MOOCs: Corporate welfare for credit –

Smart article on Salon about the apparent strategy adopted by the big MOOC providers, which echoes that of the voucher/charter school proponents of the last two decades:

The plan is simple. First, declare a crisis in education that doesn’t actually exist. Second, declare that a for-profit model can fix the crisis. (This is easy when you get to invent the particular calamity.) Third, rather than starting small and building empirical support from experts in the field, seek sweeping legislative changes that lock your position into the system.

This isn’t, however, a head-in-the-sand piece about how everything is fine in higher ed. They point out that the MOOC providers have fabricated a story about how the problem is about access to college due to costs, when the real problem is about retention and degree completion.

Defining success in summer research

Yesterday marked the first day of the summer research season. One of the things I really like about my job is the cycles of the academic year: the excitement and anticipation of the new school year every fall, the sense of exhaustion just before the break, autumn on campus (you can almost picture the tweed, I know), intermission between semesters, etc. Summer research with students is one of my favorite times.

I was at the dentist yesterday morning, and he was asking what projects I was working on in the lab for the summer. I told him a few of the new directions we were heading and he commented that he hoped everything went well and that we had a successful summer. That exchange started me thinking about what defines a successful summer for me, and it may not be exactly what you would think.

Of course the highest form of success for summer research is to generate publishable data, and I make this the clear goal for the students. In an ideal world, they would work on an important question, carry out carefully controlled experiments in a systematic way, and find a clear difference between their control and experimental treatments. Although the first 3 of these factors are under their control, there is no way to know the outcome of an experiment and its significance in advance, so I try not to think of success in terms of the outcomes of experiments and whether or not they represent publishable results. If I were at a research university, I’m sure I would have a different perspective, but I’m not, and the nature of working with undergraduates doesn’t permit this definition of success.

If the publishability of the results doesn’t determine the success of a summer research experience, what does? For me, I think summer research has been successful when a student has done real research. That means they grasped a question (see below for more on this), conceived of an experiment to test a hypothesis, performed the experiment, analyzed the data, and evaluated the results in light of their original hypothesis. Sometimes (hopefully) their work forms a unit on or around which other units can be built into a paper.

‘Grasping a question’ is not to say they get free reign to choose any topic they want. In my lab, students have to focus on an area that supports the direction of the lab as a whole. I think it’s important that they own the project to some degree, but the only way to ensure the importance of their project is to limit it to something in my area of expertise.

Are MOOCs textbooks masquerading as courses?

About an hour before class on Friday, it began to dawn on me that half of my plant physiology class could be out for the day. Many were attending a botany conference in Columbus, others had emailed that they were sick. When I arrived at class, my suspicions were confirmed — 8 of 15 students were there. I decided to record my comments for the day later and held an impromptu study session for the upcoming exam. I had no idea what it would take to “just record my lecture” for the day.Watch Shark Exorcist (2016) Full Movie Online Streaming Online and Download

inspector panel in Keynote

When you’re used to standing in front of a class and explaining things, it’s very hard to explain things to a computer screen in an empty office. Very, very hard. Not in the technical sense, as Keynote (and I imagine Powerpoint) has that covered. I just opened up my Keynote slideshow for the day, opened the slide inspector, started a slideshow recording, and boom. I made it through the first slide. I glanced at the next slide and drew a blank. I paused the recording, collected my thoughts, and resumed recording. Blanked, paused, resumed, etc

Two hours. That’s what it took me to record 35 min of lecture over 36 slides. The last few slides were a slog, I was drained — way more than after a regular classroom session. After I finished it and sent the link to the class, I started wondering what it must be like to do this for every class. I recently saw an article reflecting on the development of a new MOOC on Coursera, in which the author describes her efforts and those of the production team. I guess I should be happy with only needing 2 hours to record 35 min of material, since it took an hour for her to record a video that will run 3 minutes! 

