Friday, 30 November 2012

Is a liberal technical education something more or something else?

Overview:
It seems as if employers want graduates who possess job related skills and have the ability to engage in broader creative and integrative activities. Based on descriptions of these desired abilities, a liberal education will complement one that is technical. There may be a group of arts and habits that can be taught and refined that provide graduates with the qualities to meet employer and societal expectations.
By far, aside from particular technical skills, what employers want most are people who can think clearly and critically, who know themselves, who have the ability to listen to others and interact respectfully.
- Learn to think if you want to get hired

So what should others expect of our learners and what should students expect of us as we prepare them to be educated people? It is clear that preparing graduates for employment is an important function of colleges and universities, but what does that preparation include? I contend that if it is only a matter of providing technical competence, then there are much less expensive, quicker, and more reliable ways of providing high quality training and skill development services. For example, why not just provide excellent career-oriented 2-year preparation programs at professional “technical schools” with an extended apprenticeship program that is augmented by focused continuing education programs? Students will leave school with superb technical skills, and employers can socialize the apprentice into the profession and company, while also helping the apprentice (learner) craft a personalized continuous development plan in partnership with a range of education providers. After all, we already have model polytechnics, internships, apprenticeships, and continuing education that prepare woman and men for jobs in specific professions, trades, and crafts.

The type of argument described above requires a training organization and a service organization, but there is really little need for a traditional college or university education. It is clear to the student what is to be gained, and we have shifted the focus of the “training organization” to things that are clearly quantifiable and measurable - the teaching of technical skills and competencies. These organizations no longer have to deal with the broader personal and intellectual growth parts of a traditional college or university education. Please note that I am not making a proposal, but am simply suggesting that there are some pretty appealing options available for technical training that do not leave our future in the hands of the “Hollywood Upstairs Medical College.” Dr. Nick serves as a reminder of the connections we make between ethical and competent practice with the institutions that prepare professionals for practice.

So, we have an idea of what we want in terms of technical competencies and job-related skills, but will these alone do the trick? I am guessing not. Evidence and common sense suggests that there is a mix of job-skill education and broad intellectual development that is desirable, which pretty much runs across the board. Although one expects the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AACU) to advocate for a liberal education, even the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, who are generally recognized as for-profit career college advocates, while encouraging colleges to focus on job training and placement has provided at least a “tip-of-the-hat” to there being something more than work skills that are important to employers. Their sponsored research by F.T.I. Consulting reported that of the employers sampled, there is a rough.. “split as to whether students would be better served by a more career- focused education or a broad-based education.” This finding is consistent with findings in other studies across a number of populations. In addition, while recognizing the need for employees to have “21st Century Skills” in their white paper Closing the Gap between Career Education & Employer Expectations, it was acknowledged that employees need 
The skills sets (that) range from sense‐making and novel and adaptive thinking to cross‐cultural competency and computational thinking.

which frankly sounds more like what one would reasonably expect from broad-based education than from career schooling.

On the other side of the aisle, in a 2010 American Association of Colleges and Universities research report, Raising The Bar: Employers’ Views On College Learning In The Wake Of The Economic Downturn, (link to PDF download) Hart Research Associates provided findings that
Employers believe that college graduates need to develop both a broad range of skills and knowledge and in-depth knowledge and skills that apply to a specific field or position.

reflecting the need for universities to prepare graduates to function in an increasingly complex world. Hart Research Associates reported that, “Employers endorse learning outcomes for college graduates that are developed through a blend of liberal and applied learning,” identifying the following liberal education outcomes
Knowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural world
  • Concepts and new developments in science and technology
  • The ability to understand the global context of situations and decisions
  • Global issues and developments and their implications for the future
  • The role of the United States in the world
  • Cultural diversity in America and other countries
Intellectual and practical skills
  • The ability to communicate effectively, orally and in writing
  • Critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills
  • The ability to analyze and solve complex problems
  • Teamwork skills and the ability to collaborate with others in diverse group settings
  • The ability to innovate and be creative
  • The ability to locate, organize, and evaluate information from multiple sources
  • The ability to work with numbers and understand statistics
Personal and social responsibility
  • The ability to connect choices and actions to ethical decisions
  • Civic knowledge, civic participation, and community engagement
Integrative learning
  • The ability to apply knowledge and skills to real-world settings through internships or other hands-on experiences

This is a wonderful list of abilities that includes items that I believe most employers would consider beneficial and many would consider essential for some roles. In addition to the obvious need for technical competencies and skills necessary to perform a job, there are these other abilities that speak to rather sophisticated behaviour, still leaving us with the question of, what are the characteristics, traits, and behaviours we want colleges and universities to engender in an educated student? This is where I think there is the need to distinguish between a liberal education and a program in the liberal arts. It is my feeling that an engineering program can provide its graduates with the technical competence assumed in a professional engineer and the arts and habits necessary to perform as described above. I think that this is the “something more” that extends beyond work-skills and it is the something more that traditional colleges and universities have need to retain embedded in their curricula.

A while ago I read a document that described the arts and habits that a properly educated youth should possess upon completing high school. I was taken by them in part because their value seemed undeniable, because they seem so lacking even in many university educated graduates, and that they were found in a publication from the mid-1800s. Thinking back, having acquired any of the arts and habits listed below would have been much more valuable than the COBOL programming skills I spent 2 years developing. In addition, I found it entertaining that the reason Cory wrote a response was because the relevance of an Eton education was being called into question.
The main charge against it (Eton) is, not that its discipline is bad, nor that its expenses are high, but that its lessons are useless. The complaint is, that what you learn at Eton is of no use to you when you are grown up.

Which apparently is a time honored accusation - voiced in 1861 as well at 2012. There are many sources that outline the characteristics of an educated person and a lot of outstanding writing on the benefits of a good liberal education.  I have selected the thoughts of William Johnson Cory as he defended the Etonian curriculum in the Eton Review.
... you are not engaged so much in acquiring knowledge as in making mental efforts under criticism. A certain amount of knowledge you can indeed with average faculties acquire so as to retain; nor need you regret the hours that you have spent on much that you have forgotten, for the shadow of lost knowledge at least protects you from many illusions.
But you go to a great school, not for knowledge so much as for arts and habits; for the habit of attention, for the art of expression, for the art of assuming at a moment's notice a new intellectual posture, for the art of entering quickly into another person's thoughts, for the habit of submitting to censure and refutation, for the art of indicating assent or dissent in graduated terms, for the habit of regarding minute points of accuracy, for the habit of working out what is possible in a given time, for taste, for discrimination, for mental courage and mental soberness. Above all, you go to a great school for self-knowledge.

