Saturday, July 27, 2013

MOOC that MA!

I was reading this article on Slate the other day about Georgia Tech's MOOC based MA in Computer Science which will cost around $6,000 for those interested in taking part in it. Even though Georgia Tech's Online Education MOOC crashed and burned, I am really curious to see this launch and succeed. If this is the program they are thinking of going full MOOC on, I think it may just work. Why do I think this?

Well, first of all, it's a program in the sciences. Unlike the humanities, the deliverable requirements, on the part of the learners, are a bit different. This is something that can can be seen in the Coursera and EdX platforms. Since their genesis was in the sciences, they are not immediately a good fit for a collaborative, social constructivist learning environment that has come to be expected in the social sciences. While I have no doubt that the platforms will evolve, there are some initial constraints there due to their science genesis. Since  the science homework deliverables can be put through a compiler and tested, and even read by a human to see how clever, or plain, an algorithm implementation is, I think that massive automation can work fairly well for an initial pass at grading homework and exams.

This brings me to the price: The price is right. If a regular MA degree costs anywhere from $8,000 to $40,000 per year, a $6,600 in total MA is a bargain. I don't recall seeing the details, but my guess would be that this is what the math breaks down to:

  • $550 per course (3 credit course)
  • From those $550, $150 probably goes to proctoring
  • From the remaining $400, $200 goes toward campus based grades and checkers
  • and the remaining $200 goes toward administrative costs

Going along the "the price is right" line, this model makes failure is less of a financial burden.  In college, if you fail you have two issues, first your GPA takes a dive.  Then, there is the financial costs of having to take the course over again in order to do better, pass the course, and raise your GPA. The low cost of the courses makes failure sting a little less, from a financial point of view anyway (your pride may take a ding). Also, if  you aren't completely confident about the course, you can audit, for free, work your way through things, and then decide to demonstrate your skills when you are ready.

There is only one caveat that I can foresee at this moment: Autodidacts only.  MOOCs rely on peer support networks.  If you don't have that peer support network, for whatever reason, there isn't a tutor that you can ping in order to work through some issues. So, unless there is some pay-for-tutor arrangement, I am not sure how a student who isn't used to learning on their own will fare.

Your thoughts?

Friday, July 26, 2013

Insert Column Name Here

For a while now I've been thinking of having a Weekend Column on here, something to give my blogging a little more regularity now that I am MOOCless (until the fall anyway) and not reflecting as much on the learning experiences in various MOOC setups.  I was going to have a "ID Stuff: Tin Foil Hat edition" (or "Cynic's Corner") column after I read this article (Who is driving the online locomotive) on the Chronicle the other day, but that seemed a juvenile. I don't know if there are many tin-foil-hat types in academia (someone please enlighten me), but this article seemed particularly bad, so I thought I would respond to it.

The article is written by a community college professor who is wondering who is behind this push for online. What really struck me about this article is that it's written as if it's not written in 2013, but rather it sounds like concerns someone would have in 2003. I say this because our own university system started offering online courses and program in 2001, so by 2003 I could still see some skeptics. In any case, this "advice" column is looking at who would want online learning, and it comes to some false conclusions, and I believe that this entire opinion column is flawed.
As one who is skeptical regarding the long-term benefits of online learning, I would attest that the train metaphor is pretty apt. I sometimes feel as though I'm standing on the tracks, signaling "proceed with caution," while the online locomotive bears down on me, air horn reverberating.
I suspect others share that vivid nightmare. But what makes it especially sobering now is that, with the advent of MOOCs, the train is picking up steam and we're no longer alone in its destructive path. These days entire departments, disciplines, and even institutions potentially stand in the way, at risk of being pulverized along with the rest of us.

I must admit that one of the things that annoys me here, as I written elsewhere, is this whole equating of MOOCs with Online Classes.  Sure, the OC in MOOC stands for online course, but a MOOC is not the only type of online course. Online courses existed before the MOOC, and they have different foundations in pedagogy, and implementation. Their educational philosophies can also be quite different.  Thus, it's unfair to say that a department's or a school's reputation would be adversely affected by online offerings the same way as if they ventured into the MOOC field.  MOOCs are experimental at this point (don't let anyone tell you otherwise), and as such can, and do fail from time to time.  What we learn from those failures is as good as what we learn from successes.

