E-Learning | Feature
With schools and students now able to secure high-quality online courses from beyond the ivy-covered walls, faculty--and institutions themselves--are weighing whether their stock is rising or falling.
- By John K. Waters
The ivory tower is crumbling. Increasingly, online courses and their content--previously the jealously guarded domain of professors--are being offered as out-of-the-box solutions by third-party companies and even other universities. Terms like "online course provider" and "school-as-a-service" are making the rounds, with Pearson, John Wiley & Sons, and 2U leading the way. But the biggest splash has undoubtedly come from MOOCs, those massive open online courses that have been hogging the ed tech headlines for the past 18 months.
And indications are that this is just the beginning. The American Council on Education (ACE), the country's go-to course-recommendation service, has just endorsed five Coursera MOOCs for college credit and is currently evaluating seven Udacity courses. Last fall, in a pilot program, San Jose State University (CA) became the first institution of higher learning in the country to offer a MOOC for college credit--three of them, in fact. And two of the top providers of learning management systems, Blackboard and Instructure, now support MOOCs on their platforms.
While none of this suggests that online courses have yet reached the level of a commodity, schools--and students--are no longer restricted to what is cooked up within the confines of their institutions. So what does this trend mean for students? Will it make a wider array of high-quality instruction available, wherever students may be and at whatever school they attend? What does this mean for faculty, and their role in a world of imported coursework? And what does this augur for the schools themselves?
A host of questions still surround the viability of MOOCs, too, but the ACE endorsements offer the clearest evidence yet that they are going mainstream. "All of this is developing very rapidly," says Cathy Sandeen, vice president for education attainment and innovation at ACE. "We're seeing lots of rapid prototyping with Coursera and Udacity, and we're in conversation with edX about reviewing some of its courses. We believe that there will be many different ways that MOOCs will interact with traditional degree programs in the future."
If the SJSU experiment produces acceptable student outcomes and a workable business model, it's likely that a wave of university partnerships with the top providers will follow. And the impact of such partnerships on higher education is a subject of great debate.
Ron Rogers, an SJSU professor who worked with Udacity to develop one of the school's MOOC courses, laughs at the suggestion that he might be putting himself out of a job. While he acknowledges that the advent of MOOCs and other online course offerings presages a changing role for college educators, he doesn't believe the ivory tower will come crashing to the ground anytime soon.
"This is by no means meant to replace brick and mortar and close down classrooms--that's a common reaction I hear," he says of SJSU's MOOC project. "This is about increasing flexibility and access to higher education. Hundreds of thousands of students in California are wait-listed right now for both CSU and the community colleges. And the students who are lucky enough to come to campus can't always get into the courses they need when they need them. This is not about replacing, but enhancing and expanding."
It's a sentiment echoed by Ellen Junn, provost and vice president for academic affairs at SJSU. "Here's the thing that people who are afraid of MOOCs have to understand," she explains. "Accredited institutions must have qualified faculty who have created courses, assignments, lesson plans, and course learning objects, and who assess the progress and performance of students and assign grades. By definition, you could not be an accredited institution if you simply said that the courses will be available online and there's no professor."
Cuts in Faculty
Yet some teachers and administrators disagree, believing that MOOCs will inevitably cull the numbers of both institutions and university teachers. As evidence of the anxiety caused by this issue on campus, many of those interviewed for this story were unwilling to go on record with their concerns. "How many people are out there teaching Biology 101 right now?" asked one. "Thousands? How many will we need when that class is widely available as a MOOC? Do the math."
Indeed, the pressure on colleges and universities to find ways to cut costs and generate more revenue should not be underestimated, says Johan de Muinck Keizer, managing director of Agon Advisors, a startup consultancy specializing in helping schools and companies navigate the rapidly changing education landscape. At the higher end--Stanford, Harvard, Princeton--there will always be in-class, face-to-face education, possibly supplemented by open online courses. But for second-tier universities, says de Muinck Keizer, "this is going to be a revolution.
