The Imperfect University: Massive Open Online Confusion?

The Future of HE? Or Massive Open Online Confusion?

For the latest Imperfect University piece a few thoughts on a topic which is attracting considerable comment at the moment: the growth of the Massive Open Online Course or MOOC. There has been a huge amount of hype around the new models of online provision or MOOCs, much of it significantly overstating the likely impact of such offerings. The numbers involved are impressive though with hundreds of thousands enrolled on some courses (hence the “massive” descriptor). Will MOOCs transform higher education as we know it? Or are they in fact closer to more traditional models of education than their proponents admit?

Wonkhe Imperfect University

Disruptive innovation, a theory originally developed by Clayton Christensen to explain how new entrants to markets could take the lead through innovation and supplant traditional businesses, has been frequently applied of late to higher education. There has been much talk and many exciting conference presentations and magazine articles about how these new online providers will disrupt traditional models of learning and bring about the end of the physical university.

A paradigm shift?

Among the most extreme views on the likely impact of MOOCs we have Sebastian Thrun who has set up Udacity, a major new online provider, which has emerged from Stanford University with much fanfare. Quoted in a recent edition of Wired he predicted some change in the higher education market:

Fifty years from now, according to Thrun, there will be only 10 institutions in the whole world that deliver higher education.

Others have compared existing universities to companies which failed to adapt to new technology, such as Kodak. as for example, this story in the Washington Times notes:

The recent bankruptcy declaration by Kodak, one of the nation’s most trusted brands for consumers, which once held a market share in excess of 90 percent, is stunning. Kodak mistook America’s century-long love affair with its products as a sign of market permanency, missing the fact that camera phones, flip cameras and online sharing would erode its brand and render it irrelevant.

So it’s clear that even though the reservoir of public trust for higher education is deep, it certainly isn’t bottomless. That means colleges and universities must do all they can to keep and sustain the public’s confidence in higher education.

Colleges and universities also must focus on increasing higher education productivity – but not the kind that is about budget cutting to serve fewer students or about making individual institutions more selective. Instead, the true definition of productivity is one that offers a substantial increase in high-quality degree and certificate production at lower costs per degree awarded, while improving access and equity for underserved populations.

Ultimately, though, higher education must take control of its own future. The world is indeed changing, rapidly, and colleges and universities must seize the moment to meet the rising demand for high-quality skills that are vital to our collective well-being as a nation. If they don’t, they, like Kodak, risk the chance of being gone in a flash.

So, is this a once in a generation paradigm shift which will sweep away the some of the longest established organisations in the Western world? Or is it an over-hyped bubble?

Udacity

udacity logo

Looking first at Udacity, established by the aforementioned Professor Thrun, it claims an impressive 160,000 students from around the world enrolled on on its first course in artificial intelligence. It summarises its mission thus:

We believe university-level education can be both high quality and low cost. Using the economics of the Internet, we’ve connected some of the greatest teachers to hundreds of thousands of students all over the world.

A glance at the curriculum for one of the Udacity classes gives a sense of what is on offer:

CS262: Programming Languages

Description: This class will give you an introduction to fundamentals of programming languages. In seven weeks, you will build your own simple web browser complete with the ability to parse and understand HTML and JavaScript. You will learn key concepts such as how to specify and process valid strings, sentences and program structures. Then, you will design and build an interpreter – a program that simulates other programs.

WEEK 1:
String Patterns
Finding and specifying classes of strings using regular expressions

WEEK 2:
Lexical Analysis
Breaking strings down into important words

WEEK 3:
Grammars
Specifying and deconstructing valid sentences

WEEK 4:
Parsing
Turning sentences into trees

WEEK 5:
Interpreting
Simulating programs

WEEK 6:
Building a Web Browser
Interpreting HTML and JavaScript

WEEK 7:
Wrap-up
Exam testing your knowledge

It all looks rather good. However, it’s difficult to escape the impression that there is a significant element of ego in here on the part of those leading this. Who wouldn’t want to be loved by hundreds of thousands of students instead of just one or two classes a year?

Coursera

Similar to Udacity is Coursera, which includes courses from Princeton, Stanford, Michigan and Pennsylvania Universities. The Coursera mission is nothing if not ambitious:

Education for Everyone.

We offer courses from the top universities, for free.

Learn from world-class professors, watch high quality lectures, achieve mastery via interactive exercises, and collaborate with a global community of students.

