Tag Archives: MOOC

The Online Ban in Minnesota

The State of Minnesota has cracked down on free on-line courses offered by Coursera, founded by Stanford computer science professors. A spokesman for the state’s office of Higher Education said that Minnesota is simply “enforcing a longstanding state law requiring colleges to get the government’s permission to offer instruction within its borders.”

How this state law can be enforced is unclear since the ban is meaningless in cyberspace unless, of course, Minnesota authorities decide to act like Chinese politburo officials. Moreover, Coursera isn’t offering degrees – only classes.

Presumably you can exchange ideas on Facebook or Twitter, but should you decide to review Coursera material on macroeconomics, for example, the strong arm of authorities will take hold. This is mind-numbing. It may make sense for higher education authorities to monitor degree granting programs, but Coursera courses do not have degree implications.

In some respects this absurd state response is comparable to horse-owners opposing the first tractors. Whether Minnesota likes it or not, on-line education is here to stay, calling into question the traditional delivery of education and the competence standards associated with a degree. If one relies on Richard Arum and Josipa Ruksa’s conclusion in Academically Adrift, most college students don’t learn much during four years on campus. At the same time, the cost of tuition has reached a break point for most middle-class families.  

Clearly the market is demanding an alternative. On-line education is filling an obvious need. It is inexpensive and in theory can be at least as rigorous as traditional education purports to be. 

Student VoicesWhy I Dropped Out of a MOOC

Early in the summer, a friend and I enrolled in Introduction to Sociology, the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) recently discussed by Princeton Professor Mitchell Duneier. Prof. Duneier taught 40,000 online students via six weeks of free reading assignments, lectures, and discussions, interspersed with weekly quizzes and two exams.

I quit three weeks into the course. The videos were distracting. I felt disconnected from the professor, as if the face I saw on-screen was a detached third party serving up neatly packaged bits of information for massive consumption. It felt sterile.

Prof. Duneier ‘s article praises the way technology can overcome the barriers of time and distance: thanks to video discussions and online forums, “my audience became as visible to me as the students in a traditional lecture hall.” But that’s the problem: audience, not students. Seated in front of a camera, the professor has no choice but to talk at his far-flung class, instead of talking to or with them. MOOCs are by nature impersonal: they’re massive. Despite his best efforts, a professor can’t possibly know 40,000 students, or even a fraction of them. They’re faceless, nameless, anonymous, blurring together into one conglomerate blob of class-takers. He can’t interact with them. He can’t gauge their needs and adjust his method and content accordingly. He doesn’t know them.

Likewise, students, aware of their anonymity, cannot possibly get to know their professor. There is no opportunity for trust- and relationship-building. My MOOC included a discussion group, but participation was limited to a handful of students; the other 39,990 of us simply watched. Prof. Duneier responded faithfully to student questions, but he was only able to answer those questions that generated the most online interest. He guesses that these were probably the “most meaningful” questions to his students, but without some authority present to guide the discussion, what’s to say those questions were most relevant, incisive, or important?

MOOCs will never rival brick-and-mortar classrooms in quality of education. With that said, Prof. Duneier’s article does highlight two real benefits of MOOCS. These courses provide opportunities for students who otherwise would have no such educational access. MOOCs also give professors a unique opportunity to test new methods, collect large numbers of student reviews, and investigate a wider range of student ideas and opinions. For these reasons we shouldn’t discount MOOCs entirely. But we shouldn’t mistake a MOOC for a classroom.