Going back to the idea of traditional online learning, offering an online learning program is no more, or less, risky to your reputation as compared to offering a new on-campus program, if you know what you are doing.  If you don't know what you are doing, then both on-campus and online new offerings have the potential for disaster.  The author also writes that he is skeptical about the long-term benefits of online learning, as if online learning is some sort of social or medical experiment.  It's not.  By his same logic, one might wonder about the "long-term benefits" of college in general.  I know, it sound absurd when one frames it like this, but to me "long term benefits of online learning" and "long term benefits of going to college" are the same thing.

It's true that during the past decade, the number of students enrolled in online courses grew at a significant rate. But according to a recent study, that growth started leveling off in the fall of 2010, when about 31 percent of all postsecondary students were taking at least one online class. Researchers concluded that "the slower rate of growth ... compared to previous years may be the first sign that the upward rise in online enrollments is approaching a plateau." 
Moreover, a survey conducted this year by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University found that students at two-year campuses, in particular, prefer face-to-face over online instruction, especially for courses they deem difficult. 
So while some students want, need, and benefit from online classes, the argument that students in general are clamoring for them doesn't exactly hold up.

Here the author has some faulty conclusions. I am not sure that proponents of online learning are claiming that all students are clamoring for online learning. Students are a diverse body of people and it would be false to overgeneralize.  I know that there are some students who are quite vocal in their learning preferences and would prefer to be online, there are some for whom online is a better deal (financially or timewise as they are balancing work and home and school), and there are some that will take online courses every now and again. Of course, there are those who will never take an online course, just because of the principle of it ("dyed in the wool f2f learners"). That said, you can't ignore 1/3 of your learners just because everyone cannot, or does not want to, partake in online offerings.  There are people who simply cannot make it to campus, but can floorish and be great learners if those spatiotemporal constrains are taken away! Why deny them an education that they want?
More telling, perhaps, is the recent Chronicle survey that found that 72 percent of faculty members who teach MOOCs don't believe their students should receive college credit. In other words, even supporters of MOOCs don't think they're as good as face-to-face instruction.
Again,  here we have some faulty conclusions. First faulty conclusion is that we are speaking about MOOCs and online courses in the same breath.  Second, just because 72% of faculty members don't believe students should receive college credit, this does not imply anything about the quality of education that one gets in a MOOC.  First of all, how does one quantify "quality" in MOOCs as compared to face-to-face instruction.  Secondly I haven't seen any data on this, and certainly no xMOOC/cMOOC/f2f  "quality" comparison. No research is available yet, so how can we draw conclusions if we don't have data yet?  Finally, one needs to interrogate why these 72% of faculty don't want students to get college credit for their MOOCs, and not assume it's all about "quality."  If a completer of a MOOC can demonstrate their learning, same as an on-campus f2f student, why shouldn't they receive credit (assuming that they paid someone to evaluate them).
 He noted that most of the employers surveyed by The Chronicle said they were looking to hire people with "a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems" as well as having "ethical judgment and integrity; intercultural skills; and the capacity for continued new learning." The problem, Sternberg said, is that "those are not skills optimally developed through passive learning ... including MOOCs."
Whatever we've been told, I don't believe employers are demanding that students take more online classes or sign up for MOOCs

Again, let's disentangle MOOCs from Traditional Online Learning for one thing. Secondly, it seems that Rob Jenkins (is he related to Leroy?) has not been in a cMOOC. I think that there are people who complete cMOOCs that can and do demonstrate the capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems. Given that MOOCs are global, these intercultural skills are something one can get in MOOCs, as well as traditional online programs where students come from a variety of backgrounds (since online courses aren't spatially limiting). It also seems that MOOCs seem to be thrown in the "passive learning" camp as an entire category, when this is in fact not true.  Learners can be quite passive regardless of the modality. The only difference is that is a learner is passive in a MOOC they can't demonstrate that they know what they are doing, while in a college credit-bearing course, someone who teaches the course can very easily pass a passive student and thus certifying that this student knows something, when in-fact the opposite may be true.

