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Monday, May 6, 2013

Monday, May 6, 2013

New Waypoints in the MOOC Debate, Part I

Drawing: University of the Philippines, Visayas Cebú College, completion scheduled 2014.

Over the course of a week I'll discuss new perspectives on MOOCs  (massive, open, online courses)  from a conference, a survey, a student column, and a faculty letter.

By way of background, I note that we are entering a 4th phase in the sped-up lifecyle of the online debate.  In a year, MOOCs have gone from being (1), a niche service for underserved markets, to (2), a short-term fix for course supply problems in funding-starved public colleges, to (3), a replacement for current shortfalls and future growth in public university systems that makes restored funding unnecessary.

In the process, MOOCs have entangled themselves in the politics of higher education and the political economy of post-crisis capitalism.  They must now be held accountable both for the impact of their claims on public university budgets and for the social consequences of their educational outcomes.  

My sense is that the emerging 4th phase is going to undermine (3), for the good of students, faculty, and MOOCs that colleges can both maintain and use.  I'll come back to these issues in upcoming posts.

The Lawrence, Kansas Conference

I was thinking about MOOCs again last week at the annual meeting of the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutions, hosted this year by the Hall Center for the Humanities at the University of Kansas (#CHCI13).  (Sincere thanks to center director Victor Bailey, who proved that public universities are still capable of great productions.) They, the MOOCs, popped into my head at a panel ("Global Humanities and the State") comparing university trends in the European Union, South Africa, and Asia. 

South Africa is an important special case that I will omit here.  The European Union is also important for the wrong reasons: it is going nowhere fast in higher ed.  As one panelist explained, EU research policy "all begins in the 1950s, and you know what that was: S&T, S&T, and more S&T [science and technology], and then something good must come of it." 

The EU's overall research budgets are small, the increments uninspiring, the grand challenges overly general and banal, and the bias against social and cultural knowledge a sad tribute to the blindness of technocrats who continue to repress the actual history of Europe, in which progress has depended entirely on the active uptake of true social and cultural knowledge.  The humanities fields were entirely absent from the first six "framework programs," have been lumped together with social sciences in a small corner of the 7th framework, and are in a similar place in FP 8, "Horizon 2020," where society's role is largely equated with green energy. I simplify somewhat, but less than you might assume.

Humanists receive less money than scientists per grant, of course, but even so undergo a less than 10% success rate in the current Framework Program competition, or half the rate of the scientists.  Having to compete twice as hard leads in effect to humanists having to self-fund most of their research.  This is research that tries, among other things, to preserve and explain the human experience of the ages, knit Europe together across national and linguistic lines, resolve tensions over race and immigration, and curate tomorrow's masterworks of insight into the human condition--all on a shoestring, usually one dug out of the scholar's own sock drawer.

But the analysts of Europe didn't find any EU MOOCs claiming to solve funding issues. Neither did the survey of Asian universities, provided by Alan Kam Leung Chan, the Dean of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences at Nanyang Technology University in Singapore. Prof. Chan treated us to news of a higher ed building boom like only retirement-age Americans can remember here.

China is the most famous case, having in ten years more than tripled the number of college graduates from 9 million to 30 million.  Since 1991, Singapore has added four universities to its previous two, and by 2020 will have a higher bachelors degree proportion than the US.  Indonesia has 30 public universities, and 2000 new private universities. The Philippines has 500 public universities and 1500 new privates. Vietnam has gone from 150 universities in 2000 to over 400 today, with 20 percent of those being private.

The scale refutes the number one economic premise of American MOOC development, which is that even rich countries can't afford great public universities anymore, so medium- and low-income countries shouldn't try.  In the North American mythology, less "developed" countries must teach their teeming masses on line, with low-cost American MOOC services endorsed by MIT, Stanford, Harvard, and Penn.  And yet Asian countries are ignoring this Western wisdom. They have rejected its "build nothing" implications.

Obviously there are questions about quality in the midst of all this growth. But such questions are being asked by Asian policymakers, who appear not to be diverted by technology sales teams from their higher educational goals. 

Prof. Chan noted that Asian countries are engaged in debates over exactly the issues that for most U.S. policymakers have been pre-decided—whether and how bibliometrics and rankings should be used, how to deepen exposure to the humanities rather than marginalizing them, how exactly to teach Asian cultures in a global context, how to design differentiated educational pathways across every subject area, and how to teach not only for content mastery but for creative capability as a college outcome for every student.  Prof. Chan advocated a relentless focus on maintaining the highest quality standards in all programs. Without that, he noted, Asian countries' students won't be prepared for the world environment in which they will have to operate.  

Sitting in the audience, I was dismayed to realize yet again that In the U.S. we are having the opposite conversation, which is how to get public university services back to their inadequate level of the mid-2000s, while spending less money than we did then.

Afterwards I blurted out my question: "Why this higher ed torpor in Europe and North America, compared to the dynamism of Asia?" 

This got a few of us to laugh.  But none of us had a decent answer.


Anonymous said...

Fascinating report, thank you! And your summary of the "3 phases" is spot on--great insight and concise formulation.

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