On one hand, I wish I had the time and talent to build a complete online course from the ground up and have students around the world learning from me, no doubt there is something alluring about that. But I can see how the kind of resources required to do that and do it well keeps it beyond the reach of all but a few faculty. In fact, it seems not unlike the resources needed to create a textbook. Both projects would need several subject area experts, dozens of artists and editors, several experts in learning technology and assessment, a production staff, and I’m sure many others I haven’t imagined. I think this is no coincidence, as I can see MOOCs coming to replace, or at least heavily supplement, traditional textbooks in some courses or parts thereof. Although some publishers see MOOCs as a big sales opportunity due to their large enrollments, it is notable that Coursera itself is urging instructors “not to require any textbooks that cost money” (quoted from previous link). This makes me wonder whether the MOOC platforms (Coursera, edX) are in more direct competition with textbook publishers than anyone really realizes. In fact, that may be a useful lens to evaluate their impact on education, by way of comparison to textbooks, which are all now scrambling to “become digital,” just like MOOCs.

As the MOOC turns

Below is a collection of links to recent articles and essays on MOOCs. Think of this as a primer for those of us who have been too busy, you know, actually teaching, to keep up with the latest developments.

The Crisis in Higher Education — Nicholas Carr, MIT Technology Review — A fairly balanced review of what MOOCs are, including a concise version of the Sebastian Thrun-Coursera creation myth. The comparison of MOOCs to the creation of correspondence courses in the early part of the 20th century seems apt.

Napster, Udacity, and the Academy — Clay Shirky — The author, a disruptologist, surveys the higher education landscape and finds it ripe for, you guessed it, disruption. Likening courses to MP3s, and by extension, universities to record labels, he argues that it is only a matter of time before the reckoning happens.

Questioning Clay Shirky — Aaron Bady, Inside Higher Ed — Both a rhetorical and substantive critique of Shirky’s disruption argument, Bady points out the steep decline in states’ funding for higher education over the past 2 decades as a key factor in driving unmet educational need, opening the door for MOOCs and for-profit ‘universities.’

Providers of Free MOOC’s Now Charge Employers for Access to Student Data — Jeffrey Young, The Chronicle of Higher Education — This explains why so many venture capitalists are lining up to ‘invest in education.’ One way to monetize students is to sell access to them to the highest bidder. It’s Google AdWords for people!The Boss Baby movie download

The Great Decoupling of the American Economy — Andrew McAfee — While not directly addressing MOOCs, I was struck by the applicability of the idea of reducing the need for ‘labor’ (if you can call faculty that) with capital investment, which is essentially what MOOCs do. Decoupling scholarly pursuit from instruction, which is one logical outcome of the MOOC, would undoubtedly lead to a loss of academic scholarship. But increasing economic efficiency like this is supposed to lead to more free time to pursue one’s interests, which is the original definition of schola; this seems terribly ironic.Blackhat 2015 movie


Khan Academy Founder Proposes a New Type of College – Wired Campus – The Chronicle of Higher Education

Khan Academy Founder Proposes a New Type of College – Wired Campus – The Chronicle of Higher Education:

“Existing campuses could move in this direction by de-emphasizing or eliminating lecture-based courses, having their students more engaged in research and co-ops in the broader world, and having more faculty with broad backgrounds who show a deep desire to mentor students,” he writes.

Hmm, practical, hands-on experience with strong mentoring through relationships with faculty. Sounds familiar, but can’t quite place it.

Re-imagining my intro biology class – First steps

I spent the better part of the morning today beginning to re-imagine my intro biology class for the fall, even though I should probably be doing other things more related to research. I’m taking advantage of switching to a new textbook to revamp the whole class from the ground up. Here are my main objectives with the rewrite:

  • spend as little time as possible “covering” material in class
  • use class time to allow students to interact with concepts and apply ideas to real-world problems in small groups rather than transcribing lecture notes

My approach relies heavily on students having read the material before class, so I’m starting with the readings. The Principles site makes it relatively easy to customize the readings, including both the selection and order. It’s a little annoying that their metaphor is “customizing a book” and then “publishing” the custom text. I would like it better if it were easier to add, subtract, and move modules around more dynamically as I assign due dates and create assignments. But other than that, it doesn’t try to impose any additional structure on the course, which I like. I’ve complained before about the proliferation of buckets in the LMS (pages, content, files, documents, etc), and this site does not use such arbitrary categories.

The main thing I’m struggling with is predicting how much time I’ll need for each topic and set of objectives. It’s hard to get out of the mindset of, “How long will it take to walk through this topic from start to finish in front of the class” and instead think about questions, projects, and problems that would help the students apply and synthesize these concepts. I have to admit, at this point sticking with the tried-and-true lecture format sounds much easier, but I really want to try something new (and hopefully more effective).

