“We’re in a Tight Spot”

moocI once went to a presentation, delivered by a education consultant, on the history of MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) and how a university such as my own might utilize this technology.

The irony was that the whole presentation, which didn’t so much argue as assert that “traditional” lectures are pedagogically uninspiring and unengaging for students, was a 90 minute lecture (I kid you not — I timed it) accompanied by routine PowerPoint bar graphs and Venn diagrams. That’s it. No interaction, no use of technology to try to enhance our “learning experience” or to model the technology under discussion, and, as I recall, the lecturer didn’t once move out from behind the podium.

It reminded me of the PowerPoint presentation I once sat through in which the presenter, running out of time, rushed to fit in all the slides about how we ought not to rush through PowerPoint presentations in class just to fit all the slides in.

Again, I kid you not.

My 160-seat large enrollment classes have far more engagement than that MOOC presentation even if all I do is wear a wireless mic and walk around the room as I speak, directing questions straight to students throughout the class and responding to their queries while standing close enough to read their expressions (which tells me if I need to rephrase the point to make it stick).

(For those unfamiliar with it, “reading a student’s expression” was a common teaching technique that predated 160 seat classrooms, but I digress.)

At the end of the presentation, I asked: What is it about your material that made this delivery format suitable for you but, according to your presentation, makes it “traditional,” outmoded, and ineffective in the case of my material?

I also asked why, if we agreed with the presentation’s premises, we flew a consultant to town, since it would have been more cost effective to scale it up with a webinar that several thousand, or more, of us just listened to in our offices, while watching the PowerPoints on our computer monitors.

A colleague, at the same presentation, asked why anyone would think that the abysmal rate of completion repeatedly documented in MOOCs — whether they are indeed “massively open” or connected to fees/tuition — would help enhance a university’s own graduation rate (as we’re told they will) — a rate that, even if not satisfactory to the school, is infinitely superior to any completion rate reported by any MOOC so far.

Predictably, of course, neither of us got an answer that satisfied us.

A New York Times article, on how MOOC supporters have had a little (or, depending who you talk to, a lot of) cold water thrown in their faces lately, states:

A study of a million users of massive open online courses, known as MOOCs, released this month by the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education found that, on average, only about half of those who registered for a course ever viewed a lecture, and only about 4 percent completed the courses.

Interested in reading what I think to be a more realistic assessment of MOOCs? It concludes:

I’ve titled my talk “The End of Reform” because I had to call it something; I couldn’t just say that the MOOCification of Higher Education is a Terrible No Good Very Bad Thing, although I think you have a sense of what I think about it.

As for me? I happen to think that there’s an extremely important place for distance education in the mission of the public university — each semester my own Department always offers several online sections of lower-level classes, something we’ve done for decades — and moving the delivery of that course material to the online environment makes perfect sense and holds tremendous promise. What’s more, offering course content free online (i.e., massively open), to whomever wants to read/view it, can’t be a bad thing — I’d like to think that our content-rich Department website, and since last year our Vimeo account, has been doing that for over a decade. But we all know that the production and dissemination of knowledge doesn’t come cheap — from academic publishers and copyright issues to the cost of training scholars and stocking their libraries and outfitting their labs — let alone universities competing with one another for their share of the market and the limelight. And we also know how governments have been cutting back on their share of funding all of this, leaving universities in a tight spot. MOOCs are a place where all these issues become concentrated and intermingled, making our awareness of them and where they’re headed on each of our campuses pretty central to understanding the practical conditions and possible future of our own institutions.


2 thoughts on ““We’re in a Tight Spot”

  1. Interesting post, and indeed, just as with any new online phenomenon, it’s good to be cautious of consultants who don’t really understand the topic, their environment or are simply unable to translate their message into a fitting format.

    Having said that, I personally believe that MOOCs are going to transform higher education. It’s still early days, and the initial ‘promises’ might not be the ones that will have the biggest impact. However, MOOCs can and will be useful and instrumental for schools. Initiatives like the Nanodegrees of Udacity or the Highschool initiative of edX will bring value; for learners, for future employers, but certainly also for schools.

    It will be a challenging and interesting journey to come to the best results for all involved, but focusing on completion rates is something we should stay far away from. Although it might be a good metric for payed-for enrollment courses at schools, the motivation of a MOOC student to join might be completely different. Only a small part will enroll because they want the certificate. So completion rates are simply not saying enough about how useful the MOOC was for the student, nor for the school.
    Interaction, content discovery, knowledge gathering, but also forming a link to the school or the teacher can be ways in which future revenue streams for schools might lie. Also, as in the case of a recently published learner story on the Coursera blog, MOOCs can make it easier to let students do part of their for-credit work in other schools. Might ease the pressure on your institution.

    Personally, I’m very optimistic, and curious, about how this MOOC-thing will play out in the future.

    1. If MOOCs were still “massively open” that would be one thing, but the format has been linked to credentials and tuition so inasmuch as that has happened I think my point stands–I don’t know how they will be instrumental to schools other than, as you suggest, branding opportunities or “future revenue streams,” as you put it.

      I’m curious–what’s your stake in this/cause for your optimism, since I’ve yet to meet a supporter of the format who didn’t have something to gain from it…