Tuesday, November 13, 2012


MOOCs, The Dip, and Performance Funding

Thanks to everyone for leaving such kind notes yesterday.  It meant a lot to me.  Now, back to the regularly scheduled blog...

Two of the major trends in higher education are on a collision course with each other.  But their respective partisans don’t seem to notice.

On one side, MOOCs are gaining steam at an amazing rate.  They started as non-credit distance extensions by elite universities; now, the Gates Foundation is funding attempts to develop MOOCs for low-level, high enrollment Gen Ed courses of the sort that comprise the core of most community college curricula, and to give students academic credit for successful completion.  All of this in a year.

Some predictable battle lines are already forming.  Faculty are eyeing MOOCs warily, fearing a high-tech Trojan horse that will destroy their jobs.  Techies and politicians are looking at MOOCs as disruptive in a much more positive sense: done well, they offer a level of scalability and cost efficiency that’s hard to beat.  In a sense, the two sides are assuming the same thing: MOOCs are cost-saving.  They disagree on whether that’s good or bad. Anyone who remembers the battles over distance education ten years ago can recite the arguments.

As with distance education, the first round of results from MOOCs isn’t encouraging.  Plagiarism is a problem, peer grading is unrefined, and the completion rates are low.  Whether this is the “dip” before the payoff, or simply the nature of the beast, isn’t yet clear.

On the other side, states are playing with performance-based funding for colleges.  The idea is to prod colleges to get better results -- usually defined as more graduates -- by recasting operating funding as a reward.  Incentives matter, the thinking goes, so by building the right incentives, states can get colleges to do what states want them to do.

Performance-based funding is likely to be relatively volatile, especially in the early years when the formulae are being tweaked annually to address this political imperative or that one.  That’s a major problem for colleges, because colleges usually have high fixed costs, mostly in labor.

To see the contradiction, imagine that you have to manage a college budget.  The budget is tight already, and you find out that if you don’t make significant short-term gains in graduation rates, it will soon get much tighter.  Then you hear about the wonders of MOOCs and how cheap and disruptive they are, with their single-digit completion percentages.


I don’t know whether MOOCs are the next big thing, a passing fad, or version 1.0 of something that will be really great by version 3.0.  (If I had to guess right now, I’d pick the third option.)  But for a college with performance-based funding to put much into them right now would be madness.  They’re high-risk, especially in the short term.  When your margins are already thin, there’s just no room for that magnitude of error.

At a system level, this is penny wise and pound foolish.  Experimentation is messy, wasteful, and expensive.  It has to be.  That’s how it works.  And it’s the only reliable source of real progress.

I don’t think the choice is between safety and risk.  It’s between certain decline and the possibility of tremendous improvement.  But getting to the latter requires having the risk capital now to try new things.  If the first few rounds of MOOCs involve catastrophic attrition, then I want no part of them unless my budget can handle it.  By the time the bugs are fixed -- or the next thing has come along -- we’ll be that much tighter and less able to adapt.  This is how Kodak declined, and this is how public higher ed could go.

Moments of technological breakthrough are not the times for austerity or jamming the brakes.  They’re the times for risk capital and taking chances.  I hope the states figure that out before we have to start yet another round of cuts.

Currently in Intro 101, the students spend about X hours a week and the faculty spend about Y hours a week on work related to the course.

A MOOC will need to be pretty special if it has any hopes of increasing X.

From the faculty side, it's possible that faculty will offload some work to the MOOC meaning that they can offer the students more in Y hours. Or, they can teach more students in Y hours.
If you only test (for credit) the 1% who complete the MOOC and pay for the credit, your success rate might be really high. It is all in the rules of the game.

What I want to know is if they have Course Outcomes aligned with each individual college's General Education Outcomes, Assess those reliably, and demonstrate Continuous Improvement as a result of a wide-ranging discussion of course goals and pedagogy among those running the MOOC.

Yeah, you can guess what we are doing.
Since the whole point of a "class" as versus "reading a textbook" is a feedback loop between instructor and student . . .

