The Trouble with “The Trouble with Online Education”

Mark Edmundson, professor of English at the University of Virginia, has an op-ed in today’s NY Times called The Trouble with Online Education. I can’t pass up the opportunity to make a quick critique, as he makes a critical error in his piece – assuming that the employment of a particular pedagogy or method of content delivery is always the same and has the same results:

“the spellbinding lecturers we had in college survey classes were gifted actors who could strut and fret 50 amazing minutes on the stage. …they deploy something tantamount to artistry.

Online education is a one-size-fits-all endeavor. It tends to be a monologue and not a real dialogue.”

Really, Professor Edmundson? My experience in college was that the large lectures were awful and attendance was low because the notes were available elsewhere. Sure, Michael Sandel can keep an audience, and there’s a line out the door for his class, but let’s face it, few lecturers are Michael Sandel. Maybe you are, but don’t make the mistake that anyone else is that good. Large lecture is more often than not the one-size-fits-all you claim all online education is.

I’ve been teaching online for the last two school years, and my experience is not that class is a monologue. Rather, I communicate individually with my students as much or more than I do in my brick-and-mortar classes. We engage in conversation about course content and discuss their progress as learners. To say all online learning looks like a massive cookie-cutter lecture is wrong.

We’re going to have to endure op-eds like this for awhile, as fearful and self-important university professors tell us the way they’ve always done things is superior to anything else. From what I can tell, these reactions are typical when an industry is being disrupted by a new technology. Some of the criticisms of online education will be spot-on, but many will make assumptions that demonstrate a lack of understanding. And some of the assertions will be over the top:

“A real course creates intellectual joy, at least in some. I don’t think an Internet course ever will.” [emphasis added]

Do some research about online learning, Professor Edmundson, I think you’ll find lots of people expressing joy about their experiences.

You can start with my online students’ reflection blog if you like.

Questions for K-12 as the Niche of Higher Ed Shrinks

The move of a dozen more top universities to join Coursera’s Massive Open Online Courses is all over the news today. If you missed it, try these two articles at the NY Times, and Insider Higher Ed.

Stanford University’s president said last spring that a tsunami is coming. Today, Georgia Tech Computer Science Professor Richard A. DeMillo said “This is the tsunami.”

What’s happening in Higher Education? Disruption on a massive scale, according to Richard Perez-Pena of the New York Times:

“if it becomes possible in years to come to get a complete college education from an elite institution online, free or at relatively low cost, experts wonder whether some colleges will find it harder to attract students willing to pay $20,000, $40,000 or even $60,000 a year for the traditional on-campus experience.

‘The people who should be worried about this are the large tier of American universities — especially the expensive private schools — that are not elite and don’t have the same reputation’ as the big-name universities now creating MOOCs, said Anya Kamenetz, an author who writes on the future of higher education.

Most experts say there will always be students who want to live on campus, interacting with professors and fellow students, particularly at prestigious universities. But as a share of the college market, that is likely to be a shrinking niche.”

Maybe Perez-Pena and Kamenetz are reading the crystal ball correctly, it’s hard to say. But their predictions seem like safe ones to me – higher education has been ripe for disruption for a long time now, offering a product many people want at a price point that very few can reach.

In considering what Coursera is doing, it’s important to understand that each of the new member schools have committed to offer the most highly reputed parts of their curriculum – medicine and public health courses from UCSF and Johns Hopkins, biology and life sciences courses from Duke, business and software courses from Washington – for free, according to Inside Higher Ed. They’re giving away what they do best.

The most important part of all this is the democratizing effect open online education should have. When people who might be able to complete such courses are able to access them at very low costs, we reduce the knowledge gap between them and people of privilege. Stephen Downes quotes Sebastian Thrun‘s response to whether this is the end of higher education as an exclusive enclave for a limited number of students at high tuitions: “It’s the beginning of higher education for everybody.” At this early stage at least, MOOCs represent a moral good.

As a practical matter for those of us who work in the K-12 world, we need to start thinking about several things.

  • How do we prepare our students to be effective in Massive Open Online Courses? or in smaller closed online courses? How do we foster initiative, self-advocacy, and the skills of time-management and communication?
  • What will be our response to parents who insist on school credit for completion of courses from Coursera, Udacity, edX, etc.? Do we really tell a parent their child must take our Calculus course when she may have already completed a MIT course? Maybe, but we need to think of this eventuality.
  • What does this tell us about learning in the 21st century? Do we need to come to a new understanding of college preparation? Should all high school students take some online courses?
  • As more K-12 schools move toward blended learning, will MOOCs become possible courses for high school students to take at their brick-and-mortar schools? Should we offer discussion seminars alongside a Coursera offering? What kind of training will K-12 teachers need?
  • Should elite schools be thinking about spinning off some of their own courses, and joining coalitions to offer online courses at the high school, or middle school level?

Many questions, the subjects of future blog posts.

What questions did I miss?

Cycle Drifting for #udrift

This summer, I’m taking several online courses, of different kinds. One or two are MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), depending on your definition, and another is a mobile learning course, which pushes the boundaries of what we think of as “online”. The Urban Drifting course is about learning with mobile apps, connecting data between participants. Interesting, right?

Essentially what we are doing is exploring the effectiveness of mobile applications in learning. Mobile apps are all the rage in K-12 education, if what I saw at ISTE 2012 is to be believed. But this course is different, in that we are actually out in the world – rather than investigating BYOD effectiveness, for example, we’re out in the physical environment, considering geography, landscape, architecture, etc. using mobile apps. By tracking our movement with GPS and overlaying that with images, sounds, and video, we explore how well we can learn (gather, understand data) using mobile devices.

Here’s how our course leader Dennis describes our work:

In this context we explore ideas of the “digital flâneur,” media presence, and discuss implications of mobility, social media connectivity, and Twitter-flux. This is an experimental framework open to app exploration and the extension of learning and assignment production in the environment.

The course began Monday, so this is only day four, but I’m starting to get a sense for what I want to do for a project. I’m enjoying gathering data as I cycle Portland, and I think I’ll produce some kind of “CycleDrifting” video or presentation. I have a lot of time on the bike planned during the weeks the course runs, so it’s a natural fit to pair cycling with the course.

Like I ask my students to do, I’ll post a reflection on my learning for the first week of this course on Saturday or Sunday.

If you’re interested in what the class is up to, follow the tweets at #udrift.

Notes from the Online Learning Institute, ISTE 2012 Day Three

I attended the Online Learning Institute on my day three at ISTE. I’m going to race out of town to visit family and friends, so here’s a quick set of notes and quotes:

Keynote from Harvard professor Chris Dede: “this is a special time, so much tech converging all at once.” My notes are here.

Julie Evans from SpeakUp, small group session: “current 8th graders are the real digital natives – data in many ways shows a real shift with this group of students, in perspectives about mobiles, etc.” My notes are here.

David Jakes small group session on Designing [Online] Spaces for Everyone: “how we design learning spaces matters pedagogically; cognitive requirements in a learning environment is obvious in the design – desks in rows tell us something, for example.” My notes are here.

Keynote “Reflections on my MOOC…” from Indiana University professor Curtis Bonk had a zillion great quotes (he’s amazing): “We need to rename the world wide web the “web of learning” because resources for learning are wrapped all around us.” My notes are here. Curt’s notes are here.

I’ll write a wrap-up from ISTE in a week or so.

What I’ll Be Watching For at ISTE 2012

As ISTE 2012 is about to begin, I’m thinking about disruptive innovation.

