Tuesday, December 03, 2013

2014, a Good Year for HBCUs and Virtual HBCUs to (Quietly) Flip and MOOC

Last updated: Monday 7/21/14 @ 5:14 pm
As the year 2013 wound to a close, the Academic Old Guard lulled itself into an inertial stupor, convinced that the previous two years' discussions of the pending MOOC "revolution" in higher education were just the blatherings of ambitious con-men, a noisy media vaudeville that would fade away if ignored for long enough, leaving things as they were before, as they were meant to be in this best of all possible worlds. The (mostly white) sages would remain firmly entrenched on center stages; technology would remain relegated to its proper place inside but on the outer fringes of the classrooms; and the Old Guard's preferred, self-serving solutions to the persistent achievement gaps between white and underperforming minority students would remain at the top of the national agenda ==> more funding for more (mostly white) researchers.

A. Trees in the Forest
When Blackboard finally launched its Coursesites MOOC platform ("Blackboard Goes MOOC," Inside Higher Education, 7/11/13), it identified three reasons why colleges and universities would develop MOOCs:
  • To make educational material available to a broad audience of potential students who were unlikely to enroll in their on-campus courses;
  • To experiment with new forms of online teaching
  • To showcase their star professors and thereby lure more students to their programs.
Blackboard's announcement struck me as a classic instance of "tree people" being oblivious to the scope and scale of the vast forest in which they were standing. Perhaps most colleges and universities and perhaps most MOOC service providers really regarded MOOCs from such a narrow-minded perspective. But if that's all that MOOCs could deliver, then the oh-so-smug critics would be right in damning MOOCs as just another media-hyped, minor innovation that would be quickly forgotten.

Fortunately, the critics and the Blackboard executives are wrong. MOOCs are not a fad, but neither are they the New Order of things. They are merely the opening shots heard 'round the world of a long-overdue revolution, a revolution that should greatly enhance the learning opportunities provided for students at all levels of our systems of education, but especially for black and other minority students

Why? Because MOOCs launched on appropriately designed platforms will provide researchers with access to torrents of data that will flow from the interactions of "massive" enrollments -- hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of students -- with online course materials. Analysis of these massive data sets should enable the researchers (and the rest of us) to better understand how students in every conceivable demographic category really learn specific topics and which teaching techniques provide more effective learning opportunities for which kinds of students. 

Of course there's nothing new about the notion of improving teaching methods through research. What's new with MOOCs and with the far more sophisticated initiatives that will surely follow is the scale and scope of the data that suddenly becomes available. This sudden surge in scale and scope should enable researchers to compress the time between creative insights and validation, thereby enabling them (and us) to rapidly develop more effective teaching strategies that are truly customized to the changing needs of specific students.

By contrast to Blackboard's short-sighted announcement noted above, here are some forest-wide clips from the "About Us" pages of the Harvard-MIT edX initiative:
  • "Our goals, however, go beyond offering courses and content. We are committed to research that will allow us to understand how students learn, how technology can transform learning, and the ways teachers teach on campus and beyond. 

    As innovators and experimenters, we want to share what we discover. The edX platform will be available as open source. By conducting and publishing significant research on how students learn, we will empower and inspire educators around the world and promote success in learning.
    Our aim is to become a leading resource for learners and learning worldwide by staying focused on the goals and principles set forth when forming edX."

B. Trickle Down
Unfortunately for the vast majority of black students, there are powerful "gotchas" in the stirring edX manifesto:
  • For which students studying which topics will the torrents of data generated by the edX MOOCs yield more effective teaching methods?  
As Herbert Simon, Nobel Prize winner in economics and co-inventor of artificial intelligence, so wisely noted more than forty years ago: Where there is an abundance of information, attention becomes a scarce resource. In this case we should expect that the (mostly white) researchers at Harvard and MIT will consciously or unconsciously focus their scarce attention on the challenges facing the (mostly white) students on their own campuses and on other comparably elite  campuses.

Of course, die-hard believers in trickle down academics will patiently await the spontaneous dissemination of edX innovations to the (mostly white) non-elite institutions in which the overwhelming majority of black students are currently enrolled. But their optimistic expectations raise two show-stopping questions for skeptics like me: 
  • Why should we expect that innovations designed for (mostly white) students at (mostly white) elite universities will close the persistent achievement gaps between black and white students at non-elite colleges and universities at some point in the future?
  • Indeed, if trickle down academics had worked in times past, then 50 years after the Civil Rights Revolution, why are black/white achievement gaps so persistent at the vast majority of the nation's integrated, mainstream institutions?
Professor Simon's wisdom suggests that the torrents of edX data are far more likely to yield findings of particular benefit to black students if they are analyzed by researchers whose scarce attention is primarily focused on the learning requirements of black students.

Question: Where are we more likely to find such researchers?
Answer: At colleges and universities that have substantial black enrollments, i.e., at HBCUs and other minority serving institutions. It is important to note that the researchers need not be black themselves. However their location at HBCUs and other minority serving institutions should make it easier for them to focus on innovations that are especially beneficial for black students.

C. To (Quietly) Flip and MOOC
I suggest that HBCUs and virtual HBCUs offer MOOCs for the short-term reasons cited by the Blackboard announcement ==> to extend the reach of their courses beyond their campus walls; to enable their faculty to gain hands-on experience with new forms of online instruction; and to showcase their best instructors. 

But I also think that HBCUs and virtual HBCUs should "flip" more of their courses:
  • Flipping some (all) of a course means shifting some (all) of its lectures to online presentations via videos, podcasts, animations, PowerPoints with audio commentaries, etc, etc, etc; the vacated class time is then reallocated to demonstrations, Q&A sessions, formative quizzes, small group tutorials, online discussions with students on other campuses, and other activities that enable students to become more deeply engaged with the subject matter of their courses. 
I recommend flipping for two reasons:
  • First, a rapidly growing chorus of instructors has reported that flipped courses provide more effective learning experiences for more students than courses in traditional lecture formats.
  • Second, flipped courses provide a convenient framework for experimenting with MOOCs produced by edX and other research-oriented MOOC providers. An instructor could use a MOOC to provide all of the online presentations in a flipped course ... or the instructor could mix some MOOC presentations with his or her own online presentations.  
Finally, I sincerely hope that some research-oriented HBCUs and virtual HBCUs will develop their own MOOCs in 2014, preferably on the edX open source platform or on a comparable platform that would enable them to capture and analyze the torrents of data generated by massive enrollments. 

Given the continued success of Hip Hop Moguls and other purveyors of black culture, I would not be surprised to see enrollments in MOOCS launched by HBCUs and virtual HBCUs on Black History, Black Music, or Black Dance achieve six figure enrollments comparable to the blockbuster MOOCs on STEM subjects that were offered by Stanford and MIT.  

But don't expect the black MOOCs to generate comparably noisy media coverage. Why not? Because the academic Old Guard has just declared that MOOCs are dead. Of course, that's what ancien regimes have always said, right up to the moment they became roadkill for the revolutions they refused to see  come roaring down the road ... :-)

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