My husband's pursuing an additional qualification entirely online and offered through a community college hours away. Some, especially electives, could be semi-MOOCified, but the problem of assessment still remains.

As a faculty member, that's where MOOCs lose me. I'm willing to put together mini-lectures and activities, sure, but I'm not willing to give up the actual interaction (whether online or in person) that makes it possible for students who aren't savants or pursuing qualifications for knowledge they already possess. Neither am I willing to automate or scale up the assessment when it's all about communicating analytic thought. That's not something the robo-graders do well, let me tell you!
Do we care about graduation rates?
I mean, for MOOCs.
The barrier for entry is very low, the monetary cost is zero. There is an opportunity cost, but harping overmuch on that strikes me as a bit akin to saying "given a 90% non-completion rate for library books, clearly libraries aren't doing as well as Borders!"

Full disclaimer- I'm taking a MOOC now (on economics and obesity) and I think it's definitely a case of "Version 1.0 for something where Version 3.0 is gonna be great". A lot of bumps, but a fun idea.

PunditusMaximus- wrong. The whole point is a feedback loop *between students* with enough instructor input to keep them from leading each other too far astray.
To Becca: We care about completion rates at community college. Very much so.

If your goal is to make advanced education available to a wide audience, MOOCs are great.

If your goal is to increase economic mobility, educate a workforce, create informed citizens, and help disadvantaged people get a better life through education, then you need something more. At the community college level, most people we've got the "access" thing managed - more or less. Much of our focus now (including Gates money) is on completion. It's that extra piece that turns people into productive, educated citizens. We don't have it figured out as well as we ought to, but we're working on it.

It's all about your market. The people who will really benefit from MOOCs, at this point at least, aren't your typical community college demographic. Feedback loops between successful students make them more successful. Feedback loops between unsuccessful students often make them less successful.
The whole point is a feedback loop *between students* with enough instructor input to keep them from leading each other too far astray.

And this is where you'll still require lots of instructor time. A friend of mine was taking online qualifications, already had one degree, and she was annoyed at the low level of student feedback. There was a lot of it, but it was all variants of "great idea!" or "I disagree" with no concept of supporting arguments. Participation in the feedback was mandatory, so it ended up like those "post one comment three" groups on Flickr.

Computer-savvy students will quickly learn to game any automatic system, and I don't see how a MOOC allows an instructor to read more than they would in a normal course…
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Chris- that's a valid point. I still think there is a tremendous social good- much like a library- to MOOCs; but just like we don't expect libraries to solve social mobility, we shouldn't expect it of MOOCs.
The trouble is, in my more cynical moods I agree with one of DD's sardonic comments about preparing people to participate in a middle class in a society that no longer wants a middle class. I believe CCs can, and should, do a better job than anything else at it... but it's a big enough job it's probably a good thing to have MOOCs too. For taxpayers that want savings, I suggest we compare CC costs to prisons. That makes the social choices we face much more defined.

Anonymous- I'm pretty sure it does require a lot of instructor time. That said, the commentary on the forums has (in my experience thus far) been much better than what you've suggested... and much aided by a "thumbs up/thumbs down" comment evaluation system. If something is getting enough attention, the prof knows. It doesn't solve everything, but the MOOC has a much better system for fostering inter-student education than old fashioned online versions of courses I've taken (and I've taken some good online courses).
I can imagine a gen-chem MOOC being reasonable. A charismatic, native speaker of English sets things on fire in well-scripted lessons about the basics of chemistry, interspersed by self-quizzes and the usual other features of MOOCS. The army of TAs runs lab and recitation sessions much like they used to do. The professors who used to teach the lectures draw straws to see who is the Gen-Chem Czar for that term and oversees the entire operation.
The easiest way to meet performance standards such as graduation rate is to simply pass more students.

Better measures would be comparative employment numbers and salaries and percentages going on to graduate school would be better numbers, particularly if these are tracked: at graduation, 1 year after, 2 years, 5 years, 10 years. Remembering that such measures are not meant to be absolutes would be helpful too.
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