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The Rise of MOOCs

What do massive open online courses mean for the future of higher education?

This story appears in the August 2013 digital edition of Campus Technology. Click here for a free subscription to the magazine.

Colleges and universities are on the verge of a "massive" makeover thanks to the advent of massive open online courses. At least, that's what we keep hearing. Proponents declare MOOCs to be the future of higher education in America--perhaps not without cause. Big-name schools, including Harvard University (MA), Stanford University (CA), and MIT, are investing millions in MOOC development. One of the leading MOOC providers, Coursera, recently announced partnerships with 10 public universities and university systems to develop courses, even as the Georgia Institute of Technology unveiled a $7,000 MOOC master's degree in computer science in partnership with Udacity. Some states are even pushing legislation that would force public colleges and universities to accept credits earned in MOOCs.

But not everyone is embracing the advent of the large-scale online course. Critics worry that MOOCs will harm higher education because their adoption is driven primarily by financial concerns, not pedagogy. In their view, prepackaged MOOCs can't possibly deliver the same quality experience that a live instructor can provide. Furthermore, they claim, MOOCs will distance students from professors engaged in research, dilute the diverse viewpoints found in a classroom, and ultimately reduce the number of living, breathing faculty.

So which is it? Are MOOCs good for higher education or bad? Not surprisingly, the answer isn't as simple as the surrounding hyperbole would suggest. Their true impact remains to be seen, of course: In their current form, MOOCs have been around for only a few years, and MOOC fever is even younger. More important, higher education is not a monolithic entity: The US is home to more than 4,000 institutions of higher learning, ranging from Ivy League universities to community colleges, for-profits, and state schools. MOOCs are likely to impact different institutions in vastly different ways.

California's MOOC Bill
In the short run, MOOC adoption might have the most immediate relevance to community colleges and state university systems by increasing student access to oversubscribed or unavailable classes. It's certainly one of the goals of a bill currently working its way through the California state legislature. Senate Bill 520 aims to open up bottlenecks among entry-level courses by requiring all state universities and colleges to accept MOOCs as transfer credits.

But will such an approach work? A long-term study by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College (NY) suggests that community college students--across the demographic spectrum--do less well in the online format than in face-to-face classes.

At four-year institutions, similar concerns exist for traditional-age students, who often lack the discipline to apply themselves in courses delivered the old-fashioned way, let alone when left to their own devices in front of a computer. How will they fare in the anonymous world of MOOCs?

Unfortunately, it's tough to extrapolate an answer from the completion statistics for the existing crop of MOOCs. While some educators have tut-tutted at completion rates that average below 10 percent, these numbers don't count for much. For the majority of MOOCs on the web today, there's no barrier to entry and--more important--no cost to dropping out, making it almost impossible to discern any meaningful patterns from current completion rates.

If MOOC providers can find a way to significantly improve completion rates, however, the same schools that stand to benefit today might suffer over the long run. In a report titled "Shifting Ground: Technology Begins to Alter Centuries-Old Business Model for Universities," published last year by Moody's Investors Service, researchers warned that the pursuit of MOOCs by large, elite universities is likely to build the brand and expand enrollment of these schools at the expense of local and regional colleges. The report suggested that this could be particularly damaging to low-cost local colleges, commuter schools, and for-profit colleges.

It's a tall order, though, to expect what's been called xMOOCs--with their emphasis on enormous size, taped lecture segments, automated grading, and limited faculty involvement--to comprehensively replace today's instructional models. While they may satisfy the needs of graduate students (in certain disciplines), self-motivated learners, and career workers seeking additional skills, their current incarnation is unlikely to satisfy the broad spectrum of higher education needs. 

At least, not yet. In the view of Cathy Sandeen, vice president for education attainment and innovation at the American Council on Education, the sheer pace of technological innovation in the MOOC arena may ultimately offer solutions that work across the educational spectrum. She believes that beneath all the hype is an educational technology entering a third generation, what she calls "MOOCs 3.0." The first generation (cMOOCs), which appeared in 2008, was based on a peer-learning model known as connectivism; the current generation (xMOOCs), which hit the market in 2011, is more of a traditional, lecture-based model, and was developed by companies like Udacity, Coursera, and edX. As Sandeen sees it, the next generation essentially represents a disaggregation of the xMOOC.

