Sunday, May 13, 2012


May 07 212

A. The edX Partnership

Academia's good news last week was the announcement by Harvard University and M.I.T. that they were forming a partnership called edX that will offer online courses. [snip].

Students who successfully complete the requirements of a course will receive a certificate branded Harvardx or MITx, according to which partner sponsored the course. [snip]. And the courses will be open to anyone who wants to enroll. That was the good news.


The better news was that the partners will provide other colleges and universities with access to their platforms,  ... .

But the best news was that Harvard and M.I.T will enable the mountains of data captured from these massive enrollments by its open source platform -- data about student demographics, student behavior while enrolled in the courses, and student success in the courses and afterwards -- to support research that will advance our understanding of how students learn and how we should design courses that provide customized learning experiences that will meet the particular needs of individual students. [snip].


B. Recent Context

Fairness demands that the Harvard/M.I.T. partnership be placed in context so as to acknowledge important contributions made by other elite universities to the MOOC movement.

M.I.T. set the stage for renewed interest in online courses among elite institutions with its Open Courseware project back in 2001 ... .

But the starting point for the current wave of high profile MOOCs was probably Salmon Kahn's short video courses in STEM for K-12 students that he began to produce in 2005 for his Kahn Academy.

The next event to capture attention in the media was the introduction to artificial intelligence MOOC offered by two Stanford professors in the Fall 2011 Semester that enrolled 160,000 students. [snip]

That step was taken by M.I.T. when it launched MITx ... , an initiative that would develop MOOCs whose certificates would receive M.I.T.'s official brand ... . Its first MOOC, a course in circuits and electronics that began in March 2012, enrolled 120,00 students. [snip].

Coursera, a private for-profit company partnered with Stanford, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Michigan represented another big step forward. [snip].

C. Broader Significance

In my opinion, the edX partnership between Harvard and M.I.T. is likely to have an impact on online education comparable to the impact that IBM's creation of its PC had on personal computers thirty years ago. [snip].

Yes, Western Governors University, Penn State, and the University of Phoenix have been offering online programs for well over a decade. But Harvard's partnership with M.I.T. will make online programs a legitimate tool for the totality of academia. If online courses are good enough to carry the Harvard brand, they will be good enough for less elite colleges and universities. This loss of residual stigma about online courses should greatly accelerate the development of and widespread acceptance of online degrees and certificates.

D. A Misleading Metaphor

The New York Times published a widely cited op-ed by David Brooks on the day after the Harvard-M.I.T. announcement with the eye-catching title, "The Campus Tsunami" (NY Times, May 3, 2012). His piece invoked a powerful metaphor of American colleges and universities being overwhelmed by a crushing wave of online technologies. Unfortunately, the metaphor doesn't work. [snip].

In my opinion, the metaphor is dangerously misleading. While there's surely going to be a flood, no one is ever going to see a giant wave. The rise in the online water level will be be slow and steady; but thanks to Harvard's endorsement, all pervasive. [snip]

E. Scenario -- Producers and Aggregators 

Disclaimer: the following scenario merely sketches some plausible directions in which higher education might move. [snip]

Flash forward to fifty years from now. As foretold by the prophets, the global academic landscape underwent a radical transformation after The Flood. There are now far fewer institutions of higher education than before and they fall into two groups: producers and aggregators.

Producer institutions create MOOCs, enroll hundreds of millions of students in these courses from every country on the planet, and provide graded certificates of achievement to the students who successfully complete their course requirements. 

-- State-of-the-art MOOCs have become expensive packages that cost millions of dollars to produce, making them risky investments comparable to producing movies or complex games.

-- Producer institutions invest hundreds of millions of dollars each year on research in their quests for more effective teaching technologies and procedures.

-- 80 percent of the producers are private, for-profit institutions; 10 percent are private, non-profit institutions; and 10 percent are public institutions.

-- These distributions reflect the irreducible risks in course development. Like producing movies or complex games, anticipating which MOOCs will sell well in the global academic marketplace remains more art than science. [snip].

Aggregator institutions award degrees to millions of students each year that are based on a specified curriculum of required courses and electives. Aggregators convert MOOC certificates into course credits and award degrees to students who accumulate enough credits based on the graded certificates they receive from the producers. [snip].

