(Re)Introducing MOOCs: The Worst Idea at the Best Time

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I co-presented this paper with my colleague, Jack Hannes, at the 11th International Symposium for Communication in the Millennium held May 22-24 at St. Cloud State University. The following is my portion of the roundtable presentation. (I apologize for the fragmented notes… Jack and I went back and forth during the presentation.)

Definitions & Background

MOOCs, or massive online open courses, are large cohort online classes started around 2010/11 when a few Stanford professors designed a tuition-free course system which is open to virtually anyone on the web.

Prior to what is perceived as the new MOOCs today, some old open-source platforms were available since 2008, where a handful of universities made their course materials available on the web. According to George Roberts (2012), these old, MOOC-like models:

  • Have explicit pedagogical perspectives (social constructivist)
  • Are distributed; have open-source platforms components (Websites, wikis)
  • Cultivate intentional social media conversations (Blogs, Twitter, etc.)
  • Open challenge to institutions (Access, environments, assessments)

Examples: Opencourseware like Open Yale Courses, or courses/podcast on iTunes U.

We see a lot of these traits remain in the new MOOCs, where courses are offered via MOOC providers — startup companies set up to give “everyone access to the world-class education that has so far been available to a select few.” Among these providers are Coursera, edX, Canvas, Udemy, etc.

Major funders: Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Harvard-MIT collaboration, etc.

MOOCs for composition & communication (from writing to speech to mass comm to film studies):

Debates & Positions

MOOCs and the Connectivist Theory: The evolving MOOC knits together education, entertainment, and social networking. Originated about 2008 within the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement, MOOCs are developed based on connectivist theory, emphasizing that learning and knowledge acquisition happen from the interactions within a network of connections. Connectivism was a new educational framework developed at the dawn of the 21st Century, explaining how people learn in a networked and digital world (George Siemens, 2005). According to Stephen Downes, connectivism is essentially the idea that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks. Students participating in MOOCs are often required to play an active role in contributing to discussions through the course forums or third-party social networks, such as Facebook groups, Twitter, or Google Plus/Hangout. Capitalizing on the opportunity of the existing wealth of interconnectivity and social networking among its students, MOOCs encourage peer-to-peer learning, reviews, and even grading, which is another hot debate in the MOOC mania.

“Peer” Evaluation in MOOCs:

  • Blind leading the blind: are these students ready to evaluate others’ work?
  • Assigned vs. Free choices: Issues with diversity and experience
  • Picky students: A series of unfortunate evaluations
  • Ground rules/guide to evaluation

MOOCs aren’t serious pedagogy (?):

While the medium of learning still relies largely on lectures, MOOC certainly presents challenges in terms of the quality of the learning experience. Can learning be scaled up this much (think about a course taken by 400,000 students, taught by a team of five professors)? Other questions include:

  • Are MOOCs appropriate for the humanities?
  • Do students really know how to take MOOCs?
  • Power and ideologies within the platforms (Selfe & Selfe)
  • What are the targeted success rates in students taking MOOCs (passing)?
  • Medium is the message (McLuhan)
  • Banking model detected? (Freire)

For online writing instruction, check out: NCTE OWI Guidelines.

Image courtesy of David Kernohan @dkernohan, illustrating the massive destruction of MOOCs on higher education. 

#cwcon 2013

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Woot! I had a blast at my first Computers and Writing (2013) this weekend! A quick shout-out to the organizing team led by Jill Morris and the hosting university, Frostburg State University, MD, for a job well done.

My panel consisted of Matt Barton (my thesis director), Jack Hennes, and myself, and we presented Friday morning in the first session. We briefly introduced MOOCs to the audience and talked about the implications of MOOCs on teaching composition and higher education as a whole. The session was well attended by scholars who are interested in topic.

My experience in the 4-day conference has been rewarding and beneficial to my thesis development. Cindy Selfe, Susan Delangrange, Risa, and Kristin Arola are among the scholars whom I have read in my rhetorical and composition theory classes and had the opportunity to discuss issues concerning massive online model of education with them at this conference.

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Jack, Matt, and I at the bowling social night.

I must admit that I was a little star-struck when I shook their hands for the first time and introduced myself. But these folks were so welcoming that my fear disappeared almost instantly (for some, after a couple drinks with them). Michael Day, Janice Walker, Cheryl Ball, and many other graduate students (and recent grads) from the discipline are extremely friendly and personal.

