Get the complete book Thinking Strategically about MOOCs: The Role of Massive Open Online Courses in the College and University at Amazon in print or kindle version.


Musing on MOOCs
These are just some relatively unstructured musings on MOOCs now that the dust has settled, or at least stopped blowing furiously. It’s worth reviewing the landscape and to reflect on the opportunities and challenges these iterative learning environments represent. MOOCs …
More . . .

1. Isolating the hype 
“Welcome to the college education revolution. Big breakthroughs happen when what is suddenly possible meets what is desperately necessary.
~ Thomas Friedman

[Complete Article with Recommended Readings]

1.1 The MOOC “Revolution.” The story became legend almost immediately: In 2011, Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig, director of research at Google, decided to teach the course “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” online, and make it available for free to anyone in the world with an Internet connection. 160,000 students enrolled and 20,000 completed the course. Within weeks of the conclusion of his class, Thrun resigned his tenure-track position and founded Udacity, a for-profit provider of “massive open online courses,” or MOOCs, with substantial investment from the VC firm Charles River Ventures.  Thrun’s stated objective was to have 500,000 students in his first Udacity class.

1.2 MOOCs Threaten the Traditional Business Model of Higher EducationIn a June 2012 interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, Bill Gates suggested that the ideal modification of the credential system would involve disconnecting representation of the range of an individual’s knowledge from the current metric of college degrees conferred. (Gates himself has a high school diploma and makes substantial use of available resources to deepen his personal knowledge.)

1.3 MOOC predecessorsIf MOOCs are to be as influential and ubiquitous as many predict, the effort of colleges and universities (and organizations and associations) not on the roster of elite campuses must be acknowledged and supported.  Here is a brief enumeration of less well-known MOOC predecessors

Recommended Readings

2. Identifying Expectation and Hope 
“MOOCs have the potential (if we do it well) for making higher education available globally to those who cannot afford it.  In this particular sense, MOOCs are not a threat to conventional U.S. brick-and-mortar education.  They offer a form of education to those for whom education is off limits.”
~ Cathy Davidson

[Complete Article with Recommended Readings]

2.1  Out of hype, hope.  In general, people are fascinated with trends that predict dramatic changes in the way we live, work, communicate and learn. Whether The Next Big Thing” or “The End of [insert established cultural milieu here] As We Know It,” trends that have the potential to deconstruct the familiar seduce us into obsessing about them and endlessly bandying them about in conversation and debate. We relish in reacting—often with little information—to evolutions (and advertised revolutions) that promise to move us further from how it was done in our day.

2.2  Campus Leaders reveal their hopes and expectations. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal John Hennessy, President of Stanford revealed his anticipation for the future: “What I told my colleagues is there’s a tsunami coming. I can’t tell you exactly how it’s going to break, but my goal is to try to surf it, not to just stand there.”

2.3  Equitable and expansive access. One of the more intriguing and marketable aspects of MOOCs is their potential for allowing all students to enroll in highly valued courses and study with distinguished faculty from the most elite schools in the world. This is built into the MOOC program offered by Coursera, for example, which is contractually limited to partnering with elite universities. This MOOC model affords unprecedented access to talented professors at prestigious universities.

2.4  Analytics, assessment, and improved educational outcomes. The massive nature of MOOCs offers a new laboratory for approaches to developing competency-based assessment.  Many have longed for the opportunity to make use of emerging analytical tools in education. We have large amounts of data that is unstructured and lacks context.  MOOCs are poised to provide purposeful data sets about student interaction with course materials.

2.5  Reduce the cost and improve the access. For many, the value of MOOCs lies in their potential to reduce the cost of education and corresponding bottlenecks in course registrations. They hope that MOOCs will create increasingly accessible, low-cost paths for learners and reduce the overhead of developing and delivering courses.

Recommended Readings

3. The Demographics of MOOCs 
“Things that can’t last don’t. This is why MOOCs matter. Not because distance learning is some big new thing or because online lectures are a solution to all our problems, but because they’ve come along at a time when students and parents are willing to ask themselves, ‘Isn’t there some other way to do this?’”
~ Clay Shirkey, “How to Save College”

[Complete Article with Recommended Readings]

3.1 Data points and case studies. Ultimately, students are not concerned with the distinctions we make about online learning platforms.  They look to those of us in higher education to provide an accessible environment in which they can excel and attain their academic objectives. MOOCs must be discussed, planned for, and implemented as an additive component in a broader online learning environment that provides flexibility and choice to students trying to navigate a higher education system in transition.

