Let it be.

7 10 2013

I was reading yet another great Christopher Newfield post at Remaking the University last week when I came upon this startling survey result:

A solid majority of college presidents agree with 2/3rds of faculty that MOOCs are a negative force in higher ed, which is not something that I for one would have predicted even six months ago.

Me neither. So why then are we still spending any time discussing MOOCs at all? Can’t we just all agree that there are better subjects having to do with higher education to command our attention?

Certainly the MOOC Messiah Squad has played a big part in keeping this futile conversation going, but then there’s also a whole school of technological determinists who are convinced that just because something can be disrupted it should be disrupted. As Newfield notes, the king of disruption himself, Clayton Christensen (along with a co-author), dropped down into the pages of the Chronicle (subscription only) to explain how disruption in the face of disruptive innovation can be avoided:

There appears to be a good lesson here for colleges challenged by would-be disrupters: Take whatever technology and tools are available and use them to organize tightly around a job to be done, to forestall—or prevent—disruption. With the mind-set of focusing on a specific job, it doesn’t matter what new technologies emerge. If a technology can help a college do the job that it has chosen, then it should be able to make changes accordingly and seamlessly. If the technology is not useful to doing the job, then a college can ignore it.

I’ll take a page from Newfield and define the critical job of any university as “creative learning.” Compared to a 4-year residential campus experience, MOOCs are a lousy tool for that. So are commercial LMSs, e-textbooks and a lot of other technological gizmos that private interests have been pushing on universities for years now. Direct contact with professors, particularly well-paid happy professors, on the other hand, is a proven winner. If it wasn’t, people wouldn’t have been paying (or even bothering) to go to college for pretty much forever. So why exactly do so many professors and administrators alike run around like chickens with their heads cut off all the time these days?

I know this opinion isn’t hip, but here goes nothing: higher education isn’t broken. The funding system that pays for college is broken (on both the student and government aid ends). The economy that employs college graduates is broken. The system of shared governance that has helped higher education stay in balance for the last century is broken on most American campuses. But “fixing” higher education without fixing these other problems will only make things worse. Therefore, maybe we don’t need a technological revolution to make higher education operate better. What if evolution, not revolution, can do the trick? Let it be. Let the natural process of deliberation within the academy resolve the problems with higher education that higher education can solve.

Oddly enough, the current state of MOOCs offers a good example of how gradual constructive change can occur. Beaten back by the opposition of faculty (and university presidents it seems) we are already in the process of entering the post-MOOC world – one in which a terrible idea might evolve into something useful as long as it’s not used exclusively for cost cutting purposes. This is from an administrator at Washington State, who after my living through the “Year of the MOOC” sounds downright reasonable to me:

There are certainly innovations and advancement to be gleaned from all these ventures and experiments, even the failed ones. There are new tools we can use to enhance on-campus education through flipping and blending, opportunities for remedial education with adaptive learning, increased access to educational opportunities through interactive online learning, improved student retention with early alert systems. That said, I think the most important development of all of this experimentation is a re-awakening to the purpose and nature of a college education.

These new technologies should be used to enhance the positive—supporting engaged faculty mentoring connected students participating in an interchange of ideas–and not to exacerbate the negative by removing the content and educational expertise (the faculty) from the student experience. Place the highest value not on the newest technological options, but on the very oldest element of instruction: the give and take of ideas between faculty and students.

There it is again! Direct contact between faculty and students. Whether online or in person, the key to a successful college experience is right in front of everybody’s face. Maybe the future resembles something somewhat MOOCish, or maybe it doesn’t, but to be successful that future requires more faculty contact with students, not less.

The title of that piece calls for the MOOC conversation to be redirected, but perhaps instead it’s time to kill that conversation entirely. To quote Newfield again:

Last year the future was Massive Open Online Courses. This year the future is something else.

Maybe we can all choose a better future this time around. In fact, why don’t all of us academics and administrators just kick all the interlopers and profiteers away from the table and finish the future of higher education conversation just amongst ourselves? We’ll at least know then that everyone around the table presumably has our students’ best interests at heart, which is a lot more than we can say now.

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2 responses

8 10 2013
Talking Man

This is definitely a thought-provoking Op-Ed piece. It made me scratch my head several times trying to decide if I agreed or disagreed with it. I finally realized why. You have mixed too many topics with differing issues into one blog-blather. What is the central tenant of this blog? xMOOCs? Systemic Higher-Ed issues? Resistance to technology, or over-reliance on its virtues? Anti-disruptiveness?