Journal impact factor losing impact

George Lozano, blogging about a recent study he published on journal impact facors:

Furthermore, we found that until 1990, of all papers, the proportion of top (i.e., most cited) papers published in the top (i.e., highest IF) journals had been increasing. So, the top journals were becoming the exclusive depositories of the most cited research. However, since 1991 the pattern has been the exact opposite. Among top papers, the proportion NOT published in top journals was decreasing, but now it is increasing. Hence, the best (i.e., most cited) work now comes from increasingly diverse sources, irrespective of the journals’ IFs.

To me, this is an indicator of the power of, first scholarly databases, then the internet, to make important work more discoverable. When I began graduate school, I remember doing literature work in the library and watching all the faculty come for their weekly journal check-in to “stay current” (or name-check themselves and their pals). How much more efficient and effective it is now to rely on things like saved database searches to keep us informed of important advances in our field. And database searches democratize by returning all related citations, not just those from so-called top-tier journals. This is a great step forward, I think.

Lectures, Credentials, and the Disruption of College

There has been so much written lately about the imminent “disruption” of higher education as we know it. By disruption, pundits seem to mean something akin to the disruption experienced by most media companies over the past 5 years. Technology is the supposed driving force for the inevitable disruption, just as it was in the case of media publishers. As evidence for the disruption, thinkers point to the advent of online resources like Khan Academy, TED-Ed, the YouTube EDU portal, and several recent online courses offered by elite universities. For example, a recent article in Wired put it this way:

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

As far as I can see, the disruption argument rests on the availability of two new(ish) resources. The first is a readily available source for high quality lecture materials. Many universities have been capturing lecture audio and video and posting them online as podcasts for years. The OpenCourseWare movement has also been working toward this objective for years. We’re now at a point where nearly every core subject has outstanding lecture materials available online for free.

The second pillar of the disruption argument is that a new system of credentials is emerging that circumvents the “college degree” certification and all it signifies to a potential employer. Here is Kevin Carey writing in The New Republic (linked above):

[…] the single greatest asset held by traditional colleges and universities is their exclusive franchise for the production and sale of higher education credentials.

And again later in the same piece:

But just as people are ultimately interested in buying holes, not drills, higher education consumers aren’t buying courses or degree programs. They’re buying credentials.

The argument here (I think) is that independent students will earn certificates symbolizing their completion of a course through an independent educational entity. These credentials will eventually gain recognition by employers as bona fide indicators of that individual’s competency in a field of study and warrant their consideration for a particular job position. Please excuse my taking liberty with connecting the dots in this way, as I have never actually seen anybody else spell it out.

Is access to information the problem?

First let me state that I do think there is plenty of change coming to higher education, much of it as a consequence of technological disruption. For a variety of reasons, I think the changes will serve to enhance already-existing institutions and not hasten their demise. As for the first argument, free access to educational materials online, I think this is wonderful, but it mostly serves the existing institutional structure far better than it serves the independent learner. I don’t think there is anything magical that will happen with access to recorded lectures because I don’t think this is the limiting step in the educational process. Motivated people have had access to such information as long as we’ve had books and libraries. In my opinion, the limiting step in education is for the individual to know where to focus amidst a sea of information. In this sense, the more information becomes available online, the harder it becomes for the learner to make progress without personal input.

To illustrate this, think of the process of advancing through the current education system. As you progress through the various levels of schooling, you become a more and more self-directed learner. Eventually, if you stick with it long enough, you complete the ultimate in self-directed learning, the Ph.D. This degree does not signify a person’s intellectual capacity, rather it signifies a person’s having become a master over a body of knowledge, fully self-directing and capable of adding to and extending the limits of that knowledge.

As some see impending doom on the horizon for higher ed, the idea of the ‘flipped classroom’ has also received renewed attention. This teaching method eschews the use of class time for traditional lecture, opting instead to discuss and assimilate knowledge. It relies on students coming to class already familiar with the information, ready to think and engage their minds (and not act like a room full of court recorders). This is not a new idea and is based on many years of studies of learning outcomes that support a more active classroom environment. If this discursive, personal, interactive process (and not listening to lectures) is indeed the best way for students to learn, how exactly does the availability of online lectures disrupt existing “delivery methods” in higher education? I argue that such resources serve as a pool of excellent materials for helping students to become familiar with a topic, but their real learning and intellectual formation occurs when they come and interact around those ideas with their peers and an expert in the field (i.e. they come to class).

