Tuesday, September 18, 2012

MOOCs and Online Distance Education

There have been a lot of attention with regards to Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs this past year. Many have wondered if they are worthwhile, believing that the MOOC pedagogy just isn't viable for a robust education. While there are good arguments for and against that belief, we should recall that Distance Education is not new. Distance Education can be traced back as far as Aristotle and Lyceums, some of which are still around. Indeed, Lyceums provided information and guidance for many who wanted to simply learn more or who were not permitted access to education because of gender or social status.

Alas, even today, many are still in that same situation, unable to learn more and thus earn more. Part of the problem for some is the huge gap of knowledge between what they currently know and what a professor teaches. How are we to bridge the gap? This is why the article "Gates, MOOCs and Remediation" by Paul Fain in Inside Higher Ed caught my attention.


What is the nature of a MOOC? Why should anyone care and how does it affect the general public and educators alike? For those who don’t know, MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course. These are courses open to anyone with access to a computer who wishes to enroll. On top of the open enrollment, MOOCs are taught by industry experts from the likes of Stanford, Harvard & MIT among others.

Many in Higher Education have been carefully watching MOOCs as they have caused some controversy. A lot of money has been put into Distance Education and the World Wide Web by just about every institution of higher learning; and now some of the best schools in the nation are offering courses online for free. This has many in Higher Ed wondering what the future may hold for them, as they try to sort out how MOOCs will affect online distance education. While some distrust the whole MOOC genre, others want to embrace it. There is a lot of disparity between the two opinions. In fact, some have insinuated that MOOCs were part “philosophical differences” that led to Virginia University President Teresa Sullivan resigning (she was reinstated later).

A New Twist...

Before we go any further, we need to address the controversy of MOOC pedagogy.  According to Paul Fain, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation “seeks applications for MOOCs with content that focuses on a “high-enrollment, low-success introductory level course that is a barrier to success for many students, particularly low-income, first-generation students.”1

Many have doubts that MOOCs can really deliver quality education due to the 'massive' amount of students in the course.  In his article, Fain quotes Amy Slaton of Drexel University saying: "MOOCs are about economies of scale"..."which are not compatible with the personalized support remedial students typically require to succeed".

Others disagree stating that the amount of student to student engagement compensates for lack of instructor engagement.  Furthermore, former Udacity students claim that the course structure promotes: "collaboration and workplace skills that aren't taught that well in the traditional education system". 2   

Fain’s article in Inside Higher Ed, does a fantastic job of posing both sides of the argument regarding quality online education. And we have to admit that the “fruit” of MOOCs still has yet to be harvested; and the harvest is debatable - I admit. Regardless, I believe that the harvest will be big. In fact, I believe that every institution should look at what the Gates Foundation is doing and repeat it. That is to say, online distance education should invest in free online remedial education (say that three times).

Intellectual and Social Capital

In his book Trust, Francis Fukuyama talks about the concept of social virtues and especially Social Capital. Indeed, Fukuyama defines Social Capital as society’s ability to work together in groups and organizations for a common purpose. 3 In his presentation at Brigham Young University, Fukuyama reiterates that many innovations in technology came out of social capital that arose in cafe’s, bars and restaurants in Silicon Valley.  These were places that programmers and otherwise from various tech companies shared information with each other and casually collaborated to solve problems.4 Fukuyama’s point was that collaboration and “trust” sowed the seeds of technological innovation that we all enjoy today.
Can MOOCs leverage similar social capital for distance education in universities and higher education? Certainly if there is any truth for MOOCs being efficacious in remedial education, any institution of higher learning would want to leverage it.   However, there are many who acknowledge that MOOCs do not produce a degree of any sort and therefore are not worth much.  However, one of the benefits Sebastian Thrun (Udacity) touts is his ability to match learners with possible employers.  That alone could be worth completion.  Keep in mind that most who do take Dr. Thrun's courses already have their terminal degree - already fulfilling one of the default "door opener" criteria for employment.  But social capital runs both ways.  Getting a recommend from Sebastian Thrun could be valuable to the potential employer as well as the learner.  Could MOOCs be self serving to the instructors?  Maybe....but anyone who has read Fukuyama's book would say that is the benefit of  social capital.

So far so good for "Ivy League" MOOCs...what about MOOCs for remedial studies?  Is Sebastian Thrun going to recommend the learners participating in remedial MOOCs to his high tech firm buddies?  Hardly.  But, remedial courses aren't worth much in higher education anyways except to prepare students for college level courses, and that to me, is where their value is.

Furthermore, remedial MOOCs could act as a great funnel for community colleges and universities to gain enrollment. But beyond gaining enrollment in larger numbers, educating people is good for any society, whether it be in Morgantown West Virginia or Cape Town South Africa. Indeed, general education, “social capital”, and innovation go hand in hand. The real issue with MOOCs is the ability for any institution to leverage technology, educational and business heuristics in a way, not only to really educate, but to manage the whole back end of the education process. This is no easy task! Some, say it can’t be done. I disagree. And those who figure out how, are going to be the real winners.

Filling an Educational Need

In the United States, there are 3.8 million jobs being unfilled along side an 8.5 +% unemployment rate. Why wouldn’t any nation want to educate or re-educate its population in order to improve employment and gain a global competitive edge?

Remedial style MOOCs, can help improve and help educate many who otherwise cannot be reached due to lack of education and lack of funding. There are many who feel that they lack the skills for higher education. And there are those who feel that they will never be able to afford to attend. The online nature of MOOCs can help facilitate those who fall in either or both of these categories. Granted, there is a lot of failing grades with online learning. In fact, many believe that this is why online distance education doesn't work. But the blame really is on both students and instructors. Students have to be disciplined and dedicated in their approach to learning. Instructors, need to be innovative and leverage technology in a way that enhances their course. As an instructional designer, I have realized that if a professor has a inadequate face to face course, putting it online merely magnifies the problems. Likewise, if a student has discipline issues with completing assignments and staying on task - an online course will only magnify the disorganization of that student.

Regardless, neither of the previous downfalls for online distance education are proof that online distance education is a failure. They are merely short downtrends and hiccups in an overall uptrend that will overrun those who are not on-board. As with any investment, the smart ones will jump on board early and ride the up-trend.  Good investors realize that the profits don’t always come right away - but they will come.

Works Cited

1. "Gates foundation solicits remedial MOOCs | Inside Higher Ed." 17 Sep. 2012 <http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/09/14/gates-foundation-solicits-remedial-moocs>

2. "How will MOOCs affect higher education?" 5 July 2012

3. Fukuyama, Francis. Trust: The social virtues and the creation of prosperity. Free Pr, 1996.

4."Fukuyama, Francis - BYU Speeches." 2012. 17 Sep. 2012 <http://speeches.byu.edu/?act=authorsearch&authorChosen=Fukuyama%2C+Francis>


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