Cory's framing of the arts and habits of an educated person, provides a standard of capacity in which the student can build technical and liberal competencies. They are a foundation. Pulling from the paragraphs above and reformatting them as a list, the arts and habits Cory described in 1861 read as follows.

habits of an educated person
  • the habit of attention
  • the habit of submitting to censure and refutation
  • the habit of regarding minute points of accuracy
  • the habit of working out what is possible in a given time
  • the habit of taste
  • the habit of discrimination
  • the habit of mental courage
  • the habit of mental soberness.
the art of expression
  • the art of assuming at a moment's notice a new intellectual posture
  • the art of entering quickly into another person's thoughts
  • the art of indicating assent or dissent in graduated terms

Sure this list might need a bit of interpretation, but it is my feeling that if a graduate were able to exhibit these arts and habits, they would be prepared to address the desired qualities outlined in the report issued by the AACU, and along with being well versed in the skills of their profession our graduates would make ideal employees, civil servants, and community members. That is, they would strike the necessary balance needed to contribute in the workplace and beyond. These arts and habits, when internalized and practiced, point to what I have been referring to as latent pattern transmission of a particular type. Now, if we are not producing enough of these types of graduates, what types of institutions are most likely to do so and how might they accomplish it? What type of curriculum would made sense? Would it be possible to do so at scale and at a distance through online learning? At what cost? Who is trying to do it and under what conditions?






Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools
Panel Discussion: Workforce Skills Reality Check
http://www.acics.org/events/content.aspx?id=4718

Raising The Bar: Employers’ Views On College Learning In The Wake Of The Economic Downturn
www.aacu.org/leap/documents/2009_EmployerSurvey.pdf

Eton Reform, Defense of the Etonian system in reply to the criticisms of Matthew James Higgins ("Paterfamilias") and Sir J.T. Coleridge (1861)
William Johnson Cory
http://archive.org/details/etonreform02cory

Learn to think if you want to get hired
http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/money/jobcenter/workplace/kay/story/2012-06-09/learn-to-think-listen-interact/55467614/1

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Utilitarian Education and Obligations of the University

Overview:
A school's obligation to prepare technically competent graduates applies to all fields, but there are additional obligations for schools that promote their programs to serve learners who are attending specifically to attain qualifications that lead to employment. Those obligations, coupled with changing public expectations of higher education have catalyzed a round of regulatory activity in the US and investments in educational reform/disruption. Although much of the systemic reinvention of higher education has focused on outcomes measured in terms of employment, there are additional expectations of a university educated graduate.

In my last posting, What should others expect of our learners, I asserted that a university education ought to extend beyond technical competence. I believe this on its face, whether or not the technical competencies have market value or contribute to the employability of a graduate. I am thinking now though about competencies that have clear and easily quantified utility that is recognized in terms of market value. Honestly, technical competence should be assumed along with any degree, but what seems to have captured national attention and is increasingly defining the value of a college or university education is the production of technically competent and employable graduates. I want to take some time to sort out some of my thoughts about utilitarian education. It seems to me that although all education has some focus on utility, there is a spectrum on which “market value” can be place. On the end of the spectrum in which "market value" is emphasized it becomes seen as the principal purpose of funding, providing, and receiving an education; and I am concern that it becomes the de facto mark of an educated person.

Certainly we expect graduates to attain a reasonable level of technical competence in their chosen area of study. This clearly is a legitimate expectation whether the field is history, theology, music, business, or engineering. For example, employers expect engineering graduates who can design products and systems, calculate the strength of materials, make judgments about safety, and apply principles of physics and mathematics to their craft. As users of engineered products we expect as much as well and it is the job of colleges and universities to prepare qualified and competent engineers. Good technically competent engineers are essential to economic progress (competitiveness) and tend to be in demand and employable at good market rates. We could probably say similar things about graduates of business, nursing, physical therapy and many other programs including carpentry and plumbing as well. In fact, we can say this about any program that meets a market need. Competent practitioners with marketable skills will be able to find employment and contribute to the economy. That is, their practice will have utility and there will be a market to exchange practice for pay. Some competencies are more easily monetize than are others, but are not necessarily more valuable to a society that values democracy as well as commerce.

This happy state does not though happen “naturally” without good and responsible practice on the part of colleges and universities. It is my belief that colleges and universities have obligations in serving their principal constituents - particularly if they are accepting public financial aid funds while doing so. Although the institution's obligation to prepare technically competent graduates applies to all fields, there are additional obligations for schools that promote their programs to serve learners who are attending specifically to attain qualifications that lead to employment in specific utilitarian fields. The school must
  • ensure that it is offering educational programs designed to provide current and relevant competencies for practice, (design relevant curriculum)
  • inform prospective students about the relationship between market demand and supply for skills, so the prospective student can make an informed decision about the use of their time and their investment in tuition, (protect the interest of incoming students)
  • exercise judgment regarding the number of students they accept and graduates they produce to maintain some sort of market value for their graduates (reasonably protect the interests of their alumni, tax payers who support education, and creditors who expect repayment of loans)
  • practice educational techniques that effectively facilitate and support learning (engage in sound and effective pedagogical practice)
  • accurately represent, as well as possible, the level of competence the graduate has exhibited in selected skills through assessment. (certify knowledge with accuracy, integrity, and fidelity)

Good colleges and universities will meet these obligations because of genuine interest in the well being and development of their students, their graduates, society, and the academic discipline. There has been a lot of discussion during the past 3 years about the failure of some colleges and universities to responsibly perform according to the points listed above, the failure of many colleges and universities to perform at scale, and the failure of a whole sector to control costs and provide affordable education options. These topics have been well documented in popular media, have served as subjects of numerous reports, and I think are the catalyst for many events including,

Individually these are potentially disruptive events, but taken together they form a pattern that necessitates creativity and change, which is the most obvious silver lining. Creating high access to affordable career and professional education is critical to the healthy development of any society. The for-profit chain universities figured out some mechanisms to provide access at scale, but as a group did not do so cheaply or while meeting some of the obligations listed above - sparking a round of regulation. Public and private nonprofit colleges and universities have generally failed to scale for a variety of reasons and by extension have not adequately controlled costs - sparking rounds of criticism and existential questions. Alternatives that break from the traditional package of college and university services are evolving quickly - sparking a round of experimentation and frantic media attention (not undeserved in many cases). We see these efforts in the form of OER content, MOOC consortia, and third-party education service providers. We are also seeing evidence of traditional colleges and universities embracing some of the alternatives to meet their own career and professional education program needs; some with promising outcomes.