3.2 Enrollment and completion data. Higher education has invested in online course delivery for years, and the investment is increasing. Many colleges, universities, and state legislatures are well on their way to responding to enrollment problems with MOOCs. Given the pressure to leverage this solution, it is vital to understand who is actually taking MOOCs, identifying their motivations, participation, location and behavior, and sorting out the factors contributing to and discouraging their productive participation.

3.3 Demographic data from early Coursera MOOCs. While demographic data about MOOC participation is still difficult to find, there are some sample profiles with numbers. Steve Kolowich provides a glimpse in “Early demographic data hints at what type of student takes a MOOC,” in Inside Higher Ed. The article reviewed survey results from one Coursera MOOC.

3.4 Duke University’s Bioelectricity MOOC. Yvonne Belanger, who leads assessment and program evaluation at the Center for Instructional Technology at Duke University, recently published a summary of enrollment in Duke’s first Coursera MOOC, Bioelectricity: A Quantitative Approach. Only about three hundred fifty of the approximately 12,700 registrants took the final exam—a dropout rate of ninety-seven percent.

3.5 Geography of MOOC demographics. It is important also to note that MOOCs have successfully connected participants from across the globe. EdX speaks to this strategic motive on its website: “Along with offering online courses, the institutions will use edX to research how students learn and how technology can transform learning–both on-campus and worldwide” [emphasis added].  So where are MOOC participants located?  What are the factors that contribute to or challenge the global reach of MOOCs?

3.6 Udacity, San Jose State, and Planning Questions. Udacity and San Jose State University, for example, are currently at work on a project demonstrating the potential of building data gathering directly into the delivery of MOOCs. In January 2013, they announced the joint creation and delivery of three introductory mathematics classes. For Udacity, a stated objective of the pilot is to investigate strategies to bolster retention by requiring participating SJSU students to have more “skin in the game” by paying $150 per credit (standard per-credit fees in the California state university system range from $450-$750).

Recommended Readings

4. Impact of online learning technologies
Comparatively few of the nation’s more than 4,000 degree-granting American colleges or universities . . . have the personnel, instructional and technological infrastructure . . . to invest in launching their own MOOCs.
~ Kenneth C. Green

[Complete Article with Recommended Readings]

4.1 MOOCs amplify existing support issues.  Practically speaking, MOOCs are a platform of bundled technologies. If you sign with Coursera, Udacity, edX, or other xMOOC providers, you’ll make use of the technology bundle that they provide. If you elect to develop your own cMOOC, you likely already provide support to your on-campus constituents for most of the technologies used to deliver such MOOCs—though you may not have consciously connected them in the same manner, or at the same scale. cMOOCs make use of information systems commonly found on campus: an LMS, wikis, blogs, social media, and video and videoconferencing tools.

4.2 A brief review of the technologies that implement and sustain MOOCs. It’s worth reviewing the underlying technologies that enable MOOCs and online learning. In this post I’ll outline some issues and challenges regarding user support, scalability, exposure, and liability that implementing technologies at the scale of the MOOC introduces.

4.3 Support for the MOOC: Does it scale?  Are you prepared to support the communities of practice at the scale of MOOCs?  For many colleges and universities, technology support is funded and staffed for current technology implementation with little room for exploration or innovation, especially where that exploration requires supporting users not formally affiliated with the institution.

4.4 Massive online technology failure: it can happen here. Even universities with great strength in technology and significant staff resources are challenged to support innovative technology implementation and usage on the scale of the MOOC. A recent event at the Georgia Institute of Technology is instructive.

4.5 Massive exposure and liability: Are you legal?  The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) ~ Sec. 12132, Discrimination, states “ . . . no qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of services, programs, or activities of a public entity.” MOOC technologies greatly amplify existing issues regarding exposure and liability. As with scalability and support, challenges with respect to accessibilitycopyright, and fair use will be magnified in a massive learning environment. You and your faculty and staff will need to consider institutional exposure as you contemplate entering the MOOC fray.

4.6 Bandwidth divide. Even if your campus is capable of delivering on the scale of the MOOC, you are part of an online ecosystem that is not created equal. There are very real obstacles to delivering online resources to users in the “last mile” of the network who are unable to receive your course because their network bandwidth is effectively nil.