"We're already beginning to see institutions using MOOCs in many different ways," Sandeen says. "Some are exporters who are creating the courses and featuring their marquee faculty or certain programs they're known for. They're doing it to enhance their reputations, attract students, or to maintain a global presence. Others are importers who take the whole MOOC lock, stock, and barrel. But more often they're using a content-licensing model, through which they're assigning students pieces of the program and integrating it into their campus-based courses." (Sandeen discusses the issue of assessing student performance in "Testing Times.")

This latter approach is also known as a blended MOOC--essentially the flipped classroom model on steroids (see "Blended MOOCs: The Best of Both Worlds?"). Ground zero for this strategy is San Jose State University (CA), which partnered with edX to offer the first MOOC-style classes for college credit. Early results look very promising, with 90 percent of students enrolled in a blended Circuits and Electronics MOOC receiving a passing grade compared with only 55 percent in a traditional-course counterpart. (SJSU received a 2013 Campus Technology Innovators award for its work with blended MOOCs.)

The Cost Equation
But much of the initial media hoopla surrounding MOOCs stemmed from the hope that they might bend the cost curve of a post-secondary education--US student debt now stands at more than $1 trillion. While the economies of scale enabled by xMOOCs can definitely change the calculus, can blended MOOCs have the same impact?

SJSU offered its blended MOOCs to a limited enrollment in a pilot program for $150 per three-unit course--about what the state's community colleges charge. But is this a sustainable cost structure? On-site faculty are still actively involved in the classroom work--just as they are in a traditional course--so it's unclear how this model can both lower tuition rates and keep the bean-counters happy.

The SJSU project is an experimental pilot, so it's probably too early to crunch the numbers, but Ellen Junn, provost and vice president for academic affairs at SJSU, warns against focusing on MOOCs primarily as a cost-saving measure, saying that such an approach will almost certainly impact the quality of courses.

"It looks like MOOCs could save a lot of money, but there's a tendency to overhype this," she notes. "Whenever a state as big as ours faces the kinds of budget cuts we're facing, anything that can give some relief gets a lot of attention. But I think people fail to anticipate how complex college really is. Student learning, the faculty, the institution itself, the environment under which students flourish--it's much more complicated than people think. It's not like a factory. And that's the difficult part of higher education. It's unlike any other industry. You can't treat it in a simplistic way, like making widgets faster and cheaper."

Unfortunately, given the money crunch in education today, many schools may not have an alternative. The three courses in the SJSU pilot program, cocreated by university instructors and Udacity, required 300-400 hours of work. It's a considerable investment that many colleges will be unable to make. Among educators there's increasing concern that cash-strapped schools will simply import prepackaged courses from other sources, resulting in a growing level of academic homogeneity.

Impact on Faculty
If course content does become academic milk--homogenized, pasteurized, and commoditized--teaching in higher education could become a far less attractive career choice for those best qualified to do it well. "If faculty are importing content and not creating the content themselves, will it be seen as not as compelling a job in the future?" asks ACE's Sandeen. "Will we continue to attract the best and the brightest to the faculty ranks, which is crucial to higher education? The technology innovations that we're seeing will allow us to serve more students, but not in a one-size-fits-all manner."

And what of the existing faculty? While few educators object to the idea of importing a course onto a campus where it was previously unavailable, many others see MOOCs as a potential way for university administrators to shrink one of the biggest cost centers in higher education: the faculty. Even at SJSU, where professors play an active role as part of a blended MOOC format, there's an underlying fear that faculty could ultimately be on the chopping block.

In May, associate professor Janet Stemwedel and her colleagues in SJSU's Philosophy Department made headlines when they wrote an open letter to Harvard professor Michael Sandel explaining their decision not to use a MOOC he developed called JusticeX in a pilot program. The course was available to the school through a contract with edX and had been recommended by the SJSU administration as a potential resource for a blended course.

