Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Research Universities and Online Learning - Is the MOOC the best we can do?

A few years ago, while attending the regular circuit of distance education and online learning  conferences, I started to feel a little uncomfortable coming from a traditional research university. At the time I was serving as the CEO of UMassOnline and for many years had developed a strong identity with research universities. Perhaps I was simply being observant, or perhaps I was being a little hypersensitive, but virtually every message that I was hearing seemed to indicate that research universities were irrelevant to the discussion on high access, low-barrier online education necessary to meet the watershed of educational need in the United States. Most the the underlying messaging, seemed to be that the cost structures at research universities were excessive and the cultural norms led to inflexibility.  In short, research universities are too costly to run to be affordable and their cultures bias against doing much about it.

Although these points were first pressed home during a conversation with Burke Smith from StraighterLine in 2009, they were somewhat catalyzed during at the 2010 NUTN (National University Technology Network) Summit in Colorado Springs. During a break between sessions, I asked Chris Geith from Michigan State University if she thought that we provided any unique value to students who choose to study with us online. I was asking if she thought that we provided anything of value to compensate for our relatively high prices and tendency toward inflexibility with students.

To shorten the story, this exchange lead to asking similar questions to a lot of folks, and eventually to formal presentations at the 2012 Sloan-C annual meeting (with Phil DiSalvio, Christine Geith, and Wayne Smutz) and the 2012 NUTN Summit (with Christine Geith).  At NUTN a small group met and discussed the question,
 "Just what is it that a research extensive university brings to online learning that is unique, valuable to students, and that other types of institutions are not well equipped to provide?"
Christine and I were joined by colleagues from
  • Colorado State University
  • Cornell University
  • Fort Hays State University
  • Michigan State University
  • Penn State University
  • Virginia Tech University
and following the meeting we prepared a short article for EvoLLLution under the title What do Research Universities Uniquely Bring to Online Education?  I raise this because we got an interesting comment asserting that Christine and I should not be making a distinction between research universities and “alterntive education providers" (Coursera, Udacity, Kahn, etc.).  Part of my response was, “It is up to the Research Universities to ask the question, “What do research universities uniquely bring to Online Education?” Perhaps, for some, Coursera is their answer, or at least part of their answer for now.”

This is the first time that I thought about it this way. Up to this point I was strongly oriented to thinking that the unique value research universities can provide would be tied directly to our unique mission of combined research, service, and teaching. But, perhaps MOOCs are one of the unique things (elite) research universities bring to the online learning table. If so, why the elites, why now, and why have they generally been so slow to adopt more traditional forms of online learning?

Although I am going to pursue these questions during the next week or so and consider if "the MOOC is the best we can do," I do want to return to the research, service, and teaching mission of research universities. Christine Geith and I, along with Phil DiSalvio and Wayne Smutz,  poked at this at NUTN and Sloan and it seemed to resonate.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Credit for MOOC's - just what is Antioch up to?

I feel that I am witnessing the first true example of an innovation ecosystem in higher education. I say this because I am pretty sure that it is innovations like those at Antioch that are catalyzing the remarkable evolution of MOOCs, and innovations like Coursera that are catalyzing the acceptability growth of MOOCs, and innovations like MOOCs that are enabling innovations like those at Antioch. I am not sure how long this phase of it will last, I am not sure if the outcomes will be "good," but I do think that it will be interesting for a while. I hope that hangover is not so bad.

I read this morning in MOOCs for Credit, by Steve Kolowich in Inside Higher Ed that Antioch University has made arrangements with Coursera to include Antioch students in Coursera delivered courses. It is Antioch’s intent of provide credit to its students for successful completion of select courses. Apparently the University will provide additional faculty support to its students beyond whatever support can be expected within the native MOOC community. The offering will be limited to a small group of courses that Antioch has identified and the option will only be available to Antioch Los Angeles students.