Now back to the question about what others expect of our learners and the assertion that it is more than technical competency that is rewarded by the job market. Although I think that the “utility” banner has been successfully waved and has catalyzed a lot of the change agenda, there is an underlying understanding that there is something more to education than the first paycheck after graduation. This is reflected in the Pew Research Center’s 2011 “Is College Worth It?” study, in which it was reported that
Just under half of the public (47%) says the main purpose of a college education is to teach work-related skills and knowledge. Another 39%, however, says that college is an opportunity for students to grow personally and intellectually. A little more than one-in-ten (12%) say the time spent at college should be dedicated to both pursuits.

Although a majority of respondents indicated a strong career and training function, a significant percentage pointed to other personal and intellectual developmental objectives as the priority of a university education. The surprising bit to me is that so small a percent indicated that colleges and universities should pursue both objectives. Something that I do want to pursue later. In any event, it is obvious that colleges and universities are expected to address work-related skills and knowledge, which are almost certainly easier to describe, measure and monetize than the more general personal and intellectual development objectives of higher education. I neatly think of work-related skills and knowledge as utilitarian education and other personal and intellectual developmental objectives as those leading to a liberal education.

Why is it though that utilitarian education seems to be getting virtually all of the attention in the United States? I do think that the confluence of circumstances - issues around affordability, heavy public financial investment in higher education, a call for additional investment, the prolonged economic downturn, and the more or less easily quantified nature of career and professional education may bias us to focus almost exclusively on career and professional education, elevating their status and reducing measures of educational success to simple market transactions.

Having acknowledged the importance of career and professional skill development, how it tends to be measured and valued, and having noted some types of obligations colleges and universities have, it is worth thinking about what else we expect from college and university graduates and return to the 39% of the public that indicated that the University should be a place in which personal and intellectual development objectives ought to be prioritized. It is my feeling that the argument for liberal education that the 39% might make will be relatively subtle and appeal to interests that speak to a common good rationale of higher education, which seems to have lost significant ground in the United States during the past 40 years.



What should others expect of our learners?
http://www.kenudas.com/2012/11/what-should-others-expect-of-our.html

Next Generation Learning Challenges
http://nextgenlearning.org/

Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training
http://www.doleta.gov/taaccct/

Is College Worth It? College Presidents, Public Assess, Value, Quality and Mission of Higher Education
http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2011/05/15/is-college-worth-it/

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

What should others expect of our learners?

Overview:
A university education provides something in addition to technical competence, the impact of which connects the values of a society with the behaviors of its participants. What do we expect from colleges and universities beyond the creation of technically competent graduates? 

Like many of us, I generally try to put events in some sort of context to make sense of particular events and to see patterns across events. With so much going on in higher education I am needing a touchstone and have decided to start by actively developing and making explicit a better notion about the purposes of colleges and universities. This was why I started the latent pattern transmission project. I decided to construct the project as a blog rather than keep a private journal because I felt there was a higher likelihood of engaging with more folks and improving my thinking more meaningfully by doing so. I am testing my feeling that latent pattern transmission is an essential part of the purposes of colleges and universities and this is my first posting that addresses its nature directly. I hope to keep developing the idea in this forum as time permits. Just to quickly revisit the notion, I am referring to the act of forming in the college or university student the impulse and ability to create culture of a particular kind through their actions, behaviours, and their influence on others. I tried to capture this idea as well in the first posting I made in the project when I suggested that...
Although a bit awkward, I think the phrase (Latent Pattern Transmission) 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.

I know that this is not a novel idea. It is a central theme embedded in critical theory, which winds its way through notions of oppression and marginalization through cultural reproduction and appropriation. The idea that through education we pass values to successive generations is rather powerful. This perhaps is one of the reasons that during the worst of times educators frequently get the worst of it.

Although these notions have been well treated, they do not seem well represented in much of our public dialogue about higher education - or at least online education. There is a lot of emphasis placed on transmitting knowledge as cheaply as possible to as many learners as possible to better fuel our economy and remain competitive. The focus has been principally on training and little attention has been paid to what we expect of an educated person beyond technical competence. And after all, we know that technical competence is a fleeting asset because it becomes obsolete so quickly. We know educated people not so much by how well they do their job, but by how well they think, the ways they present themselves, solve problems, relate to others, and so on. The "so on" is perhaps the way they contribute to society beyond the technical competency in which they execute their task, craft, trade, and  profession. Beyond the utility they create, the aesthetic quality of their performance, or the advancement of their understanding about the art.

It is true that many students attend university to learn useful skills in order to earn a living. This is perhaps particularly true for online learners, but should we really expect something more? If all a university did was train technicians and professionals to do their jobs, most of the 4 to 6 years spent as an undergraduate would be well wasted. But we know that there is more. To the extent that universities have a commitment to:
  • provide technical and professional skills to graduates,
  • graduate an educated person, and
  • offer online programs,
engaging in a discussion among the online education community about what we expect of our graduates beyond technical competence is an important activity. So what should others expect of our learners and what should students expect of us as we prepare them to be educated people? What are the characteristics, traits, and behaviours we want colleges and universities to engender in an educated student beyond technical skills and knowledge - what do we want them to offer?

