FSU COE Dean’s Symposium – October 7

I’ve put in plenty of time organizing this event, may as well spread the word.

On October 7 the College of Education at FSU will be hosting the Dean’s Symposium, and this year’s theme is Quality in Online Learning. Our two keynotes are Deb Adair of Quality Matters and Andrew Ng of Coursera. We have panelists from Florida institutions as well. It’s sure to be an interesting day, full of ideas. (And lucky me, I’m on the agenda, too — I get to introduce the topic at the beginning of the day).

All are welcome, and registration is free. The link with more info and a registration form is here: http://bit.ly/fsudeanssymp

We will be streaming and live tweeting as well. More details to come next week on those options. If you have any questions, feel free to ask them in the comments.

Quality in higher education: MOOCs highlight the symptoms, are not the cure

[This post will be cross-posted at From the Dean’s Desk, the blog of my Dean, Marcy Driscoll. The theme of this post fits is with the topic of our upcoming FSU College of Education Dean’s Symposium, on October 7.]

Public higher education faces a variety of challenges. Funding has been cut in many states, and tuition has increased. Budgets are tight, and many would argue insufficient. Quality of education is a focal point for many, but how to achieve and measure that quality has been debated. Time to degree and attrition both remain concerns, as does access to and affordability of degree programs. These issues are highly interrelated (e.g., tuition increases prevent students from accessing a public education; budget cuts harm quality through larger class sizes, reduced services and resources, and brain drain and inability to hire faculty) and are nothing new.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) – essentially, extremely large online classes in which anyone might enroll – have been offered as one part of the solution to these problems. In the last year, some universities have begun exploring how they might partner with MOOC platforms such as Coursera and Udacity, to allow their students to take MOOCs for course credit, with mixed results (see this story about MOOC completion and pass rates when San Jose State University took this approach, as well as this follow up story).

Still, the interest in MOOCs for college credit remains. The advantages of MOOCs in this context are clear and are related to economies of scale. To accommodate the potentially “massive” course enrollment, the courses are designed to require minimal student-instructor interaction. Similarly, the production values and technology used to support these courses may be more sophisticated than what would be used in a smaller, closed course. Automated assessments can provide instant feedback with no labor. Indeed, once designed some of these courses may only need administrators and technical support, and not instructional teams.

In this way, MOOCs highlight how technology can be used to deliver course materials at a large scale, and how computer-based tools, including simulations in the case of select MOOCs, can assess learning and provide students with interactions and feedback. These ideas are not new – corporations have been doing large-scale Web-based training in a similar manner for years – but these features (content delivered via packaged materials, automated assessments) become desirable if not necessary if institutions of higher education seek to increase class size.

As these highly designed courses become available to higher education, with potentially limitless capacity for student enrollment, it’s not unreasonable to have the discussion about how many “Introduction to Whatever” courses need to be designed. After all, most instructors select from among a relatively small pool of textbooks when designing their courses. Why not simply apply the same concept at the whole course level, with either students or universities choosing from among a pool of designed and approved MOOCs? Yet this approach neglects a key element of higher education: human interaction.

Online students, regardless of course size, may feel isolated and unsupported in their learning process without human interaction. The larger the class, the less feasible it is for individual students to interact with the instructor. Peer interaction may meet some of the learning interaction needs – but learners don’t always trust their peers, peers may not be able to diagnose their fellow learners’ problems as ably as an instructor, and peer networks often need instructor support and encouragement in order to develop.

Although it is costly to support and not easily scaled, the importance of the instructor-student connection should not be minimized. Learning is not just about content delivery, and assessment is not just about test scores. Many students struggle in large courses because they lack motivation, metacognitive skills, note-taking skills, or time management skills. Often these students need to feel that an instructor is their partner in the learning process, available to help as needed and monitoring their achievements in the course. True, most of us have achieved learning outcomes in courses where we had little or no instructor contact. However, if you ask someone to recall their best course experiences or the classes in which they learned the most, odds are there was a highly engaged instructor at the helm.

As someone who holds four degrees from three traditional universities, I have experienced some of the best and worst of classroom-based instruction. And as a researcher of online learning for the last fifteen years, I have observed some of the best and worst in that realm. Regardless of modality, the best classes consistently have involved solid pedagogy and instructional design, expert instructors, and a high degree of interaction and engagement among the members of the class community. The worst have suffered due to a lack of one or more of these elements.

Based on these experiences, I can understand how well-designed MOOCs look like an attractive solution to some of higher education’s problems. Frankly, I cannot argue that an impersonal course held in a large lecture hall with a “live” professor and multiple choice tests is any better than a MOOC. In fact, the MOOC’s recorded lectures, if well done, may be of greater pedagogical value than the live lecture since students can start, stop, and replay them at will. However, given the choice between the MOOC and a well-designed campus-based or online course with an accessible and knowledgeable professor who interacts with students, I’d pick the latter every time. I doubt I’m unique in that regard.

In short, I believe that MOOCs could have a transformative effect on quality higher education, but not in the same ways that many of the MOOC evangelists claim. It is my hope that we will use MOOCs to help us reflect on what quality higher education should be, to develop a greater appreciation for the interaction that occurs between students and instructors, and to strive for excellence in pedagogy and instructional design. Although this will not solve their financial woes, if higher education institutions can increase the quality of instruction where needed and better articulate and demonstrate this quality to their constituents, they will be taking a step in the right direction.

