MOOCs in the media

  • Beware of the High Cost of ‘Free’ Online Courses.” Steve Lohr. The New York Times (March 25, 2013): Michael A. Cusumano, professor at the Sloan School of Management at M.I.T.: “I am mostly concerned about second- and third-tier universities and colleges, and community colleges, many of which play critical roles for education and economic development in their local regions and communities.”
  • The Brave New World of College Branding.” Kevin Carey. The Chronicle of Higher Education (March 25, 2013): “There’s another way to think about brands and technology, however. This brings us, of course, to MOOCs. I know: again with the MOOCs. I apologize. Let’s set aside for a moment the question of whether MOOCs are the ultimate neoliberal conspiracy or mankind’s final redemption, and focus on the fact that they have been powered largely by brands.”
  • Walk Deliberately, Don’t Run, Toward Online Education.” William G. Bowen. The Chronicle of Higher Education (March 25, 2013): “There is a real danger that the media frenzy associated with MOOCs will lead some colleges (and, especially, business-oriented members of their boards) to embrace too tightly the MOOC approach before it is adequately tested and found to be both sustainable and capable of delivering good learning outcomes for all kinds of students.”
  • I Don’t Want to Be Mooc’d.” Albert J. Sumell. The Chronicle of Higher Education (March 25, 2013): “But at smaller, lower-ranked institutions like mine—those typically with a city rather than a state in their names—MOOCs present a greater concern. Cost is a more important factor for our students in deciding whether and where to enroll. We would see decreased enrollment and tuition revenue, and without an unexpected increase in public support, we would be forced to further reduce the number of tenure-track faculty positions and/or compensation to current faculty members as a result.”
  • Coursera’s Contractual Elitism.” Ry Rivard. Inside Higher Ed (March 22, 2013): “The Silicon Valley-based company said to be revolutionizing higher education says in a contract obtained by Inside Higher Ed that it will “only” offer classes from elite institutions – the members of the Association of American Universities or “top five” universities in countries outside of North America – unless Coursera’s advisory board agrees to waive the requirement.”
  • The Professors Who Make the MOOCs.” The Chronicle of Higher Education (March 20, 2013):

Robert W. Ghrist, a professor of mathematics and electrical and systems engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, is among [those who think MOOC students deserve course credit]. His MOOC, “Calculus: Single Variable,” is one of the five Coursera courses that ACE has recommended for credit. Fitting his assessments into the parameters of Coursera’s auto-grading system has been somewhat limiting, but no more than the math placement exams that Penn already uses, said Mr. Ghrist, who previously oversaw those tests. “I would, of course, prefer it if I could read over their work carefully and follow their logic,” he said. But that is a technology problem that Coursera will soon solve, he believes.

  • Colleges Assess Cost of Free Online-Only Courses.” David Wallis. The New York Times (March 18, 2013): Gary W. Matkin, dean of continuing education, distance learning and summer session at the University of California, Irvine, “forecasts tough times ahead for what he calls the ‘mediocre middle’ — institutions that have not been invited into what amounts to a higher-education V.I.P. room.”

Isn’t this one of the Seven Seals?

The government of California is getting into the business of determining curriculum with the introduction of new legislation:

California Bill Seeks Campus Credit for Online Study.” Tamar Lewin. The New York Times (12 March 2013):

“This would be a big change, acknowledging that colleges aren’t the only ones who can offer college courses,” said Burck Smith, the founder of Straighterline. “It means rethinking what a college is.”

Why he sounds positively giddy. But wait:

“What’s really going on is that after the budget cuts have sucked public higher education dry of resources,” [Lillian Taiz, the president of the California Faculty Association] continued, “the Legislature’s saying we should give away the job of educating our students.”

So, to recap: the California state government is defunding post-secondary institutions to the extent that those institutions cannot adequately serve their students, and then they are using that failure — that they themselves directly caused — as the rationale for undercutting the bedrock principles of academic freedom and institutional autonomy.

Yes, I really think it must be one of the Seven Seals.

Two more on MOOCs

Europeans Take a More Cautious Approach Toward Online Courses.” D.D. Guttenplan. The New York Times (17/2/13): A thoughtful look at some of the implications of the current feeding frenzy:

While the atmosphere around the open courses in the United States resembles the early stages of an oil boom, the reaction in Europe seems distinctly cautious.