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Impact of Organizational Openness and the Openness Index

Overview

For a variety of reasons openness has become an intensely popular topic of conversation during the past few weeks. Although much of the discussion has been about free and open content and the use of terms, there has been another quieter dialogue about openness as applied to organizations. Are open organizations more likely to produce open products with higher levels of fidelity than organizations with closed cultures? If so, is this an example of latent pattern transmission?

Although interest in openness has been mounting for some time, during the past few weeks openness and the term “open” has been widely discussed, thanks I think in part to the growth of MOOCs. The Educause Openness Constituent Group is busy, the OER-community list is buzzing with discussion about a OER mapping project, Inside Higher Education (the Post, Chronicle, etc.) is publishing articles on the topic, the “Openness” of MOOCs is being questioned, the Babson Survey Research Group has done a report on OER, and we received a banner number of participants (at least 5 times that of any previous meeting) at the Openness Constituent Group meeting in Denver last week.

It is great that such a variety of people are showing interest in this important topic. There is a lot of attention being paid to the differences between “free” and “open,” and most of the discussion is about not confusing something that is fee free with something that is distributed openly. There is also a voice being raised against absolutism, suggesting that we do not want to become too militant and exclusive about what is open and what is not. I agree, I think that there are degrees of openness and that they should be recognized exactly for what they are. Along those lines I believe that it is important though to be clear and as exact as possible about the levels of openness, what we call them, how we talk about them, and what they mean. If we fail to do so, openness will become the next trivialized notion that is more useful for marketing than anything else. It is my feeling that these issues can be addressed relatively easily. I know that the following bullets are a bit naive, but perhaps they strike a good balance of directness, simplicity, and accuracy. If not, fire away.
  • When access to something is provided with no fee, it is gratis or “fee-free.”
  • When all rights are retained, then the work is closed.
  • When all of the freedoms are present to qualify as a Free Cultural Work, the content is open, and
  • When some rights are reserved, then the resource is partially open.
Fortunately the Creative Commons has provided us with some structure around this last bullet. It is true that a work can be fee-free and open, or can be fee-free and closed, or fee-free and partially open, but the work cannot be considered “Open” unless it comports to all of the essential freedoms necessary for free cultural works. Now there are additional considerations. For example, are the file formats open? When files are packaged, are they done so using open standards? Can the content be run on open technologies using open source software, of is one forced to use proprietary options?  If the answer is no to any of these questions, does this impact the openness of the resource? How do we judge works that possess all of the essential freedoms, but require registration for use or a fee for access?

As indicated above, most of the discussion during the past few weeks and during the past few decades about openness has concentrated on open content or resources. Although important because they influence the usefulness of things people use and capture some first principles, these types of categorizations do not really help us when we move from openness as applied to content to openness applied to organizations. I raise this now because Openness in organizations is a topic that a number of folks have been working on for some time and ended-up being one of the principal threads of discussion at the Openness CG meeting at Educause in Denver. During the meeting Pat Masson introduced the Openness Index, which is a Jasig 2-3-98 project. The Openness Index applies a maturity approach to assessing the organizational capacity for openness based on practice and outcomes. It is intended to be a tool to support continuous improvement and capacity development for managers at colleges and universities striving to become more open by practicing the values and principles of openness. Pat Masson and I just posted the notes from the Openness CG meeting.  If you were at the meeting, please feel free to visit and improve the notes - and everybody is of course invited to move the conversation forward.

As mentioned in my last post, I believe that organizations that are committed to the values of openness (as reflected in their governance) and practice the principles of openness (as reflected in their daily operations), are more likely to reliably and naturally develop revenue models that take advantage of openness and create open services and products. This is just a feeling, but it is based on some observation.  For example, I have seen evidence that the commitment to open and transparent governance in the WikiEducator, OER Foundation, and OERu communities is resulting in a natural impulse toward consistent open practice and production. I have also seen practice in which Pat Masson at UMassOnline has created expectations for open practice applying elements of the Openness Index within his work environment. The commitment to open values I believe has notably resulted in a strong bias toward open practice like the Learning Platform Review project at UMass. I apologize to Pat and Wayne for calling attention to them (without asking) by referencing their work, but these are the examples in practice that have me thinking about how open cultures promote the creation of open processes and open artifacts. I am guessing that each of us has positive and negative examples as well.

I am not suggesting that closed organizations cannot produce open artifacts, I am though suggesting that open organizations will do so naturally and are more likely to do so consistently with fidelity. Their understanding and conscience dictates so. And as a practical matter, if I were depending on an organization to reliably adhere to the principles of openness with their products, I would want them to do so as part of a larger pattern. It is my feeling that the products of organizations reflect something of the culture of the producer, and I believe that is why projects like the Openness Index are so important. They help organizations to develop patterns of openness that are reproduced in everything they create, nurture, touch, and influence, which will have a sort of an enduring multiplier effect even if it is just through contact. This is very similar to my thoughts about latent pattern transmission as it applies to colleges and universities. Universities, like other types of organizations have culturally embedded values that become part of everything they offer and create, bridging past and future by influencing the present with teaching, research, and service. If we want a society that values openness, then we want colleges and universities that do as well and that practice openness. I think that tools like the Openness Index and forums like the Educause Openness CG group, the Jasig 2-3-98 project, WikiEducator, the Creative Commons and many others are of practical importance for all of us.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Never Mind Antioch, What is Coursera Up To?

Overview

Antioch Los Angeles' decision to accept Coursera courses and a recent study from the Babson Survey Research Group on faculty barriers to accepting OER has catalyzed some focused interest in openness and created an opportunity to discuss openness in terms of MOOCs. Coursera’s financial models are inherently in conflict with openness, but rely on their courses being offered for free (no fees) without credit. This creates a conundrum that is currently under significant discussion. One way to address the openness tension is by removing “Open” from Coursera type courses and replacing it with “Fee Free.” MOOCs become MFFOC (Massive Fee Free Online Courses), and the notion of Openness is respected and its definition is acknowledged.

Antioch University Los Angeles has recently received some attention for their plans to accept credits for a handful of MOOCs offered through Coursera. Although the announcement received mixed reviews, it is clearly an opportunity to watch a new education sourcing model unfold.