This is not to say that some small percentage of talented students couldn’t make progress toward competency on their own using only online lectures. But for the vast majority of students, becoming educated requires much more than being exposed to information, it requires struggle and community and questions and other things I’m not qualified to even identify. Maybe someday an online system will exist that allows for those kinds of things, but I’m nearly certain it doesn’t exist now. I also think that one of the main ingredients in effective education is other people. Call me old-fashioned, but when you think about your learning experiences, don’t most of them involve other people? Peers? A favorite teacher? Yeah, mine too.

Is an education all about credentialing?

As for the second argument, that the college diploma will be replaced with some collection of credentials, I think this misconstrues both the meaning and the purpose of education in general, and a college degree in particular. To think of the role of universities as dealing in the “production and sale of higher education credentials” (see quote above) is, in my opinion, a deeply cynical and flawed perspective along the lines of thinking of the role of a family vacation as producing a set of photographs. A credential is the formal recognition of a process of intellectual development and transformation. It is not, in and of itself, the point.

A deep problem with the talk about credentials, badges, and the rise of competency as a measure of qualification lies with the selection of courses: who chooses what to take? I would speculate that most students would choose only those courses they see as important. This is a terrible idea, because the student has no idea what they will need to know. As an academic advisor to mostly science students, I can reveal the stunning news that these students do not relish the opportunity to take courses in the humanities. I know, shocker, right? But they benefit in so many ways from doing so, it’s hard to overstate the importance of these courses in their academic development. They grow in broadened perspective, vocabulary, writing skill, logic, argument, rhetoric, friendship, tolerance, compassion. And once again, these are skills and virtues best acquired in a community.

The bottom line for me is that we’re in the midst of an explosion in the creation of information. The need for a broad education has never been greater. I think this increases the need for guidance, and I think the best guides are other people. I do believe our current colleges and universities need to change and adapt to incorporate new methods for educating people. And maybe we will see the rise of a new kind of educational enterprise that fills a need not met by a four-year college. I do think there are plenty of students enrolled in a four-year degree program with no business being there, but they have no other option. But I don’t think these new enterprises will replace our current colleges, not by a long shot.

A Sea Change on Campus

If this survey is to be taken seriously, we are on the brink of a sea change in higher education. In that article, The Chronicle reports that the number of students with a tablet tripled in a year, and many more plan to buy one soon. The survey was performed long before the new iPad was announced, and I can imagine the high-resolution screen will only accelerate this trend. It is, in many ways, the perfect computing device for campus.

Students have been bringing computers to campus for decades, though, so why should the arrival of tablets like the iPad be any different? I think there are several key qualities of the iPad not shared with regular notebook computers. First, it is hard to overstate the importance of battery life. While a notebook computer may eke out 4 or 5 hours when brand new and not heavily used, it won’t be long before 2 to 3 hours of battery life is the norm. Most students I see with a notebook computer have it plugged in. Meanwhile, the iPad can be used heavily all day without a charge. I argue this is a huge deal on campus.

A second factor that favors the iPad in the classroom over a notebook is the position of the screen. Having a screen between the student and me changes the dynamic of exchange in some way. I know it sounds silly, but it does. Students who take notes on their iPad just seem to look up and pay attention more because of its position. It’s like students with a notebook open are waiting for something to happen on their screen, their default gaze includes their screen. This matters, and relates to the next issue…

The iPad only ever has ONE thing on the screen at a time. Apple is rigorous in enforcing this for apps — they actively deny apps that try recreate a desktop or windowing metaphor. This encourages focus and concentration in a class setting at a level that a more traditional notebook computer simply cannot do. Sure, sometimes this is not an advantage, if a student needs to gather information from a variety of apps simultaneously. On the iPad, they could double-tap the home button and bounce around their apps if they need to, but there is not a similar temptation to notice distractions as much.

Fourth, as a touch-based device, the iPad is a great tool for freeform note taking and drawing. In most of the classes I teach I lean heavily on visual aids to explain abstract ideas (diffusion? operons? signal transduction?). These are hard to capture on a notebook computer, but the iPad was made for drawing, especially with a stylus.

I could go on and on, but let me try to wrap it up here. Campuses have seen personal computers come in with students for decades. The iPad is not a PC, and represents something completely different and, in many ways, better. We are on the cusp of seeing the majority of our students coming to class with these in tow. What could we do to better prepare for this?