In the end I saw this article as a type of protectionism from certain faculty.  I am not saying that online learning, or MOOCs for that matter, are right for everyone. I just would like to not make one modality the villain here. Something else is simmering under the surface, and it has nothing to do with online learning....

Your thoughts?

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

MOOCs: What's YOUR audience?

Since I returned from vacation I've been catching up on news that happened while I was away, and listening to podcasts from May that I had downloaded to take with me to listen to, but due to the hustle and bustle of vacation, I ended up not listening to anything I downloaded.  I was listening to a podcast from NPR's education feed when they were reporting on MOOCs and certain school's apprehension toward them.  The first thing, right out of the gate, is that somehow MOOCs and Online Education have become synonymous.  While MOOCs are a subset of Online Education, I wouldn't equate one with the other.

That said, I put my skepticism aside and listened on.  The first thing that came up, from the critics, was that MOOCs wouldn't be able to replace learning that happens in undergraduate courses, especially those in the 100 level, because students come to college under-prepared, so they don't necessarily know how to learn, in other words they don't have good study habits, and are not meta-cognitively as aware as they should be.

Then, I see this story on InsideHigherEd about San Jose State University taking a break from MOOCs and citing that they didn't see the results they had hoped to see in their own student's learning.  Here is a direct quote from IHE:

Preliminary findings from the spring semester suggest students in the online Udacity courses, which were developed jointly with San Jose State faculty, do not fare as well as students who attended normal classes -- though Junn cautioned against reading too much into the comparison, given the significant differences in the student populations.

This brings me back to one of the key questions that instructional designers ask before they decide how to design: who are your learners? It seems to me that SJSU, and other institutions, jumped into the MOOC game because "the elite" universities were in this space, and they wanted to show that they could play too! But, given some weird things that we saw from them† it doesn't surprise me that they didn't really understand the MOOC before they jumped in.

If I were teaching an institutional course (like the course I was teaching last semester) and I wanted to MOOCify it, the audience for the MOOC would not have been the students who paid for the course.  Sure, they would have been some of the students who were in the course, and they would have received some additional assessments so I could have graded them for institutional purposes, but the MOOC itself would be predominantly geared towards those autodidacts in the crowd who want to learn about this topic. Related to that, being an autodidact means that you have certain skills, you have honed at least some of your study habits to be able to do this.  Thus, the course would not be geared toward 100 or 200 level courses where learners may have not developed those study skills that will help them focus on an online course like this.

I don't know, but it seems like good instructional design is missing from xMOOC endeavors. If it's not missing, other institutional factors are taking precedence over it (and that ain't good!)

You thoughts?

†for an example see their educause "Blended MOOC" presentation from last spring

Friday, July 12, 2013

On xMOOCs, autodidactism, design and the banking model

So I am back from vacation, and onto the MOOC path again. I am not sure if vacationing has made me a little less interested in MOOCs (and more interested in things like sitting on my deck, drinking coffee and reading a good book), or if the glut of xMOOCs, the commercial rush for people to make LMSs for them, and the elitism of certain providers as to which institutions can join their club. All of this seems to have eroded away the openness of the concept of MOOC. Luckily we have original MOOCs (cMOOC) still around, and edupunks interested in continuing with them, but the news seems to only consider xMOOCs.

In any case, I was reflecting a bit on my own xMOOC experience, reflecting on the Banking Model of education, and thinking of the spirit of autodidactism that seemed to go hand-in-hand with the original MOOCs (cMOOCs now). In thinking about the design of the MOOCs that have I have attended (or completed) on EdX and Coursera it seems to me that the current course design is heavily based on the idea that students read something (and/or view something) and there is some sort of basic test to test acquisition of facts.

Critical thinking (or just extrapolated thinking) evaluations seem to not be part of the xMOOC and since there is a clearly defined path through the course (with future models hidden until you reach that week) it seems that the freedom of autodidactism is thwarted somewhat through this design. Now, granted, most of the MOOCs I've attended (well, most xMOOCs anyway) seem to be introductory courses of some sort, maybe geared toward the undergraduate student, but even at those level I would say that there are ways of making the course more autodidact-friendly, and less rigid in its implementation. More life long learning and less just remember this.  What do you think?