In many ways it is not so different from accepting transfer credit from any other college or university. For years Harvard University would not accept credit for the online courses offered through Harvard Extension, but other colleges and universities were welcome to do so and did. So, we now have a parallel situation in which Antioch has decided to accept credits from Duke and Penn Coursera courses, which Duke and Penn will not recognize internally. To help ensure that their students are getting what they need from the MOOC experience, Antioch is providing a support system for their cohort. If done properly, I can see how this could be a very powerful model.

In many ways this arrangement is quite different than the typical arrangements that most universities make with partner vendors supporting online learning. Under most circumstances, the University maintains pretty close control over the academic enterprise, which typically includes curriculum design, course design, and instructional staffing. The arrangement between Antioch LA and Coursera, Duke, Penn, and other Coursera partners may muddy typical arrangements. We (I) do not know yet, because I have not seen the detailed plans, but the prospect for a for-profit consortium (Coursera) to be part of one university ceding academic control to others through a vendor relationship is something worth watching. Please note that I am not being at all judgmental of Antioch’s decision - I have no grounds for judgment and do not have enough information to build much of an opinion.

I do think though that these arrangements have cast some light on Coursera. It seems that the “Openness” community is taking some time and effort to discuss what is and what is not so open about Coursera and its courses.  In addition, folks are starting to discover some of the basic finances of the for-profit MOOC consortia. I do believe that these are two reasonably important topics that are related - openness and finance.

Openness

Well, there is no question that Coursera is transparent about the extent of their openness. The following appears in their Terms of Use:

All content or other materials available on the Sites, including but not limited to code, images, text, layouts, arrangements, displays, illustrations, audio and video clips, HTML files and other content are the property of Coursera and/or its affiliates or licensors and are protected by copyright, patent and/or other proprietary intellectual property rights under the United States and foreign laws. In consideration for your agreement to the terms and conditions contained here, Coursera grants you a personal, non-exclusive, non-transferable license to access and use the Sites. You may download material from the Sites only for your own personal, non-commercial use. You may not otherwise copy, reproduce, retransmit, distribute, publish, commercially exploit or otherwise transfer any material, nor may you modify or create derivatives works of the material. The burden of determining that your use of any information, software or any other content on the Site is permissible rests with you.

So, it looks like the Coursera courses are open for free like Free Beer (beer for which no fee is taken), but fall pretty far short of a Free Cultural Works standard in which content can be revised, reused, and redistributed. As a point of reference, the generally accepted definition for Free Cultural Works includes the following freedoms (none of which directly speak to gratis distribution).

Essential freedoms

In order to be recognized as "free" under this definition, a license must grant the following freedoms without limitation:
  • The freedom to use and perform the work: The licensee must be allowed to make any use, private or public, of the work. For kinds of works where it is relevant, this freedom should include all derived uses ("related rights") such as performing or interpreting the work. There must be no exception regarding, for example, political or religious considerations.
  • The freedom to study the work and apply the information: The licensee must be allowed to examine the work and to use the knowledge gained from the work in any way. The license may not, for example, restrict "reverse engineering".
  • The freedom to redistribute copies: Copies may be sold, swapped or given away for free, as part of a larger work, a collection, or independently. There must be no limit on the amount of information that can be copied. There must also not be any limit on who can copy the information or on where the information can be copied.
  • The freedom to distribute derivative works: In order to give everyone the ability to improve upon a work, the license must not limit the freedom to distribute a modified version (or, for physical works, a work somehow derived from the original), regardless of the intent and purpose of such modifications. However, some restrictions may be applied to protect these essential freedoms or the attribution of authors (see below).

The Coursera terms of use probably do not meet any of the essential freedoms. According to these standards of openness, the Coursera MOOCs should really be called MFOCs (Massive Free Online Courses) or better yet MFFOCs (Massive Fee Free Online Courses).

 

Financial Arrangements

It is not surprising that Coursera MFFOCs cannot be open. Although still nascent, the logic of the revenue models for Coursera bias strongly against open content. A quick reference to Coursera’s Online Course and Certifications section of their publicly available Terms of Use provides insights into the revenue model for Coursera and the partner institutions. First there is strong indication that the institutions have some restrictions placed on their activities, by “...acknowledg(ing) that neither the instructors of any Online Course nor the associated Participating Institutions will be involved in any attempts to get the course recognized by any educational or accredited institution.” Second, the learner “...may not take any Online Course offered by Coursera or use any Letter of Completion as part of any tuition-based or for-credit certification or program for any college, university, or other academic institution without the express written permission from Coursera. Such use of an Online Course or Letter of Completion is a violation of these Terms of Use.” These terms effectively prohibit the use of Coursera courses for award of credit without some sort of alternative arrangements.

These terms help create the market willing to pay for use of Coursera courses for credit, and Antioch University Los Angeles is the first publicly commercial example. So we have an idea around at least part of the demand side of the model. The supply side is covered in the Online Course Hosting and Service Agreement between Coursera and its partners. Reference to the Service/Revenue Models for Online Courses and Exhibit B, provides information on the financial arrangements between Coursera and partners, which is basically a revenue sharing model for services rendered. The university partner renders academic services (product), while Coursera renders technology and promotional services. As mentioned in a previous posting titled Never Mind Antioch, What’s Up with Ourselves?, most university online programs purchase some internal services or services provided by a 3rd party vendor, so on one level, the basic outsource concept is not without precedent. There is a whole education services sector build on various business models.

 

Financial Models and Openness

The issue of interest here is more about the inherent conflict between Coursera’s financial model and openness and their financial model's reliance on free access (not open use). If Coursera courses were open (distributed under a Free Cultural Works licence), then the demand side of their financial model would become weak and would be forced to rely on Coursera actually providing unique and valuable services relative to the awarding credits, not unique value in promoting the development and delivery of massive courses. That is, Coursera's principle value is in the part of the business model that cannot directly generate revenue because by design, it must be fee free. That is how they promote themselves.