You can see the introductory video here:

Again, all jolly exciting.

Khan Academy
Khan Academy, which for a few years has been offering huge amounts of content leading to a range of “badges”, is another major player in this area. A recent piece about how “Bill Gates’ Favorite Teacher Wants to Disrupt Education” gives a flavour of the approach taken by its leader:

Wonkhe Khan academy

 

How would he change education? By turning it upside down. First, he says, we should “decouple credentialing from learning.” Instead of handing out degrees, standardized assessments would be the measure of employee competence. Anyone could learn at their own pace in their own way: in an internship, as an entrepreneur, or at home on the Internet. Then, everyone, no matter how they were educated, would be equal before the evaluation. Additionally, he thinks the assessment could be more meaningful than whatever abilities a college degree actually signals to employers.

The Khan Academy site explains more about how they recognise learning through badges:

 

Wonkhe apprentice arithmeticianAs soon as you login, you’ll start earning badges and points for learning. The more you challenge yourself, the more bragging rights you’ll get.

We’ve heard of students spending hour after hour watching physics videos and 5th graders relentlessly tackling college-level math to earn Khan Academy badges. Some of the smaller badges are very easy, but the most legendary badges might require years of work.

Will these badges become more meaningful than degrees? Will higher education be turned upside down?

edX

MITx, the online offshoot of MIT, started its ball rolling in late 2011, then more recently joined up with Harvardx to form edX, described thus:

 

Wonkhe EDX logoAn organization established by MIT and Harvard that will develop an open-source technology platform to deliver online courses. EdX will support Harvard and MIT faculty in conducting research on teaching and learning on campus through tools that enrich classroom and laboratory experiences. At the same time, edX also will reach learners around the world through online course materials. The edX website will begin by hosting MITx and Harvardx content, with the goal of adding content from other universities interested in joining the platform. edX will also support the Harvard and MIT faculty in conducting research on teaching and learning.

Interestingly, the very laudable aim of edX to support research about learning rather sets it apart from the other developments mentioned here. The edX – FAQs offer some more insights into the approach:

How is this different from what other universities are doing online?

EdX will be entirely our universities’ shared educational missions. Also, a primary goal of edX is to improve teaching and learning on campus by supporting faculty from both universities in conducting significant research on how students learn.

Who will lead edX?

EdX is a priority for the leadership of both Harvard and MIT, and it will be governed by a board made up of key leaders from both institutions, appointed by each university’s president. MIT Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Anant Agarwal will be the initial President of edX and will report to the board.

Does the effort have a staff?

EdX is a significant undertaking that will require significant resources. The full scope of the staff has not been determined, but there will be a dedicated staff to the initiative.

Who can take edX courses? Will there be an admissions process?

EdX will be available to anyone in the world with an internet connection, and in general, there will not be an admissions process. For a modest fee, and as determined by the edX board, MIT and Harvard, credentials will be granted only to students who earn them by demonstrating mastery of the material of a subject.

Will the certificates be awarded by Harvard and/or MIT?

As determined by the edX board, MIT and Harvard, online learners who demonstrate mastery of subjects could earn a certificate of completion, but such certificates would not be issued under the name Harvard or MIT.

Some of the problems with these MOOCs

There are a number of problems associated with these developments:

  • There is no proper academic quality assurance: by and large anyone can offer any course they want without any need for approval or monitoring by an academic body. It might be good, it might not but you’ll have to try it to find out. However,  edX argues that the standards are the same as for regular MIT and Harvard courses:

Will MIT and Harvard standards apply here?

The reach changes exponentially, but the rigor remains the same.

This may be true in terms of the content but they are not assessed in the same way and, as noted in the edX FAQs above, certificates will not be issued in the names of the universities.

  • Self-selection: courses are offered by self-selecting academics and followed by self-selecting students. Again there is no quality assurance in relation to either.
  • Drop out rates are very high: most people simply won’t stay the course. It’s easy to enrol but even easier to drop out.
  • It’s something of a popularity contest: what’s new and exciting is what’s popular. Robotics and artificial intelligence are the hot topics to study along with lots of related IT stuff. However, Sociology and Greek Mythology can also be found.
  • Non-assessment: there isn’t any meaningful assessment. This is one of the biggest problems with this kind of large scale offering – the assessment methods seem to be basic at best. There is a need for something beyond multiple choice – undoubtedly we will get more sophisticated assessment tools in future but scaling up will be difficult.
  • Non-accreditation: completion of all of the work will mean you get the equivalent of an attendance certificate or a virtual badge. These may have currency in certain businesses in some sectors (mainly IT) but it is not clear that they will achieve wider recognition. (See an earlier, rather critical, post on this topic.)

