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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Good MOOC Conference, Bad MOOC Legislation

(From The New Yorker April 1, 2013)

Chris here--followed by Jenna Joo below.

The current flurry of online legislation in Sacramento includes the following: (h/t Berkeley Faculty Association):

Assembly Bill 386 (Marc Levine, D-San Rafael) – Allows any student within the CSU System to take an online course on any other campus, with some restrictions.
Assembly Bill 387 (Levine) – Mandates 10% of courses at the three higher education segments be placed online.
Assembly Bill 1306 (Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita) – Would establishes a New University of California as the fourth higher education segment. The New University will provide no instruction, but shall issue college credit, baccalaureate and associate degrees to any person capable of passing examinations.
Senate Bill 520 (Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento ) – Directs the three higher education segments to identify the 50 most “bottlenecked” courses, creates a statewide pool of these classes, after a standardized review and approval process allows private vendors to offer these classes for credit.   
Senate Bill 547 (Marty Block, D-San Diego) - requires the 3 segments "to jointly develop and identify online courses that would be made available to students of each of the 3 segments for enrollment by the fall of 2014. The bill would require the online courses to be in areas defined as high demand transferable lower division courses under the Intersegmental General Education Transfer Curriculum and to be deemed to meet the lower division transfer and degree requirements for the 3 segments."

ABs 386 and 387 force conversion to online. SB 1306 is the absurdity degree zero of online panacea hallucination: it creates a "New University of California" that must offer credentials but that may not offer instruction.  Unless this is the Senate's answer to Animal House, I don't get the joke.

SB 520 removes the creation and approval of some college and university courses from the segments' various faculty.  SB 547 requires an as yet undetermined number of courses to be offered online, but it appears as though the creation and the approval of these courses would remain with the faculty.  Unlike SB 520, SB 547 does not concoct an artificial market for MOOCs, but given UC online's small number of offerings, MOOCs would lead the charge of the content providers.

SB 547 would also affect the community colleges and Cal State campuses more than UC, which has fewer completely unavailable courses.  It  probably won't inspire the unified opposition that SB 520 has in the past two weeks, which promoted a strong UC Academic Senate leadership letter that attracted press coverage for its accusation of legislative complicity in forced privatization; the Berkeley Faculty Association's petition, which has so far attracted nearly 1500 signatures; talking points from UCSB's Faculty Association, among others.

UC Berkeley's conference, Learning Mode: Critical Issues in Online Education, took place as the state was processing the news (particularly Tamar Lewin's New York Times article) that the legislature might thrust MOOCs upon public colleges to cure the terrible enrollment bottlenecks that the legislature had itself created with its habitual budget cuts.  I gave one of the papers for our Online Study Group, whose research has relied in large part on the tireless efforts of UCSB's Jenna Joo, a PhD student in Education.

Jenna attended the conference with me, and her report is as follows:

The conference held a total of six panel discussions where speakers from a variety of backgrounds.  Scholars, educational media developers, students, and commercial employers came together to discuss the pros and cons of online education and to raise important questions and concerns.

The conference moved between excitement (about the potential of digital technology for higher education) and caution (about the implementation and potential impact of online education I for students, teachers, and communities). The issue of online education is a hot one, but it is also complex, given the intersection of various factors of political economy that underlies its growth and development.

Personally, I moved between feelings of anxiety, hope, resentment, and optimism. By the end of the conference, I was overwhelmed—partly by the large amount of information thrown at me to digest, but mostly by the burdens placed on education in the 21st century. 


The first half of the discussion focused primarily on the vast possibilities technology may have for improving student learning and increasing research opportunities. Improving student learning broadly involves changing teachers’ roles; reformers demand that they stay away from a “sage on the stage” model and instead become collaborators who will promote active interactions. As Sooinn Lee, CEO of LocoMotive Labs, pointed out, learning can be fun and not so painful and there are many tools available to make it more enjoyable for students.  Professor Ryokai of UCB’s School of Information argued that technology, specifically mobile devices, could help enable out- of-class learning. The Chief Scientist at edX, Piotr Mitros, pointed to possibilities of a distributed classroom model in which large numbers of teachers and students collaborate and network to promote community-based educational attainment. Finally, John Rinderle, the Associate Director of Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University, emphasized the opportunities for “engineering learning,” with broader goals and contextualized student and classroom data including not only the outcome data but also the learning data across the spectrum (i.e., student progress and engagement). He also believed that such data should be open for communities to use and assess together.


