Opinion | Postsecondary Learning

Are MOOCs Really the Future of the University?

By Cathy N. Davidson     May 21, 2013

Are MOOCs Really the Future of the University?
What is the cost of MOOCs for society at large? Who profits? And who loses?

In the last few weeks, faculty at universities from Amherst to Duke to San Jose State have been pushing back at the incursion of MOOCs on their campuses. The San Jose professors offered this reason: that givingin to MOOCs now means that “public universities that have so long andsuccessfully served the students and citizens of California will be dismantled,and what remains of them will become a hodgepodge branch of private companies.”

Point well taken! If we centralize teaching througha few commercial or even non-profit MOOC providers, what is the future of theprofessorate? Ifundergraduate teaching is centralized by MOOC providers, how can we sustainfuture graduate programs except at a handful of elite universities? Withoutgraduate departments, what is the fate of basic research? 

Government and industry offer less andless support for theoretical and specialized research in the sciences; neither dothey support the full range of research in the human and social sciences. As the prospects for teaching careers grow dim and support for teaching assistants dwindles, manyfields at many universities will simply disappear. That's a problem, particularly because it may well be the research in these fields--pursuedwithout a clear commercial end product--that results in transformative, world-changing insights,possibilities, discoveries, and breakthroughs. 

MOOCs are forcing universities to confront some challenging issues including the cost of tuition, and who wins and who loses as this kind of online education emerges. Faculty and institutions are wrestling with these questions and are often rightly concerned about their future. 

But left out of that conversation are the urgent demands of hundreds of thousands of students who are struggling with the cost and access to higher education--and potentially with staggering personal debt. Currently 450,000 studentsare on the waiting list for California community colleges alone. In the great technical schools inIndia, the admission rate is less than 2% as selected from onlythat tiny percentage of students eligible to take the entrance exams.  The average GPA of a student enteringthe University of California Irvine this year is 4.1 on a 4.0 scale, and thestudents need perfect test scores and a host of extracurricular activities toget into their state university, too. That’s a tragedy for the students and for society.

MOOCs address students' cost problems by offeringfree or low-cost courses to anyone, often without prerequisites or entrancerequirements.  Sebastian Thrun, CEOof Udacity, in a recent video has said that 300,000 students have enrolled injust one Udacity computer science course.  And, thanks to individual mentoring and tutoring, dropout rates for a number of the San Jose courses offered by Udacity are fallingrapidly, even as new research suggests that problem-based, onlinelearning in areas of study such as computer programming can achieve comparable retention rates of traditional lecture-style classes--and rival those classes when assessed on the "applicability" of the work.

It's for those kinds of reasons that Georgia Tech recently announced its first onlinemaster’s degree in computer science, funded partly by AT&T and offered byUdacity, and intended to reach a global audience far beyond the normal studentbody taught by Georgia Tech faculty.  

What we have at the moment are competingvalues, competing goals, and, unfortunately, a lot of anxiety.

In the present mood of high polemic,hyperbolic promise, and hysterical panic, it is almost impossible to sort outthe questions, let alone the answers to these questions, on either a nationalor international level: Is now thetime to reject or embrace massive online learning? Do MOOCs yield improved learning and free and openaccess to those who have been excluded from higher education—or are they yetanother cynical attempt to defund the public and extract profits from taxpayers and diminish the value of what virtually all universally claim to be thepublic good of higher education? 

As a small attempt to find clarity and somecreative new answers to the problems of access and affordability, I’ve decidedto teach a MOOC this coming academic year that, among other things, I'd like to offer up as a referendum platformon MOOCs. 

InJanuary 2014, I will offer a six-week Coursera class, “The History and Future of Higher Education,” free and open to anyone. I'd like to turn the class' weekly forums into an opportunity for a massive, global, collaborative,constructive, peer dialogue about how higher education got to its current dilemma. And from there, I hope we can come up with some creative, innovative, and workable ideas to make a better future. 

To start to demystify MOOCs, I've already started blogging at least once or twice aweek on the hastac.org website about MOOC mechanics, methods, and financing. I’ve also posted the draft storyboards for The History and Future of Higher Education videos here. I’mhappy to hear your feedback. We plan to begin filming the videos for this class in June. 

Starting in January 2014, I will alsobe teaching a face-to-face course at Duke on "The History and Future of Higher Education" right alongside the Coursera course. These Duke students will meet and discuss ideas with one another and then also register in the Coursera course and participate in similar online conversations, in the forums that can host literally thousands of participants worldwide. My goal is to use the stable online Coursera platform to build an engaged and expanded community interested in this topic. I suspect I'll have about 30 on-campus students and who knows how many online.

Even better, I've been hearing from other teachers who want to teach similar courses also during the Winter 2014 semester, in their brick-and-mortar classrooms, using a similar method of face-to-face conversation combined with online interaction.

So far, I have heard from about twentycollege professors and high school teachers—and one teacher at a middleschool—who plan to teach a version of this course alongside me. We’ll use the six hours of videoas a “textbook” for the course. I will also have two student-produced textbooksavailable for free download. Others will be invited to contribute to anonline bibliography for the class.

Together, the students in our face-to-face classes will all have a chance to take part in the weekly global Forums where we willaddress current problems in higher education, explain existing solutions thatindividuals have come up with for their institutions or region, and proposestill other new ways of learning and teaching together. MOOCs will be key to the conversation inevery way.

You’re invited to join us! I love the idea of using the centralizedCoursera platform of "Sage on the Stage" videos to generate a connectivist,peer-to-peer sharing of ideas, insights, and methods. Perhaps together we’ll come up with an action agenda, something better for the future of higher education.