The Meaningful March of the MOOCS

On July 16 Coursera–one of the new ventures by prestigious universities or their professors that offer free-of charge MOOCs (massive open online courses) to the general public–announced that twelve more institutions have joined the Coursera consortium that initially consisted of Stanford, Princeton, the University of Michigan, and the University of Pennsylvania. One of the new partners is the University of Virginia, whose president, Teresa Sullivan, was briefly fired (although later reinstated) by the university’s trustees because she had appeared reluctant to take the online plunge. Others  include Caltech, Rice, Duke, and the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health among others, and some 150 courses–online versions of their on-campus courses–are now on the Coursera roster.
Yet it seems that, although elite universities love MOOCs, they’re reluctant to give course credit even to the MOOCs that originate on their own campuses. According to Inside Higher Education, there were rumors that one of the new Coursera partners, the University of Washington, which is supposed to provide 19 Coursera courses, was going to break ranks–but it turns out that won’t be the case. If you want to receive credit–or even a certificate of completion–from Washington, you’ve got to enroll as either a regular or a continuing-education student for an “enhanced” version (more instructions and assessments) of the Coursera offering. That means you’ll be paying for the course at nearly the same rate as for a brick-and-mortar course.
On the one hand, it could be argued that Washington and its Coursera partners are simply trying to protect their academic reputations, and their exclusivity, by not handing out credits to all and sundry. On the other hand, it appears that Washington has figured out how to turn online education, which is far cheaper to deliver than the conventional kind, into a nice revenue center by charging close to bricks-and-mortar-level tuition for it.    

A Major Expansion of Online Courses

MIT and Harvard.jpgHarvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced yesterday that they will partner in a collaborative new higher-education venture, to be called EdX, that will offer a range of online courses to potentially tens of thousands of student worldwide, most of whom will not be enrolled at either Harvard or MIT. The EdX courses, funded with a $60 million joint contribution from the universities, scheduled to begin this fall and using a platform developed at MIT, will include “video lesson segments, embedded quizzes, online laboratories and immediate feedback,” according to a report in the Boston Herald. A nonprofit entity will oversee the operation of EdX and issue certificates of mastery to those who demonstrate that they have learned the course materials.

Continue reading A Major Expansion of Online Courses

Has the Higher-Ed Revolution Begun?

Sebastian Thrun.pngIt’s happening, almost overnight: what could be the collapse of the near-monopoly that traditional brick-and-mortar colleges and universities currently enjoy as respected credentialing institutions whose degrees and grades mean something to employers.

The most dramatic development, just a few days ago, was the decision of robotics-expert Sebastian Thrun to resign from his position as a tenured professor of computer science at Stanford in order to start an online university he calls Udacity that he hopes will reach hundreds of thousands of students who either can’t afford Stanford’s $40,000-a-year tuition or who can’t travel thousands of miles to one of the bricks-and-mortar classes he used to teach.

This past fall Thrun and Peter Norvig, research director at Google (where Thrun also works, designing cars that drive themselves), teamed up to teach online and free of charge one of their regular Stanford courses, Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, not just to Stanford students but to anyone who wanted to take them. Not only would the online students sit through Thrun and Norvig’s lectures, but the two instructors would test them via quizzes and written assignments, grade their work, and assign them a class ranking. Only Stanford students would be eligible to receive Stanford credit for the course, but non-Stanfordians would receive a “statement of achievement” that, together with their grades and class rankings, could be used to demonstrate that they had mastered the Stanford-level material in the course.

He Can’t Teach at Stanford Again

Thrun and Norvig’s bricks-and-mortar course, designed for graduate students and advanced-level undergraduates, had always been one of Stanford’s largest and most popular, with nearly 200 students from a range of disciplines signing up every time the two instructors offered the course. But the enrollment in last fall’s online version was exponential: 160,000 students from 190 countries registered, with about 20,000 of them completing the coursework and receiving grades that were generally on a par with those of the 175 Stanford students who took the bricks-and-mortars version.

In addition the University of Freiburg sponsored the course for 54 students at several German universities, proctoring the exams and offering its own credits. What was essentially happening–and it was a revolutionary development–was that Thrun himself, not Stanford, was certifying tens of thousands of students’ mastery of an elite-university-level body of scientific material that could serve as a gateway to even more sophisticated AI courses or a good job.

Although he will remain in Stanford’s computer-science department as a non-tenured research professor, Thrun has declared that he “can’t teach at Stanford again.” Hence, Udacity. Its premier course, titled “Building a Search Engine,” to be taught by  David Evans, a computer-science professor at the University of Virginia and also free of charge, is expected to have enrolled 200,000 students by the time it opens in late February. The course promises to teach the basics of computer programming to novices in just seven weeks. Thrun himself will teach a more advanced course, “Programming a Robotic Car” (Thrun invented a self-driving car for Google).

