Thursday, October 11, 2012

Thoughts from Day 1 ALN Panel Discussion

Well, yesterday afternoon I got fired up when listening to the final panel discussion of the day at Sloan-C's annual ALN conference. The panel was titled "Evolution or Revolution? What’s Happening with “Traditional” Online Learning?" and I have broken down my thoughts by speaker.

Jose Cruz (The Education Trust, US)
This was a pretty interesting speaker, and he made a good point about putting "learning" back in "online learning". The speaker pointed out that governments was accountability, higher graduation rates, and, of course, do it with less money. This speaker,  mostly focused on access to higher education and higher education completion along ethnic and socioeconomic lines. Beyond that the speaker focused a lot on the numbers of people, along different ethnic and racial demographics, that have a BA.

It seemed to me that the basic assumption was that the BA degree was a necessity - period. There was no interrogation of why a BA is a requirement  The speaker spoke about the importance of education for civic engagement and democracy.  Fine, personally I agree.  What I don't agree with is that education (aka Higher Education leading to a degree) is the type of education required for civic engagement and democracy.  If, for some reason, it is, then why do we have people pay for this type of education out of pocket at increasingly higher and higher rates?


Alan Drimmer (University of Phoenix, US)
The focus of  Alan was about careers and infusing a career focus in courses.  In other words (from what I understood) was to make learning connected and meaningful instead of a series of discreet facts.  The interesting thing is that he said that students think that higher education is about getting a job. My questions are where does this come from? What is the role of Higher Education in adapting or clarifying role? And, is there a fear of loss of revenue if we, outright, tell students that higher education is partly about getting a job, but it's about getting people to think critically, not being just another cog in the machine, but one that makes good decisions based on given evidence, and there is no five stop process to attain this.

While Alan's talk was interesting I was distracted a bit from a fellow #CFHE12 person around the discussion of whether a BA is a requirement for a job.  His comment was that if someone wants to be a police officer he can become one by pursuing a Criminal Justice major. This is complete and utter nonsense. To become a police officer you don't need an undergraduate education, much less a BA in criminal justice! What you do need is a high school diploma, to pass physical and mental exams, as well as background checks, and to complete the police academy - which you do ONLY after you've passed all the other tests. At that point if you enter the academy you already have a job as a cop.

My fellow #cfhe12 participant (@ezrasf) changed his argument to using the BA for a quicker promotion.  Well, again, this is not the way promotions work in police departments (granted, different departments have different procedures).  Education is part of the equation. For example until recently our campus police (considered as "state police" for organizational purposes) didn't need higher education credits to become sergeants.  Now it's part of the requirement that they have 60 credits (the equivalent of an Associate's degree).  In order to make it to Lieutenant, my guess would be that you would need a BA's worth of credits, but that's not the only thing that's needed, and given that police departments can be highly political, I doubt that any education in and of itself will give you a leg up if people don't want to promote you. And, criminal justice is not the only way to go to.  Thus, the myth that you need a BA for all work is debunked, and the myth that you need college for promotion purposes is also debunked. As @professorjosh pointed out, some people with an Associated Degree make more money than people with a BA ;-)



Jack Wilson (University of Massachusetts, US)
So this panelist (the final one), former President of the UMass System got me fired up (not in a good way). Wilson was talking a lot about history of UMass with online learning, and the revenues that it has seen in online learning but there was no talk of pedagogy and teaching! The "generic" MBA in me was pretty content with this presentation, but we can't just take a generic business approach and apply it to education because education can't run like a business. 

Wilson puts MOOCs in the "hype" category (only because everyone and their mother seem to be writing about MOOCs without knowing much about what MOOCs are), and claims that hyper prestigious universities are driving the change.  Well, what about the "original" MOOCs, the people that started the MOOC experimentation, and are still experimenting, but we hear nothing about them.  There is an over-emphasis on "xMOOCs" like coursera and not enough of a spotlight on "cMOOCs" and the continuing experimentation that is happening.  [Start cynic comment] Our fast food news culture has finally permeated the academe, and people who know nothing about a topic are called on to become talking heads about the subjects that they know little about.  Bravo. [end of cynic comment].