Note: The types of MOOCs to which I refer in this post are xMOOCs, and reflect the typical MOOC offered via the major platforms. cMOOCs, which support connectivist learning, are a bit different. For an explanation of the difference, I recommend this chapter by George Siemens.

MOOCs Forum Article

I fear this has rapidly become a blog about MOOCs, but that’s just because it’s new. Hard to really make inferences from an n of 3.

Anyway, there’s a new journal called MOOCs Forum. Full disclosure: I’m on the editorial board. And I was invited to contribute a manuscript to the first issue. My doctoral student, Amit Chauhan, and I wrote a piece called “Shall we MOOC? A SWOT analysis at the program level.” Check it out!

MOOCs … the future of higher education?

I get asked some variant on this title all the time, because people are reading about MOOCs in the news and want to know if it’s true, if MOOCs will take over and essentially be the future of higher education in the U.S.

The thought immediately takes me back to 1993, when I was a MS student in Instructional Design, Development & Evaluation at Syracuse University. I had my first real exposure then to the idea of computer-based learning. And I read the hype about how virtual agent-type teachers would become the norm. It sounded kind of cool to my 22 year old self, but also felt a bit like watching an episode of The Jetsons (you know you want to see the intro again). In other words: Didn’t think it would really happen. And 20 years later, it hasn’t yet.

Next the thought takes me to the late 1990s, when I was a PhD student in Instructional Systems Technology at Indiana University. That’s when I first got involved in online learning, and started to hear the buzz about how campuses as we know them would go away, faculty jobs would dry up, and institutions would follow the cost-savings model of relying on large, online classes. But 15 years later, that hasn’t happened yet either. Online learning has seen exponential growth, but campuses are still full of students.

Online learning competes effectively at the masters level, for continuing education, and for non-traditional students. However, many US high school seniors still spend several months visualizing which campus might be their future home.

I won’t quibble about whether or not people can learn effectively within a MOOC. I know that they can. I’ve taken MOOCs myself, and I have learned. (For that matter, I read a lot of books and learn from them, too.) And I’m sure we can work out a system to effectively assess and certify the learning that takes place in MOOCs. But one question looms large for me: Is this what the education consumer really wants?

My answer: No, I don’t think it is. True, the consumer wants affordable higher education options. High quality options are a concern, too. But there’s something else that I think the American people want and value if they can afford it. I’ll bring this to a personal level:

I have a 4-year-old daughter. I also teach online, learn online, and love technology in general. However, in 13 years when my daughter graduates from high school I don’t visualize saying, “Honey, congratulations! Daddy and I have bought you a new desk and a new computer and as soon as you’re ready you can start taking MOOCs and get that college degree.” Instead, the image in my head involves packing a car, tearful goodbyes, and returning home to my empty nest adorned in an ill-fitting university t-shirt with a mixture of sadness for myself, but pride and excitement for my daughter. Because (again, for those who can afford it), higher education isn’t just about that piece of paper that says you earned a degree. It’s about a multi-year growth experience, with learning that takes place in and out of the classroom as a young adult starts living alone and planning an independent future.

While MOOCs can teach us about programming, biology, history, and any number of other topics, they just don’t compare to a college campus for broader life experience.

So when I’m asked if MOOCs are the future of higher education, I reply that they have a place in the realm of higher and continuing education, and that I know many adults who have participated in and learned from MOOCs, but I wouldn’t start making plans to knock down the dormitories just yet.

Why blog, why now?

I’ve thought about having a blog for a long time.

Wait. I should clarify. I’ve thought about having this blog for a long time.

I’ve had many blogs over the years. I’ve blogged with and for my students. I’ve blogged for my department. I’ve blogged about fitness, cooking, and parenting. (Yes, hitting on most of the 30/40-something female clichés there.) What I’ve not done, however, is put myself out here on the Web with my own blog, under my real name, posting about issues related to my work.

There have been many occasions on which I haven’t started this blog. Why? Oh, it’s a laundry list of reasons:

  • no time
  • not sure exactly what I would focus on
  • not sure if I would have enough content to keep it going
  • not sure if it would be worthwhile (will I benefit from writing it? will anyone read it? will it promote some useful discourse?)
  • fear of what happens when my self-published words get repeated back to me, verbatim, x years from now (a cringeworthy thought)

And yet I kept coming back to the idea. Clearly it’s something I want to do.

I know I could find the time. I know I have the content. How? Oh, because I am always talking with people about ideas. And talking about ideas has been beneficial to me as a scholar for two reasons: I work through my own ideas in the conversation, and I get new perspectives from my conversation partners. A blog is just a change of venue. I can work through my ideas in writing here, and I might access some new conversation partners.

And now the time seems right. I’m on sabbatical this term (a good time to get started with a blog, I think). I just finished teaching a summer course on social media, which got me back in the blogging habit. Several students have encouraged me. For whatever reason, I’m not worrying (too much) right now about how cringeworthy it will be to read this blog in the future. And I’m part of the team organizing a symposium on Quality in Online Learning, which has led to all sorts of interesting conversations which, in turn, have given me a lot of ideas for blogging.

I imagine this space will feature a variety of content: thoughts related to learning in online settings; advice I’m giving my students (so much easier to type it out and point here than repeat it each term); thoughts on sabbatical; ideas for teaching with online tools; and highlights from some of my work.

And so it begins …