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Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sunday, March 23, 2014

From MOOCs to FemTechNet: a Review of the 2014 Berkeley Online Summit

by John Scott, School of Education, UC Berkeley

Located on opposite sides of the country, San Jose State and MIT are not usually linked together in the popular imagination.  Without any of the obvious ties, one might be inclined to ask: What could these two universities possibly have in common?  The answer can be found on a MOOC platform, where they both cohabit MITx, MIT’s instance of the MOOC provider EDx.  Both universities were also represented at the recent Online Learning Summit held at UC Berkeley by Provost Ellen Junn (SJSU) and Chancellor for Academic Achievement Eric Grimson (MIT).

Junn and Grimson spoke about the enhanced learning potentials of a ‘flipped classroom,’ where video-lecture content, and online learning activities and assessments opened up new spaces for classroom interactions and student engagement.  Junn lauded results from an SJSU pilot study that revealed significant gains in performance for students participating in the MITx course “Intro to Circuits and Electronics” (virtually taught by MIT’s Anant Agarwal) compared to their own equivalent brick and mortar version.  Grimson pointed to similarly positive reports on the MIT side, where rapid interventions for struggling students and the ability to revisit lecture videos and course content at a student’s leisure improved performance across a number of key intro-level courses.  Grimson insisted, that not only did online content improve student performance, but also that online course delivery models were necessary for addressing the shifting needs and interests of a 21st Century learner entering a university life at what he named the third major historical disruption to education- printing press to the blackboard to the digital.

Despite their shared optimism and inspiring statistical reports, their presentations revealed one crucial characteristic of MOOCS.  In the typical MOOC model, a single professor or institutional entity controls the production of course content and standards of learning for thousands of students across multiple institutions.  This kind of centralization creates the potential for asymmetrical relations between participating universities based on whether or not they play the role of producer or consumer of course content.

Junn’s presentation focused on SJSU students gaining flexible and free access to highly coveted MIT content, and while she explored other dimensions of their online education initiatives, she did not move far beyond this point of access and student convenience as the major benefits of their partnership with MITx.  Positioning SJSU students and faculty as consumers of MIT-generated content, her measure of a successful student experience seemed to narrowly focus on content mastery and skills development.  The idea of faculty being relegated to facilitators of content produced exclusively by another university became a point of critique in the highly publicized letter authored by SJSU faculty members in April of 2013.  In “An Open Letter to Professor Michael Sandel [Harvard professor of the JusticeX course] from the Philosophy Department at San Jose State U,” the authors describe a single, universal MOOC course on social justice as “downright scary- something out of a dystopian novel.”

Grimson pointed to similar gains for MIT students participating in online courses, but he imagined these skills put to use in radically new institutional contexts where MIT students would be able to pursue projects of potential impact, play with cutting-edge technologies like 3D-printers, and discover fresh opportunities for socialization and collaboration.  Provost Junn may also share a similar vision, although it did not come through in her talk, instead choosing to focus on access and skills development.  But not all access is created equal. In a world of free and open content, there are crucial advantages gained by both the institutions involved directly in its production as well as their students.

For the MIT students, there is an advantage gained not just in their physical proximity to the professors generating course content, where they enjoy an increased opportunity to either interact directly with the professor responsible for the course or with closely affiliated faculty.  But these students also benefit from a kind of cultural proximity to the content in the sense that institutions both select (through admissions’ processes) and cultivate (through their discursive contexts) student identities and learners who more closely resemble the ideological character of their institution.  For the institution, while the gains might not be realized immediately by MOOC providers such as MIT in the form of financial capital, it undoubtedly benefits from an increase in the value of its brand, while potentially devaluing that of its consumers.  What does it mean for an institution no longer to produce the content of its own courses, while being relegated to a consumer and mediator of MIT content, or a mere authentications portal to an MITx MOOC?

While I listened to Junn and Grimson, it was too hard to imagine a leveling of the playing field across higher education, and too easy to envision two disparate classes of students, where SJSU students scramble to master a discrete set of skills and MIT content as MIT students put the same set of skills to use in creative contexts and with greater social and cultural capital.  Further, although Junn pointed to the positive results from SJSU’s pilot study on MITx, the results from a pilot with MOOC provider Udacity that targeted struggling or at-risk students appeared less promising.  If MOOCs already pose a threat to a widening of the digital divide, they also increase the potential for a digital divided, where a class of students with a non-transferrable, decontextualized skillset cannot compete with a more privileged class of students with access to these empowered institutional spaces, in effect massively reproducing class disparities and socioeconomic immobility.

So what kinds of delivery models can we imagine for online education, models that could leverage digital tools for content sharing and multimedia experiences while at the same time avoiding the content production monopolies of MOOCs? On another panel at the OLS14 conference, FemTechNet’s Distributed Online Collaborative Community (DOCC) offered an appealing alternative.  FemTechNet’s DOCC model emphasized the creation of an infrastructure for distributed dialogues across multiple online platforms while preserving institutional autonomy in designing courses around the teaching of feminist principles.  Although MOOC advocates often assume that good learning data requires content standardization, the distributed model can still operate at scale without a centralized institutional force imposing its will on a network of participants who are thus relegated to the role of content consumers.  FemTechNet enables increased opportunities for institutions to produce their own course content while also allowing them to curate these courses with content from a network of institutions. This makes it easier for course designers to craft experiences sculpted to address the particular needs of their students.

Creating horizontal structures for institutional collaboration could not only help ensure heterogeneity of course content, but also generate opportunities to connect students across courses and create even richer peer-to-peer interactions and engagement.  Furthermore, projects like FemNetTech’s “Wikistorming” help motivate critical inquiry and skills application in real-world contexts while supporting student engagement and activism as digital citizens.  With the collapse of Net Neutrality and the consolidation of many web services, institutions of higher learning share a responsibility to protect access to a diversity of web content, to promote pluralistic models of knowledge production, and to cultivate a generation of digital citizens who can maintain the web’s equity and openness.


Anonymous said...

Did anyone ever say anything about how the use of video in flipped classrooms tends to crowd out reading? While I'm happy to flip, as it were, I guess I just don't see how, after watching an extra 1/2 hour of me or anyone else talking, I can expect students to then read the same amount (when, as everyone knows, helping people find the time and mental focus to read anything at all is increasingly a challenge).

Did anyone talk about that? I'm genuinely curious, as I find it baffling how little I ever see about what seems to me to be a HUGE issue. (I'm a historian, so part of this is discipline specific, in that history still revolves around detailed, long-form narrative. But I think it's not just an issue for history.)

Pat said...

I think the DOCC works as a concept - but I wonder how with multiple points in people get lost a little. At some point logically there is a curator still? Or someone making choices as to content? More voices perhaps, but still decisions taken on which sites would like to which other sites and so on, so forth.

On the MOOC we ran, we had 6 different lecturers talking - from two Unis, this time we are looking to get a lot more people involved (it is a law MOOC, and you can't really teach the law with one voice).

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