xMOOCs Won’t Be Elite For Long

One of the fundamental differences between OCW and xMOOCs is that xMOOCs can be assessed on quality of instruction. From a longer paper by Sir John Daniel that is well worth the read:

“We also agree with Bates that current xMOOCs pedagogy is pretty old hat but this will now change fast. Even if Coursera gave its partner universities great freedom in course formats in order to sugar the pill of signing the contract, this will quickly produce a great diversity of approaches and much healthy experimentation. By the end of 2012 various actors from the media through student groups to educational research units will be publishing assessments of xMOOC courses. These will quickly be consolidated into league tables that rank the courses – and the participating universities – by the quality of their offerings as perceived by both learners and educational professionals (Uvalić-Trumbić & Daniel, 2011).

This will not please the participating universities. Elite universities in the UK thoroughly disliked the state-approved teaching quality assessment system that operated there between the 1995 and 2004 (Laughton, 2003). Eventually their presidents successfully petitioned the authorities to close it down. My own conclusion was that behind the fog of methodological arguments about the difficulty of assessing teaching quality, the real problem was that some elite universities did poorly and some lesser-known institutions did well. By the time results of teaching quality assessments by discipline had accumulated over ten years a small former teachers’ college ranked in the top ten (out of ~100) and the Open University was in 5th place, one above Oxford. The difference with the xMOOCs assessments and rankings is that no one will be able to abolish them by appealing to authority. Institutions that rate poorly will either have to quit playing xMOOCs or raise their game.”

When OER was just “resources”, it wasn’t really possible to gauge effectiveness, and the prestige associated with materials was indistinguishable from the prestige of the institution. MOOCs change that. As Daniel points out, in this new marketplace many prestigious institutions may find the competition from less elite peers unnerving — and perhaps eventually withdraw.

That’s not guaranteed to happen, of course – there’s obviously a heavy bias that the founders of all these companies will have to tier one offerings – after all, that’s the environment the founders come from. But the thing about markets is if Coursera stays away from less prestigious institutions on principle, some other company will be more than happy to fill that gap. And from there on out, it may be just a matter of time…

Economies of Not-so-Scale and Marginal Costs of Not-Quite-Zero

One additional point about the Circuits and Electronics course stats I cited yesterday. Most of the talk about MOOC-scale has been about the number of sign-ups.

But that’s the wrong end of the problem. What we care about is cost per completion. And at 7,000 completers, there’s certainly some scale to this course but it’s not quite the scale we think of when we are looking at “marginal cost of zero” sorts of solutions.

That may sound nitpicky, but it’s not. Back in the late 90s/early aughts I had the honor of working on some of the best online learning ever produced, at Roger Schank’s company Cognitive Arts. And we would spend a million a course because of this marginal cost of zero idea. If each additional enrollment costs no more money, you can afford to build elearning that is designed at the level we normally see in videogames. And I don’t just mean in terms of flash — when you put a million dollars into an online course, every piece of that course is carefully designed to have the maximum impact.

But you have to have scale to do that. At a million dollars a course, for 7,000 students it’s costing you about $150 a completer. That’s a deal for society, but it’s not the deal Silicon Valley interested in. If Silicon Valley is ever going to take completion seriously (which they may not, since an eyeball is an eyeball is an eyeball) then the cost per completion is going to have to get a lot lower than that. And my guess is the way they will do that is not by making classes better, but by keeping the cost per class pretty low.

What this means, unfortunately, is the marginal cost of zero thing might be a lie we are telling ourselves. Someone somewhere recently said “You promised us jetpacks and all we got were these lousy video lectures” (was it Audrey?). I’m saying that if there really was a marginal cost of zero, or if the players involved even believed they were paying a marginal cost of zero game, we would have jetpacks, not these substandard courses.  The fact we don’t either indicates the market is not there yet or that, maybe, the market is not heading there at all. I hope Let’s hope it’s the former case and not the latter.

MOOC-land Through the Residential Online Prism

From IHE today:

The age distribution of students who stuck it out with Circuits & Electronics favored what higher ed would call “nontraditional” students: Half of them were 26 years old or older. About 45 percent were traditional college-aged students, and 5 percent were in high school. The oldest probable-completer was 74; the youngest, 14.

Some people might look at that and say — wow, primarily adult learners then.

I actually see the college-age piece as higher than I would have thought. This is a course with some solid prerequisites. It’s hard to believe that these college-age students aren’t either in school or had been in school until recently. This is not expanding access in these situations; it’s doing something else.