The arrangement supports a degree completion strategy in which learners complete their first 2 years of a bachelor's degree at a community college, and then earn a year’s worth of credits in residence at Antioch. I suppose remaining credits can be earned in a variety of ways, including courses delivered through Coursera. Tex Boggs, the president of Antioch University Los Angeles, is clearly connecting innovation, cost, and convenience while indicating that,

Antioch’s strategy is to make a compelling offer to cost-conscious students who want to finish their bachelor’s degrees after completing two years at a community college. While the university would require one full year of traditional coursework at Antioch (even under an expanded partnership that would open the door to more of Coursera’s course offerings), “what we’re offering is a third year at a cost that is somewhat similar to the cost you can get at a community college,” says Boggs. (Antioch's campuses specialize in serving adult students.)

Note that although no per-credit prices were provided in the article, it was indicated that, “...Antioch says it plans to charge them less than the per-credit cost of its traditional courses, and, quite intentionally, less than that of California’s public university systems.” This got me thinking a bit about yesterday's post that included some thoughts about California public higher education.

Antioch seems to be engaging in a strategy that allows a revenue stream for Coursera, Coursera partner universities, the faculty at Coursera partner universities, and Antioch, while providing some financial relief for Antioch students, which should enhance access to an Antioch degree. It seems like a nice little ecosystem. In yesterday’s post, Articulating Value - Rethinking Phoenix and Funding California Public Higher Education that placed the University of Phoenix strategy next to what is happening with Proposition 30 for public higher education in California, I indicated that I would like to see the California public higher education systems clearly articulate how they are addressing their financial challenges while meeting their educational and societal missions. While writing that post, I was thinking that this will be a challenge for many non-profit colleges and universities as well. Antioch and Boggs seem to be communicating at least part of the story - one way in which they are going to address financial challenges.

Given the nature of Antioch, I think the financial issues will only be a part of a very interesting story. Antioch Los Angeles’ primary undergraduate destination seems to be a B.A. In Liberal Studies, which is the type of programming that I recently have had on my mind. I will be following this story and revisiting it on a number of accounts. I am very interested in learning more about,
  • how Antioch is going to support their Coursera engaged students and faculty,
  • how this arrangement may fit into their mission,
  • how participation in MOOCs might contribute to the larger questions about what it means to be educated at Antioch,
  • if at the end of the day, after providing additional support, the economics work, and
  • if the Antioch support model addressed the completion rates with unaffiliated MOOC students.
On the last point, I am guessing that payment up-front and the promise of credit for a program in which the learner is currently enrolled, will address completion to a large extent.

Articulating Value - Rethinking Phoenix and Funding California Public Higher Education

Late last week I read two articles whose topics have been widely covered in a number of different publications. I happened to read them back-to-back, which naturally invited comparison. The first article was Phoenix Reloads by Paul Fain in Inside Higher Ed, which touches on the hard times that the University of Phoenix has fallen upon (along with the rest of for-profit sector) during the past few years.  The article also points to the University’s recent cost cutting activities, and the University's strategy to refocus on career preparation and providing career service. Phoenix's approach is clearly communicated by the University in statements like,

“Our differentiation is that we will do everything to help them get the tools, skills and education,” says Mark Brenner, a company spokesman, all of which are designed to “help them in their career.”

Part of the Phoenix strategy is to leverage its “extensive” connection with national employers to create a meaningful pipeline from student registration to placement and employment. The punchline of the article is that although Phoenix is in a challenged sector, with their strategy, they may emerge stronger and more respected than before the for-profit implosion.

The second article was Calif. State Colleges Hold Their Breath as 'Trigger Cut' Proposition Heads for Vote by Lee Gardner published in the Government section of the Chronicle of Higher Education, which treats Proposition 30 on the California ballot. Basically the article points to shrinking support for Prop 30, which if passed would levy a sales tax to support the California higher education systems (University of California, California State University, and the Community College system) by preempting over a billion dollars of cuts. Gardner provides a little background about the cuts suffered by the systems during the past 5 years,

California's economy has suffered during the five years since the mortgage bubble burst, and support for higher education has suffered with it. Because of declining tax revenue and other strains, the community-college system has lost $668-million in state appropriations since 2008, a reduction of 24 percent. The UC system has seen its state support cut by nearly $1-billion over the same time, a drop of 27 percent. The Cal State system has lost $870-million, a drop of almost 30 percent since the recession began.
and points to some of the politics surrounding the Proposition specifically, and more generally to public education funding in California. Although the politics of Proposition 30 are interesting, I was struck by the difference between the University of Phoenix's approach to its financial challenges and those of California higher education.

