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MOOCs: High-Tech Hype, or The Future of Education?

The room is dark and silent. Inside, a young computer scientist with a shaved head and intense blue eyes sits alone at a desk facing a pane of sound-absorbent foam. Above him a video camera points straight down at a high-tech tablet; his right hand is poised to scribble out code on its screen. Taped to the camera’s microphone is a yellow Post-it with one word scrawled on it—“ENERGY”—a curious message to the professor in his own handwriting.


Next, UC Davis’ John Owens takes a sip of Dr Pepper and begins teaching a class —Introduction to Parallel Computing—to a vast audience of learners via the Internet. Instead of giving a PowerPoint presentation before his usual classroom of hoodie-wearing co-eds with laptops and iPhones, however, this educator’s lessons will spiral out to an audience of 42,000 students across the globe. Though he must take the irregular step of using a Post-it to summon the energy usually inspired in him by living-and-breathing students, with this one class, Owens will teach many, many more pupils than he will otherwise have the opportunity to instruct throughout his entire tenured career at UC Davis.

Welcome to the world of massive online open courses—better known as MOOCs, where future-minded academics like Owens are early principals in a grand experiment about the future of education.

MOOCs (rhymes with “nukes”) came on the scene about three years ago. The courses combine high-end video production on lectures from world-class professors with assignments and assessments that students can get into at their own pace, on their own time, with the encouraged use of forums, discussion boards and social-media platforms like Facebook. From its inception, the fledgling MOOC industry drew hyperbole. Ivy League universities (Harvard, Stanford, MIT), renowned think tanks (Institute for Public Policy Research) and key media players (The New York Times’ Thomas L. Friedman, The New Yorker’s Nathan Heller) heralded the MOOC on high with its potential to cure to all that ails higher education.

Imagine the potential of MOOCs! they claimed—universally obtainable college classes taught to millions of learners by cream-of-the-crop professors for free or very low cost. The democratization of elite education! Some even predicted that MOOCs—now boasting more than 10 million students and thousands of classes—would do nothing less than revolutionize higher education, making residential colleges obsolete in the process.

But all that rises soon must fall.

Negative critiques began mounting—from longtime educators, faculty unions and watch guards of traditional pedagogy. Many said the MOOC phenomenon was, at its core, a threat to brick-and-mortar colleges and an affront to the traditional purveyors of higher education. After early data showed that some 90 percent of MOOC students drop out before completing courses, critics declared proof of failure. Just a few months ago, critics almost cheered when a study by the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education found that MOOC student engagement falls off an even steeper cliff shortly after each class begins, with course-completion rates averaging more like 4 percent. Meanwhile, it was also becoming clear that most of those who completed MOOCs were already highly educated, decidedly motivated. Slate published a blistering critique, NPR aired a negative take, and other headlines across the country took up a new pessimistic chant with: “Are MOOCs already over?” (The Washington Post), “Are MOOCS Really A Failure?” (Forbes), “All Hail MOOCs! Just Don’t Ask if They Actually Work” (Time).

So, are MOOCs done?

It’s not likely. Or why do the industry’s major providers continue to grow and announce new classes, endeavors and partnerships? Why do the numbers of students keep mounting by the millions? Why does venture capital keep pouring in?

According to the gurus of innovation, the MOOC phenomena is simply being misunderstood. As Mark Zuckerberg’s character said in The Social Network: “We don’t even know what it is yet.”

'On My Own Terms'

Nuclear physicist Walter Lewin demonstrates the difference between potential energy and kinetic energy in his edX Electricity and Magnetism MOOC with a perilous display. The MIT professor stands in front of a lecture hall full of students, picks up a white sphere (about half the diameter of a basketball and weighing a hefty 15 kilograms) that is tied to a cord and attached to the ceiling. He's about to prove to those gathered—a few hundred in the auditorium and the tens of thousands online all across the globe—that he has faith in “the conservation of mechanical energy.” Lewin drops the sphere and it swings, pendulum-style, like a wrecking ball, across the front of the hall, then back with velocity toward his own face. Students squeal with apprehension, then delight, as the returning orb misses Lewin's chin by mere inches.

“Physics works, and I’m still alive!” he proclaims.

Not all MOOC lectures go to such extreme lengths to make a point. But Lewin reminds that the passion of a great educator is undeniable; the influence of outstanding professors irrefutable.