But it gets more interesting — way more interesting. EdX reports out proudly that 80 percent of students had taken a comparable course at college, and most thought the MOOC was better than that course. But as Kolowich points out, that buries the lede. Eighty percent of completers had taken a comparable course already?

Wait, what?

There’s a massive question here for me here in how MOOCs are being used — are they granting educational access to new people, or are they being used to supplement educational access the completers already have? If it’s the second, I think it’s a fascinating story — and it’s a story that Silicon Valley might not like. It’s not MOOCs replacing higher education — it’s MOOCs supporting it. It’s not revolution or disruption. It’s synergy.

The real shame (as the article points out) is that for all their talk about data-driven decision making the people hyping MOOCs as an HE replacement have no good data, and so we are forced to rely on poorly executed marketing surveys like this for a  peek into what is going on.  But even with limited data, we are seeing that the revolution doesn’t look quite like the revolution that is being televised.


Two Types of Unbundling (and which one we should worry about)

It occurs to me that there are two types of “unbundling” of education, and for the most part people focus on the wrong one.

The first type, which we will call vertical unbundling, is the one that the educational futurists talk about — the separation of content from facilitation, and facilitation from assessment. This is the Western Governor’s University-style unbundling — learn this any way you want, we’re just the assessor, etc. It’s based on a business model of specialization, an assumption that an unbundled vertical market will produce multiple competitors, and that competition with produce greater efficiency, and maybe greater quality as well.

However, it’s not as easy at it first looks. It’s very difficult to make assessments that are not course-specific — you end up writing ridiculous pineapple stories in an attempt not to privilege any individual student experience. You necessarily eliminate certain points of view about what is important in a discipline.  As is the case with Advanced Placement programs, when the assessment is unbundled, the facilitation and content becomes rigid and generic, taking on aspects of a test prep program. Even with separating content and facilitation you run into the reusability paradox — it seems a no-brainer that lectures can be unbundled from discussion, but in practice, a good lecture references previous discussion.

So this unbundling effort proceeds, and it will have a major impact, eventually. But it is slow going.

The second type of unbundling, which I’ll lateral unbundling, is a different story. In lateral unbundling, the courses remain atomic units of tethered content, facilitation, and asssessment, but their relationship to a degree becomes untethered. And that’s what we are looking at right now, as the question arises of whether colleges will grant MOOC credit through existing transfer processes.

This unbundling could go relatively quick, for a number of reasons. The main reason is we’ve spent more than a century constructing a credit hour system and articulation agreements that make transfer credit not only possible, but fairly easy. There’s very little, institutionally, that has to be built to allow a Udacity MOOC to count for credit at your university — you just sign the correct papers, and the thing is done. Colorado State did that just last week.

The second reason is that there’s a bit of a domino effect. If I am a student who has some MOOCs under my belt, and I’m looking for a university to go to full time, it makes sense that I am going to head to the university that gives me credit for my MOOC experience. As a university seeking to expand or maintain enrollment, accepting MOOC credit becomes one of the selling points of my university. In fact, I would not be surprised if at some point the MOOCs partner up with universities, and offer them marketing access to local MOOC completers (Liked this class? Like to transfer its credit into a real program? Talk to Foobar State College!).

So once Colorado State does this for a significant amount of courses, it might be very hard for Colorado State’s competitors to say no.

For these reasons, I think lateral unbundling could proceed relatively fast (and do keep in mind that this is only one possible future, and that fast in higher education is often slow by any other measure…).

It’s worth noting too that this unbundling is already happening in the U.S. at the community college level, with community colleges increasingly supplying transfer credits into four-year programs (with the Obama administration’s assistance and blessing). And that this sort of unbundling is not without major problems — all that beautiful coherence you built into your program is at stake.

Two types of unbundling, both important, both moving forward. But it’s the horizontal unbundling that has already arrived, and the one that needs out attention now if we want to do this right.


Why We Shouldn’t Talk MOOCs as Meritocracies


At some point I want to summarize (and perhaps convince you all to read) Chris Hayes’s provocative book on meritocracy and its attendant myths, but for the moment I want to run ahead and just put this out there.

Meritocracy, the flawed idea that an equality of opportunity leads to an equality of results (and to the “best and brightest” operating the levers of power) can be seen as underlying many of the failures of the current era. As Hayes points out, early in their life cycle, a commitment to meritocracy can produce favorable change, promote a more equitable society, and lead to better governance.