"A school like Stanford has the luxury of using a MOOC as an experimental platform for technology and course innovation. But for some of the smaller, lower-tier universities, this is more of a life-and-death matter. These schools are facing cuts in their state funding, cuts in grants, and dropping enrollments because of high tuition. What's their biggest expense? Tenured professors. That's something that has already come to an end among for-profit universities. [MOOCs] give you the ability to increase the student-to-teacher ratio while you raise the quality of the education. That's a win-win if you're fighting for survival."
As former executive vice president and chief acquisitions officer at Kaplan, de Muinck Keizer has firsthand experience of what has transpired in the for-profit sector. "I'm not saying anyone is g
oing to fire the current faculty en masse," he notes. "It will probably happen through attrition."
Indeed, it would be a mistake to see resultant changes to higher education as some kind of overnight revolution. Instead, it's a quickening of an evolution that has been going on for decades. "The roles of educators have been changing for a while," observes Susan Gautsch, director of e-learning and a practitioner on the faculty in information systems at Graziadio School of Business and Management at Pepperdine University in Los Angeles. "And so have the sources of the content they use. But the speed at which this is happening now is incredible. Higher education in 15 to 20 years is going to be a totally different beast, unrecognizable by today's standards."
While de Muinck Keizer doesn't sugarcoat his belief that some schools will experience serious pain, he does see a silver lining in the form of downward pressure on the price of higher education. "The schools that get it right will be able to offer courses at lower costs," he says. "That's not a good thing if you're a third- or fourth-tier school and you're already struggling. But that's a good thing overall for students and the availability of education in the United States."
On this point, Junn agrees. SJSU is providing its experimental MOOCs at a competitive rate: $150 for a three-unit course, which is roughly equivalent to what students would pay at a California community college.
Giving Credit for MOOCs
Despite the hoopla surrounding MOOCs, major questions about them remain unresolved: Does the MOOC model work with actual college students? Are these classes scalable and sustainable? And can they generate revenue?
San Jose State University (CA) is in the process of answering these questions with a pilot program called "SJSU Plus," conducted in conjunction with MOOC provider Udacity. The program consists of three classes--entry-level mathematics, elementary statistics, and college algebra. Each course is limited to 100 students, 50 of whom attend the university, and 50 non-matriculating students, including veterans, community college students, and even high school students.
The classes are not technically MOOCs, because they're limited to these small groups of students. But they're the country's first MOOC-formatted courses that are credit based, and the school hopes to learn how--and whether--to use the model in its strategic planning. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is providing a small grant to support the program, and the National Science Foundation is funding a separate research effort by the university to evaluate student learning and faculty experiences in the pilot.
"It seems as if someone is announcing every half hour that they're doing a MOOC," says Ellen Junn, provost and vice president for academic affairs at SJSU. "And you see these huge numbers--hundreds of thousands of students enrolled in these classes--but the completion rates are barely into double digits. This is a very interesting, new, disruptive innovation, but what do we really know about it? It's premature to jump to conclusions. That's why we're testing it. Our goal is to dig deep and really understand what we have here."
In the view of Susan Gautsch, director of e-learning at Pepperdine University (CA), the MOOC movement will get a tremendous boost if SJSU's for-credit course pilot is a success. "For hundreds of years people have said that education does not scale," she explains. "But it does now. That small group of students taking those classes at San Jose State could one day be a hundred times larger. This is the magic of MOOCs."
Udacity is one of three major MOOC players currently in the market, in addition to edX and Coursera. It took several months to "Udacify" the traditionally taught SJSU classes. The result is a highly interactive online course designed to give the impression that the student is sitting next to someone explaining the concepts. No "lecture, test, lecture, test," says Ron Rogers, an SJSU professor who, along with professor Sean Laraway, worked with Udacity to produce the statistics course.
Although the course is still under way, Rogers says the first exam produced test scores that were "incredibly consistent" with the scores he has seen over the past five years teaching the class. "So, at first blush, it seems to be working just as well."
