The biggest thing in higher ed news during 2013 arguably was, as in 2012, MOOCs. Some of the news was good, some was bad.
Much of the emphasis was on the continuing rise of the MOOCs. Coursera added university partners at a breakneck pace (107 partners), while edX expanded at a more sedate, ivy league pace (30 partners). Both expanded both domestically and globally, seeking out visible and prestigious partners wherever they might be. The English, meanwhile, counterattacked with their own MOOC, FutureLearn, which has 29 " leading UK and international universities" led by the venerable and highly respected online education expert The Open University. OpenupEd, an EU backed pan-European effort, brings together primarily open universities in the EU. The list of new MOOC providers is now very long, and very international, reflecting an apparently global enthusiasm for courses that enroll many tens of thousands of students.
From my perspective, another very important news item was that MOOC pioneer Udacity has teamed up with Georgia Tech and AT&T to offer a remarkably affordable ($6,600, about 1/6 of the campus-based program) Master of Science in Computer Science from Georgia Tech. This low price master's from a highly respected institution in the field represents a sharp break from the traditional pricing structure of higher education. If this partnership is able to produces a high quality degree at this price point, it will provide a direct challenge to the online programs of other institutions that almost always are priced comparably to the on-campus programs. Depending on how this venture works out, this could be the first truly disruptive use of the MOOC approach.
Much of the news about the MOOCs was not so positive, however. Garnering the most attention was the Udacity - San Jose State venture into online entry level courses. Student pass rates were very poor, and faculty opposition was very high, and in the end this venture retreated into the dusk leaving a clear impression that online courses were not appropriate for the anticipated audience. All of the previous discussion at high political levels in California of using MOOCs to help resolve serious capacity limitations in the state higher education system seems to have disappeared as a result of this experiment.
Many concerns have been expressed about the enormous dropout rates for all of the MOOCs. A recent University of Pennsylvania analysis of a million users of their Coursera courses quantified this problem: an average 4% completion rate, and surprisingly to me, roughly 50% who sign up never start the course. Another University of Pennyslvania analysis of users of Penn MOOCs showed that MOOCs were primarily serving users who already had at least a 2-year or 4-year degree (83%), with 44% already having advanced degrees. Further, in many countries the MOOC users come from the wealthiest segment of society. Thus, these MOOCs were serving a much smaller slice of potential users than had been anticipated, and not necessarily those that have figured most often in the rationale for the creation of MOOCs. These and other data showing similar results have led some institutions to begin to reconsider their participation in the MOOC world, seeking a new balance between the significant cost of producing MOOCs and the educational benefits that are being observed.
Many of the problems now being faced by the MOOCs are simply a natural consequence of the tremendous hype and enthusiasm that accompanied and drove their growth - reality eventually must come in. However, a large part of the problem, in my opinion, is that the MOOCs have in general been created with little or no attention to extensive research on pedagogy in general, and online pedagogy in particular. The MOOCs have been viewed by their creators and exponents as a technological solution to a broad range of educational problems. Research over the years has shown, however, that technology delivers instruction, but the quality of the learning depends on the quality of the instruction rather than the delivery vehicle.
The MOOCs have generally mimicked in key ways typical university lectures, which are well known to ignore many of the important components of effective pedagogy. Thus their translation to online simply moves ineffective pedagogy from the classroom to the web. In addition, as Phil Hill so nicely put it in the Chronicle of Higher Education:
Online education is not magic dust to be sprinkled on top of traditionally designed courses.
Every MOOC I looked at (an admittedly unscientific survey) showed an almost complete lack of knowledge of research on effective learning. The universal "great modification" of the traditional lecture format is to break up the lecture into chunks, but even there the explanations given as to why that is done generally shows no understanding of the underlying cognitive reasons. Almost every senior administrator of a MOOC-active administration with whom I spoke (again, unscientific survey) showed little interest in the pedagogical sophistication of the courses being presented by his or her institution - in fact, many had trouble in understanding what I was talking about.
On a related front, I was greatly disappointed to read that Anat Agarwal, the CEO of EdX has suggested that it might be worthwhile to get actors to deliver the MOOC lectures:
"From what I hear, really good actors can actually teach really well,” said Anant Agarwal, CEO of EdX, who was until recently a computer-science professor at MIT. “So just imagine, maybe we get Matt Damon to teach Thévenin's theorem,” he added, referring to a concept that Agarwal covers in a MOOC he teaches on circuits and electronics. “I think students would enjoy that more than taking it from Agarwal."
This confusion of show business and education will not move the learning process forward any more than does the confusion of technology and education. It is all about using the appropriate, research supported instructional techniques. If the MOOCs want to be successful over time, that simple reality has to be a starting point.
Given all this, it is not a real surprise that the Udacity - San Jose State experiment showed negative results, and that the MOOCs generally are having difficulties keeping students. As Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity, said:
We were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don't educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product.
In all honesty, it must be said that this experiment was not a well done experiment at all. A well done experiment at a minimum would have had students randomly assigned to a Udacity course or to the equivalent SJS classroom course. Only then would we have known how relatively well or poorly the Udacity students performed compared to the classroom students. Udacity was undone in part by comparing apples to oranges.
Udacity and Coursera now are busy putting more "human interaction" into their courses in an effort to improve retention and learning. As NPR reports, some critics say these changes lay bare online educations deep flaws:
But Thrun says those critics simply don't get the nature of tech innovation: You closely evaluate failures, think forward, adjust — and use the word "iterate." A lot.
This comment by Thrun shows a potentially dangerous misunderstanding of what he and others in the MOOC business are doing. They are not doing tech innovation - they are doing educational innovation. In education, the failure of a new approach means that real students have failed, lost time, lost opportunity. Consequently, society is much more unforgiving of failures in educational innovations than it is of general technology failures. For example, the failure of the Udacity-San Jose venture has further empowered the inadequate status quo and made it much more difficult to bring the power of online education to bear on solving California's critical educational problems. Thrun's "iterations" have a real cost, and the entrepreneurs would be well served to spend more time and effort to getting it closer to "right" before rolling it out - and closer to right means paying more attention to the extensive research-based literature on how people learn.
Creativity always comes as a surprise to us; therefore we can never count on it and we dare not believe in it until it has happened. In other words, we would not consciously engage upon tasks whose success clearly requires that creativity be forthcoming. Hence the only way in which we can bring our creative resources fully into play is by misjudging the nature of the task, by presenting it to ourselves as more routine, simple, undemanding of genuine creativity that it will turn out to be. (p.13)
It is the Hiding Hand that beneficially initially hides from us the real difficulties in a project, thus enticing us into situations where real creativity has the maximum chance of being stimulated.
The global rush into MOOCs clearly suggests that many people and institutions have misjudged the real challenges of using this approach to provide mass education. As Hirschman argues, what happens next will depend on whether some of the key actors feel that they have committed so much time, resources and reputation to these projects that they are "caught" - committed to succeeding, and thus "strongly motivated to generate all of the problem solving energy of which they are capable."
Most of the MOOC participants clearly do not have the deep commitment that Hirschman feels is necessary in order to get past the emerging limitations of the current MOOCs. However, there are a few individuals and institutions that may well feel "caught", and thus will be strongly motivated to come up with creative new approaches and modifications to the current MOOCs. It is this small group that will determine whether the MOOCs are yet another over-hyped educational innovation that will rapidly decrease in visibility, or real game-changers.