Opinion | Postsecondary Learning

Are MOOCs Really the Future of the University?

By Cathy N. Davidson     May 21, 2013

Are MOOCs Really the Future of the University?
What is the cost of MOOCs for society at large? Who profits? And who loses?

In the last few weeks, faculty at universities from Amherst to Duke to San Jose State have been pushing back at the incursion of MOOCs on their campuses. The San Jose professors offered this reason: that givingin to MOOCs now means that “public universities that have so long andsuccessfully served the students and citizens of California will be dismantled,and what remains of them will become a hodgepodge branch of private companies.”

Point well taken! If we centralize teaching througha few commercial or even non-profit MOOC providers, what is the future of theprofessorate? Ifundergraduate teaching is centralized by MOOC providers, how can we sustainfuture graduate programs except at a handful of elite universities? Withoutgraduate departments, what is the fate of basic research? 

Government and industry offer less andless support for theoretical and specialized research in the sciences; neither dothey support the full range of research in the human and social sciences. As the prospects for teaching careers grow dim and support for teaching assistants dwindles, manyfields at many universities will simply disappear. That's a problem, particularly because it may well be the research in these fields--pursuedwithout a clear commercial end product--that results in transformative, world-changing insights,possibilities, discoveries, and breakthroughs. 

MOOCs are forcing universities to confront some challenging issues including the cost of tuition, and who wins and who loses as this kind of online education emerges. Faculty and institutions are wrestling with these questions and are often rightly concerned about their future. 

But left out of that conversation are the urgent demands of hundreds of thousands of students who are struggling with the cost and access to higher education--and potentially with staggering personal debt. Currently 450,000 studentsare on the waiting list for California community colleges alone. In the great technical schools inIndia, the admission rate is less than 2% as selected from onlythat tiny percentage of students eligible to take the entrance exams.  The average GPA of a student enteringthe University of California Irvine this year is 4.1 on a 4.0 scale, and thestudents need perfect test scores and a host of extracurricular activities toget into their state university, too. That’s a tragedy for the students and for society.

MOOCs address students' cost problems by offeringfree or low-cost courses to anyone, often without prerequisites or entrancerequirements.  Sebastian Thrun, CEOof Udacity, in a recent video has said that 300,000 students have enrolled injust one Udacity computer science course.  And, thanks to individual mentoring and tutoring, dropout rates for a number of the San Jose courses offered by Udacity are fallingrapidly, even as new research suggests that problem-based, onlinelearning in areas of study such as computer programming can achieve comparable retention rates of traditional lecture-style classes--and rival those classes when assessed on the "applicability" of the work.

It's for those kinds of reasons that Georgia Tech recently announced its first onlinemaster’s degree in computer science, funded partly by AT&T and offered byUdacity, and intended to reach a global audience far beyond the normal studentbody taught by Georgia Tech faculty.  

What we have at the moment are competingvalues, competing goals, and, unfortunately, a lot of anxiety.

In the present mood of high polemic,hyperbolic promise, and hysterical panic, it is almost impossible to sort outthe questions, let alone the answers to these questions, on either a nationalor international level: Is now thetime to reject or embrace massive online learning? Do MOOCs yield improved learning and free and openaccess to those who have been excluded from higher education—or are they yetanother cynical attempt to defund the public and extract profits from taxpayers and diminish the value of what virtually all universally claim to be thepublic good of higher education? 

As a small attempt to find clarity and somecreative new answers to the problems of access and affordability, I’ve decidedto teach a MOOC this coming academic year that, among other things, I'd like to offer up as a referendum platformon MOOCs. 

InJanuary 2014, I will offer a six-week Coursera class, “The History and Future of Higher Education,” free and open to anyone. I'd like to turn the class' weekly forums into an opportunity for a massive, global, collaborative,constructive, peer dialogue about how higher education got to its current dilemma. And from there, I hope we can come up with some creative, innovative, and workable ideas to make a better future. 

To start to demystify MOOCs, I've already started blogging at least once or twice aweek on the hastac.org website about MOOC mechanics, methods, and financing. I’ve also posted the draft storyboards for The History and Future of Higher Education videos here. I’mhappy to hear your feedback. We plan to begin filming the videos for this class in June. 

Starting in January 2014, I will alsobe teaching a face-to-face course at Duke on "The History and Future of Higher Education" right alongside the Coursera course. These Duke students will meet and discuss ideas with one another and then also register in the Coursera course and participate in similar online conversations, in the forums that can host literally thousands of participants worldwide. My goal is to use the stable online Coursera platform to build an engaged and expanded community interested in this topic. I suspect I'll have about 30 on-campus students and who knows how many online.

Even better, I've been hearing from other teachers who want to teach similar courses also during the Winter 2014 semester, in their brick-and-mortar classrooms, using a similar method of face-to-face conversation combined with online interaction.

So far, I have heard from about twentycollege professors and high school teachers—and one teacher at a middleschool—who plan to teach a version of this course alongside me. We’ll use the six hours of videoas a “textbook” for the course. I will also have two student-produced textbooksavailable for free download. Others will be invited to contribute to anonline bibliography for the class.

Together, the students in our face-to-face classes will all have a chance to take part in the weekly global Forums where we willaddress current problems in higher education, explain existing solutions thatindividuals have come up with for their institutions or region, and proposestill other new ways of learning and teaching together. MOOCs will be key to the conversation inevery way.

You’re invited to join us! I love the idea of using the centralizedCoursera platform of "Sage on the Stage" videos to generate a connectivist,peer-to-peer sharing of ideas, insights, and methods. Perhaps together we’ll come up with an action agenda, something better for the future of higher education.

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