William Lawton, the director of the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, the British research group that organized the conference, said that MOOCs had grown out of the movement for open educational resources.

“Originally, the ideal was about widening access to elite courses,” he said. “But can it still be about widening access when it’s increasingly about finding new business models and competitive advantage?”

There do seem to be some teething pains:

Professor Leaves a MOOC in Mid-Course in Dispute Over Teaching.” Steve Kolowich. The Chronicle of Higher Education (18/2/13): Daphne Koller, one of Coursera’s founders, “said that teaching a MOOC ‘can, indeed, be a challenge to deal with for someone used to the much more uniform population of a typical university setting.'”

Gender has not gone away

Many progressive organizations, and individuals as well, are feeling so beleaguered by the current climate of austerity politics and neoliberalism in general that equity issues can get short shrift. I think, however, we ignore them at our peril. And from a union perspective, now may be a good time to seek gains that don’t have obvious budgetary implications. Though mind you, the solution recently arrived at at UBC has a clear price tag:

  • UBC gives all female tenure-stream faculty a 2 per cent raise.” James Bradshaw. The Globe and Mail (2/2/13): The initiative “comes as a result of a series of internal equity studies that found female professors of all ranks were paid $3,000 less on average, a discrepancy that could only be explained by gender after accounting for other factors.”

But there are many areas of employment practices that could better address issues of gender equity that are not so directly related to pay. An excellent opinion piece in yesterday’s NYT lays out some of the issues:

  • Why Gender Equality Stalled.” Stephanie Coontz. The New York Times (16/2/13): “Today the main barriers to further progress toward gender equity no longer lie in people’s personal attitudes and relationships. Instead, structural impediments prevent people from acting on their egalitarian values, forcing men and women into personal accommodations and rationalizations that do not reflect their preferences. The gender revolution is not in a stall. It has hit a wall.”

Coontz links to a study by Jody Heymann, dean of the school of public health at UCLA, of “work-family reconciliation” acts in nearly 200 countries. Heymann’s focus is the U.S., but even a cursory glance at the study reveals that the situation here in Canada is not that much better. For example, Coontz reports that

A 1997 European Union directive prohibits employers from paying part-time workers lower hourly rates than full-time workers, excluding them from pension plans or limiting paid leaves to full-time workers. By contrast, American workers who reduce hours for family reasons typically lose their benefits and take an hourly wage cut.

Canadian workers, too.

Coontz is interested in the social and psychological repercussions of hitting those “structural impediments”, hitting the “wall”:

This is where the political gets really personal. When people are forced to behave in ways that contradict their ideals, they often undergo what sociologists call a “values stretch” — watering down their original expectations and goals to accommodate the things they have to do to get by. This behavior is especially likely if holding on to the original values would exacerbate tensions in the relationships they depend on.

A fascinating argument. Also of interest are the myriad ways in which other jurisdictions seek to affect “work-family reconciliation.”


Gender balance can make universities better.” Curt Rice. University World News (9/2/13):258: “It’s not that improving the quality of the university workplace generally will necessarily make it better for women. The truth is just the opposite: making universities better workplaces for women will improve institutional quality for everyone.”


Mucking about with MOOCs

Well, as MOOCs seem to be the topic-de-jour, the flavour-of-the-week, here are links to some recent media stories. Be there or be square.

  • Stop polarising the MOOCs debate.” Cathy N. Davidson. University World News (16/2/13):259: “I regret this flattening of online learning into a simple binary of ‘politically and financially motivated greed’ on the one hand and ‘an opportunity to find out more about learning’ on the other.”
  • Will Moocs fail to give students help they need?” Chris Parr. Times Higher Education (14/2/13): “They are not a revolution. So much of the pedagogy is this presentational, talking heads sort of thing. We’ve been telling ourselves for years we need to get away from that pedagogy, and now here it is slamming back at us again.”
  • ASECS President Julie Candler Hayes on ‘disrupting disruption.’” The Long Eighteenth (13/2/13): “The low-cost alternative may not have all the desirable qualities of the original, but if effective, it will come to dominate the market, add sustaining innovations of its own, and replace the older product.”
  • MOOCs – Mistaking brand for quality?” