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Summary:

There has been rapid growth in the number of online-only college courses that have accredited professors teaching audiences that can number in the tens of thousands. This development could be a huge boon for students, professors and universities.

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photo: Andrii Muzyka/Shutterstock.com

No educational technology or teaching method has been embraced faster or more widely than so-called Massively Open, Online Courses (or MOOCs for short). For the uninitiated, these are online-only college courses where typically top tier professors teach audiences that in some cases number in the hundreds of thousands. This used to be considered a fad and a misguided approach to instruction, but it’s now rapidly going mainstream.

The state of California – a big player in establishing educational standards that are often adopted across the nation – is moving to approve legislation that will require colleges in that state to honor and give credit for faculty-approved MOOCs taken by their students.

Remember when Steve Jobs said 3D simulations on the NeXT computer would revolutionize education?  That vision helped him break free of Apple. It led to the evolution of what is now known as Mac OSX and it is directly responsible for the smartphones many of us use every day.

But the education revolution he spoke of never happened.  For generations, educational technology was a sleepy market sector that was always touted but never fulfilled. What makes this time any different?

I see three major forces at work that will create a “perfect storm” that will fundamentally change what we call education.

Huge student waitlists

As the cost of higher education has skyrocketed, colleges have been forced to cut back on expenses.  As a result, many classes at public universities and community colleges are over-subscribed.  Some students can’t get into the classes they need to graduate and must extend their college experience to gain the credits they need – which further overcrowds schools and classes (and mires students in even more debt).

The biggest waitlists are for introductory courses, which generally are also the least rewarding for professors to teach.  In California alone, an estimated 784,000 community-college students are on such waiting lists, with the prospect of demand only increasing. It’s a legitimate crisis.

Last Fall, MOOC pioneer Udacity tested three math courses with San Jose State University. Students could enroll in intermediate algebra, college algebra, and elementary statistics courses online and only show up on campus for exams. One Udacity computer class alone had 250,000 people enrolled. The power of MOOCs is that they can fulfill the demands of students and schools in an economically efficient manner on a massive scale, while resolving the problem of overcrowding that has been festering for decades.

Academics as the new rock stars

MOOCs are already proving to be the greatest thing to hit universities since football. They bring worldwide attention to universities yet in a genuine way that completely supports the overall mission of university. And the MOOC platforms tend to feature university brands as prominently as ESPN features a school’s sports teams, making top-tier universities even more powerful for attracting students, faculty and research funding.

In times past, an outstanding professor could publish textbooks on his or her own as a supplement to teaching, which featured the professor’s personal brand as much as his/her employer’s. Early on in the development of its online courses, though, Stanford (followed by others) has made it clear though that all courses are owned by the university, not the professor doing the teaching.

That could change, but for now the personal brands of faculty have become analogous to athletes or rock stars. While for now they can’t earn royalties for teaching a MOOC – and it’s worth noting these represent a significant undertaking – their visibility is unlike anything remotely possible before, with many courses reaching tens of thousands of students at a time. Such recognition bolsters their careers and reputation far beyond the royalties they might receive from textbook publishing in the past.

Untapped demand

Some skeptics have pointed out that overall MOOC completion rates vary from 3 percent to 20 percent of those who initially enroll in a given course.  They say the “dropout” rate is 90 percent, which indeed sounds bad.  But it’s also misleading, and here’s why:  Most of the dropoff is by people who are not really ready to take a full-on university course but who are happy to observe and learn something along the way.

What are we to make of this?  Millions of people around the world want to take online course, but the current offerings are too rigorous and not yet suited to their needs.  And this is a problem?  Sounds to me like we are engaging a whole new set of students and developing new methods to invite them to pursue their dreams through the courses and classes they can take online. If the goal is spreading knowledge and education, then MOOCs are wildly succeeding.

John Duhring has been s a founding team member at nine startups, including Supermac Software and Bitmenu. During his career he has also applied technology to learning at large companies such as Prentice-Hall, Apple and AOL. Follow him on Twitter @duhring.
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Photo courtesy Andrii Muzyka/Shutterstock.com.

  1. Clearly, Duke professor and author Dan Ariely is experimenting with new ways to engage students with his new coursera offering:

    http://danariely.com/2013/03/23/where-are-the-students/

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    1. Also, I wonder if Steve Jobs (who famously dropped out of college) would have approved?

      http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2013/03/steve-jobs-the-most-important-thing/

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  2. The causation suggested between budget cuts and students not being able to get into courses in questionable.

    When I was a student at a Big Ten University in the late 1970s it was hard to get certain courses including those needed to graduate. Places in certain programs, especially pre-professional programs, have always been limited to preserve the quality of the program. If one had not had the proper prerequisites and passed with a high enough grade, one couldn’t get into the next course.

    Also, where does this “accredited professor” idea come from? College and University programs are accredited by a external review process, but I’ve never heard of individuals being accredited.

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    1. Thank you for the well-reasoned comment. I was trying to illustrate the big squeeze that is felt lower in the food chain than in upper level courses at a Big Ten university. Last week’s news from SUNY bears this out.

      http://www.bizjournals.com/buffalo/blog/miner-business/2013/03/online-courses-to-be-available-across.html

      Interestingly, highly-specialized pre-professional schools, particularly in health-related sciences and practices, are showing intense interest in the reach and immediacy provided by online platforms.

      That being said, you are right to point out that schools are accredited, not professors! I stand corrected.

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  3. This is an excellent concept…the best educators ARE rock stars…they just played to a small audience. I think back to courses I’ve taken and the great teachers were 10X the good ones. A connected world lets the excellent become the rock stars of our time.

    I love it.

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  4. Hey, John,
    Great piece. I find it really odd that anyone should get worked up about low completion rates on MOOC courses when they don’t think twice about the stay-rates on most YouTube videos — even the funny ones. I rather suspect the superstars driving Coursera and others are simultaneously building entirely new models for expected norms from these courses. That data will be terrifically helpful to the evolving landscape for online education.

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    1. John Duhring Sunday, March 24, 2013

      Thanks, Barbara. Traditional media has used sales figures to track value via “best-seller” lists, etc. Only recently are we seeing that most people who buy books don’t finish them either! Maybe MOOCs are simply seeing deeper into consumer behaviors than was possible before? Lots to stir in this pot!

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  5. John,

    I like what you have to say here but I take a little bit of a different approach in some ways. Your focus on professors and their centrality is spot on. Not enough attention is paid to educators in the talk about education.

    That said, sometimes the conversation about MOOCs, even if they are taught by professors, can drown out this focus.

    When you write “MOOCs are already proving to be the greatest thing to hit universities since football,” I couldn’t help but think about the academic scandals that have buffeted my institution, UNC, and others. Football and other big ticket sports were billed as a broadening of the institution in support of its original mission, and a source of income that could be spent elsewhere. Too often, it seems that academic departments are in direct conflict with the educational mission of universities, especially when they gain the autonomy that most D1 schools grant them.

    Since athletics are a particularly lucrative form of media, I don’t think the comparison is inapt. I’ve been contending for a while now the MOOCs are media. If this holds, then it’s quite possible that some ways in which they could be implemented would be counter to the university’s mission.

    Now, I think that online and open education is clearly the way forward, so this is a supportive critique. But I think it’s far from clear what the proper relationship between education and media-like formats like MOOCs should be. Personally, I’m looking to the open source software community for inspiration. But I share your focus on educators; no one is better positioned to reach students than professors who can interact with them directly.

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    1. John Duhring Sunday, March 24, 2013

      I wrote the article from the perspective of what is now in play. I expect MOOCs to evolve. One area to examine further is the current “one to many” relationship between the teacher and the student. Other startups are testing approaches to adapt lessons for each student as they progress, whether as fully automated systems, by engaging mentors or enabling rapid customization by local teachers.

      It’s exciting to imagine the possibilities that are being inspired by the early adoption numbers that indicate something important is lurking somewhere close to what we now see.

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  6. SUNY is adopting MOOCs as a form of competency-based learning, moving away from the “hours sitting in a class” model for some of their courses. I think there are really neat opportunities for ed institutions to evaluate their content and develop custom learning models that fit different subject/content areas. MOOCs can replace that lend themselves to competency assessments and more traditional environments will still be utilized for other content areas. SUNY’s unique blended model is worth keeping an eye on: http://chronicle.com/blogs/wiredcampus/suny-signals-major-push-toward-moocs-and-other-new-educational-models/43079

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    1. John Duhring Sunday, March 24, 2013

      Thanks for pointing to the New York example, Jeannie. The following comment from the Chronicle’s coverage sums up the big issue to be addressed, and provides more insight as to why MOOCs are being embraced. We are in the early days of tracking student performances at the granularity suggested. And, some would say we should be looking at the students as the athletes:

      “I applaud the efforts of SUNY to give credit for prior-learning expertise. What is still missing from the equation is how to efficiently and effectively track student competency-mastery in real time as they move through the system.