First, I am a strong supporter of publicly funded higher education, and I believe that the current levels of public funding for public education are shameful. There are many differences between the financial problems for-profit and public higher education is facing. In many ways it is not fair or really productive to compare the sectors. That said, I am struck by the clarity in which the University of Phoenix has articulated it challenges and how it plans to address those challenges in terms of cost reduction, the value they are preparing to provide to their students and the workforce, and how they are going to deliver that value. I would enjoy reading more about these same issues from the public education systems. Clearly articulated and presented together in a common voice, the vision of a comprehensive system of public university and college system could be not only powerful and inspirational, but could remind us all of what we stand to lose by under-funding public education. I would be happy to be schooled by being referred to a statement that clearly communicates why a billion-dollar round of cuts would be bad for Californians and what types of opportunities would be lost for the State, not just the pain that would be felt on campuses.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Does the CIO Need to be at the Big Table to Promote Agility and Openness?

Although this is a little off topic, I wanted to just put this out there. I may be stretching the point of the article a bit beyond reason, but this is where it led me. I recently read the Ernst & Young report titled “CIO critical for driving growth and productivity” I made a few mental notes and just want to document and share them. The principal observation made in the report was that CIO’s frequently are not included in the “C-Suite,” and when they are, they tend to be marginalized. The general conclusion is that this is not good for anybody - the CIOs or the organizations that they serve. I noted a few things and have a few questions.

Honestly, I was a little surprised by some the report's findings. For example,

According to Ernst & Young’s DNA of the CIO report released today, less than one in five CIOs (17%) have a seat at the top table and less than half of CIOs (43%) are deeply involved in executive decision-making.

I would have guessed that the CIO role was much closer to the chief executive and more influential.  Perhaps the sample does not well represent the role of the CIO in higher education.

Throughout the report there is continuous reference to the role of the CIO and technology. Sometimes the reference is to technological innovation, or technology expertise, while reference is infrequently made to technology services and information management. The implication is that technology is either responsible for innovation or that innovation simply takes the form of technology. My organizational experience suggests that the CIO is normally in the best position to develop governance norms, work flows, and management techniques that help create value at the intersection of organizational need, service, and technology. And, to the extent that governance is something that is important in the “C-Suite,” a thoughtful CIO’s absence could be badly missed. This by the way is not inconsistent with the report's conclusion.

It also struck me that agile principles and agile project management techniques, if developed at all, are most frequently first adopted and incubated in information systems/services divisions. When agility is practiced its values and techniques commonly do not propagate outside of IT to other functional business units and are not well understood in the ”C-Suite.” I wonder that when there is a lack of organization-wide adoption of agile principles it has some sort of connection with the CIO’s marginalization - at least in organizations that have an agile IT culture. If it is the case, I believe that this may be perhaps the most significant lost opportunity for the organization. I wonder if there is any connection at all between organization-wide adoption of agile management, transparency, and openness and the role of CIOs take in executive management? Perhaps though it is simply the transparent management and open decision making necessary to support agility that makes agile practice difficult to adopt. The values and principles of agility do require a particular discipline that may be more easily adopted within technology divisions.

So, does the CIO need to be at the big table to promote agility and openness, and even when there does it matter?

Thursday, 25 October 2012

More than Rejecting the Classroom Metaphor

I am taking a little time with the article and event, because I think it illustrates the very natural way that folks engage in education. When provided the opportunity to use new tools to address old problems they eliminate unnecessary baggage and structures.  In addition, it triggered some of my initial reactions to online learning from when I taught my first online course in 1995.

Stephanie Rudat, and Christopher Neu's tidy and smart little blog posting in the Huff Posting Impact, USAID's Eviction From Russia: An Opportunity for Online Learning as E-Development says it all and the pattern is recognizable. Whenever online learning is first introduced as a way of addressing educational need that has historically been served by traditional in-person teaching, it is simply assumed that online cannot possibly be as good as face-to-face. This type of statement typically leads to a short list of other qualities that support its use under the circumstances.  In this case, its principal benefit is access -  and with USAID's recent eviction from Russia, access is a big deal.