This conference has really opened my circle to the theorists and scholars in the field and those who I would like to study with in my PhD program. How I wish my Mass Communication program (my second master) would have conference like this to connect students with the most prominent thinkers in the field and prepare them for their doctoral pursuit. Maybe the CW community is simply unique. It’s indeed an honor to join their rank in the near future.

For now, it’s time for some post-conference recovery, if you know what I mean.

What about a MOOC ft. Dr. Sheldon Cooper?

It is no doubt that massive open online courses have reached global recognition. And by global recognition I mean the concept of MOOC has been made known to people from all over the world. Below is a Google Map charted by students currently enrolled in Georgia Tech’s First-Year Composition 2.0 MOOC.

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With such wide reach of audience, the delivery of the course materials, i.e. the video lectures, becomes the most important component to be considered by all MOOC developers and providers.

Yet, as I was watching lecture videos from some MOOCs that I am taking this summer, it dawned on me that not every professor/instructor is ready to teach online. Although the materials may be well developed by the MOOC team, the key to delivering those materials is the instructor’s presentation through video lectures. While most MOOC providers today claim to feature all-star celebrity professors in the courses they offer, some of the professors are simply incompetent to teach in front of a camera.

Since these lecture videos are pre-recorded, it makes me wonder me if we could treat them as performances. By putting more effort (money and time) into its production, MOOC developers and designers could hire actors to teach a course. Now, what about an Introduction to Physics MOOC featuring Dr. Sheldon Cooper?

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Before we know it, the MOOC arena is going to be occupied by mediocre content and teachers. If it was really the aim of MOOC providers to create a revolutionary movement to change higher education systems, I think some guidelines or standards need to be enforced — before it all becomes too late to revert to its original intentions.

The Future is Now.

News goes viral within minutes after a story’s gone public. For instance, some blame the David Brooks column and a handful of WSJ articles for firing abruptly University of Virginia’s (ex-)president, Teresa Sullivan, last June. But the university’s rectors said it was Sullivan’s slow reaction to online education that caused her the job. According to a recent post by Aaron Bady, a UC Berkeley PhD student, The MOOC Moment and the End of Reform, this case can be reconstructed by looking at how the resignation was engineered by the university’s rector and vice rector from emails that are “FOIA-ed via the student’s paper at UVA.” From reading these emails, Aaron Bady in his blog said that one would feel a sense of speed generated by the overwhelming citations and repetitions of articles sent and forwarded to one another. Articles by WSJ and NYT, and recently the New Yorker, are brought to the subject line of faculty listservs to push forward an agenda of change. In a meeting of UVA deans and vice presidents, UVA’s rector said:

“The board believes this environment calls for a much faster pace of change in administrative structure, in governance, in financial resource development and in resource prioritization and allocation…We do not believe we can even maintain our current standard under a model of incremental, marginal change. The world is simply moving too fast.”

In a world “moving too fast” in terms of technological development and the society’s reaction to new innovations, universities and higher education institutions are “called” to react faster to change, as if change is always necessary. Questions, concerns, complaints, frustrations, anger, and even hatred are being thrown around the departments in universities where the legislation is pushing for reform. The fear for changing education models to the emerging MOOC-like structure is constant regardless of the disciplines.

Just about two weeks before finals week here at St. Cloud State, the university’s online education and distant learning taskforce requested to conduct a roundtable discussion with a student organization I was chairing at that time with hopes to gather students’ comments and concerns with the existing online learning structure (at SCSU). Among some questions that have been regularly brought up is the worry that online education may not deliver the kind of rigor a traditional brick-and-mortar classroom could offer. Students and faculty alike are somehow both for and against MOOC-like delivery method — they like the idea of open-access education, but are concerned about the quality of the learning experience.

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Haven’t heard it? Let’s say it once more.

But according to the Berkeley PhD candidate this struggle is not new. The MOOC model has been around since 2008, when Stephen Downes and Georgia Siemens delivered their first massive open course from University of Manitoba to thousands of students worldwide. By the Internet’s terms, four years is a long time. Perhaps Bady was right, the MOOC moment was already too late. Despite the hype on MOOCs today, online education is already changing the way higher education does its business. Knock, knock, has anyone forgetten about the pioneer of online degrees, the University of Phoenix?

