The MOOCs that (Almost) Ate UVA

Broadcasting from W&M Weather Vane

As I’ve confessed recently, I’m not very good at predicting the future of technology.  I missed wireless and YouTube, and there were nights when I had serious doubts about this whole “world wide web” thing.  Nonetheless, recent events seem to suggest that even in those of us working in traditional institutions might need to pay some attention what’s going on in this new generation of “massively open, online courses” (MOOCs). The recent dismissal of UVA president Terry Sullivan reportedly demonstrates how important it is for those of us the technology community to be a part of institutional conversation on this topic.

The fact that a column by David Brooks was apparently central to the case for Sullivan’s firing highlights the dramatic awareness of e-learning in the last few months.  Brooks showcases some of the successful universities in the country that are launching serious efforts to expand their impact beyond their campuses–not merely to make money but to provide mechanisms for seriously improving learning. The article, which circulated among selected members of the UVA Board of Visitors, suggested that innovative teaching models threaten traditional higher education in the way that CraigsList threatened newspapers and Amazon threatened Borders and the local neighborhood bookstore.

A similar article in the Wall Street Journal chose to highlight the making money part rather than the improving learning part. The subhead on the article reads: “The substitution of technology (which is cheap) for labor (which is expensive) can vastly increase access to an elite caliber education.” These innovative high-quality “lecture-replacement” activities – supported by an array of automated tools for automatically grading and responding to quizzes, problem sets, and other written work – could create a new standard for online learning.

My Experience Taking a Course from Coursera

I recently took one of the new courses through Coursera – which offers classes from Michigan, Penn, Yale and Stanford. The course in Model Thinking was taught by Scott E. Page at the University of Michigan.   Everything about it was well-done–the lectures were well-organized with carefully designed modules, good lighting, and good sound.  The formulas were readable and the pause button was easy to find. The course was as effective as most of the ones I took at the School of Information Studies at Syracuse and probably as good as many lecture courses in most universities across the country.  If faculty and graduate students at Harvard, MIT, and Stanford get serious about improving this type of online course, the quality of these lecture-replacement products is likely to increase dramatically, given the power of the new technology to drive improvements.

As impressive as these new offerings are, they have little to do with providing an elite caliber education. For generations we’ve known that the traditional lecture is an ineffective tool for enhancing learning. The ability of good teachers to help students transform their lives is under no threat from these emerging e-learning tools.

As part of a post on Computers in the University, Gardner Campbell hit on the key source of this the challenge we face in this quite from a 1961 Conference Proceedings publication Computers in the Future. 

The impact of the digital computer upon university education, it seems to me, will stem mainly from the changes the computer will produce in intellectual activities generally. The pedagogical responsibility of the university is not to lecture or assign problems or grade them. It is to create a situation within which most bright students will automatically learn. The multi-user digital computer opens new horizons for anyone eager to create such situations. [my emphasis]

The rise of the MOOCs can be threatening. I think many of us fear that even though our rhetoric focuses on transformation, our actions are often more pedestrian. We continue to plan courses that don’t respond particularly well to individual student needs, and we spend the bulk of our time on activities that don’t really enhance learning. We know that in far too many of our classes, most students never get to speak and that the 50 minute class period offers little chance to deviate from our PowerPoint slides and still cover the material that students are expected to know for the next class in their sequence.  Students in the back row can’t read the writing on the board, and there’s no pause button when an idea or concept slips by. The design of our facilities, curricular expectations, and scheduling procedures all push many of our courses toward precisely the kinds of structures that are most easily replaced.

What’s the Impact of MOOCs and How Will We Know?

Understanding the potential impact of MOOC-like entities is even more difficult because we know so little about what actually happens in our traditional classrooms. Researchers in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning community emphasize that, unlike scholarship, our teaching is secret, unreviewed, and idiosyncratic. In the absence of any real data, we can make whatever claims support our arguments in responding to e-learning challenges. My own hypothesis – based on years of wandering the halls of William & Mary’s classroom buildings – is that a fair number of our face-to-face classes scheduled in classrooms seating over 35 students could be more effectively delivered using technology-enhanced tools like those being developed by Coursera. (Would that save us any money? Probably not. But it could offer substantial changes in our ability to customize student learning.)

The number of candidates for lecture replacement will increase dramatically if the new providers really do invest in the understanding the learning process and if platforms for course delivery improves. We’re seeing one vision of what this could look like in the Open Learning Initiative where a team of statisticians, instructional technologists, and learning scientists continue to improve statistics courses to the point where students routinely learn the content in about half the “traditional” timeframe.

MOOCs as an Opportunity, Not a Threat

The UVA Rector saw the emergence of MOOCs as a threat so serious that it required upending the entire university, but I see it more as an opportunity that offers a unique challenge for individual faculty members. The technology offers us the chance to redefine our roles and our pedagogies to focus on ways to help – and maybe even inspire – more students.  As Gardner writes, the time we’re spending in old pedagogies might be better spent in attending to “our own eagerness, our own continuously creative brains, and the prime pedagogical directive of education: to create situations that stimulate curiosity and self-directed, intrinsically-motivated learning.”

As the guy who dismissed YouTube and wireless, I have to wonder if this is the challenge that will finally provide the opportunity to systematically rethink our professional identities, our relationships and our connectedness with students. Or is it just another one of those ed tech distractions that we’ll tell to our kids as a fairy tales?

If you’re interested in reading more about MOOCs on this blog, here are a few posts that you may want to take a look at: Thoughts from a MOOC Pioneer, What We Can Learn from Bryn Mawr’s Online Learning ExperimentThree Reasons MOOCs Should Include Digital Humanities ProjectsThe Final Last Word on MOOCs, and Inconvenient Truths about MOOCs.

About Gene Roche

Gene Roche is director of Academic Information Services with responsibility for assisting faculty in using technology effectively in their teaching, learning and research. He also has an academic appointment as Executive Professor in the School of Education where he teaches courses in educational technology planning, emerging technology, and adult education and works with with students on independent study, dissertations and comprehensive exams. Current projects include working with the SOE’s Executive EdD program, co-chairing William and Mary’s Survey Center, and serving as chair of the Electronic Campus of Virginia. Gene completed his AB degree at Hamilton College and his MS and EdD degrees at Syracuse University–all in the snow belt of upstate New York. Before coming to William and Mary, he was the Director of Career Services at Hamilton and taught in graduate programs in Adult Education at Syracuse University and Elmira College.