For example: Thanks to his much-lauded Socratic-style MOOC Justice on edX, Harvard’s political philosopher Michael J. Sandel is now celebrated as a “celebrity educator” all over the world. Another famed MOOC prof is University of Pennsylvania’s Al Filreis who teaches the madly popular class ModPo—Modern & Contemporary America Poetry for Coursera. And no less than 160,000 students signed up to gain skills at the hand of Stanford’s Sebastian Thrun, who co-taught the MOOC Introduction to Artificial Intelligence in the fall of 2011. (The experience led Thrun—famous for his development of Google’s driverless car—to found Udacity.)

Those are just a few of thousands of MOOC professors—ones who built careers teaching in ivy towers to vastly smaller numbers in classrooms and lecture halls—who now offer up their wisdom to millions through one of the three MOOC industry giants: Udacity, Coursera, edX. Unlike online education classes that have been available for decades with mostly low-budget videos of lectures and assignments taken for credit, MOOCs produced by the “three giants” are expensive to make with top “talent,” high-end production value, professional editing and, sometimes, cool visual effects. Often, the lecturer breaks lessons up in segments of 15 minutes or less, followed by a quick quiz and/or an opportunity to ask questions in social-media format.

In the case of UC Davis’ Owens, the burning passion was to teach parallel computing—where large problems are divided into smaller ones so that many calculations can be carried out simultaneously “in parallel,” by many computers. (The form of computation solves the problem of how to keep processors running faster regardless of heat generated.) Owens’ MOOC was designed to teach students how to code a series of image processing algorithms (like those used in Photoshop or Instagram), and program and then run those assignments on high-end graphics-processing units.

“The big thing is—how do you think in parallel?” said the associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. “How do you take a complicated problem,” as examples, he mentioned global warming and protein folding, “and divide it into its littlest pieces so that you can collaborate, communicate, get something done?”

Though Owens’ typical UC Davis class comes together with plenty of time for questions and “winging it” by the teacher, the MOOC he launched with Udacity in the winter of 2013 did not exactly involve ad lib.

Introduction to Parallel Computing, a class he’d never taught specifically before, consisted of seven hour-long lectures broken into segments. Aside from a few videos featuring Owens and his co-instructor, the course is focused on Owens’ right hand, literally. As his voice guides students along, the video they see onscreen in the MOOC follows him drawing, scribbling code and scratching out algorithms on a Wacom Cintiq drawing pad. The segments are short, sometimes funny, and taught in a “dense” style that includes no summaries, wrap-ups or review. It’s like a TV show for advanced geeks with a Sesame Street-type approach that includes quick lessons graphically taught with some animation. The six student projects are auto-graded. The course offers a certificate for those who completed the class; around 10 percent of the original class finished.

“It’s a huge team that put this together,” said Owen of his MOOC. He estimated that the effort cost Udacity something like $250,000 if you add up all the time and people power, including “back-end” experts, video editors, forum staffers and publicity folks. “For my one hour of lecture, it takes them 30 hours of edit,” he said.

“During the time the course was active, I was spending 10 to 15 hours per week answering questions [on the forum] besides whatever else I was doing,” he said.

With his striking appearance and shaved head, Owens makes a good target for approach at conferences by students who took his MOOC. They think him a rock star. “People are walking up to me and taking pictures and tweeting about it,” he said. “And they’re just beaming. They want me to review their projects.”

The only UC Davis academic so far to have made and launched a full-throttle MOOC, Owens describes the UC Davis campus as “incredibly supportive,” though he created the class while on sabbatical and was not rewarded for it by UC Davis in any direct sense. “This didn’t reduce my teaching load or anything,” he said.

“I’d rather explore this on my own terms,” shrugged Owens, “instead of being phased into doing it 10 or 15 years down the road.” When asked if he’d ever teach another MOOC, Owens nodded without skipping a beat.

“Absolutely,” he beamed.

'Excessive Optimism'

The Sacramento State University campus is quiet this cold January morning, its student hordes nowhere to be found, its parking lots as vacant as Sleep Train Arena's with the Kings on a road trip. But not everyone has vacated the premises this winter break. Up on the third floor of Tahoe Hall, looking like a younger, more studious version of William H. Macy, a CSUS professor of government sits ready to discuss pedagogy, technological determinism and the future of higher education.

Hint: Mark B. Brown is not too big on the MOOC thing.