The philosophy professors didn't mince words: "There is no pedagogical problem in our department that JusticeX solves," they wrote, "nor do we have a shortage of faculty capable of teaching our equivalent course. We believe that long-term financial considerations motivate the call for...MOOCs at public universities such as ours.... Good quality online courses and blended courses (to which we have no objections) do not save money, but purchased prepackaged ones do, and a lot. With prepackaged MOOCs and blended courses, faculty are ultimately not needed. A teaching assistant would suffice to facilitate a blended course, and one might argue, paying a university professor just to monitor someone else's material would be a waste of resources.... Let's not kid ourselves; administrators at the CSU [California State University] are beginning a process of replacing faculty with cheap online education."

The response from Sandel, who is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government at Harvard, symbolizes the tension inherent in the promise of MOOCs: "My goal is simply to make an educational resource freely available," wrote Sandel. "The last thing I want is for my online lectures to be used to undermine faculty colleagues at other institutions."

Sandeen agrees that this would be a highly regrettable outcome of MOOC adoption, because "we really need our higher education system to be working at capacity, plus we need more." As academia sorts out its relationship with this evolving technology, she believes the rise of the MOOC should be viewed in a larger context: "I think what we're seeing here is what we would expect to see--faculty getting involved in academics on a campus. But you have to keep in mind that what we're talking about, in a broader sense, is technology-enhanced pedagogy and open educational resources. MOOCs, with all their potential advantages and disadvantages, really should be considered as part of that bigger picture."

But considering the economic pressures facing higher education, are educators being naïve to believe that MOOCs simply represent an additional arrow in the quiver of pedagogy? A host of educational pundits have already warned of the potential demise of second- and third-tier institutions at the hands of MOOCs, but less has been written about the survivors. If MOOCs are widely adopted by colleges and universities, the academic landscape--as well as the traditional relationship between faculty and students--is likely to change forever. In SJSU's letter to Sandel, for example, Stemwedel suggested that TAs might be brought in to handle the in-class component of a blended MOOC. If so, will research-oriented faculty ever have reason to interact with students--especially undergraduates? And will other faculty find themselves shunted into specialized roles such as instructional designers and assessment experts?

It's a prospect that makes Stemwedel shudder. "College students should have direct contact with people who are actively engaged in building knowledge in their fields of study," she says. "It's a different kind of learning. It gives them an opportunity to learn something, not just about what we know, but how we come to know it and what that means in different fields."

The Quality of Instruction
Stemwedel insists that she and her colleagues are not Luddites who are opposed to integrating online courses into their department's curriculum--they're there already. But, in their view, the advent of MOOCs in higher ed has the potential to dilute the quality and value of a college education. As evidence, Stemwedel cites what she considers faulty reasoning behind California Senate Bill 520.

"This is a law that would force the UCs, CSUs, and community colleges to accept [MOOCs developed by faculty members at the three state systems] as transfer credits, regardless of their own assessment of whether those courses really meet the standards of their degree programs," she explains. "What's that going to do to graduates of the UC system, the CSU system, and the community colleges in a crowded labor market? If you're asking about the impact of MOOCs on higher ed, it strikes me that one possible outcome is that they could make it really easy for employers to cut down on the number of résumés they need to look at by setting aside all those that contain courses they view as not meeting standards for a real college education."

Some members of the faculty at Harvard--the source of the JusticeX course to which SJSU faculty objected--have their own concerns about the rise of MOOCs and HarvardX, the school's own MOOC brand. In May, 58 faculty members published a letter in The Harvard Crimson in which they asked Michael Smith, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, to organize a faculty committee "to draft a set of ethical and educational principles" for governing Harvard-branded MOOCs. "The Faculty of Arts and Sciences is directly responsible for the teaching of Harvard undergraduates and Ph.D. students," they wrote. "It is our responsibility to ensure that HarvardX is consistent with our commitment to our students on campus, and with our academic mission."

The kinds of debates currently taking place at Harvard, SJSU, and elsewhere are probably essential if higher education is to tackle the significant challenges ahead--as long as the outcome of these discussions is not simply a rearranging of the deck chairs. A quick look at school tuition rates will confirm that the status quo is no longer an option, even if MOOCs are ultimately not the solution either.

"What is critical is that schools do something," notes Malcolm Brown, director of the Educause Learning Initiative. "When you're scared about your future, it's a natural tendency to be like a deer in the headlights. Now's the time to actually get your feet wet and start doing the experimentation."

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