This is a conundrum, which I think that can resolved by simply taking the “Open” out of these types of courses and replacing it with “Fee Free.” So we have MFFOCs as well as MOOCs and they are called what they are. Some are fee free, while others are open as well as fee free. This is good for everybody involved as it reduces ambiguity and helps guard against “Openwashing,” which is important because the potential benefits that “Open” brings to societies is intimately tied to the freedoms associated with Free Cultural Works. We do not want to reduce the benefits of openness by watering down its meaning, and I assume that the folks at Coursera do not want that either. The distinction and appropriate use of MOOC and MFFOC is in part a matter of intellectual honesty and truth in labeling.

Coursera and its partners are doing something that is very important for the evolution of higher education. Partnerships between private for-profit, non-profit, and education organizations is an important way of creating variety in our thinking, creating diverse business models, and bringing needed capital to the educational enterprise. To the extent to which the educational partners have a role in Coursera governance, all the better. All of these things are perhaps essential for the sustained development of "the University." But let’s do what is right and call these things what they are. Coursera courses are not open, they are fee free. I would argue, and I will, that organizations that are committed to the values of openness (as reflected in their governance), and practice the principles openness (as reflected in their daily operations), are more likely to reliably and naturally develop revenue models that take advantage of openness and create open services and products.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Never Mind Antioch, What’s Up with Ourselves?

Overview

Two recent articles in Inside Higher Education connected the topics of MOOC finance (MOOConomics) and openness. In this post I question why is it apparently OK, or at least more acceptable for a group of elite colleges and universities to engage in a business enterprise in which they vend their courses, while it is not acceptable for a college or university to purchase those services? There are optimistic explanations and some that are less so.  I am not sure which are more realistic.

I am trying to resist writing about MOOC’s. After all it is a preoccupation throughout the sector and I can’t imagine that I would have anything to say that is terribly novel. It is my intent then to use the MOOC as a way of talking about something else.

We are fortunate that Steve Kolowich wrote two smart and related articles for Inside Higher Ed within the span of about a week. The first, MOOCs for Credit was posted on October 29, 2012 and the second, How 'Open' Are MOOCs?, was posted on November 8, 2012.

MOOCs for Credit focused on Antioch University Los Angeles’ decision to contract with Coursera as a vendor of “MOOC” services and accept credits for cohorts of Antioch students who participate in specific courses. Antioch LA plans to provide additional support to its students to help ensure student success. In the article there were a lot of great quotes by Coursera and Antioch executives, as well as folks at Coursera partner institutions. One of the take homes from the article, that was not much discussed in the article comments was that
Antioch will pay Coursera an undisclosed amount for permission to use several courses, including ones from Duke University and the University of Pennsylvania. The company will share that revenue with the universities, which own intellectual property rights for their courses as part of their contracts with Coursera.

Ten days later, Steve Kolowich neatly connected the two articles by referencing a tweet by Derek Bruff, the director of Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching, in which he wrote
“What I don't see… is why Antioch would pay Coursera to use their open courses. What am I missing?”

This reintroduces an aspect of openness that has fueled discussion within the community for a very long time - the difference between free (like free beer) and free (like freedom). But this distinction still misses a whole range of points, as openness touches on a lot of qualities that require thoughtful reflection, which seems lacking in much of the discussion. This is fine - it means that the openness community is growing and there is the need for more accessible “education” on the relevant topics. Fortunately there are a lot of resources. Some of these can be found in the Comments to the 'Open' Are MOOCs? posting by Wayne Mackintosh and Cable Green.

Ok, I felt that I had to touch on openness, but it is not want I want to talk about. I am interested in exploring the differences in the reactions by commenters and others to the topics raised in the two articles relative to
  • Antioch University LA’s decision to accept credits for some Coursera courses, and
  • the commercial arrangements that Coursera and other big MOOC providers have with their partners and “customers.”
Let me start by saying that I have no problem from a service provision perspective, absent any notions of falsely marketing “openness,” of charging for services. As the executive director of Penn State World Campus and CEO of UMassOnline, I purchased plenty of services, and had developed and managed internal and external financial arrangements including revenue sharing with internal academic units and external partner/clients. These were simple business arrangements, most of which were designed to facilitate or incentivize the development and delivery of online educational programs.

Once again, I am interested in the response that Antioch University got for their business decision, and the responses that Coursera and its partner institutions have received for their business decisions. I think that it touches on a cultural characteristic that may be unique to education (and maybe some other human and public services).

The tone of the comments in the MOOCs for Credit article contained a fair amount of criticism of Antioch and Antioch leadership, while the comments in the MOOCs Openness article were more educationally oriented. I am guessing that the Credits for MOOCs topic itself is more incendiary than the status of the first “O” in MOOC or any implications of openwashing. That said, the topic of financial arrangements was not raised in the comments associated with Openness article, even though it was one of the punchlines. Why?

Why is it apparently OK, or at least more acceptable for a group of elite colleges and universities to engage in a business enterprise in which they vend their courses, while it is not acceptable for a college or university to purchase those services? I am going to offer-up one very optimistic response. Perhaps it is because there is something in the University culture that is student focused. Perhaps our responses as educators is influenced by the fact that the Duke and Penn students are not impacted by any of these financial and credit awarding decisions, while the Antioch students are impacted. And perhaps there is even a whiff of collegial concern about the potential of financially sound institutions taking advantage of those in the community who are less so.

Now, an alternative response could be that the agitation is about colleges and universities simply resisting change and seeing the very worst in events that threaten their world view, the integrity of the institutional order, and the cultural norms that are part of their self-concept. It could also be a rational, although largely not articulated, concern about the impact on institutions that view themselves as more than certification machines and that a MOOCs for credit trend challenges the value that colleges and universities deliver beyond teaching in content areas and the production of certificates and degrees. Who knows, but I think that there is something important about the reactions of our communities to important events.

The last point that I want to make is that I know nothing at all of the financial arrangements between the MOOC consortia (i.e. Coursera), their partner universities (i.e. Duke and Penn), and their clients (i.e. Antioch Los Angeles). It might be that there is no money changing hands, but that does not change the importance of the reactions to perceptions. Do the reactions tell us something about ourselves?