I am not going to address the ejection of the USAID from Russia as a political event, which is not really relevant to what I found interesting. Instead, I would like to use this story as an opportunity to share an observation that seemingly online learning is intuitively framed rather broadly by those considering it from outside of the academy. For those looking at university education from the outside, the shift from thinking about "eLearning" to thinking more broadly about "online education" is effortless. And there is something about online education that conceptually extends far beyond the classroom metaphor, from which online learning received its DNA that for generations has left its mark on countless curricula and courses.

For example, in Rudat and Neu's article, they jump right to the potential of using technology to create dialogue by "amplifying local practitioner voices," which are propagated and reflected through a network of internal and external experts - the interactions and relationships shaping a community that itself serves as a principal tool for individual and institutional capacity building.  Now this is a pretty sophisticated way of re-framing "online learning" to reconceptualize traditional democracy building activities. I am impressed, but am left asking, how did the authors end-up there, when the authors started with,
The first objection to this approach is that online learning is a poor substitute for in-person experiences. To this objection, we can only say that you're right: online learning usually falls short of in-person engagements.
I am guessing that it is because the authors (probably) do not self-identify as online learning professionals and are not practicing in the academy. They equated online learning with online courses, and with a practical goal in mind, they very naturally dismiss the classroom metaphor in favor of a network. In doing so, they eliminate the fundamental limitations imposed by the classroom concept that exists no matter how virtual we make the classroom.

As a practical matter, the conceptual decoupling of education from the classroom is probably critically important to attaining the demonstrable "learning outcomes" desired by a foreign aid organization.  In response to USAID's ejection from Russia, State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland reinforced the agency's commitment "... to support(ing) democracy, human rights, and the development of a more robust civil society..."  Intuitively we know that these are the types of commitments achieved by relationship building, communication, and action, which are not methods used and outcomes normally achieved in a classroom.

Buried here in an article that is about the promise of e-diplomacy, is an extension of a recognizable pattern. It plays out as follows: online learning is not as good as in-person experience, but it is more accessible and less expensive.  This pattern is an intellectual cul de sac many have lived with or argued over for many years. The authors moved past their problem by thinking about technology as a way to catalyze communities, that engage actively in communication and learning (teaching), inquiry and discovery about local contexts (research), and capacity building (service). I think that it is important to note that the activities and outcomes described in the posting are not about information transfer or simple knowledge acquisition, which may be best done in the physical or virtual classroom - straight-up or flipped. They are about building conditions for the practice of a variety of arts and habits that support formation of civic capacity, democracy building, and the practice of human rights.

I do believe that there are real needs that are best met through traditional "classroom-conceived" online learning, which has become the state of the art against which we benchmark. I also believe that we have a lot of opportunity to advance the art through incremental improvements in practice. The recent explosion of MOOCs is evidence of extending the classroom model, but not fundamentally changing it. I am guessing though that our major educational advancements will be through a different type of online education, which may be difficult to recognize as something separate from the way we naturally understand and solve problems. So, where is this happening now, how can we better recognize it, and who is most likely to embrace and practice a new art in education?

Monday, 22 October 2012

Seeking Context: Different Learning Opportunities for Different Educational Needs

Following-up from the last posting and the comments, I want to look past all of the exciting stuff happening in higher education. It is hard to do because so much of what is going on is interesting. I am guessing that it is the same for all of us. Every time an article from the Chronicle, or Inside Higher Education, or the NY Times, or the Economist, or wherever is published about the most recent thing it gets passed around the Office, tweeted, and shared in all sorts of ways resulting in a lot of interesting discussion.

Again, like most of us, I listen to the opinions of others, which are frequently interesting. In addition,  I am occasionally asked about my thoughts and I frequently find myself trying to contextualize what I have read and make sense of it and think beyond what I am told about its potential to revolutionize higher education and kill traditional universities (these seem to be commonly cited outcomes). I am as excited about a revolution as the next person, but still, I am left empty and feel that I am disappointing others as I think hard about the topic under discussion. Although full of ideas and opinions, I feel compelled to relate them to something meaningful - and I fall silent, or more likely say something like “Well, we’ll see.  This is all pretty complex.”  

