MOOC variations: the future? (or at least part of it)

As you know, I am a bit cynical about MOOCS (main purpose – eventually to make money), but this German initiative centred on “iversity” made me sit up and take notice:

“The major focus for iversity in the near future will be increasing the number of credit-earning MOOCs. This is a major opportunity in Europe that is not quite as feasible in the U.S., because most universities in Europe are funded publicly. Hannes explains: “In the U.S. the university that accepts credit from other institutions loses out on revenue because you pay on a per credit basis, whereas the European institution does not receive any tuition fees, so it doesn’t have as much of a problem with accepting credits from another institute.” What is iversity’s plan? Hannes sketched out a potential concept: iversity convinces, say, 25 European universities to form a sort of consortium, where they agree to produce 4 courses each (at an estimated cost of 25,000€ each). The universities agree to inspect the quality of the courses in order to exchange ECTS credits. They each also provide exam space. Thus, for an investment of 100,000€ and a commitment to produce 4 courses, each university has access to 100 credit-granting MOOCs for its students. These MOOCs can be offered to the public without credit, and would be assured of their high quality, or perhaps for some specialized courses, universities could even monetize some courses by charging for executive education enrollments.”

However, the link to the article about Germany is embedded in Dhawal Shah’s article in Class Central (how I found it), with its sunny outlook for future revenue streams, with or without partnerships with universities. Surely the end game is the money promise. The issue hinges on credit recognition:

“Last year we predicted that credit-granting MOOCs would be a key trend in 2014–we were wrong. There have been a few small experiments by universities to offer credit, such as a   criminal justice MOOC at Penn State, and an  intro computer science MOOC at the University of Oklahoma, though European universities seem to be closer in making this jump, with the provider iversity planning to work with European universities to offer credit. There are also MOOCs being offered in partnership with professional and continuing education programs (which confer professional education credits, certificates, or degrees): NovoEd is helping Stanford’s Graduate School of Business to bring their executive program online, and edX partnering with professional education programs to bring some courses online. However, besides these experiments, the major development in 2014 has been the Big 3 MOOC providers, Coursera, Udacity, and edX, introducing their own credentials for paid courses.”

It must be tempting to US universities under the budget kosh to cut deals in the future with private MOOC providers (universities supply the intellectual content; private companies provide the delivery vehicle). How long before a small consortium of Australian universities do this? The G8? Our concern will be about the quality of learning in such courses if they become an irrepressible trend adopted willy nilly. In addition, if universities don’t get on board or into partnership, in the near future we may eventually see certain professions accepting MOOC credits as valid skill development for their needs and bypass universities all together. If MOOCers and universities ever mount a convincing argument about equality of distance learning experience via automated systems (with little or no teacher-student contact) versus face-to-face encounters, universities might be radically transformed into clearing houses or mere grocery stores for different brands of MOOCs. A few elite research institutions might survive the cultural change if they can guarantee regular funding for all the bright, highly-paid research professors. I am not trying to be apocalyptic here – just speculating on what might happen in a worse-case scenario for those of us who believe in the current shape and purpose of a modern university. The concept of the universitas magistrorum et scholarium is medieval in provenance, but one that has survived through the years as it evolved into its modern guise. A lot of assumptions are implicit in the contemporary existence of universities: that come what may, they will always be here in some recognisable form as they are considered a net, vital, public good (even when many are private in some parts of the world); that universities provide a unique, creative habitat,a kind of sanctuary for free intellectual development not reproducible otherwise and not subordinated to a singular ideological project or market imperatives (a delicate dance, as we know, for private universities, which don’t always pull it off); lastly, it is assumed that if you put different Faculties of learning together, they will collectively levitate – Science, Architecture, Medicine, Human Sciences, Health, Engineering, etc., all belong together under the same institutional and administrative roof – they are more than the sum of their parts. Once we can no longer defend  and justify these assumptions, universities may morph, change, disappear, become unrecognisable. Who knows? (none of the crystal balls at Paddy’s market work).

If we must have MOOCs, let’s make sure there is a democratic global distribution of their benefits and profits. That can only be guaranteed by local production, I would suggest, but only if they can prove their all-round worth. I can’t see it yet.

“How Free Online Courses Are Changing the Traditional Liberal Arts Education” – my doubts

Excerpts [bold mine]:

“SPENCER MICHELS: Those lofty goals, the experience of teaching thousands of students, and the possibility of future profits, are what got these courses going. Professors from top universities are signing up, even though they are not paid by the providers. Eventually, universities may share revenues they receive — when there are revenues — with the professors. And those star professors have inspired intense student interest in the courses, says Coursera’s other co-founder, Andrew Ng.”

“SPENCER MICHELS: MOOC startups are still trying to figure out how to make money. Udacity is getting revenue from several companies like Google to provide specialized courses. Coursera is charging potential employers for providing names of high-scoring students. And, eventually, students may pay for credits transferable to colleges. So far, students can earn only a certificate when they complete a course. Almost no colleges are giving credit for MOOCs, at least not yet.

At Stanford and other elite universities around the country, undergraduate tuition, plus room and board, runs about $54,000 a year. At Berkeley, a public university, it’s around $30,000, depending on where you live. The big question is, what do you get for that that a free online course with a stellar professor wouldn’t give you?”

SUSAN HOLMES, Stanford University: I don’t think that you can give a Stanford education online, in the same way as I don’t think that Facebook gives you a social life.

[…] SPENCER MICHELS: But even more important, Holmes is worried that MOOCs could damage a key university goal: providing a liberal arts education, where students learn to write and express themselves.

SUSAN HOLMES: And that is done with interaction with the students. The professors meet with the students, advise the students, and the students also have their colleagues to talk to, their peers.

SPENCER MICHELS: The difficulty of providing personal contact also concerns Coursera’s founders, but they think they are addressing it with online study groups or forums.

ANDREW NG: Learning is social, and we learn best when we have classmates to discuss things with. When you teach a class of 100,000 students, what that means is that, if there’s a student thinking about some topic, no matter what time of day you’re awake thinking about it, there will be someone in some time zone awake thinking about the same thing as you are. They can discuss it with you.

SPENCER MICHELS: Still, the problem of personal contact is getting lots of attention from students and from teachers.

WALTER SINNOTT-ARMSTRONG: We cannot answer e-mails from students, so please do not e-mail us individually. There will be discussion forums where you can go and talk to other students about the material in the course.

TRACY LIPPINCOTT: The thing that I really miss is actually personal contact with the professor. I like to be able to get personalized advice from the person who’s in charge, and maybe just a little of like a thumbs-up, you know, just a little bit of positive reinforcement. But in terms of, like, between students, you can create that.” [but not in the same way]

A related issue for MOOCs: – great article – tries to strike a balance between fear-mongering and the obvious problems with current MOOCs

“Authentic Learning in the Digital Age’ – key points


Rainbow Lorikeet, back yard, Pennant Hills, Sydney

Here are the key ideas I gleaned from this book. I already practice several of them. I always have my antenna up for the possibility that some ideas may or may not work the same at university level. One teaching technique I avoid is getting university students to play games, which may give the appearance of infantilising their learning. I know it’s popular at K-12 levels, but for university students? It’s not always easy to judge the level of maturity they expect or want, so I avoid games. Maybe I am being too precious? I treat my university students as fellow adults and as my equals from day one, in fact I verbalise that in the classroom.

Summary of main points in “Authentic Learning in the Digital Age”