Agreements:
1. “So why then are we still spending any time discussing MOOCs at all? … there are better subjects” Absolutely. Most people (Gates), companies, and business articles that continue to hype the miraculous power of MOOC are uninformed, misguided, or true charlatans peddling their newest version of Snake Oil. “They know not of which they speak.” I refer you to Talking Man’s Blog for more of this discussion. They wouldn’t recognize the original MOOC Model for Digital Practice if they ran into it face-first. The original MOOC model was not designed for hither ed, but exclusively for post-tertiary continuing education and communities-of-practice knowledge sharing. The overwhelming majority of xMOOC offerings are nothing more than the old VHS Classroom via YouTube.
2. Your complaint about techno-focused (as opposed to learning-focused) determinists and change-agents “who are convinced that just because something can be disrupted it should be” are spot on. Just because something can be changed doesn’t mean it should. These are typically tunnel-visionaries who never discovered the systems approach to understanding how things work. There is no simple techno solution for all of the challenges of education. Too often, we have jumped on the new and shiny without contemplating its inherent value or applicability. The history of educational media has a long list of new/shiny techno solutions that failed (stereographs, radio, TV, VHS video) because they were not used as a supplement to proven teaching techniques, but as an intended replacement for proven teaching techniques.
3. “We are already in the process of entering the post-MOOC world.” This is one that I will acquiesce to, even though I am not convinced that we ever entered a world of MOOCs. I have stated in other blogs and discussion forums that the hype and fury of xMOOCs may be a disruptive disturbance in the force, but it is temporary and largely lacking any long-term impact. It is not new, but a revised old idea. Look up VHS Classrooms. Been there; done that; didn’t work then and won’t work now for the same reasons. The important factors that significantly impact learning quality have been ignored (engagement, interactivity, and feedback). The xMOOC is more of a speedbump on the highway of educational progress. It made us slow down and look around, thinking “what the heck?” But we who are educated in the field of education are passed it. We have gleaned some lessons learned and are now moving on.

Disagreements:
1. “Compared to a 4-year residential campus experience, MOOCs are a lousy tool for that. Although I strongly agree that xMOOCs are lousy, it has nothing to do with being creative nor the effectiveness of the majority of today’s on-campus learning experience. There are many documented benefits of the on-campus experience that cannot be (or has not yet been) duplicated with the online environment. However, learning is not one of them. Multiple studies have shown equal to superior learning results in the online college courses, especially for the more life-experienced and mature students. The majority of xMOOCs share the same fault as the majority of on-campus courses; they are based on a lecture format. Boring. A video of a boring lecture is even more boring.
2. “Direct contact with professors… is a proven winner.” Negative. Inaccurate. An over-simplified generalization that ignores common and uncommon elements for success. One of the documented systemic problems with many larger colleges is the lack of contact with a real professor. Even if the professor delivers the lecture, students (especially freshmen and sophomores) must deal with TAs and graduate assistants. Being in a traditional campus setting does not equate to professor contact. Some online students have more contact and easier access to their professors than some brick-and-mortar students. We already have established standards of quality that affect learning. Class size does (the 2nd biggest weakness of xMOOCs). Lecture versus content interactivity does. Peer interactivity does. Professional curriculum development does.
3. Your evidential statement of “If it wasn’t, people wouldn’t have been paying (or even bothering) to go to college for pretty much forever” is lacking awareness of current survey results. University and 4-year college enrollment is down. Vocational school and online enrollment is up and climbing. So, now that there are viable alternatives, it seems that students are opting for them… rather than “paying (or even bothering) to go to college” for an expensive, boring experience.
4. Now, the BIG ONE. You compared apples with oranges… actually apples with produce trucks when you equated the lousy-ness of xMOOCs to commercial LMSs, e-textbooks and other “technological gizmos that private interests have been pushing on universities for years now.” Do those gizmos include PowerPoint? Telephones? Discussion forums? SmartBoards? Twitter, FaceBook and Google Circles? An LMS is a tool, just like your online banking website. E-books are here and almost as common as digital watches. Are you still carrying around a sundial and hourglass filled with sand? I would rather have an e-textbook over paper any day of the millennium. I can still highlight, underline, bookmark, page-save, and even search for content instead of flipping through pages. Oh, and I don’t need a 40-lb bookbag, since I have access to my digital library via my tablet or smartphone wherever I am in the World.
Out-of-context or irrelevant comments:
1. Survey results about “2/3rds of faculty that MOOCs are a negative force in higher ed” are not empirical evidence, only useless facts. Other surveys imply that over 2/3rds of college faculty/staff don’t really know what an xMOOC or cMOOC actually is (and isn’t). Analyzing the survey tool reveals unreliable and invalid questioning which confounded the applicability of “MOOCs” with the perceived pressure to accept their use. Being forced to apply a “learning” strategy based on political or financial motives will create push-back and resentment every time.
2. If “creative learning” is today’s role for colleges, doesn’t that negate every comment made against change and disruption? The very definition of “creative” requires something new.
3. “higher education isn’t broken.” I can neither agree nor disagree due to the ambiguous nature of the statement’s context. When Socrates lectured to his students, his teaching model was not broken, but he used the technology available to him (parchments and books, not clay tablets). If it works, don’t fix it. But if it can be improved, then by all means do so! A simple literature review over the last decade points to the undeniable fact that the current college system is based on an outdated industrial economy model. Times have changed, but our classic university model has remained almost unchanged. Thankfully, the majority (about 85%) of colleges have incorporated online courses into their curricula in addition to “flipping” their classrooms to include more than just a boring lecture.

9 10 2013
Post-MOOC is the new MOOC. | More or Less Bunk

[…] Have you noticed that I’m sick of writing about MOOCs? It’s not the subject itself that bothers me. It’s simply the fact that I think I’ve read more hype than any one human being can digest and I don’t feel like digesting anymore. For example, other than the fact that the author acknowledges that he’s in the minority now, there’s absolutely no point in this article that hasn’t been written better and more clearly by some other member of the MOOC Messiah Squad over a year ago now. Yet students still aren’t paying to take MOOCs, MOOC providers still have no business model and even college presidents hate them now. […]

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