On May 3rd of last year, David Brooks began his column “The Campus Tsunami” with this:

“Online education is not new. The University of Phoenix started its online degree program in 1989. Four million college students took at least one online class during the fall of 2007. But, over the past few months, something has changed. The elite, pace-setting universities have embraced the Internet. Not long ago, online courses were interesting experiments. Now online activity is at the core of how these schools envision their futures.”

And Bady wrote:

“There’s almost nothing new about the kind of online education that the word MOOC now describes. It’s been given a great deal of hype and publicity, but that aura of ‘innovation’ poorly describes a technology—or set of technological practices, to be more precise—that is not that distinct from the longer story of online education, and which is designed to reinforce and re-establish the status quo, to make tenable a structure that is falling apart.”

What we are worrying now seems to be yesterday’s problem. While we are worrying about the future, the future is now! As academics and education leaders, we need to come together to figure out ways to cope with the change rather than arguing over the necessity of the change. The solutions may become clear as soon as we see MOOCs as opportunities instead of problems. Like it or not, huge fundings have gone into developing and improving MOOCs and students from all over the world are quickly becoming citizens of the MOOC mansion. This, however, doesn’t mean that we are giving in to new technology. No, we are not forced to change. We adapt to what our students need because this is simply the mission of higher education.

No matter how universities and colleges look like in 10-20 years, if they are still around, the purpose of higher learning should remain interested in putting students first. How things look like in the near future can be very different. But as long as we keep our eyes on the wheel, we will arrive at the same destination as intended.

Georgia Tech to Offer First MOOC-like Online Master’s Degree in Computer Science

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Despite the on-going rage about the pitfalls of MOOCs, Georgia Institute of Technology has decided to be the forerunner in reshaping the future of higher education. At an unusually low cost – below $7,000 – Georgia Tech announced Tuesday that it will offer an Online Master of Science (OMS) degree in Computer Science via a massive online format. This course will be offered in partnership with AT&T.

While some institutions like Georgia Tech are pioneering the MOOC movement by offering more introductory undergraduate courses via MOOC providers like Coursera, edX, Udacity and Canvas, others reacted negatively to the unconventional model of education. Access, control, and quality of instruction are among the hottest debates revolving MOOCs today. Some professors from San Jose State University have recently launched an open letter to a Harvard professor for his MOOC, JusticeX.

In its fact sheet, Georgia Tech says the OMS course structure will offer “educational experience no less rigorous than the on-campus format.” The Chronicle of Higher Education did a comparison on Tuesday to juxtapose the OMS course fees with the residential tuition fees for similar programs. The new massive online project will put this top-ranked computer science program at a rate comparable to regular community college price point – about $134 per credit. On the other hand, the normal in-state tuition at Georgia Tech is $472 per credit and $1,139 per credit for out-of-state students.

“The toughest part typically is overcoming some of the politics around that,” said Russell Poulin, deputy director for research and analysis at the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies.

In a blog post, AT&T Vice President of Human Resources Scott Smith wrote that “Access to world-class educational resources for anyone with a broadband connection [and] [t]apping technology to jump-start training of engineers and other technical talent for the 21st Century” are reasons why AT&T has jumped onboard onto this partnership.

According to The Chronicle and Georgia Tech’s official announcement, courses in the OMS program will be offered free via Udacity, with unlimited access to course materials including video lectures and computer-graded assignments. Students pay for admissions to the program and may have the options to have their assignments graded by people.

“Today’s learning experiences transcend the brick-and-mortar classroom. As technology improves, the availability and affordability of a quality education and our definitions of the learning environment are radically shifting,” wrote Smith.

A Leap of Faith

Georgia Tech’s project is an unprecedented arrangement and has already drawn attention of academics from all disciplines. While the project has won all necessary sign-offs from every relevant level in the University System of Georgia, including the Board of Regents, I bet many of the officials are crossing their fingers on the success of this delivery method, hoping to set an example for other MOOC-like programs to come onboard.

I anticipate a heated conversation to fire away at the coming Computers and Writing conference at Frostburg, MD, this June 6-9. As one of the only three sessions to discuss on MOOCs, my team is preparing ourselves to respond to some toughest questions about the practicality and ethical issues with this new adventure that higher education has embarked on in just about three years ago.

At least at this point, Georgia Tech indicated that there are no plans to launch another massive-online degree program. As for the OMS program, I am excited to see how the public (students) receive it.