Friday, 2 November 2012

Research Universities and Online Learning - Is the MOOC the best we can do? - Part 2


I would just like to follow-up a bit on the last posting about research universities and online learning. In that posting I started by providing a little background on the question of
"... 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?" 

and I ended “Part One” with,
To this point I was strongly oriented to thinking that our (research universities) value 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?

I do want to get to those questions, but first there are some factual issues to address. In fact non-elite non-research universities have been delivering MOOC-like courses for years. That said, whether we think in terms of attracting publicity, attracting venture capital, or bringing “respectability” to online learning, nobody can deny that it was the elites that have recently made the most out of it. During the past months many good articles have been written and presentations made that point to how the MOOC is revolutionizing online learning, higher education, education more generally, and how this innovation will upend the legacy organizations that have grown-up around traditional education. I do not doubt that over the coming months and years, we will see at least a whiff of prophecy in these sentiments.

So why have elite research universities gravitated to offering MOOCs?  Perhaps some possible reasons include elite university:
  • Commitment and alignment with “Connectivist” learning strategies.
  • Interest in collecting data for teaching, learning, communication, and technology research (learning analytics).
  • Awareness that MOOCs are a way to take the lead and assert relevance in online learning. 
  • Recognition that the MOOC is a low-barrier and low-risk way for the university to engage in online learning.
  • Understanding that the MOOC model is fundamentally non-threatening to the core value of traditional research and elite university in practice.
  • Comfort with being under no obligation to confer credit.
  • Realization that brand seems to be a big factor in MOOC acceptance.
  • What else...

These items seem to make sense, they feed into the identity of the traditional research university, and may create a positively reinforcing cycle inspiring more institutional participation at more institutions, which is what we are currently seeing. At least we are seeing an increasing number of elite and selective universities and colleges, who have to this point have either abstained or only dabbled in online learning, participating in MOOCs. It will be interesting to see if these same universities will also develop significant capacity to deliver their traditional curriculum through online, distance, or extended education for the same credit and degrees offered through their residential programs.

It makes good sense to me to start building out a list of characteristics that seem to make the MOOC more appealing than traditional online learning to some universities. Perhaps such a list will help us understand any potential gaps between why the elites gravitate to MOOCs conceptually and what is happening in reality. Identifying a gap is the first step to improved practice. I note this in part because some commenters on the Inside Higher Ed MOOCs for Credit article do not feel that MOOCs actually apply much connectivist pedagogy. If the idea that elite universities gravitate to MOOCs because of their commitment and alignment with connectivist learning strategies and the MOOCs are not delivering, this poses an opportunity to better align commitment with practice. Furthermore, it might make sense as well to ask why these elite and selective colleges and universities gravitate to consortia like Coursera and edX rather than going it on their own.

My last observation for now is that MOOCs may already be having an impact on the cultures of the most recent cadre of colleges and universities who offer them. For those of us who have worked in higher education for much of our careers we are well acquainted with the "not invented here" syndrome, in which nothing produced outside of the university is good enough to use inside. The MOOCs may seem to reflect a pattern of "not if invented here," in which others can use our MOOCs for credits, but we don't. This behaviour alone probably merits some thought.

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