I quickly dismissed the ideas in Disrupting Class when I first read it in 2010. If you haven’t yet read Clayton Christensen’s 2008 book, I highly suggest you do. Here’s a plug: those people I know that have read it do not have an ambivalent reaction – if you like a provocative read, one that will either elate or madden you, it may be right up your alley. Christensen, et. al., suggest that customized digital online learning is coming, and though it won’t initially be as good as the schooling you can get at your local public school, the efficiencies will sustain it until it eventually changes the role of teachers and schools everywhere. You know that scene in the recent Star Trek movie in which Spock is learning from the computer? It’s not far off, the authors suggest.

As I was getting ready to leave for the conference today, I stumbled upon the news via Ray Schroeder’s blog, that at the “Top 10 Tech Trends Dinner” in Silicon Valley a couple weeks back, the 2nd most important trend noted is venture capital’s move toward funding open online education. The collection of valley big shots on stage at the dinner was especially venture capital-heavy this year, and Forbes noted that their opinions “carry special weight” with interested movers and shakers. The tradition at this event is for each member of the assembled panel and audience to vote red or green on whether the identified trend is a big deal, and every panel member and most every audience member at the dinner voted green that open online education will be an even greater disruptor in education than most of us think. Soon.

“Education faces massive disruption. Bing Gordon says public schools are not very productive. At Stanford University, great professors can get 150,000 students, not 150. People who grew up digital don’t like sitting around and listening to experts talk. “Technology can enable better education” seems to be Gordon’s message. The panel is all greens in response to this. Reid Hoffman (LinkedIn) agrees: Khan Academy is an example; EdModo, K-12 too. Steve Jurvetson says his 12-year-old boy taught himself programming on the Internet. Audience votes mostly green, same with the Twitpolls.”

It seems the VC smart money is on investing in customizable digital online ed. Well, in fairness, they put it only at number two, behind “Radical Globalization of Social Commerce”. But that also means they rated it ahead of 8 other trends, including investment in Electric Cars, “Gamification of Everything”, and Biotechnology.

What will it mean over the next 5 to 10 years when all that money enters the education market? Are we who work in schools prepared to respond to hundreds of millions of dollars that will be poured into online ventures marketed directly to our students and their parents? Or dollars that will be spent lobbying school boards and legislatures in every state?

Lest you think this is all just dawning on me, yes, I know that big money is already flowing to ventures like Khan Academy, and that there are plenty of software companies producing curriculum-in-a-box. Don’t think I haven’t been paying attention. I’ve reread Disrupting Class with the clarity of recent events (roll out of Udacity, Coursera, KA, edX, etc.), and also Christensen’s original work Innovator’s Dilemma. Those close to me know that lately I’m something of a broken record constantly playing “the tsunami of disruptive innovation is coming to education!” This article about venture capital money simply presents the urgency of the situation.

So, what will I be looking for at ISTE this year?

The VC money, for one. I usually skip the vendor show in the convention center, but this year I’ll be looking carefully for the disruptors’ booths. Meanwhile, I’m going to a few online education events. I’m a member of the ISTE Online Learning Special Interest Group and will attend the group’s events, specifically, Monday’s Forum on Trends and Issues in eLearning. I’ll also attend the all-day Online Learning Institute on Wednesday. And, of course, I’ll check in to all the relevant concurrent sessions.

ISTE this year is even more of a reconnaissance mission than usual. I’ve been to enough education conferences in 20 years to know that it works best for me to go with a particular need-to-know, and I definitely have one this week. I hope that I discover the hype around disruption is overblown. Either way, I’ll share my thoughts here.

Pricing eLearning and the Value of the Online Option

As I was trying to make a dent in the unread count in my Google Reader this weekend, I read a few blog reviews and watched a few highlight videos from the much ballyhooed D10 Conference last month. Of special interest to me was Wall Street Journal’s tech columnist Walt Mossberg’s interview with Stanford President John Hennessy and online learning celebrity Sal Khan.

