best.  

The alternative, I think, is to fall into the well-worn habit of denying the validity of any external change at all, until a succession of Republican governors takes hatchets to higher ed funding, arguing, correctly, that people can get the content of higher education for free.  At which point, the folks who already have the economic and cultural capital to succeed will be fine, and everyone else will fall even farther behind than they already have.  If we take seriously the responsibility to educate people who don’t come from money, we have to take the appeal of MOOCs seriously.  If we don’t drive this train, it’ll run us over.

Making a MOOC work for credit seems relatively simple. You hire one grad student per X students (maybe as high as 100? more?)

Under this model, you need even fewer tenured faculty, which works well since there are fewer and fewer on the tenure track anyhow.
I'm taking Dan Boneh's cryptography course at Coursera right now. The lectures are great and the assignments are a challenge, but not an unreasonable one. I'd love to be able to take more courses in this format and get credit for them. The courses I've taken at community colleges and at an online school were much less challenging and interesting.
I think that Dean Dad is right—the main sticking point with MOOCs is how you handle students who are having difficulty in understanding the material. I am sure that some students will indeed thrive in a MOOC environment—such students are generally well-prepared, they are highly motivated, they are good managers of their time, they can work very well on their own and do not need a lot of hand-holding, and they can avoid procrastination. However, I suspect that only a relatively small number of college students fall into this category. A lot of students are not all that motivated, they can’t really work very well on their own, and they need the personal face-to-face interaction with faculty or tutors if they run into difficulty and have problems in understanding the material.

Perhaps this problem can be addressed by adopting a similar system as the one we used when I was teaching at Research Intensive Technological Institute. The introductory physics course was taught in a large lecture hall by a “sage on the stage” to an audience of a couple hundred students, but we also supplemented the course by holding recitation sections taught by full-time faculty members (not TAs or graduate students) to groups of no more than 20 students, in which homework problems were discussed and student questions were answered. So the students who were having difficulty in understanding the material had someone to talk to. Perhaps colleges and universities who adapt to the MOOC strategy can use a strategy in which the online MOOC course replaces the traditional large-lecture hall, but the college retains the recitation sections so that students who are having difficulty have someone to talk to.

However, I can foresee a downside to such a system. One of the joys of teaching is in the preparation and organization of your own class, where you can teach your class in the manner that you feel that is appropriate. This is an important aspect of academic freedom. Under a MOOC-based system, there is a danger that a lot of academic freedom will be lost. The faculty will be reduced to the status of teaching assistants or tutors, resulting in a de-skilling of the entire academic profession, reducing faculty members to the status of performers who simply read the works of others to their students.

Excellent analysis, DD. Loved the Simpsons reference.

The fundamental problem of a MOOC is that the institutions actually offering the courses refuse to grant credit for the course. They won't accept the results of the outside testing company, and the outside testing company does not have the power to grant course credit. That is what leaves the door open to use someone else's content in the same way that MOCC (massive open cable classes) used to be broadcast on a campus CCTV network.

Your suggestion is what some are already doing at my college. Some have their own videos (Khan Academy before Khan) and others link to videos at various places. It makes flipping the classroom easy. Painless, even, since someone else has done the heavy lifting, and there is no reason you can't add your own video for the part you think you explain better than the Sage on the Tube.

(In my field, physics, there is a lot to choose from. Ditto for math.)

The problem with piggy-backing on someone else is that they can shut it down at any time. Someone else owns the copyright and controls what URL gets you there. Videos can be deleted, password protected, changed, or available only if you pay a modest fee. I predict the latter. Would 100,000 people pay $1 to watch a set of MOOC videos?

They can't keep this up without a business plan superior to that of the Underpants Gnomes, which is why I doubt it will be open forever. It might be a modest loss-leader to recruit elite HS students to your elite college, which would be the only reason I can think of to keep it 100% free and open.
The elite colleges will also be threatened by this, because the game can quickly become winner-take-all. I recently read about a start-up ( that is moving in that direction, and already has $96 million in venture capital. As a bitter graduate student, I can't decide if this is all very scary, or sort of cool.
I will still remain in my stand that free college classes should be attained.
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