Planning Questions

Recommended Readings

5. Can MOOCs be made to add up?
While strong majorities of presidents agree that going online should be good for both enrollments and revenue, there is less evidence about just how much new net revenue online education actually produces—if any.
~ Kenneth C. Green

[Complete Article with Recommended Readings]

6. The Shape of Things (To Consider): Credible Credits
At the moment, colleges have a monopoly on the sale of college credits, the only units of learning that can be assembled into credentials with wide acceptance in the labor market. Monopolies are valuable things to control, and monopolists tend not to relinquish them voluntarily. But the MOOC explosion will accelerate the breakup of the college credit monopoly.
~ Kevin Carey

[Complete Article with Recommended Readings]

7. MOOCs and the Measurement of Knowledge and Competency
The emergence of MOOCs has been and will continue to be a catalyst for more discussions among presidents, provosts, trustees, deans, accrediting agency officials, and others about the quality of MOOC courses, the value of MOOC certificates, and the potential threat that MOOCs offered by elite institutions and their partners like Coursera and Udacity might pose to other segments and sectors.
~ Casey Green

[Complete Article with Recommended Readings]

8. The Rise of the Machines: Big data, learning analytics, and adaptive learning 
Big Data is at the heart of modern science and business.
~ Francis X. Diebold, University of Pennsylvania

[Complete Article with Recommended Readings]

8.1 Big Data. MOOCs and other online education spaces generate tremendous amounts of data about student behavior, learning styles, and interactions with course material, teachers, and other students.  MOOCs also provide data about time spent on particular assignments and engagement in general with the MOOC environment.  We can know when students are online and offline, and for how long. Ostensibly, analysis of this data can teach us a great deal about learning. This possibility has people trumpeting Big Data as the next big thing.

8.2 Learning Analytics: Three important companies you should know
Apollo Group and Carnegie Learning.
Pearson and Learning Catalytics.

8.3 Adaptive LearningIn his article “A History of Teaching Machines” (American Psychologist, September, 1988), Ludy T. Benjamin traced the pedigree and legacy of teaching machines in the U.S: “By the early 1960s, teaching machines were much in the news. National and international conferences were held to discuss the new technology, and popular magazines and scientific journals published news of the emerging research and applications.”

8.4 Carnegie Mellon Online Learning Initiative (OLI)More than a decade ago, the late Herbert Simon, Nobel Laureate and professor at Carnegie Mellon University, stated, “Improvement in postsecondary education will require converting teaching from a solo sport to a community-based research activity.” Simon’s emphatic stance has informed the development and implementation of Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative (OLI), which began as an effort to integrate digital cognitive tutors and standalone online courses. Beginning in 2002, with funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the OLI embarked on a program to develop an online curriculum for “anyone who wants to learn or teach” (Source: OLI website,

8.5 The “New Way College” Model.  In his article  “The Real Precipice,” Richard Holmgren, Vice President for Information Services and Planning at Allegheny College, offers a hypothetical scenario for just how an alternative model integrating the Carnegie Mellon Online Learning Initiative, existing universities, and corporate interests might work. In this scenario, a university that is already committed to, and active in, online competency-based credentialing would partner with a provider similar to the OLI to create a fictional online college (call it “New Way College”) within the larger host institution. New Way College provides a basic curriculum of hybrid courses with no more than twenty students per course, enabling students to earn an associate degree at significant cost savings.

8.6 Platforms and Publishers: delivering on adaptive learning.  The report “Learning To Adapt: A Case for Accelerating Adaptive Learning in Higher Education” makes an important distinction between adaptive learning “platforms” and course content “publishers.” To date, campuses have generally had choices between vendors offering platforms with adaptive learning authoring tools and publishers providing course content with delivery models that try to incorporate adaptive learning.

8.7 Ethical Implications of Big Data, Analytics, and Adaptive Learning.  Indeed, there is undeniable value in inefficiency and imperfection. We learn from our mistakes and we do well to foster spaces where we can mess up and gain insights from the process. Proponents of adaptive learning are confident that the digital spaces they are creating are just that—spaces where we learn from our mistakes. At issue for higher education is the extent to which we identify and implement big data and adaptive learning solutions. Morozov’s concerns notwithstanding, these resources will be part of whatever MOOCs and learning management systems colleges and universities put in place. We must ensure that we understand how to make the best use of these tools as supplements to the established value and success of educators.  We need to listen to the cautionary tales of those like Morozov to understand the reasonable limits of such potentially invasive technologies. Campus leaders and stakeholders across all sectors of higher education and from all sorts of institutions need to fully understand the implications of these proposed solutions, insert appropriate checks and balances, and ensure continued appreciation for the necessarily awkward messiness of learning.

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