Saturday, March 17, 2018

Higher ed's grudge against MOOCs -- Part 1

Last update: Tuesday 3/20/18

This note has a provocative title, but it's not nearly as provocative as my original: "The continuing grudge of U.S. higher education's Olde Guarde against MOOCs and Sebastian Thrun" -- which is what I'm really going to talk about. For readers who have never been tenured members of a faculty, it may come as a surprise to learn that the oh-so-rational, truth loving scholars of academia hold venomous grudges just like the Mafia. 



Part 1 | Part 2 Part 3

A. Old Felons 
In 2012 Sebastian Thrun, the father of MOOCs as we know them today, and Thomas Friedman, a best selling writer for the New York Times, put on a global road show from here to there to Davos and beyond in which they loudly proclaimed that MOOCs were about to replace higher education as we know it. Within ten years there would only be ten universities left in the world. These mega-centers of pedagogy would engage the world's best instructors to develop MOOC courses about all that was known about everything. Then the mega-centers would make all of their MOOCs available to everyone on the planet for free.

Having considered and reconsidered Thrun and Friedman's claims that were literally foolish many times over the course of the last few years, I eventually concluded that these two otherwise highly intelligent men yelled grossly exaggerated descriptors of MOOCs as "Free!!!" available to "Everyone!!!" and taught by the "Best Instructors!!!" ... because they knew that nobody would have paid attention had they calmly described MOOCS as "new kinds of high quality online courses that could be offered for substantially lower tuition and fees thereby making them substantially more affordable for a substantially greater share of the world's population than previous types of online courses" ... more accurate ...  wonkish ... and boring .... zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz ... Older readers may recall Tommy Smothers yelling "Fire!!!" for similar reasons when he was drowning in a vat filled with chocolate ... :-)

The Olde Guarde's fury at the suggestion that the academic status quo needed revolutionary disruption was thermonuclear. They roared and bellowed and condemned Friedman and Thrun to eternal damnation. 
Of course what really happened was that Friedman moved on to other news issues and Thrun made a "pivot" away from MOOCs sponsored by universities to MOOCs sponsored by corporate employers. But the Olde Guarde continued to bellow ... which brings me to the bellow in last week's higher ed news that caused me to write this note, i.e., an article in Inside Higher Education (IHE) that I featured as the cover story for last week's edition of TECH  Dozens" -- this blog's weekly news magazine.

B. New MOOC Degree Programs
The IHE article was written Doug Lederman, a founding co-editor of Inside Higher Ed. His content with regards to the six new degree programs offered by Coursera was consistent with the reports filed by other higher ed publications, Campus Technology and Ed Surge, by a report from TechCrunch, a prominent information technology medium, and with announcements on the Web pages of the participating universities. Unfortunately his facts were embedded in editorial commentaries that ranged from "fake news" to snarky.

The title of the article, "Look Who's Championing the Degree", was followed by an opening statement: "Coursera and other purveyors of massive open online courses supposedly signaled the end of traditional credentials and, as some told it, universities. Now the company is betting big on both." This is "fake news" because, as the article acknowledges, Coursera's six new degree programs are merely additions to the four degree programs that it launched a few years ago. In other words, Coursera's "big bet" was really placed a few years ago when it offered its first four degree programs, an event that was a genuine surprise to folk like me who had been paying close attention to the evolution of Udacity, Coursera, edX, DataCamp and other major providers of MOOCs. 

Although Lederman referenced the overblown claims of journalists and members of the MOOC community about MOOCs portending the end of higher ed as we know it, he grudgingly conceded that Coursera had not made such claims ...
... "(unlike some of their peers -- yes, you, Sebastian Thrun)."
Nevertheless Lederman quickly brushed Coursera's innocence aside by asserting that Coursera was so closely associated with the MOOC meme that it must be held guilty by association. This brush off was beyond fake; this was snarky, Trump snarky. Members of higher ed's Olde Guarde and other readers who agree that higher ed is doing so well that it needs no disruptions will probably agree with Lederman's subsequent benedictions. Coursera had strayed, but its swelling roster of degree programs demonstrates its repentant return to the one true faith that there is no such thing as higher education outside of higher ed as we have known it. So all is forgiven.

C. Personal Notes 
Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised by my disagreements with Mr. Lederman's tone and inferences. For forty-one years I was a member of the tenured faculty and/or the senior staff of one of the nation's most prominent Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). When I first joined this community way back in 1972, I didn't expect to stay more than five or six years; indeed, I didn't think the country would support HBCUs for more than another 10 or 15 years. "Why were HBCUs still needed?" I asked myself again and again ... with each reply framed in deeper and deeper despair. Today I am disappointed that HBCUs still exist because an integrated society would not tolerate such self-imposed racial isolation; on the other hand, my confidence in America's future has been deeply shaken by the fact that HBCUs are still needed. 

Nowadays more than 90 percent of Black American college students attend non-HBCUs. Nevertheless, the persistent achievement gaps between Black American and White American college students, and the even wider gaps between Black American and Asian American students shows that non-HBCUs, a/k/a higher ed as we know it, is not meeting the higher education needs of most Black Americans. On the other hand HBCUs, with less than ten cents worth of resources compared to the mega-dollars available to non-HBCUs, continue to produce a larger than expected share of the nation's Black graduates in STEM fields. How is this possible? Why is this still happening? What kind of disruption of higher ed as we know it do we really need? Evidently something at least as revolutionary as Thrun and Friedman's wildest dreams. 

D. Prolog to Part 2 (of 3 parts)
In the second part of this note I will remind my readers of data that suggests that Coursera's "pivot" away from a position of leadership in the development of a potentially revolutionary innovation in higher education should come as no surprise. Make no mistake: Coursera has chosen to become yet another Online Program Manager (OPM) like Cengage, 2U, and Jenzabar, i.e., to become a for-profit facilitator of the non-revolutionary programs offered by some of the leading proponents of higher ed as we know it. 

I think it's a smart move. What else could Coursera do given its evident lack of sufficient vision and/or management skills to generate substantial profits from job-oriented certificate programs at the high end of the MOOC market? Of course, I will also remind my readers that Dr. Thrun's Udacity succeeded in becoming a highly valued purveyor of job-oriented programs within a few years after his famous "pivot" in the opposite direction. 

And I will joyfully remind readers of the masters degree program in computer science designed by the faculty of the Georgia Institute of Technology and Dr. Thrun's Udacity (before his "pivot"). Georgia Tech's $7,000 tuition is so low that it's far more affordable than the degree programs offered by Coursera's academic partners. It's not free, but it's low enough to enable Georgia Tech's program to enroll a remarkably diverse student body. Given the national renown of Georgia Tech's computer science department, its continued success in offering high quality degrees for low tuition and fees (2013a2013b2017a2017b) can not and must not be ignored, despite whatever venomous grudges higher ed's Olde Guarde continues to hold.

Roy L. Beasley, PhD
DLL Editor