Of course it’s complex.  Learning is a personal and value laden activity and I am thinking that this is a reason for the incredible diversity among higher education providers. In the US alone
according to IPEDS there were 7,021 Title IV institutions in 2010 that had written agreements with the Secretary of Education, representing a wide range of missions, funding structures, capacities, and so forth. I am thinking that there would not be so much institutional diversity if needs were not also diverse. Particularly if we consider the needs of funders, society, and businesses in addition to the needs of learners. Right? One might argue that the recent interest in MOOCs, competency-based education, and prior learning, represent needs so diverse that they demand a different kind of education provider rather than just a different type of provider.  If this is the case, it might follow that there is a watershed of individuals who have been seeking to meet their unique educational needs in institutions designed to meet other needs, because there were few well recognized and accessible educational options other than traditional colleges and universities. But there are now, and many of them are free to the learner, are learner focused, and promise to improve in quality.

For example, if you want to tune-up your math skills, just access the Saylor Foundation Beginning Algebra course and work through it. After which, if successful, you will have earned a certificate and know something about algebra. If that is your style, then you will have another 266 options to pick from through Saylor alone. The same goes for the offerings at Coursera, Udacity, edX, and so forth.  If you want something a little different, perhaps with a more personal and traditional touch there is the OERu Regional Relations in Asia and the Pacific offering by the University of Southern Queensland, which is also for free. All of these offerings seem to be excellent ways to access knowledge and learn stuff. They are all for free, at least to the learner, many are developing ways to formally recognize the learning through certification, and some have developed paths to college credit.

These activities are great. Really they are more than great - they are amazing and really do represent something important. That said, I am left wondering if taking and successfully completing a suite of undergraduate courses through the Saylor Foundation site or a collection of MOOCs through Coursera meets the same educational needs for the learner (and society) as participating in a traditional university degree program, in residence, online, or in some sort of blended or extended format?

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

About this Project

I have started this project not so much to express strong opinions on current events, or to create a virtual identity or soapbox from which to shout (as many very good blogs do), but instead to develop some ideas that have become more important to me during the past few years. For the first 10 years or so of my career in distance and online education it seemed enough to move the agenda forward, support universities engaging in online learning, and promote particular approaches to online learning.

During the past few years though, I have been thinking increasingly about what is special to me about the university and what are its enduring contributions to society that distinguish it from other types of organizations. Although there are hundreds of relevant topics for consideration ranging from access, openness, the economics of higher education, and the debate about the nature of private and public good, I have found myself returning to what I think is a unifying notion about the university. It strikes me that the university is a very special type of culture forming organization. An organization whose “product” is integrated so deeply into the intellect of its participants that its effects and affect frequently go unrecognized and under appreciated.  And its value is frequently confused with the symbol of its attainment – the diploma, certificate, badge, or credit.

Some of my thinking has been catalyzed after having recently reread Henry Rosovsky’s, The University, an Owners Manual, and Newman’s nine discourses in The Idea of a University.  Taken together, these readings helped me gaze above the most recent announcement of who is doing a MOOC, what Moody’s is telling us about the financial future of the University, which education spinoff captured venture capital, and the most recent twist or turn coming from the US Department of Education. The broader writing about liberal education provided for me pause to think more clearly about the nature of the University, how great ones run, and why they are so important. Which brings me to the title of this blog, Latent Pattern Transmission.

Although a bit awkward, I think the phrase captures the central idea of education, fundamentally as a particular way of reproducing values and behaviors across generations and among contemporaries through the sharing of knowledge and ideas. The distinction between the exchange of knowledge as a thing and the development of reproducible values is why colleges and universities look and behave differently than other types of organizations. Universities are designed to create conditions for the enduring production and reproduction of culture in which students become teachers who become students through their behavior, the things they create, and the relationships they form, while other types of organizations are designed principally to sell knowledge and certifications as commodities.

It is my hope to use this blog as a way to develop some ideas about the notion of latent pattern transmission and whenever possible relate it to distance and online education. I am guessing that many of the posts will miss the mark and ideas will fall flat, but I expect that over time some pattern will emerge.  In addition, most of the articles and quotes that I may use to introduce ideas and questions or to illustrate points will, from time to time, be a bit stale – after all, this is not intended to be a newspaper.  In fact, it is my hope that this effort takes the shape of a mosaic, and I am happy to have help collecting, placing, and interpreting the bits and bobs.