“I think there’s been a kind of excessive optimism,” said Brown, who has pondered plenty about MOOCs on his Whose University? blog. “People often seize on a technological solution to social and political problems,” he said. “They come up with a nice hammer, and everything looks like a nail.”

What problems are we talking about? Try budget cutbacks, escalating tuition and soaring levels of student debt (estimated total at around $1 trillion) for starters. Add an alarming increase in waiting lists and inability for students to get into the classes they need to graduate. Then add a strikingly increased reliance on part-time faculty.

“There’s an assumption that a huge decline in public funding is somehow natural,” when it is instead the result of political decisions, said Brown. He noted California’s 2012 passage of Proposition 30 (a measure which increased taxes so as to prevent $6 billion in cuts to education) as an example of how politics and government can best ease some of higher education’s troubles.

“It’s much easier to argue about the pros and cons of [MOOCs] rather than fundamental questions of funding and priorities,” he said.

According to Brown, MOOCs are a pedagogical throwback, e.g., with their “sage on the stage” emphasis.

“The parts of MOOCs that are new are not what they seem. And the parts that work well are not very new,” he said. “Proponents of MOOCs often say the advantage of online lectures is that ’you can pause and go back and review it again later.’ Which is what used to be called the virtues of a book. And they say, ’MOOCs make the best knowledge in the world available to people on a public basis?’

“Well, that is what used to be called the virtues of a public library.”

He prefers the idea that MOOCs become just “one more resource for faculty to draw on” to instruct at their own discretion, as when they assign a book or a film.

Brown also believes the proposed solution of MOOCs “comes along with a diagnosis that faculty are usually lazy and slow to innovate, that they’re not interested in making use of new technologies,” he said. But it’s simply not true, he protested. For example, like many other professors, he makes use of new technologies all the time in his teaching. “My students run a course blog. I have a website for each of my classes. We have online discussion boards. I have my own blog.”

“You get these outsiders who don’t have teaching experience who are credited with coming up with magical proposals for making everything better,” he said.

When MOOCs are criticized by lifelong educators and professors like Brown, one gets the sense that many in that community were fundamentally affronted by the sudden, explosive media attention MOOCs drew to the otherwise fairly dry subject of higher education.

Rolin Moe, a Pepperdine University education doctorate student revealed some of the preliminary results of a recent Delphi study (a research model that uses expert “stakeholders” to investigate a topic) that he conducted on MOOCs for his dissertation and found opinions quite polarized about what he calls “not a learning model but a cultural phenomena.”

According to Moe, the “negative backlash” against MOOCS from many faculty members did not occur “because there’s an institutional fear of change,” he said. “It’s more because it was frustrating to have rock stars like [Sebastian] Thrun come through and take center stage for their ’eureka moment’ about higher education, when really people have been doing the pedagogical work since way before.”

'Some Fear … Some Upset'

When Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg launched his online-education bill in March 2013, he did it with a nod to the future.

Instead of holding a traditional press conference with rows of scrappy journalists scribbling into notepads and running tape, Steinberg delivered news of what was to be a groundbreaking bill via live video stream at a Google Hangout conference. Reporters joined in via video chat or live over Web stream as the senator—with Udacity’s Thrun in supportive attendance and Coursera waiting in the wings to offer classes—told those gathered about Senate Bill 520, his bill to improve access to higher education in California.

The ambitious legislation would have a panel of faculty from the state’s three segments of higher education—California Community College, California State University and the University of California—choose online options to offer for 50 lower-division courses that had outrageously lengthy waiting lists. According to Steinberg, hundreds of thousands of students each year are shut out of courses they must take to continue with their major or fulfill other requirements.

S.B. 520 was positioned to relieve such pressures by offering the country’s first statewide online college courses for credit. Steinberg knew the bill might create “some fear … some upset” among the state’s educators and their unions, yes.

But he was floored by the extent of the opposition.

Education-advocacy groups and faculty unions hated the bill as written. Despite Steinberg’s pledge that it did not represent a shift in funding priorities, the California Teachers Association, California Faculty Association, and California Federation of Teachers protested that S.B. 520 would “lower academic standards, exacerbate the educational divide along socio-economic lines and diminish accountability within our institutions.”

The opposition roiled, even though S.B. 520 was not directly linked to the globally available MOOCs of hyperbole, but more about making lower-division “hybrid” and so-called “flipped” classes (where professors utilize online lectures and other resources in otherwise traditional classes) available to California students for credit. The presence of Thrun at the press launch for S.B. 520 probably didn’t help people understand the distinction.