About 11:30 into the interview (see it below), during a conversation about the skyrocketing cost of education, Khan made a provocative comment about what a particular university he’s familiar with is charging for their online program – roughly the same amount as the school charges for the full brick-and-mortar experience. I tweeted the resulting question:
[blackbirdpie id=”209477365754109952″]

Hamish Macleod, Joint Programme Director of the highly-regarded Masters in eLearning program at the University of Edinburgh responded:
[blackbirdpie id=”209541878830477313″]

Khan’s rhetorical question resonated with me, because the argument often offered for the dramatic increase in tuition in the U.S. is for the on-campus experience: luxury boarding, quality meals, world-class fitness centers, cutting-edge lab facilities, etc. So if you don’t get any of that when you take the online program, why do you pay the same price? Seems like a fair question, right?

Enter the word: value. Depending on how you define it, the value of something can be fairly subjective. A one-of-a-kind vintage Beatles t-shirt from the 1960s might be worth a couple hundred bucks to me, despite its cost of production. So I can see that the value of a Stanford degree earned online, for example, might be worth much more than the cost of production. And here, I’m assuming the cost of production for online learning is much less than the cost of the residential experience. Push back on that if I’m wrong.

To Hamish’s point, eLearning certainly has its own costs. And I’m an eLearning advocate who really values the online option – to be honest, often in my experience the quality of online can surpass the brick-and-mortar. But should I have to pay more for it than the residential experience? Aren’t the residential prices completely bloated and unreasonable?

Am I missing something?

http://s.wsj.net/media/swf/microPlayer.swf

Anytime, Anywhere, Cheap Brand-Name Professional Development

Perhaps it’s Stanford University’s proximity to Silicon Valley that gives it an innovative bent, or maybe the West Coast Ivy is hoping to capitalize on the experience some faculty have had in recent years opening their classes to a broad audience. Or maybe the school is just trying to avoid the tsunami-like impact of digital era disruption better than record and book stores have.

Stanford certificates carry brand-name appeal

Last week, Stanford announced a fully online, low-cost/high-quality Energy Innovation and Emerging Technologies certification. Courses will be taught by the field’s “preeminent researchers”, will be open to nearly anyone, will have no prerequisites, and the program’s 4 courses will cost a total of $780. Courses are offered more or less within the traditional semester format, but it appears one could complete the certificate in just a few months if the courses were taken simultaneously. This is not a completely new format for Stanford, as the university also offers an online certificate in IT Benchmarking, which can be completed in about 6 months, on average, and costs only $500.

So, here are just a few of the questions I’m pondering as I consider Stanford’s program:

1. How much longer before brand-name university programs replace conferences and local grad courses as regular professional development for educators? This summer, it will cost my school and me about $1,500 combined for me to go to ISTE in San Diego. If, for example, the Harvard School of Ed offered a go-at-my-own-pace-anytime-anywhere certificate program of focused professional development in eLearning for say $700, why would I go to a conference? From such a program I would get a verification of mastery from a widely respected institution. Yes, conferences are great for meeting new people, interacting with experts, and hearing new ideas, but modern online courses are probably just as good as conferences for this. And, yes, good online certificates in eLearning already exist, but the program at George Washington U., for example, costs almost $700 per credit hour.

2. Will we see online certifications cannibalize graduate programs? Masters in education programs are typically either expensive, difficult to attend due to scheduling, or both. And, in my experience, it’s sometimes unclear what the practical value of these programs are to the daily practice of teaching. Would it be better for teachers to instead hold certifications in specific areas like “inquiry-based learning” or “differentiated assessment”? It seems to me that a university could leverage economies of scale to offer such programs, taught by recognized experts, to a wide number of teachers for very low costs.

I’m just scratching the surface here. The nearly weekly news that high-quality programs are going online with dramatically lower barriers for participation than traditional education tells us that the tsunami is closer than most think. Kudos to Stanford for keeping their eyes open. It will be interesting to see if they’ve acted quickly enough.

———
Photo courtesy of Steven Erat, http://farm1.staticflickr.com/34/124478550_72fedaa5a5_o.jpg