      “The point is not just to get students through so the institution (and government) can check off completion for statistical reports- but rather to ensure that the student has indeed graduated with a good set of skills to match their desired goals. Much of higher education is still operationing on 20th century technology – unable to tell at any point in time whether a student is on track or in trouble – we need to close the loop.”

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  7. Hello John,
    I love reading your article.
    The ability to use the internet and coach worldwide is incredible for me. As you know I have won Olympic gold and silver in singel scull rowing. Because of my geographic location, Southern California, which is no hot bed for rowing, I gravitated to coaching online and sharing slow motion stroke analysis with athletes worldwide.
    I am now expanding to countries that do not have any national team coaches. I expect that soon I will get endorsed by the international rowing federation.
    The ability to provide high quality information so easily is a complete coaching revolution.
    Thank you for information!
    Cheers,
    Xeno
    http://www.xenocoach.com

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  8. I’m skeptical that popular teachers are necessarily effective teachers. You can greatly enjoy a presentation, yet two days later retain almost nothing of its content. If you accept that the role of a teacher is to change the way that people think, then a good presentation is just the start of that; left alone, students will tend to return to their old ways of thinking and it takes a pretty ruthless teacher to provide the steady pressure needed to create permanent changes in thought processes. It’s not clear to me that this sort of pressure can be provided through online courses.

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  9. I predict that a whole new educational infrastructure will develop around these courses. It will be interesting which “schools” give credit for which courses. Many walls will surely drop.

    Great post. Keep them coming.

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  10. There is a great opportunity here, but I think we should move with more caution.

    (And I’m hardly anti-MOOC: I’m a computer science professor, in charge of online education at Berkeley, instructor of Berkeley’s first MOOC ever which has been offered on Coursera and EdX, and I’m on EdX’s technical advisory board and helping to run conferences and workshops on the role of MOOCs and online education generally.)

    First, there is no evidence that MOOCs work particularly well *for college students.* Most enrollees in our MOOCs, and those of several of our colleagues, are working professionals with several years of industry experience under their belts. They are arguably better at personal time management than first-year undergrads. They approach the course, in many cases, with more background; for example, our Software-as-a-Service course uses Rails, and although that framework is new to most people, the practice of programming is not.

    Second, I’m a bit uneasy with the current Udacity pilot at SJSU because the college has apparently delegated the entire course delivery experience to Udacity – assessment, TA support (phone/web), and so on – with local instructors participating only in the design of the course, not its administration. That’s a small step away from simply hiring those instructors as one-time contractors for course design, cutting out SJSU altogether. (And before you object that that might be the right thing to do, bear in mind all I’m saying is no one knows yet if that’s a good idea.)

    The enrollment issues at community colleges (and to a lesser extent Cal States) are real, but they are not uniformly distributed. Those who appear to be most affected are low-income students, often students of color. Distressingly, these are the students most likely to lack the computer and broadband facilities needed to avail themselves of the potential benefits of MOOCs. (The enrollment issues for gateway courses are barely an issue at the UC’s, whose time-to-graduation is a shade over 4 years systemwide.)

    There is a great deal of pedagogy research to be done on MOOCs – at Berkeley our approach is to blend the MOOC with in-classroom experience, so the rest of the world gets the MOOC but the Berkeley students get a combination of MOOC and live instruction. We’re hoping to use this approach as the basis for doing serious research on what MOOCs can and cannot accomplish, whether standalone or in conjunction with “on-the-ground” instructors.

    But until some of that research is done, I’m nervous that legislation is racing ahead of pedagogy, especially in an area where there is undoubtedly lots of money to be made – and that’s fine, but I just don’t want it to be made at the expense of the student experience.

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    1. John Duhring Monday, March 25, 2013

      Armando- You touch every bare nerve: a new kind of student, why can’t every teacher use the technology to deliver their course in their own way, what about those kids without reliable internet connections, and, of course, pedagogy (what!?). Someone should make a list.

      Anyway, to me, the word “university” has changed. It used to mean a place you could go in which the entire universe of knowledge and potential was available to you. Now we have direct access to that universe and yet we still need we connecting points, guidance and shared experience. How can knowledge, practical know-how, and collective intelligence be applied for each student, at their point of need?

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