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The Turn in Online Education


During the summer break on campuses nationwide, providers of massive open online courses (MOOCs) were evidently hard at work developing their fall-term offerings and broadening their capabilities—and were the subject of still more comment and analysis as technology influences higher education. Some highlights appear here.

HarvardX Enrollments and Aims

HarvardX reported that combined enrollments in all 17 University courses offered through the edX venture with MIT exceeded 500,000 as of mid August, with “Introduction to Computer Programming” (160,000 registrants) and “Justice” (70,000) leading.

The Extension School is experimenting by offering its enrolled students the edX versions of three courses for credit. Others can of course register for the edX courses on a noncredit basis. And Harvard College students enrolled in the equivalent campus courses can use the online materials and exercises as virtual “textbooks” and as supplemental learning aids.

Even as HarvardX has moved into its new quarters at 125 Mount Auburn Street and continued to augment its staff (adding a chief videographer and a program assistant, and continuing to hire student video assistants and a research programmer), edX has rented much larger offices in Cambridge’s Kendall Square, totaling 30,000 square feet, according to news reports; the Crimson reported that total staffing was expected to be 90 to 100 employees and consultants by the time of the move in January.

HarvardX posted its video branding “anthem” (a visual montage with musical accompaniment) online, and has also posted a trailer for the forthcoming ChinaX course, narrated by Christopher Lydon, journalist and formerly host of The Connection on radio station WBUR.

A special report on “Learning in the Digital Age” in the August Scientific American presented diverse perspectives on MOOCs, adaptive-learning technologies, and their use in varied classroom settings. To the extent that MOOC proponents focus on making elite U.S. universities’ courses available to students in developing nations (see edX president Anant Agarwal’s comment on “planet-scale democratization of education”), a report from Rwanda by reporter Jeffrey Bartholet noted that “most of the developing world is not connected to the Internet and that MOOCs require skills and motivation possessed by only the very top students.” In fact, according to one expert Bartholet interviewed, students in developing nations with limited educational infrastructure especially require the support instructors provide in person: learning how to study, gather information, and analyze it. In this light, Bartholet reported, in developing economies, “For a small minority of exceptional students, MOOCs are a godsend.” In a sidebar, HarvardX faculty director Robert A. Lue argued that “experimentation is key” in determining how to use online-learning tools, perhaps in “flipped classrooms” where students view recorded lectures before course meetings, and then use their time together with professors to explore challenging problems. To that end, he wrote:

This is why every course or module in HarvardX…has an associated research component. We measure student progress as it relates to the sequence of course material, how that material was delivered (that is, lecture versus video animation), whether the instructor used interactive assessments, and other parameters. Such complementary research with each online course will form the basis for improvements in pedagogy….

The MOOC Research HUB, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is one center established to explore the effectiveness of the technology in “extend[ing] access to postsecondary credentials through more personalized, more affordable” online pathways.

Coursera Operations

Coursera, one of the for-profit MOOC ventures, having raised $43 million in a second round of financing, appointed a president, Lila Ibrahim, bolstering its senior management, which includes founders Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, both computer-science professors at Stanford. Ibrahim worked for Intel for 18 years, and then joined Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a leading venture-capital firm. She is co-founder of Team4Tech, a nonprofit enterprise that provides primary- and secondary-school education technologies to developing countries. Coursera recently unveiled a broad program of professional-development courses for K-12 teachers.

Udacity’s Course-Credit and College-Competency Initiatives

Udacity, another for-profit online company, founded by yet another Stanford faculty member, Sebastian Thrun, ran into criticism when preliminary results from its for-credit statistics and algebra courses offered through San Jose State University (SJSU) seemed to yield poor student outcomes. Thrun recently noted in Information Week that the initial cohort included many high-school students who had struggled with remedial mathematics, who could not be expected to perform at college-student levels. In a second course offering, he said, the pass rate rose, with course-completion rates of 60 percent to 80 percent (most MOOCs not embedded in an institution and tied into course credit report single-digit completion rates). He called the results validation of an approach to online education that “really reaches people—not just the world’s most motivated 1 percent.”

In late August, San Jose State released data on the summer pilot program, indicating pass rates for online students that exceed those for certain classroom, campus-based offerings in the same subjects (elementary statistics, algebra, psychology, and so on) Information Week reported—and San Jose plans to resume the “Plus” courses. According to SJSU provost and vice president for academic affairs Ellen Junn, the courses demonstrated that:

Learning by doing works. Online video allows us to stop every few minutes and offer students the opportunity to try what they’ve learned with an online exercise. Instructors have found this so effective that some are incorporating SJSU Plus materials into their campus-based courses.

Student interaction remains strong. Does online learning stifle conversation? We found the opposite. Students are connecting with each other, instructors and instructional assistants through every means available: text, email, phone calls, chats and meetings.

Separately, according to Tamar Lewin’s front-page New York Times account, Udacity’s venture with Georgia Institute of Technology to offer a MOOC master’s degree in computer science “could signal a change to the landscape of higher education”: Georgia Tech offers an elite computer-science program; the Udacity version will cost $6,600, versus $45,000 for the on-campus version; it aims to enroll as many as 10,000 students worldwide annually; it is for-credit from the start; and it joins Georgia Tech professors and content with Udacity’s online platform and course assistants to help the registrants. AT&T, which hopes to use the course to train employees and hire graduates, provided $2 million in seed funding.