“It was invasion of the MOOCsters,” said Lillian Taiz, president of the California Faculty Association representing the teaching staff at the 23-campus CSU system. “There’s no magic wand that can solve issues of access,” she said. “The role of state government in [the] future of higher education is to invest in the things that are going to get us an educated workforce.”

“[MOOCs] are an impersonal medium—when we need face-to-face.”

According to Steinberg’s press secretary Rhys Williams, “the pro tem sat down with [the faculty unions] and talked about their concerns,” he said. “We amended the bill … then there were more concerns. We went through this rigmarole two or three times and ultimately, it was fairly apparent there was going to be no consensus.

“There was a misperception that the bill was trying to switch the model,” he said. “There was faculty wariness and skepticism about a different way of teaching.”

Critics also jumped on the results of a MOOC experiment that Gov. Jerry Brown launched with flourish in January 2013—a partnership that paired San Jose State with Udacity to offer several for-credit courses online to high-risk students. Pass rates in the pilot class of 100 students turned out to be much lower than the typical in-class pass rates.

Post-skirmish, S.B. 520 was put on hold in the Assembly where it still remains. According to Williams, Steinberg “can choose to move it or not,” depending on how the three systems progress—fueled by funds from Prop. 30—on developing various agreed-upon online courses this year.

“Going forward, Sen. Steinberg is delighted that S.B. 520 ignited the debate about access to online education in California,” said Williams.

But Mark Brown of CSUS thinks of it differently.

“It was technological euphoria,” he said. “Steinberg was doing what [The New York Times’] Thomas Friedman had been doing—plunging in with wild ideas without doing his homework and without talking to faculty who have been involved in improving higher education for decades.”

'The Jury's Still Out'

Futurist and Harvard professor Clay Shirky reflected on MOOCs on his blog by invoking stories from others in the communication industry that have been disrupted by the speedy advance of technology. Examples: music (the peer-to-peer MP3 revolution), books (the rise of digital readers), network TV (the emergence of cable and other means to access video) and newspapers (social and digital media shifting how people get their news).

“First, the people running the old system don’t notice the change,” he wrote toward the end of 2012. “When they do, they assume it’s minor. Then that it’s a niche. … [B]y the time they realize the world has actually changed, they’ve squandered most of the time they had to adapt.”

Could this hold true for the “industry” of higher education?

Only three years into the grand MOOC experiment, nobody knows. But at least one thing seems clear: MOOCs don’t seem to be panning out the way anybody expected. Among other unanticipated outcomes, based on data from multiple studies, the vast majority of students enrolled in MOOCs have already earned one or more degrees. So it’s the highly educated and motivated people who seem to get the most from MOOCs.

But if the high dropout rate seems to indicate failure, perhaps it’s due to a false presumption, i.e., that everybody who takes a course has the intention to complete. Perhaps MOOCs are more suited to other applications—some even suggest MOOCs will create a vast new “leisure learning” market. Meanwhile, the “three giants” all seem busy testing new areas of focus, such as vocational education, partnerships, career groundwork, workplace training and pre-college preparation. In mid-January, Udacity launched a partnership with Georgia Institute of Technology that offers an online master’s degree in computer science, with Udacity tutoring and financial support from AT&T. And edX just announced a partnership to host advanced-placement-course modules for high schoolers. MOOC providers seem also to be realizing that, for a small fee, “human mentors” can amount to higher completion rates for some classes.

All the while, massive data compilation on MOOCs continues apace. In fact, education has never seen such metrics, with exhaustively collected statistics about student behavior, retention, acquisition, satisfaction. All is being tracked and measured by MOOC purveyors with failures acknowledged and successes built on.

“Nobody knows what MOOCs are going to look like,” shrugged UCD’s Owens when asked to look into the crystal ball. “The jury’s still out.”

But in a recent blog post in response to mounting bad press for MOOCs, Udacity’s Thrun put it this way: “To all those people who declared our experiment a failure, you have to understand how innovation works. Few ideas work on the first try. Iteration is key to innovation.”

Will MOOCs ultimately settle into an industry that develops education products for niche markets? Or will they ultimately make a world-class education available to all? Either is possible. Or perhaps, to return to the position evoked in The Social Network, we don’t even know what it is yet.

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