Monday, May 07, 2012


Last updated: Friday 12/13/13
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. Each partner will invest $30 million in this venture. (Click here for a video of their press conference.)

Students who successfully complete the requirements of a course will receive a certificate branded Harvardx or MITx, according to which partner sponsored the course. It is anticipated that enrollment in these courses will massive, as in hundreds of thousands of students, because the courses will be free or very cheap. Indeed, a pilot course offered by MITx enrolled 120,000 students. And the courses will be open to anyone who wants to enroll. That was the good news.

Note: Such courses are called massive open online courses or MOOCs ... pronounced "mooks" ... because their enrollments are massive and because they are open to anyone who wants to register ... This simple definition meets the needs of the Harvard/M.I.T. partnership and similar ventures by other universities. For the original, more general/richer concept of a MOOC, click here for Wikipedia and click here for a video.

The better news was that the partners will provide other colleges and universities with access to their platforms, so that somewhere down the road students from all over the world might earn certificates branded SpelmanX, HamptonX, FAMUx, NCA&Tx ... and, oh yes, Howardx ... :-)

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. This is especially good news for educators like me who have begun to despair that our system of higher education would ever develop teaching technologies and procedures that were powerful enough to close the yawning black/white academic achievement gaps, i.e., gaps in retention rates, graduation rates, GPAs, successful completion of STEM majors, etc. (See the bad news in the Education Trust's May 2012 report "Replenishing Opportunity in America"

It's also important to note that the partners repeatedly affirmed that much of what will be learned from the study of the online courses hosted by edX will also be applicable to traditional classroom-based courses. In other words, edX is not just a giant step for online courses; it's a giant step for all courses.

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 that placed the syllabi and other course materials for all of its courses on Websites where anyone in the world could access them.
  • 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. This course was offered with Stanford University's cooperation, but the certificates of achievement the students received upon successful completion were merely signed by the instructors; they did not carry Stanford's official brand.
  • That step was taken by M.I.T. when it launched MITx in December 2001, an initiative that would develop MOOCs whose certificates would receive M.I.T.'s official brand (but not the same brand that it placed on its degrees). Its first MOOC, a course in circuits and electronics that began in March 2012, enrolled 120,00 students. (Note: the course is free, but the certificates cost a modest fee.)
  • Coursera, a private for-profit company partnered with Stanford, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Michigan represented another big step forward. The academic partners will use the platform developed by Coursera to host free courses; however the branding of certificates by the universities has not been determined yet (as of 5/6/12).
C. Broader Significance
This historic partnership between Harvard University 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. Yes, Apple and other companies had produced good personal computers before IBM. Indeed, the Apple II was arguably a better computer than IBM's initial PC; but IBM's "endorsement" made these devices legitimate tools for corporate America.

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. True, it drew a lot of attention to the Harvard-M.I.T. partnership; but in a few months, nah, a few days, most academic administrators will go back to business as usual. Why? Because they think they will have enough time to run their institutions up to the safety of higher ground as soon as they see a monstrous wave looming offshore.

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. It's going to be water, water, everywhere, so there will be no higher ground to run to ... which would strongly suggest that now is probably a good time for visionary academic administrators to start building their Arks ... :-)

E. Scenario -- Producers and Aggregators 
Disclaimer: the following scenario merely sketches some plausible directions in which higher education might move. Its most obvious deficiency is its simplicity. For example, the scenario divides all institutions of higher learning into three categories, whereas there will surely be a much richer variety in the real future. In short, the scenario is useful for the purposes of this discussion; it should not be read as a literal, detailed prediction of what will actually happen ... :-)

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. As in other economic activities, the entrepreneurs who guide the for-profit producers have proven to be more nimble than their non-profit counterparts.
  • 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. Associations of aggregator institutions perform continuous assessments of the effectiveness of the producers' MOOCs using state-of-the-art academic analytics.
  • 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. All of their students live on campus, can meet with professors in their offices, and can meet with tutors for live sessions. About 0.1 percent of the world's students attend producer universities.
  • 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. Selective aggregators require their students to enroll in specific MOOCs offered by specific producers. Most students live on campus, can meet with professors in their offices, and can meet with tutors for live sessions. Forty percent of the selective aggregators are private, for-profit institutions; 40 percent are private, non-profit institutions; and the remaining 20 percent are public institutions. Almost 20 percent of the world's students attend selective aggregators.

    -- 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.  Students can readily transfer from one non-selective aggregator to another because all of their grades are based on their performance in MOOCs. Half of the non-selective aggregators are private, for-profit institutions; the other half are public; none are private, non-profit.
  • 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. Teaching is no exception to this generality.
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, so they enjoy success and security; whereas those who don't are threatened with poverty and failure. Therefore no one should be surprised that hundreds of thousands of students signed up for courses that provided highly prized knowledge from experts at Stanford and M.I.T. without guarantees that their efforts would be granted credits towards any degrees -- especially when those courses were free  ... :-)

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.
  • So she contacts her adviser and asks him if she could take the MOOC for credit. Sorry, but you can't, he says. She immediately tweets all of her classmates who might be interested in this course and suggests that they approach the Department Chair and ask her if they could take the MOOC instead of the local course.
  • 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  ... :-)
This hypothetical case had a happy ending, but such outcomes will become less and less likely as more prestigious MOOCs become available for more subjects. Colleges and universities that don't embrace MOOCs proactively may face declining enrollments as students advise their younger friends to enroll at other institutions that facilitate their students' access to instruction from the world's leading experts in every field.

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.

    But even the smallest colleges offer hundreds of courses and the largest universities offer thousands. So it will take some time before the producers can say, "We have a MOOC for that!!!" ... They will have to start slowly, but once the production processes becomes less labor-intensive, the inventories in their MOOC stores will expand rapidly thereafter.
  • 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.
  • HBCU faculty should become affiliated with one or two of the producers' platforms (that are likely to be quite different from Blackboard, Desire2Learn, and other commercial LMS). They should understand how the systems operate and become familiar with the kinds of data that will be generated by these systems that can be used to design better courses, both online and blended.
  • HBCU faculty should subscribe to the reports generated by their affiliated producers and encourage the producers to generate reports that include issues of particular concern to HBCUs.
  • HBCU faculty should experiment with "flipping their classes" by using  MOOCs for online presentation of course content and using class time for hands-on experience, discussions, and Q&A
  • HBCU faculty should encourage their best students to enroll in MOOCs as online independent study courses; require their students to write short real-time reports about their experiences via blogs and tweets; and give them course credit -- the base grade as assigned by the MOOC plus bonus points for the students' efforts to share their experiences.
  • HBCUs should establish procedures for converting MOOC certificates from their affiliated producers into course credits for entering freshmen and transfer students, similar to the way the provide course credits for high school AP courses.
  • HBCU faculty should share their MOOC experiences with their colleagues at other HBCUs
  • The leading HBCU associations -- UNCF, TMCF, and NAFEO -- should establish relationships with the leading producer institutions. The HBCU associations should also fund periodic independent assessments of the effectiveness of MOOCs, with emphasis on their effectiveness for black students at HBCUs and elsewhere.
  • All HBCUs should strive to become selective aggregators, and a few should become producers. More realistically, a few, working singly or in collaboration, should produce a series of MOOCs on topics of particular relevance to black students everywhere, not just their own students, e.g., courses on black history, black music, black literature, the black church, workplace diversity, STEM courses that target black students, etc, etc, etc. Given the continuing popularity of black culture among non-black students around the country and around the world, these courses could easily attract the massive enrollments that define a MOOC.
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