Sunday, May 27, 2012

MOOCs: The Prestige Factor

by Keith Hampson

Buried in the public responses to the news about MOOC (Massively Open Online Courses) and OER initiatives from Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Penn, Princeton and others is a deceptively important assumption. The assumption goes something like this: the open digital educational materials made available through these initiatives are of value because they are the product of these prestigious, highly selective institutions.

On the surface, this seems perfectly logical. It’s an interpretation of value based on the deeply engrained logic and criteria that people have long used to rank different institutions: the “best” institutions, ... . [snip].

The traditional criteria for evaluating value in higher education may be misleading in this case, however. Prestigious institutions may, in fact, be the least well prepared and least well-suited of all types of institutions to lead the MOOC expansion. The particular orientation, interests, and market focus of these institutions, may limit their capacity to meet the needs that MOOCs typically seek to fulfill.

Prestigious University = High Quality Digital Instructional Materials?

First, let’s consider the specific “output” of these initiatives. Harvard and others are producing digital education content, wrapped with some form of assessment. [snip].

But these elite institutions earn their high ranking by placing their emphasis on research, not on teaching. This is true on an institutional as well as faculty level. [snip].

“A remarkable feature of American colleges is the lack of attention that most faculties pay to the growing body of research about how much students are learning and how they could be taught to learn more. . . .  One would think faculties would receive these findings eagerly. Yet one investigator has found that fewer than 10 percent of college professors pay any attention to such work when they prepare for their classes. [snip].

We have, then, a general misalignment of institutional strengths and incentives with the project deliverables. Yet, it is the research productivity that is at the foundation of the excitement behind these initiatives. The ability and motivation to produce high quality educational media, particularly the type that requires considerable independent learning, is not the same as deep subject matter expertise that comes from a research focus.

This is not to suggest that there aren’t a number of great educators within these institutions. There are, of course. But the ability of an organization to deliver the best possible value ... is always dependent on the focus of the organization; what kinds of work it incentivizes, the criteria used in hiring, how it defines excellence, etc. [snip].

One could counter this viewpoint by pointing out that these elite institutions have the resources to invest more heavily in teaching materials. Which is true, but it also irrelevant. [snip]. But what we are seeking is “value”, and value is always a balance between costs and quality, and superior value is less likely to come from institutions whose focus lies in research.

Learners and Content, A Misalignment

Again, the excitement generated about these materials and courses is based largely on the fact that they come to us from well-known, elite institutions. It then follows that the more similar these courses are to those traditionally offered from the elite institutions ... , the better.  However, the “authenticity” of MOOC’s may actually conflict with the broader social and educational objectives that MOOCs serve.

The majority of people that don’t have access to higher education and who would most benefit from MOOCs are generally speaking not the same people for whom MIT-level material is appropriate.[snip].


Do Intentions Matter? 

MIT, Harvard and others are not launching these initiatives in order to grow their markets, expand revenue, or reduce costs. [snip].

Rather, the motivation for Harvard and others is primarily social and reputational. While the initiatives may generate some benefits for their own students ), they are “giving away” their wares because they can afford to, and because philanthropic acts such as these support their brands.

The motivations of these institutions matters because it influences, first, the likelihood of success and second, sustainability. If our broader interest is in finding new strategies that will improve the quality and cost of higher education, institutions whose success is based on exclusivity and who have the most to lose if the current model of higher education is disrupted may not be the best horse to bet on.


I applaud the efforts of these prestigious institutions. Their participation has generated considerable publicity for new models of higher education. And their initiative creates more movement, more flux in the higher education space which likely will be the impetus for more new ideas, which is exactly what’s needed. Nevertheless, our excitement about their participation in MOOC and OER; excitement based on the traditional logic for evaluating excellence in higher education, has little bearing and relevance in this case. If our objective is to find and support new models of higher education that are likely to address the most needy students, increase quality and reduce costs, I’m not sure that this philanthropic model, coming from institutions with little need to truly innovate, and that have a deeply vested interest in the status quo, will produce the best outcomes.

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