I have to admit that open data is one of the most exciting promises of online education to me as a graduate student in Education, where obtaining a large amount of student data on my own is literally impossible. It sounds like technology can achieve things that we couldn't achieve before. We are imagining education both inside and outside of classrooms that is fun, interactive, collaborative, large-scale, and open for access and advancement.
The second half of the discussion focused on the contradictions of online education.  To take only one obvious example, Coursera, which was launched in April 2012, has attracted over 2.9 million students from 196 countries with a broad range of backgrounds.  However, the retention rates are low and the very nature of online education calls for the need for strict authentification of the student's identity if courses are to be taken for credit. Coursera's representative assured the audience that they are working with their analytics team to further understand low retention rates and how student diversity affects them.  But they have not made any of that data available. 

Professor Pieter Abbeel taught an online version of UCB’s CS 1881.1x course to a large number students (Spring 2013 version here), but only about 5% of them actually completed the course. Professor Abbeel praised the potentially democratic nature of online courses that avoid improving completion by deselecting most  students in advance, via rejection letters in the admissions process. But he also pointed out that designing and performing an online course takes enormous time and effort. He pointed out the need for “flexibility” to keep developing the courses and enhancing student learning.


What I found to be innovative about CS 188.1x was the feedback-based teaching/learning system in which students were given the chance to revise and resubmit their homework after receiving feedback on it. The feedback-based approach could allow students to reflect on their mistakes and better understand their strengths and weaknesses on the subject matter. However, it should be noted that such an approach could require a lot of time and manpower, contradicting
the idea of online education being faster and cheaper. 


One thing is clear— we still need more research and practice in order to assess feasibility of our goals for online education. So far, the MOOC providers seem busy with their own analytics teams in an attempt to understand outcomes on their own. For the moment, open access to educational data is a long way off. An alternative vision appeared in a talk by Professor Jacqueline Shea Murphy, a Professor of Dance at UC Riverside and one of the first UC Online course developers.  She suggested the need for effective systems of training that communities of practice.  Online courses need to maintain the instructional and research ecosystem for future generations of teachers and scholars.

Finally the conference addressed the question: what exactly we would like to achieve with online education? Proponents highlight  “easy access,” but “easy access” is itself not meaningful without “great outcomes.” Education attainment in the US has always been stratified by race and class, so that individuals from families of underrepresented background tend to be lower attaining students.  Christopher Newfield presented our group's research, starting with the inequalities of investment that have historically underwritten inequality in educational attainment. Our team proposed as a normative goal for online education that it reduce the inequality of educational outcomes across differences of race and income  We argued that order to achieve this goal, we need to help lower performing students become high performing-- to make everyday people special, rather than providing access as such.   

MOOC's social contexts were raised by the other speakers on this panel - Victoria Robbins on existing and future uses of digital modes for examining social injustice, Jen Schradie on the persisting digital divide, Christian Simm on the Americanism of MOOCs, Enrique Tames on the uncertain impacts of smartphones in Mexican classrooms.  Such discussions might serve to alter the “online is better” mindset and reconfigure the definition of high quality education by reflecting on the findings of open educational research. For example, the meta-analysis released by the Department of Education in 2010, did not find online education to be superior so much as it identified value in active and interactive learning modes, including greater possibililties for self-pacing and self-reflection. These are teaching and learning strategies that will require careful design and implementation, whether online or off.

1 comments:

Online College said...

It’s hard to imagine that an education vendor, particularly one driven by profit, will do more than use Siemens’s and Downes’s excellent, sincere efforts as a tissue-paper justification for passing off cheap “social media opportunities” as a substitute for sustained interaction with working professional academics. Like their bricks-and-mortar counterparts, not to mention the community colleges and distance vendors they’re competing with, the heart of Coursera will be in lectures and tests.

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