The Thrun-Norvig course of last fall represented just one of a growing number of efforts by top universities to open their students’ learning experiences to the general public. Stanford, for example, offered two other free online courses in computer science this past fall and has added eight more starting in January. Indeed several elite private institutions, including Harvard and Yale, have been offering free online courses to non-students for the past several years (although the courses lack the grading and other feedback that the Thrun-Norvig course featured).

Harvard had earlier tried to sell online courses but discovered that few people wanted to pay for learning experiences that offered no college credits. MIT’s OpenCourseWare program, in which the university puts all the teaching materials for its undergraduate and graduate courses online, has been in existence since 2001 and has attracted more than 100,000 users. In December MIT announced plans to expand OpenCourseWare by launching a project to be called MITx, that would also offer free online courses.

Stanford.jpgWhat made last fall’s Thrun-Norvig course different–and revolutionary–was its certification component. The two instructors were effectively warranting independently of Stanford that the online students who passed the course had learned as much about artificial intelligence and had been held to the same standards as the Stanford students who took the bricks-and-mortar version. Indeed, Stanford refused to have any official connection to the Thrun-Norvig course (in contrast to the other two online courses, which involved no professorial certification). Thrun and Norvig used a non-Stanford server to host their website (although it did display the Stanford engineering school seal), and posted teaching videos made outside of their Stanford classroom.

Udacity, which will similarly certify its students’ completion and mastery of material, is clearly the next logical step in developing courses exclusively for Udacity and outside the control of any university or its accrediting agency. Thrun has talked about having the certification process carried out by a third-party auditor with the hope that colleges will accept Udacity’s courses for transfer credits.

Bypassing official university structures to demonstrate academic competency is not a new phenomenon. In early January the Chronicle of Higher Education reported about the growing use of Boy Scout-style digital “badges” that certify the recipient’s specific educational skills. A free online education provider, Khan Academy, issues dozens of badges, some of them attesting to relatively simple achievements as watching a series of educational videos, and others requiring the recipient to demonstrate high levels of math competency or fine-grained technical skills such as video-editing. MIT intends for its MITx program to follow the Khan Academy’s lead–and also that of Udacity–in allowing takers of MITx courses to qualify for certificates for a modest fee, although the certificates would be issued by an independent entity to be created, not MIT itself.

According to Chronicle reporter Jeffrey Young, hundreds of education providers traditional and non-traditional hope to partake in a $2 million grant partly sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation that would fund experiments with online badge certification. Young wrote: “Employers might prefer a world of badges to the current system. After all, traditional college diplomas look elegant when hung on the wall, but they contain very little detail about what the recipient learned.”

Besides threatening to up-end universities’ traditional control of educational credentials, Thrun may also drastically change the shape of for-profit education. Udacity is being operated by Know Labs, a Thrun-founded for-profit enterprise funded by the venture-capital firm Charles River Ventures. Know Labs’ ultimate aim, according to Thrun, is to offer high-quality online courses that will be either free or cheap (the company is in the process of developing a business model).

Thrun has estimated, for example, that if he and Norvig had charged only $1 apiece to all 160,000 enrollees in their artificial-intelligence course last fall, they could have easily recouped their costs. By contrast, the majority of existing for-profit colleges charge relatively high tuition that has made those institutions highly dependent upon their students’ federal grants and loans. It’s unlikely that anyone would have to borrow in order to take an Udacity course.

Critics may argue that substituting a jerry-built edifice of badges and technical certificates for brick-and-mortar learning deprives young people of the liberal-arts schooling that has traditional developed such hard-to-quantify skills as analyzing problems and thinking critically. But the opposite may be equally true: that acquiring vocational skills such as computer programming via such outfits as Udacity may free up students to use their time in traditional colleges to focus on the liberal arts. And in any event, one non-traditional entity, StraighterLine, which specializes in $99 online courses that can be transferred to its partner colleges for credit, is already developing a course it plans to call “Critical Thinking.”