Who Is Teaching What—Or Not

In an article titled “Masculine Open Online Courses,” Inside Higher Ed reported in early September that MOOC offerings are characterized by a gender gap: more men than women teach the online courses. It attributes that finding in part to the continuing skewing toward courses in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, where there has been a long-term faculty gender gap.

Among the interesting developments in online course offerings this fall are:

[O]nly one in five of [respondents agreed] that online courses can achieve learning outcomes equivalent to those of in-person courses, and majorities considering online learning to be of lower quality than in-person courses on several key measures (but not in terms of delivering content to meet learning objectives).

But, importantly, appreciation for the quality and effectiveness of online learning grows with instructors' experiences with it. The growing minority of professors who themselves had taught at least one course online (30 percent of respondents, up from 25 percent last year) were far likelier than their peers who had not done so to believe that online courses can produce learning outcomes at least equivalent to those of face-to-face courses; 50 percent of them agree or strongly agree that online courses in their own department or discipline produce equivalent learning outcomes to in-person courses, compared to just 13 percent of professors who have not taught online.

And while even professors who have taught online are about evenly divided on whether online courses generally can produce learning outcomes equivalent to face-to-face classes (33 percent agree, 30 percent are neutral, and 37 percent disagree), instructors with online experience are likelier than not to believe that online courses can deliver equivalent outcomes at their institutions (47 percent agree vs. 28 percent disagree), in their departments (50 percent vs. 30 percent), and in the classes they teach (56 percent vs. 29 percent).

University of Texas Policy

The University of Texas at Austin, an edX partner, is a flagship public institution facing the pressures of rising enrollments and stringent budget pressure from the state legislature and governor. Its president, William C. Powers Jr., on August 15 disseminated “Five Guiding Principles Going Forward with Blended and Online Education,” inviting discussion about control of the curriculum, rewards for faculty members who participate in online courses, academic standards, sharing with other institutions, and the long-term financing of online efforts—issues raised in depth in an accompanying report on “Technology-Enhanced Education.”  (Similar questions have been raised, in varying degrees, at Harvard, in Faculty of Arts and Sciences meetings and elsewhere, but have not, so far, resulted in comparable policy papers or documents for discussion within the community.) Powers spelled out guiding principles including:

  • faculty and academic control of the curriculum;
  • rewards for faculty members (“Just as faculty members who write textbooks or create devices benefit from their work, we should ensure that faculty who create online content can benefit, as well as their departments, colleges, and the University. Even when the University sponsors the creation of these resources, our general position should be that faculty own the copyrights for the content they create and grant licenses to the University to use and adapt their content, consistent with Regents’ Rules and the law.”);
  • financial sustainability (with due regard for online resources’ “potential to generate revenue, improve productivity, and dramatically increase the number of students who benefit from our faculty.”)
  • sharing of content among institutions (“Blended learning will never be sustainable if every professor or every university must reinvent the wheel. We have never expected our professors to write all of the textbooks from which they teach; likewise we cannot expect all teachers who use blended learning to generate all-original content.… Where appropriate, we also should learn from, leverage, and grant credit for high-quality online content and technology created by other leading universities.”); and
  • continuous innovation (“[I]nteractive course materials created by our faculty and colleagues at peer institutions, learning analytics that help us identify and address individual students’ needs, and social media tools with the ability to engage great numbers of learners around the world set the stage for innovations that will define 21st century education.”).

Higher-education news reports about Powers’s statement stressed his emphasis on scaling up current pilot experiments to affect teaching and learning throughout the institution, and on the sharing of course materials among institutions—both those created at Texas and those adopted or adapted from elsewhere. The Chronicle, for instance, headlined its article, “Get Used to Sharing Digital Content, Says U. of Texas at Austin President.”

From California to the White House

A California State Senate legislative initiative to mandate that state institutions confer credit for low-cost online courses offered by outside providers has been shelved until at least late next year. The bill, SB 520, arose in part because of concern about students being shut out of introductory courses or courses they need to complete degree requirements. In the meantime, California higher-education institutions have begun developing many more online courses internally and with partners including edX and Udacity, and they and Coursera are focusing more on for-credit courses within institutions’ curricula, the Chronicle reported.

At the same time, President Obama’s initiative to control college costs and channel federal financial-aid funds to effective institutions highlights the role of “redesigned courses that integrate online platforms (like MOOCs) or blend in-person and online experiences” in accelerating the pace of learning. It cites Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative, the State University of New York’s massive “Open SUNY” initiative (meant to make learning much more widely available), and Southern New Hampshire University’s competency-based (rather than credit-hours-based) online learning options. (Southern New Hampshire’s College of Continuing Education CEO Stephen Hodownes was a panelist on online learning during a Harvard-MIT summit last March.)

Recognition, Formally

In a scholarly vein, the new Harvard Education Press title, Stretching the Higher Education Dollar: How Innovation Can Improve Access, Equity, and Affordability, edited by Andrew P. Kelly and Kevin Carey, contains in-depth analyses of MOOCs created at diverse institutions and by Udacity, and also of the Southern New Hampshire experiment, among other pertinent topics.

And as if certifying that MOOCs are here to stay in some form or another, Oxford Dictionaries, published by Oxford University Press, has now sanctioned the term, defined thus: “a course of study made available over the Internet without charge to a very large number of people,” citing as its origin, “early 21st century: from massive open online course.”

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