Producer institutions operate small chains of elite, high tuition university campuses around the world that enroll hundreds of thousands of students who are highly gifted and/or come from well-connected families. They serve as their own aggregators for their elite students. All of their courses are blended courses that "flip the classrooms" by using their own MOOCs to present the materials and by using class time for hands-on learning, discussions, and Q&A. [snip].

Aggregator institutions enroll millions of students in their degree programs.

-- Selective aggregators enroll gifted students. They charge high tuition, but not as high as the producer institutions. Half of their courses are MOOCs; the other half are blended courses that "flip the classrooms" by using MOOCs from a variety of producers to present the materials and by using class time for hands-on learning, discussions, and Q&A. [snip]

-- Non-selective aggregators enroll 80 percent of the world's students. Tuition is much, much lower than in 2012. All courses are MOOCs. These institutions focus on meeting their students' career objectives. None of their students live on campus. They meet with professors and tutors via online sessions.  [snip].

Producer universities and aggregator universities provide career counseling services and employment placement services for their students. Most are also affiliated with online dating services and online entertainment services that facilitate their students' social lives.

Producers will segment their products by creating one set of MOOCS for their own elite campuses, another for the selective aggregators, and a third for the non-selective aggregators.

F. A Global Flight to Quality

Life is unfair. Nature does not distribute significant talents evenly, democratically. Some people are born with innate capacities that flower into genius in the right environments; whereas the rest of us can only rise to levels of professional competence, at best. [snip].
The vast majority of teachers in any field are, at best, mediocre; there are very few Socrates. So the holy grail of distance learning has long been the development of technologies that would enable anyone who wanted to learn anything in any field to have access to the best teachers in that field. MOOCs represent the first credible implementation of this sacred goal ==> excellent instruction for the masses at an affordable price ... free!!! ... :-)

In today's global, knowledge-based economies, those who know have valuable knowledge enjoy success and security; whereas those don't are threatened with poverty and failure. [snip].

Now consider the hypothetical case of a student who is enrolled in an unnamed college that has access to a high speed Internet connection in the not-too-distant future.

As she selects her courses for the coming semester, she notices that one of the electives she was considering, "Introduction to ABC", will be taught by a young associate professor who has published six papers in the field. Then she scans Angie's List and finds a MOOC introduction that's taught by a three person team of Nobel Prize winners from Stanford, Princeton, and the University of Virginia. Students who took this MOOC gave it excellent ratings ... and it's free.


As it happens, the Chair is already aware of this highly regarded MOOC, so she agrees to meet with the students. At the meeting, the Chair says she is sympathetic to the students' request, but her reading of the reviews of the MOOC by her department's professional society suggests that departments in other universities have found that it is far more effective when offered in a blended format wherein the classes are flipped. The students like the idea, especially those who weren't sure they wanted to risk flying without the support of a local instructor on such an important course. So they agree to enroll in the flipped MOOC  ... :-)


G. HBCUs as Aggregators and Producers

The producer/aggregator scenario suggests that most institutions of higher education in the future will be aggregators, i.e., users of MOOCs produced by the most elite institutions. During the transition from now until then, the affluent elite institutions most likely to evolve into global producers will be scrambling to develop the technologies and procedures that will enable them to forge ahead of the pack in order to maintain their leadership positions. It also suggests that other institutions that want to survive the coming flood of MOOCs will also scramble to learn how to become effective users of the emerging new technologies and procedures in order to capture a sufficient share of the emerging global academic market.

Slow start for producers

On the day that Harvard and M.I.T. announced their partnership, they only one operational MOOC between them, the circuits and electronics pilot course developed for MITx. And from their announcement it's clear that the  infrastructure needed to support their courses and their research programs that will use the data generated by the courses is also a work in progress.


Learning about MOOCs

Faculty at HBCUs should learn as much as they can about MOOCs, especially faculty in STEM fields because it's likely that most of the initial MOOCs will be in STEM. Accessible sources include articles in the education press (such as the references at the bottom of this article), course descriptions on the producer's Websites, #MOOCs tweets, blogs, online discussion groups, conference sessions, etc.


Source and Fulltext Available At 


No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.