Terms and conditions

To be clear about what is not offered, let’s look at some of the terms and conditions from Udacity:

you acknowledge that any letter of completion awarded will not be affiliated with any college or university and will not stand in the place of a course taken at an accredited institution;

you acknowledge that instructors of any Online Course will not be involved in any attempts to get the course recognized by any educational or accredited institution; and

you will abide by the Student Conduct Policy listed below.

DISCLAIMER OF WARRANTIES.

You expressly acknowledge and agree that your use of the Class Sites, the Online Courses and all content and services available on the Class Sites is at your sole risk and responsibility. THE ONLINE COURSES (INCLUDING ANY CONTENT) IS PROVIDED “AS IS” AND “AS AVAILABLE” WITH NO REPRESENTATIONS OR WARRANTIES OF ANY KIND, EITHER EXPRESSED OR IMPLIED, INCLUDING, BUT NOT LIMITED TO, THE IMPLIED WARRANTIES OF MERCHANTABILITY, FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE, AND NONINFRINGEMENT. YOU ASSUME TOTAL RESPONSIBILITY AND THE ENTIRE RISK FOR YOUR USE OF THE ONLINE COURSES AND CONTENT.

WITHOUT LIMITING THE FOREGOING, WE DO NOT WARRANT THAT (A) THE CLASS SITES, CONTENT, OR THE ONLINE COURSES WILL MEET YOUR REQUIREMENTS OR EXPECTATIONS OR ACHIEVE THE INTENDED PURPOSES, (B) THE CLASS SITES OR THE ONLINE COURSES WILL NOT EXPERIENCE OUTAGES OR OTHERWISE BE UNINTERRUPTED, TIMELY, SECURE OR ERROR-FREE, (C) THE INFORMATION OR CONTENT OBTAINED THROUGH THE CLASS SITES OR THE ONLINE COURSES WILL BE ACCURATE, COMPLETE, CURRENT, ERROR-FREE, COMPLETELY SECURE OR RELIABLE, OR (D) THAT DEFECTS IN OR ON THE CLASS SITES OR CONTENT WILL BE CORRECTED. YOU ASSUME ALL RISK OF PERSONAL INJURY, INCLUDING DEATH AND DAMAGE TO PERSONAL PROPERTY, SUSTAINED FROM USE OF THE ONLINE COURSES AND CONTENT.

OK it’s a free offer, and students are able to learn for nothing and do get an attendance certificate or a badge but there are no guarantees that anyone will recognize either (in fact there are seemingly very few guarantees at all). Will employers start favouring these? I doubt it even if some companies eventually employ the brightest of the hundreds of thousands taking some courses who manage to stand out and then receive a recommendation from a tutor.

Perhaps not that revolutionary after all

It’s all very exciting and has prompted breathless commentary about the imminent demise of traditional universities. Yes, these developments will have an impact but MOOCs will not replace universities – rather they will offer a different avenue to self-improvement. MOOCs are an interesting new delivery method and offer education at scale in a way that traditional universities find hard but really this is more of a contemporary variation on the Adult Learning/Continuing Education model. The expansion and democratization of learning which MOOCs represent is thoroughly laudable but they are in reality an extension of education offerings rather than a replacement for established universities.

The new Mechanics’?

Despite all the hype, this new provision may offer real value for many. MOOCs can be seen as the internet equivalent of the Mechanics’ Institute, which started in the 19th Century as vehicles for self-improvement for working men unable to gain access to conventional education.

Leeds Mechanics' Institute (now a museum)
Leeds Mechanics’ Institute (now a museum)

Some of these institutes formed the foundation of universities (including UMIST, Heriot Watt and Birkbeck for example) and provided routes into higher education for those usually excluded. But for many people such institutes, which often included libraries, provided a means of improving technical knowledge to enable advancement at work or more general self-education. This philosophy still underpins the largely part-time provision at Birkbeck.