The school is also evaluating the MOOC business model, which involves a revenue-sharing plan with Udacity: The school gets 51 percent of any revenue after costs. Also, Udacity licenses the content of the MOOCs under a Creative Commons license, which keeps it open source but not resalable.
Boon to Community Colleges
But the greatest impact of these changing roles and evolving technologies, at least in the short run, is likely to be felt by non-traditional students--and, by extension, community colleges.
"This is a big plus for community colleges," notes Junn, "because students can be successful in some [MOOC] foundational courses, which helps them to be successful later on and further their education. Enhancing and increasing post-secondary attainment in this country is a huge issue. In some little way, what we are doing with the MOOCs may help move that forward."
ACE is a recognized authority in evaluating non-traditional education experiences: More than 2,000 colleges and universities consider its recommendations when they assess the applicability of a course to a degree program.
"We have a process in place that we've been refining since the 1970s and a large pool of faculty advisers," explains Sandeen. "When MOOCs came on the scene in a big way this past summer and students started to complete the courses, it was really the students who started asking, 'How can I get credit for this?' We realized that maybe we could apply [our] existing process to the MOOCs."
Sandeen is another industry watcher who doubts that MOOCs will result in a reduction in the number of college and university faculty. In fact, she argues, given the education goals of the US, we might need even more as these models evolve.
"I don't see this technology carving up smaller pieces of the pie," she says. "I see it creating a bigger pie."
The Online Education Rush
The media focus on MOOCs has obscured another significant foray into the college course arena by education companies. While courses provided by third-party vendors have been around for decades, the competitive jockeying among vendors has picked up significantly.
Pearson, a textbook publisher turned learning-systems provider, owns a big piece of this market with several products, including MyLab and Mastering, CourseConnect, and a range of online education services. Last year, the company acquired EmbanetCompass, which adds marketing, recruitment, retention services, and instructional design to the menu of Pearson products. At about the same time, publisher John Wiley & Sons purchased Deltak, a Chicago-based company that partners with institutions to develop and support fully online degree and certificate programs.
"This category of companies has existed for a long time," explains Susan Gautsch, director of e-learning and a practitioner on the faculty in information systems at the Graziadio School of Business and Management at Pepperdine University (CA). "They were just under the radar. They tend to work behind the scenes with universities and take on many of the administrative elements of a program. And it's usually done in a profit-sharing, risk-sharing partnership."
While some educators describe the offerings of these companies as "school-as-a-service," Gautsch prefers "learning solutions partner," after working last year with EmbanetCompass to launch an online MBA program, a process that took about six months. "It took us longer to make the decision and talk our faculty into the idea than it took to launch, market, get leads, get students enrolled, and get the program online and launch it," she says. "It's just not something we could have done without partnering with the company."
All the industry maneuvering of late may well have been spurred by an unprecedented surge of venture capital into the higher education sector. "I'm seeing a large number of small startups coming on the scene in this space right now," says Johan de Muinck Keizer, an education market consultant. "All of them are trying to do the same thing: help universities set up online courses. Mostly they're focusing on the how-to, and the universities are focused on the curriculum."
One of those leaders is 2U, a company founded in 2008 as 2tor and recently rebranded. 2U partners with top-tier universities to deliver "rigorous, selective graduate degree and undergraduate for-credit programs online," according to its website.
"We work with faculty members to bring what they do in the classroom--all their creativity and expertise--to the virtual online world," explains Chance Patterson, senior vice president of communications at 2U. "We provide the marketing for the program, the learning management system, the technology backbone, the recruiting activities, and the PR and media promotion. We do everything but teach."
While the 2U model differs significantly from MOOCs, it too has the potential to be a disruptive force in education. With the online education arena the tech equivalent of the Oklahoma Land Rush, companies like 2U are helping brand-name universities stake their claims quickly and effectively. Those schools that lag behind may ultimately find that they have the farthest to travel.