Invariably, however, because the inequality of results is seen as evidence of the meritocracy’s success, meritocracies are never meritocratic for long. Eventually, there is plenty of opportunity for the people on top to pull up the ladder behind them. A classic example, mentioned by Hayes, is the SAT. Early on, the SAT was seen as the great equalizer, a way of recognizing raw talent and getting that talent the education it can benefit from. But as the stakes became higher, and more weight was put on the SAT scores, the SAT quickly became a barrier. Today, the richest in society pay for preparation in the SAT courses that the poorest cannot afford. The SAT, the poster child of meritocracy, becomes what I have called in the past a “privilege multiplier” – turning an economic advantage into a much broader life advantage.

Why then don’t we address the issue? Why don’t we ditch the SAT and reform the system? Here’s the second problem – those that benefit from a meritocracy, even a skewed one, believe that the have achieved their benefit through hard work and raw talent. As the saying goes, they are born on third base, but believe they hit a triple. When asked to justify their position, they point to the wide variety of outcomes of the meritocracy – if they are not so talented, how is it the meritocracy promoted them to hedge fund manager? How many *other* hedge fund managers do you know?

In other words, the inequality of outcomes is seen as proof the meritocracy is working. This, according to Hayes, is why even after the massive financial crash we see hedge fund managers awarding themselves huge bonuses – the actually do believe, in their heart, that no one could possibly do the job better, because the system has put them there. That’s proof enough.

Hayes’s book is a enjoyably unique take on our current malaise in a world of same-as-that takes on financial inequality. It wanders effortlessly between scenes from Jose Canseco’s autobiography to documents released in the Catholic Church child rape scandal to insightful interviews with Gil the Wall Street quant to discussing why the Katrina evacuation of New Orleans did not take into sufficient account those residents without cars. And it manages to show both the pervasiveness of meritocracy (how deep the myths roots penetrate our national psyche), and the ultimate harm that the myth has caused.

It’s that central point that I want to deal with though – that as a society we need only be interested in equality of opportunity, and that wide disparities of results on display are in fact OK, because they represent the system working its sorting magic. The people that have merit, who put in the work are succeeding. The people that don’t are not.

I hear this tossed around as an answer to MOOC failure rate, and it scares me a bit. It has taken decades for us to get to a point in higher education and K-12 where we are held accountable for social outcomes. And while there are flaws in the way those outcomes are measured, I know my own institution has actually undergone a sea change since I attended. We still struggle, occasionally, with faculty who think their job is to thin the class on its way up, but on the whole most faculty are committed to increasing the student success rate for those that come in the door, and most people in the institution see the increase in graduation rate as a sign of student support success, not meritocratic failure. Similarly, my child’s grade school has moved heaven and earth to successfully teach skills to children that would have been abandoned years ago.

All of this is not perfect, but most of it represents the progressive push to see equality of outcomes as the measure of success of our social interventions. They are imperfectly implemented, but they are baby steps in the right direction.

The danger of MOOCs (which, by the way, are at the intersection of Wall Street and Silicon Valley, two cultures inordinately obsessed with meritocracy) is that they will return us to seeing a world that sees large levels of failure validating small levels of success. And they will build a breed of student that is the Jamie Dimon or Bill Gross of tomorrow, someone who knows they are chosen, and becomes oblivious to their own privilege, luck, and detachment.

These are the cultures which have destroyed America over the last 30 years – the idea that our job as a society is to look only at the levelness of the playing field, and ignore how the rules consistently favor the team in power.

If we begin talking about MOOCs as meritocracies, we are doubling down on the flawed ideology that got us into this mess. I’m aware it’s difficult to track equality of outcomes in a MOOC. I’ve certainly signed up for a bunch that I’ve never engaged with due to time and other constraints, and this pattern is hardly something that should keep people up at night. But there are certainly ways to account for these things. Sub-cohorts would be one way – you could enroll 20 traditional students in the MOOC with a guide that tracks their participation and finds out the reason for their withdrawal. The MOOC itself might not be evaluated by traditional student success measures but the sub-cohort could be.

That’s just one idea. The point, I suppose, of this post is that we need dozens more ideas around this. As the child of Wall Street, the Ivy League, and Silicon Valley, there’s an awful lot of meritocratic DNA in the xMOOCs already – I would hate to see this move forward as yet another meritocratic “solution” that creates more problems than it solves.