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MOOCs Challenge to Higher Education

March 23, 2013

Nature’s science writer and editor M. Mitchell Waldrop recently contributed a MOOCs article to the Scientific American [1]. There are many intriguing aspects, lurking uncertainties, and heatedly debated controversies about the MOOCs phenomenon. What I care about here and now is the parallel that Chris Dede, Harvard professor, draws in that article between the “university business” and “learning business” in higher ed.

The university business is about solving the affordability problem, with a primary concern about increasing financial pressure to reduce tuition and other costs at times when student debt is sky rocketing. The learning business is about solving the accountability problem, with a primary concern about the quality of education, meaning qualified and talented teachers and an increasingly complex learning environment with many social, and situational, and time constraints.

To provide high quality while reducing costs (more with less, so to speak) is a productivity question. The university business answer to it is to adopt MOOCs and other online technologies “to do things more cheaply”, within “existing structures and practices.” The earlier innovations of personal computing, Internet, and course management systems show the exact limit in materializing real gains in productivity, that is, quality education at reduced costs. Dede’s claim is that we won’t see real gains in productivity and effectiveness of learning, or a thriving learning business, until “universities radically reshape [their existing] structures and practices to take full advantage of the technology.”

How do we do it is the sticky question. Since we’ve seen MOOCs in action, do we know more about the changes we need to make? Stanford’s take on this challenge is to “embed digital learning into the fabric of the entire University”. Ambitious, abstract statement. Here there are some concrete pointers.

Blend it!

A private summit held on March 4, 2013 in Cambridge and sponsored by MIT and Harvard apparently arrived at a “strong consensus that [a] blended model combining online lectures with a teacher led classroom experience [would be] the ideal” [2]. Waldrop concludes his article with a similarly compelling argument for the importance of direct human interaction. Ironically, MOOCs’ innovation with flipping the classroom is testimony that “online technology’s most profound effect on education may be to make human interaction more important than ever.”

Student mentoring? Mean it!

As it stands, student participation in MOOCs lacks diversity [3]. Undergraduate computing education is predominantly white or Asian and male, and percentages of women has been on a steady decline from 30% in 1991 to 17% in 2010. Mark Guzdial points to the demographic survey results of the first Coursera MOOC from Georgia Tech, which show that MOOC completers (enrollees who finish the course) were 88.6% white or Asian and 91% male. The results suggest, says Guzdial, that “MOOC-based computing education would be even more exclusive than what we currently have.” His research on broadening participation in computing and other findings suggest that “one-on-one encouragement is the most effective way of engaging and retaining students from underrepresented groups.”

Full circle competencies

Cognitive skills (reasoning, memory, and problem solving) is one of the three competency categories that compose deeper learning – process through which we become capable of taking what’s learned in one situation and transferring or applying to new situations and problems [4]. The other two categories are:

  • intra-personal skills by which we manage our behavior and emotions to achieve our goals (including learning goals), such as work ethic, metacognition, appreciation for diversity, flexibility, self-direction, self-monitoring, and responsibility.
  • inter-personal skills by which we express ideas and interpret and respond to others ideas, such as teamwork, collaboration, and leadership.

In disciplines with stronger communal endeavors as science, says Dede, “education is more than knowledge.” It is about “abilities like leadership and collaboration and traits like tenacity”, which are best learned face to face. David Krakauer, a biologist who directs the Institute for Discovery at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, makes the same point when he agrees that very large lecture halls can be replaced by lectures watched on iPads. At the same time, he points out, “there is no substitute for a conversation.”

Ultimate goal of a college degree is to educate graduates to achieve success in the workplace, further education, and other areas of adult responsibility and life, e.g., civic engagement and personal fulfillment, health, and relationships. And it takes the cultivation of both cognitive and noncognitive skills to learn on the job or transfer what we learn across jobs.

[1] Waldrop, M. Mitchell 2013. Massive Open Online Courses, aka MOOCs, Transform Higher Education and Science. Scientific American (March 13, 2013). Available at http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=massive-open-online-courses-transform-higher-education-and-science.

[2] Friedman, Thomas L. 2013. The Professor’s Big Stage. New York Times, March 5, 2013. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/06/opinion/friedman-the-professors-big-stage.html?ref=thomaslfriedman&_r=1&.

[3] Guzdial, Mark. 2013. Research Questions About MOOCs. Communications of the ACM, Blog@CACM (February 20, 3013). Available at http://cacm.acm.org/blogs/blog-cacm/161153-research-questions-about-moocs/fulltext.

[4] National Research Council. 2013. Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century. Committee on Defining Deeper Learning and 21st Century Skills. Pellegrino, J.W. and Hilton, M.L. (Eds.). Board on Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

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