Friday, 9 November 2012

Research Universities and Online Learning: Role of Transdisciplinary Education

The last three postings on the Research University have been somewhat kidnapped by the MOOC thing. I was brought back to purpose though after reading an article titled Citizen Science U. by Michael Crow in the October 2012 Scientific American. Unfortunately the article is not publicly available, so I have provided a bullet point abstract below. If anybody has an electronic subscription to Scientific American, the retitled article can be found at A.S.U. President: To Encourage Science Literacy, Fix the Universities [Preview]. Once again, it unfortunately is under lock and key, so you are left with my abstract, which obviously leaves out some of the colour and may even include some of my own biases.

Overview: Crow, M. (2012). Citizen science U. Scientific American, 307(4), 48-49.

  • It is universities that are responsible for having not produced graduates that support US science and technology leadership, and for not having prepared teachers who inspire enthusiasm among potential science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) students in high school.
  • The approaches currently used to teach STEM only serve the most gifted students who are already predisposed to success in these topics leaving the rest out in the cold.  Our failure also deprives liberal arts students from the joys of science and math, and reduces the nation’s economic competitiveness.
  • Few university students opt into STEM courses unless they are required, which ultimately reduces the capacity for our graduates, and later our professionals, to think critically.
  • Young people entering universities during the past decade have grown-up with technologies that have provided ubiquitous access to information, while participating in and creating an information culture. It is the same technology that has rendered traditional educational approaches inadequate that can help create new approaches that will allow students to re-engage in STEM studies, feeding their more integrated perspectives on the scientific disciplines.
  • Although decreases numbers of students studying STEM fields is tied to macroeconomic shifts in our economy, the more enduring problem is that most university professors have not acknowledged the difference in students of this decade from those in previous decades, while continuing to structure knowledge in rigid disciplines that has failed to inspire more than 2 decades of students.
  • The New American Research University (Arizona State University) has re-conceptualized the entire research university to better meet the needs of our evolving society. A major part of the ASU effort is to adopt transdisciplinary approaches to teaching and discovery.
  • ASU started by setting the goal of doubling STEM majors and providing an intellectual greenfield for their faculty to experiment with philosophical and pedagogical boundaries. Liberating faculty was complemented by liberating the University of insular departments by eliminating a number of departments and establishing relevant multi-disciplinary schools of study.
  • The transdisciplinary units are designed to complement ASU large-scale research initiatives (centers and institutes) that roll-up into schools that in turn create transdisciplinary connections across schools tying together practical and theoretical study. The schools, whose names alone inspire some curiosity, include:
    • The School of Earth and Space Exploration
    • The School of Human Evolution and Social Change
  • The schools are thought of as “differentiated learning platforms” for engaged discovery and learning that inspires enthusiasm from broad populations of potential STEM students. The results have been impressive and should serve as a reminder to the academic community that transdisciplinary teaching connects the University to the challenges we experience outside of the University.

Now given the title of the article, I was hoping to read something about Citizen Science - at first I was a bit disappointed. Although the topic did not even appear in the article, I found the subject fascinating in any event as it struck at the fundamental nature of the research university and what they can uniquely bring to learners, while also poking at the potential of what value online learning could bring to the research university. Together this brings me back to the question posed in the posting titled Research Universities and Online Learning - Is the MOOC the best we can do?

"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?"

So I am starting to refine a response. The research university brings the frequently unrealized promise of truly transdisciplinary educational experiences. This extends beyond disciplinary, multidisciplinary, and interdisciplinary study to a unique place that requires “universal” education. The Research University, as a place meant to reach toward and welcome the development of universal knowledge, is also uniquely enabled by the connections among the discovery (research), service (practice), and preparation (teaching) missions at research universities as applied across the constellation of disciplines that represent the broad taxonomy of formally defined human knowledge. Note the universality principle, which extends beyond selecting only the disciplines that will provide enough financial margin in their offering to be supported by a market rationale. Ok, that was a little snarky, but I think a fair poke at the career colleges posing as universities. There are many institutions that are excellent at meeting their own missions, which may be different than those of universities.

The other part of the equation is what online learning provides of special value to the Research University. In response, online learning provides the opportunity for research universities to leverage technologies that support the rethinking of pedagogy necessary to engage learners. This provides a neat little set of connections, each of which requires some discussion. I need to end this post as it is getting too long, but first I want to point out that the principle of “universality” taken as a core defining feature of universities, perhaps a first principle of the university, will eliminate consideration of many institutions that call themselves universities. In effect, this distinction recognizes the futility in comparing Universities with institutions that simply include “university” in their name. More importantly, the distinction points to the futility in creating the same expectations, setting the same standards, and overlaying the same financial models on universities and other types of educational organizations. It is just plain counter productive, and perhaps it would make sense to demand more “truth in labeling.”

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Research Universities and Online Learning - Is the MOOC the best we can do? - Part 3

The focus of the last post concerning this topic was on the qualities of elite selective research oriented universities and colleges that make MOOCs appealing for those institutions. That is, why are so many of the MOOCs being offered by those types of institutions, when many do not have a history of participating in online learning. Along those same lines, we also left asking

 “...if these same universities (who are offering MOOCs) will also develop significant capacity to deliver their traditional curriculum through online, distance, or extended education for the same credit and degrees offer through their residential programs. “

If they do or they choose not to, this is all good.  We all recognize that there are many different educational needs that we are trying to meet and that traditional university methods and offerings will only meet a fraction of them. To the extent that learners respond well to connectivist learning design and MOOCs support learner success, we have made a great leap forward in meeting previously under met needs. I am sure that in the coming months and years, the big data being collected in MOOCs will shed light on the educational needs being met by MOOCs, ways of refining best teaching and learning practice, and the skills, aptitudes, and habits that successful MOOC learners possess.

It is early days, but I found some of the student feedback on Udacity MOOCs interesting and I found myself wanting more. In Sebastian Thrun’s Sloan-C keynote, Democratizing Higher Education
he reports on student feedback, and apparently
  • 99.5% of high school students want to take another Udacity class,
  • 75.5% of college-educated students found Udacity classes more effective than (traditional) college classes, and
  • in the artificial intelligence class the 400+ top students were online, rather than traditional Stanford Stanford students.

This feedback is discussed in the Streaming Video of his Sloan-C presentation at minute 38 and 50 seconds.