The Open Web and the LMS

Before the start of almost every semester, I find myself taking inventory of the various tools I use to do my job and asking whether there’s something better. I feel a bit like a contractor preparing his truck for a job — I want to make sure I have everything I need, because I don’t want to waste time focusing on the wrong things once I get to the job site. How should I provide updates and information to my students? Where should I post notes, outlines, slides, assignments? Should these things be on the open web, or tucked safely behind a learning management system (LMS)? Do students want to take quizzes and submit assignments online? Should I have them email those to me, should I do that within a LMS, or should I use something offered by the textbook publisher?

For most of these questions, one answer is to use Blackboard. It does most, if not all, of the tasks listed above, integrates with our campus registration system (unless you happen to teach cross-listed courses, but I digress), works reasonably well, is familiar to the students, and the university is already paying for it. Why wouldn’t I use it? When colleagues ask that question, my reply usually includes something about how difficult I find it to do the various tasks I want to do, how many clicks it takes to do something. For instance, how do I decide where to put the stuff so that students will find it? Is this an assignment, or content, or a file, or an announcement, or what? But it’s beginning to dawn on me that my hesitation to use a LMS goes deeper than usability — my own or that of my students.

Building with borrowed tools

To return to the contractor analogy, using an LMS feels a lot like building with someone else’s tools. Sure, it’s probably going to do the job, but things just don’t quite feel the same as using your own. In addition to the issue of feel, there is a sense when I’m using a LMS that everything I post has to fit in one of the categories defined by the system. The answer to this problem in particular seems to be for the software designers to create a whole lot of nooks and crannies to file things in hopes that at least something will seem like the right place for the instructor to add that content. This always leaves the users (both instructor and student) in want, though, because it feels like the order is backward: the information shouldn’t be organized in service of a system, but rather the system should support the information by getting out of the way. I always feel like I’m fighting against the system when I add information and try to make it discoverable and linked where appropriate. I suppose the other approach, which many professors apparently follow, is to dump absolutely everything into a single bucket and let the students hash out the germs of value from the chaff. (This happens all the time, from what I hear.)

Building on someone else’s land

If my problem were just a matter of borrowing tools, I might be able to get over it, but it’s not. In January, as I prepared for another semester and spent several hours setting up my courses in a LMS, it became clear to me that I’m not just borrowing tools, I’m also building my course on land that is not my own. In fact, if I’m really using the capabilities of the system, I’m spending hours and hours loading information into this system that is a shadow of the web, a sandboxed web, walled off from the real thing. If and when I stop using it, that information (and the time it took to produce it) is most likely lost. Maybe the system provides a way to download my course if I want to, but what useful thing could I do with it then? I’d have to write my own software to parse that file and make any sense of it, let alone to make use of it in some other system.

Redeeming Qualities

My feelings toward the LMS are not all negative, though. One of the best things about a closed LMS is just that — it is closed to the outside, allowing instructors to keep certain material off the public web. If I were to post all of my slides online for my students, I’d have to remove all the copyrighted figures I use from the textbook, which would be a big bummer. I don’t make the posting of slides a habit, but an LMS with authentication sidesteps this issue. Ideally, I would design my own figures and could share them as freely as I chose, but I haven’t done that yet. Another important use of a system with authentication is for posting grades, which students seem to expect. I know of no way around this other than to use some kind of closed system to keep this information confidential. A third feature of an LMS is handling work submitted by students. I have tried to collect student writing by email, and it sucks. A good LMS at least has the potential to make this suck less, and could actually save me time if designed well. For example, I just graded a short assignment in Instructure Canvas using their SpeedGrader feature, and I have to confess, it was slick. I’m looking forward to using it again later in the semester, and might even use the peer review feature rather than managing all that on my own.


So for now, I see a role for both the open web and a closed LMS occupying different parts of my toolkit for teaching. The trick for me is to keep as much as possible in my own web space, and use the LMS for things for which it is essential (copyrighted material, grades, student submissions). It’s schizophrenic, and some students don’t like having to look in more than one place. What I’m finding is that I tend to use the LMS for some classes, and the open web for other classes, and this minimizes student consternation over where to look for class materials. Making a goal of posting more on the open web has also motivated me to go back and create more of my own materials, too, which has been a great side-effect.

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