It seems that now that "online learning" has matured and become "the man" that they are trying to hold on to their fort.  According to Wilson evidence does not support the assertion that MOOCs will change the world.  OK.  My question is what evidence?  Where is the empirical research? Well, there is very little because MOOCs are new.  They are an experimental form and we are still learning from them.  Wilson is the impersonation of the Luddites he criticized when those Luddites criticized online education. I say let do research and give MOOCs the 13 years that online education has had, and then let's talk.

Wilson doesn't fear MOOCs as competition; my question, of course, is what is there to fear? It's just another modality for teaching, such as lectures, seminars, studios, and labs (just to name a few). Even withing MOOCs there is variety in how they are constructed as courses and how they flow It's a bit absurd to see one form of instruction as competition. Wilson asks for the reasons that people go to college (i.e. pay for college) and according to him it's:
  • interaction with classmates
  • interaction with instructor
  • accreditation
  • it's getting the credits (in other words, accreditation, credits mean little on their own)
Wilson doesn't believe that MOOCs provide for the above, which is what students pay for in College Courses.

My problem is that MOOCs do some of these things too!  In all MOOCs I've participated in I've had interactions with classmates, and I've had interactions with the instructors (aka subject matter experts that facilitate the weekly session), and with appropriate assessments the Mozilla Open Badge initiative can provide for accreditation. So, what is there that separates MOOCs from college courses?

I think that Alan got it right by saying that not all students are setup to be self-paced learners, and they do need that one-on-one that they get with University resources and faculty.  That said.  I think that once people get used to the pedagogical factors of MOOCs, and they learn how to learn, MOOCs can be viable that way as well for learning. It's just that students, coming out of high school now, are used to being told what they need to know and they need to get prepared for learning opportunities that don't necessarily have one defined head.

Another thing that really got me going with Wilson is that Wilson (and others!) seem to compare apples to oranges when it comes to comparing credit-bearing college courses with MOOCs and attendance and completion.  Wilson claims that he'd be hauled off to jail if his University had completion rates as low as MOOCs do.  Sure MOOCs (xMOOCs at least) are based on actual college courses, but the participant actions are not the same between the two modes of class for very good reasons! Check out what a fellow #cfhe12 participant wrote about his MOOC participation in the past:
I have a pretty miserable track record with MOOCs. My initial curiosity and earnest intentions are almost immediately undermined by work deadlines, congenital procrastination, shiny objects, and a two and a half year old who isn’t a big fan of sleep. So, in the past, the extent of my participation has been limited to a)signing up and b) regularly deleting the email reminders I get for all of the assignments I don’t complete.
 - http://edtech.vccs.edu/mooc-to-the-future/
You know what's different about MOOCs and college courses?  It's Price! Economists have write a lot about the price of free.  When something is free it encourages people to not just windowshop from outside the store, but to go in an try things out. College courses cost, so unless you have the money to waste, if you pay for it you WILL make the time to attend and do well.  If something is free you can
  1. register and do nothing
  2. register and do some work
  3. register, do all the work, and complete the course
In college courses 1 and 2 are not options (unless you are rich and don't care about wasting money). In MOOCs there ARE options and people DO exercise them based on their day-to-day needs and other, competing, obligations. Thus, you can't compare apples to oranges when it comes to attendance and completion because these two types of courses are fundamentally different, and people do act differently when there is a price difference.  It would be interesting to conduct some experiments to see if people would still go to MOOCs if there were a $10, $25, $50 non-refundable fee for signing up. If you completed the course you'd get a certificate (or badge) and if you didn't, well you wouldn't get your money back.

In his introduction, Jeff Young from the The Chronicle of Higher Education, Panel Moderator for this session, said that he had met many professors (in the beginning days of online education) that weren't involved with online education but they were very upset by it. Then in 2000 with Fathom there was a boom to capitalize on online education and make gobs of money, but it failed miserably.  I feel like we are there again with MOOCs.  People complaining about things that they don't know, and people rushing to make money from them ;-)



Parting Question: Why is there an adversarial relationship between educational institutions and MOOC?


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