I know that eventually the data being collected in the MOOC environment will tell us a lot more about which practices support learner success, and the role of learning designers and faculty facilitators in that success. A lot of this is pretty well documented for traditional online learning and is supported by decades of research, much of it starting in the late 70s and early 80’s around mastery learning.  The agenda took shape in the mid-80s with dozens of researchers working on the “2-Sigma” problem, which is something that I would like to explore later as the problem applies to online learning. I mention it because there seems to be an assumption that until the advent of MOOCs, educators were sitting on their hands waiting for inspiration before asking questions about teaching and learning effectiveness. Now it might be that the foundation that has been built during the past decade does not apply to MOOCs, but I hope not because I would really like to see the MOOC communities build on the foundations that are available, refine the knowledge, and help improve practice across multiple educational approaches.

In any event, and to my question, I would guess that most (but certainly not all) successful MOOC learners have some common set of characteristics - educational backgrounds, aptitudes, attitudes, and so forth that provide the capacity to study well independently while also taking advantage of the benefits that large networks afford for connectivist learning strategies. As an aside, I know that I am making an assumption that MOOCs actually apply a connectionist pedagogical strategy, as is frequently claimed,  which is reflected in course design.

MOOC Hierarchy of Learning NeedsSo now, how do we get students who are able to successfully study in a MOOC environment?  What types of qualities make them successful and able to “unlock the potential” of MOOCs?  Can a learner first become educated through MOOCs (bootstrap their education starting with MOOCs) or are there characteristics that need to be developed in learners before they are able to succeed in MOOCs? If so, where do the learners get an education that prepares them for the MOOC? Is it through their regulare life experiences? I guess that I am asking if there is some sort of educational hierarchy of needs through which learners ascend with successful MOOC students sitting at the apex? Are these the types of learners that we expect our high schools, colleges, and universities to produce? More generally, what types of learners and citizens do we want our colleges and universities to produce? What types of qualities should a university educated graduate possess?

For the record, I am not equating MOOC learning with self-actualization. Each pedagogical approach would have some sort of pyramid that represents the skills, characteristics, interests, dispositions, knowledge, arts, habits, etc. required to succeed in that environment.


Monday, 5 November 2012

The Great MOOC Bunfight

Pardon my self indulgence. I promise not to do this very often, but I am feeling a bit agitated. Perhaps I am alone and if so, no harm had been done in any event. Like most folks I have been following along with what is happening in the world of big education. Actually massive education. Lots of learners, lots of participants, lots of courses, lots of data, lots of attention; lots and lots of articles, lots of potential, and perhaps lots of learning and disruption. Who knows, but definitely a lot of attention. In fact, just this past week, the New York Times proclaimed it The Year of the MOOC.

What more could we want? After all, dozens of colleges and universities are publicly investing in and experimenting with really alternative ways of providing educational services. Even better, when we scratch below the surface of Ivy League and other elite brands, enormous enrollments, just as enormous dropout rates, glowing testimonials, zero fees, predictions of extinction, and so on, we actually find at least three very interesting things:
  • A tip-of-the-hat to Connectivist pedagogy, with the promise of eventually more substance,
  • Some very interesting non-profit (traditional college and university) and for profit partnerships, and
  • A willingness for traditional universities to participate in a teaching consortium.
For a sector much maligned for lack of creativity, you have to admit that a lot of institutions are starting to colour out of the lines. And it is not just the MOOC providers that are making some bold moves. How about Antioch Los Angeles partnering with Coarsera for credits and Colorado State University-Global Campus accepting credits from Udacity?

So, what’s there to be agitated about? Everything is great, right? I am honestly excited about the MOOC phenomenon. We are about to learn a lot and it is my hope that the attention and controversy stimulated by MOOCs will help focus attention on the unique value that various types of colleges and universities bring to individual learners. In addition, we also have the opportunity to learn a bit about what types of learners with what types of needs are best met by MOOCs and other non-traditional approaches to learning.

I am afraid though, that we are on the very edge of being distracted by some of the vendors who have unveiled their massive and open intents this past week. The less than dignified exchanges between Instructure and BlackBoard as they display their stables of aligned universities feels like the educational agenda is being appropriated. In the meantime, while the the software vendors are eying each other and poking a bit at the established consortia, the folks at Udacity are poking at the Corseara and edX models because of the baggage they carry from their university partners. In my mind, all of this taken together seems to be moving the MOOC movement from serious reform to the verge of a grand public Bunfight. Now I would never ask the education start-up’s and software vendors to act out of character, but I would ask them to please respect the higher education community, the learners we all serve, and what we are trying to learn.

Along these lines, the following quote from the previously referenced Year of the MOOC article brought a smile to my face.

Udacity courses are designed and produced in-house or with companies like Google and Microsoft. In a poke at its university-based competition, Dr. Stavens says they pick instructors not because of their academic research, as universities do, but because of how they teach. “We reject about 98 percent of faculty who want to teach with us,” he says. “Just because a person is the world’s most famous economist doesn’t mean they are the best person to teach the subject.” Dr. Stavens sees a day when MOOCs will disrupt how faculty are attracted, trained and paid, with the most popular “compensated like a TV actor or a movie actor.” He adds that “students will want to learn from whoever is the best teacher.”

With the exception of teachers being “compensated like a TV actor or a movie actor,” this quote sounds a lot like how the for-profit career colleges frame education, teaching, and learning. This is not a criticism, everything has its place and if the MOOCs take on the character of career colleges, that's just dandy. That said, there is no excuse for poor teaching, no matter what type of institution is doing the teaching.  Just as being an excellent researches does not make you a great teacher, it does not prohibit you from being one either.

I do think though that this reinforces that different learners have different needs, which are best served by different types of institutions. Dr. Stavens candidly points to some of these differences in his quote. Some learning needs are best met through engaging in an integrated curriculum at a university, while other needs are met through other ways including through for-profit MOOC providers. There is a truly enormous watershed of educational need that represents an amazing diversity of learners. The total pool of need is much larger than any particular institution or any particular model can address.

Really, it is not a competition. When considering the enormity of the challenges with which we are faced, Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund would say that, the sea is so wide and my boat is so small. I take it as a reminder that it is our job to keep building boats. No sense in lobbing "buns" at other builders.

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.