The UFF Senate is the primary decision-making body of the United Faculty of Florida, and this year it was accompanied by several workshops. In the two previous Biweeklies, we reported on two workshops, one on recruitment and one on university finances. Because of the current fiscal crunch at USF, there will soon be a follow-up Biweekly issue on financial liquidity. But while we research the subject, we continue with the reports on the UFF Senate - and this week, we look at the workshop on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).
What is a MOOC?
The workshop on Massive open online education : the straight dope was presented by UF Chemical Engineering Professor Oscar Crisalle and UF Computer Science Professor Meera Sitharam. They said that the context of online education was a perceived shortage of skilled employees and the rising cost of education. Their analogy was the growth of the automobile industry a century ago. Before Henry Ford, automobiles were marginal luxury items that didn't work very well; within a few decades, sound engineering and the assembly line produced a car (the Model T) that was a quantum leap ahead of its predecessors in performance and reliability; in addition, it was cheap enough to be available to the public. The hope is that technology in general, and MOOCs in particular, would do for education what technology and the assembly line had done for cars.
As we shall see, there is nothing resembling the Model T of education out there yet. But first, what is a MOOC?
Distance Learning was a Nineteenth century invention, and until a few decades ago, it consisted largely of correspondence courses. For example, an aspiring artist could enroll in a drawing course that consisted of getting a textbook and assignments, mailing in assignments, having a staff instructor grade them and mail them back. Charles Schulz was one such student, paying $ 170 (a lot of money during the Depression) and years later becoming a staff instructor. A lot of modern distance learning is a high tech variant: email, video streaming, social chat software (e.g., Chatblazer), etc., allow a staff instructor (perhaps with teaching assistants) to lead a class of one to maybe thirty or perhaps more. Programs of this sort include Florida Virtual School and AOPS. These are not particularly massive, they certainly aren't open, and whatever increased access to education they provide, they still have substantial labor costs.
Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are to the above Distance Learning model what mass lecture courses are to regular classes. The MOOC may have a web-based text with web assignments, with machine grading systems (similar to WebAssign), but they tend to be based on lectures by skilled or celebrity instructors. A MOOC can consist of modules, like the Kahn Academy, or it can consist of courses packaged by prestigious institutions for ... other ... institutions by organizations like EdX. Competing packages are offered by Pearson / Harcourt Online, Coursera and Udacity. The vision is of a world famous professor leading a class of thousands.
(There are other models as well, like the website with lots of educational tools for visitors to experiment worth and learn about on their own, like Code Academy and the App Inventor. There are even sites for instructors interested in MOOCs - or other forms of distance learning - like Open MOOC, Course Builder, and Course 2 Go.)
WARNING. MOOCs being all the rage, there is a tendency to use the terms "MOOC" and "distance learning" interchangeably. Indeed, at this workshop, a class of thirty students, with an instructor and two TAs, with student interaction and homework graded by humans, was called a kind of MOOC. But when costs or performance are considered, it is very important to be clear about exactly what kind of distance learning is being discussed.
Speaking of costs, the infrastructure - particularly the software that runs the MOOC, that has to be maintained and kept up to date - can be expensive. The formula presented at the workshop was for a basic MOOC with students interacting with TAs is: startup at about $ 30,000 per course, with labor costs (in addition to the world-famous lecturer) being one teaching assistant per 200 students and one technician per 1,000 students.
There are several issues with MOOCs. (Note that they can apply to other forms of distance learning as well.)
The workshop organizers presented some positive points.
- In a traditional course, a departmental committee chooses a text (lower division) or the instructor does (upper division), and then the instructor teaches the course as the instructor sees fit. For many MOOCs, an agency - often an external organization or corporation - designs and effectively controls the course.
- For several decades, assessment has been based on accreditation standards and student evaluations. Assessment of MOOCs based on these two systems is just being developed, and meanwhile there is a growing accountancy movement pushing for assessment based on student performance - and student performance in MOOCs is problematic.
- If an instructor develops a MOOC, there are intellectual property issues. Intellectual property rights of faculty at USF are covered by the Collective Bargaining Agreement, but the situation is complicated and fluid and faculty should be careful. A number of institutions (including USF) have engaged in over-reaching.
Some critics suspect that watching recordings of a famous professor lecturing does not make a university course. When California State University - San Jose considered using MOOC material from a
- Texts could be animated and exercises could be structured as video games.
- Students could interact and work collaboratively with other students at great distances, or with experts from around the world.
- MOOCs allow researchers to gather large amounts of data on student progress, which helps them understand the learning process better and help them design better MOOCs.
One point that was made in the workshop is that the automotive revolution may not be the best analogy. A competing analogy is the medical and public health revolution of the Nineteenth century. Those revolutions were led by doctors and scientists, while the patent medicine industry (which sold those cocaine cough drops and morphine headache draughts) contributed to politicians. If educators of this century face a revolution, it should be a revolution of our making - not one imposed on us - and it should be one aimed at advancing the interests of our students and our community. We should be the watchdogs against the education equivalents of the patent medicine industry, which is all too prone to confuse its own interests with those of our students.
So How are MOOCs Doing?
While some distance learning and classroom technology techniques have positive results, MOOCs have not done so well, not even in keeping prices down.
We repeat our caveat: a lot of distance learning that really aren't MOOCs are often called MOOCs, because that's the in buzzword. With that warning in mind...
The United Kingdom's Open University has gone into "distance learning" in a big way, including MOOCs. Last June, Times Higher Education reported that Open University's Futurelearn MOOCs had such high failure rates that in the future, there will be partial credit for completing part of the course. Then one of the Open Universityís own students conducted a study of 29 MOOCs offered by various institutions, and found that among these, there was a mean 6.8 % completion rate.
The 93 % drop / withdrawal / failure / whatever rate is not unusual for MOOCs. MOOC advocates often claim that 90+ % drop-out rates include students who watch but donít seek mastery. This suggestion was supported by the Open University study: the course with the highest passing rate (19.2 %) was Functional Programming Principles in Scala offered by Switzerland's Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, while the one with the lowest rate (0.8 %) was A History of the World since 1300 offered by Princeton University.
Nevertheless, distance learning in general is viewed quite favorably by the public. Bellevue University, an adult education and educational outreach institution, conducted a Mobile Learning 2.0 poll, and found that not only are half the adults thinking about pursuing an online education, but that 47 % of those polled said "online degrees are as respected, or more respected, than a traditional degree." A similar Gallup poll produced more nuanced but comparable results.
If this is the century when education leaps ahead the way medicine did in the Nineteenth, then educators should be open-minded about novel teaching techniques, including those using technology. And indeed, there are several promising techniques. But the MOOC with a world famous professor lecturing to an audience scattered around the planet may have the same weaknesses as the mass lecture courses - which are also used to save money.
But suppose we are using MOOCs for the wrong thing. For centuries, the public has been thirsty for knowledge. With the continued collapse of cable channel quality, universities could fill the gap. Massive MOOCs may be better off used as community outreach, modeled after the pioneering productions of Sir David Attenborough and Ken Burns. Of course, a wise university seeking to raise its profile would not use Harvard faculty; it would use its own.