Such institutes often depended on philanthropy for their resources as do some of the online startups we’re seeing now. Will these new providers last as long as some of the Mechanics’? Perhaps. They do offer something new and interesting for which there is clearly demand.

So, we should embrace MOOCs as a welcome additional contribution to education in the great adult education tradition. But will they sweep aside traditional universities? (Or all but 10 of them?) I don’t think so. Things are likely to be a bit confusing for a while therefore.

16 responses to “The Imperfect University: Massive Open Online Confusion?

  1. There are other MOOCs (ds106, change11 …) that are much more interesting, and also more “human”. But you are right to note that MOOCs rely on Universities (as do OER initiatives and so on). Some of the best MOOCs involve open online students alongside fee-paying credit-gaining institutional students.

  2. MOOCs are indeedc an interesting extension of a kind of lifelong learning, but with all of the caveats and limitations that appear to be placed onmany of them by their providers, they really are very unlikely to replace all but 10 Univs world-wide. Their appeal, however, may vary markedly in different global regions. In those markets where demand for new knowledge perceived to be at a Univ or College level outstrips supply, MOOCs and their ilk might well gain greater traction, than for example, in the English Shires. Perhaps their value comes from overcoming regulatory, often Governmental restrictions on new Campus developments, or even joint degrees, in some parts of the world. Such restrictions are simple protectionism and might logically one day be swept away by WTO decisions. But, as we see from the current Eurozone okie-cokie with Greece, things that might seem to make sense do not always come to pass, and may not always make as much sense as first appears.
    If you were a parent or a learner considering a MOOC route, which might well appear enticingly inexpensive (or even free), you would need to consider the reputational currency that sporting such a ‘badge’ or certificate of achievement might be worth. For many people, in most parts of the world, such baubles may not be a route to a better job, or professional advancement. The risk then, is of wasting a learning opportunity. Until such time as really big global players are prepared to attach degree-level certification to such programmes, and with that must surely come all of independent montioring, verifiable assessments, quality assurance and pastoral support (although some MOOC providers may provide parts of these now). All of that equals cost, which would either mean putting the prices up, or philanthropists with even deeper pockets.

    i suspect we have seen much of this before, and potential clients need to think carefully and separate hyperbole from fact, as well as collecting badges, or other baubles, which might have no professional currency, from more traditional products that do.
    One final point though, the Edx type idea seems to me entirely worthy, as the global internet then becomes a testing lab for edu-research. This makes a lot of sense, especially when the providers are quite so high profile. One trusts that clients give their informed consent to being edu-research subjects in such endeavours. Taken to it’s extreme, this could even be the begiings of something akin to global democracy….

  3. A truly thorough and well argued post. I will read in full and respond accordingly, I admittedly wish I had kept up with your blog! I agree they may never replace traditional universities. However, they certainly are increasing the access to knowledge to such an extent that they can be fairly described as very disruptive, if not revolutionary.

    Although Udacity etc. do not provision official accreditation nor replace an intimate, curated, irreplaceable campus education, they still provide immediate access to knowledge which was previously reserved for those who have been lucky enough to be sent to (or afford) school. Growing up in the UK means we are guaranteed an education. What about those in the corners of Delhi and Nairobi with no money or prospects? Thrun is supposedly finding talent across the world that would never be able to attend/afford leading Universities like Nottingham or Stanford. If these students can show their coding skills they still become employable or innovative if they use these skills in practice to hack together products, certificate or not. Their disruptive potential is certainly over hyped but that’s because the revolution has not been televised. Maybe established Universities can do better online specifically?

    Is it not realistic to foresee accreditation being provided incrementally or for traditional Universities taking aspects from these successful startups and scaling online specifically? I have learnt a lot from Udacity and cannot emphasize their value enough. From a personal perspective – considering the core purpose is to learn a specific skill set, I chose these courses over an MSc in Software Engineering so I can continue to work.

    Admittedly learning onsite, with structure is why I’m starting “devbootcamp” on Monday. Shereef’s course is another example which I think sits in the middle (not on a fence at all) of these new, disruptive ways to learn specific skills, without waiting for the second and third year modules which I felt could have come sooner when I studied Computer Science.

    PS – two more interesting examples are http://www.codecademy.com + http://www.codeschool.com/ each which are only sufficient to help prep me for devbootcamp, neither which support or accelerate my learning in the way we believe bootcamp will or which University would.

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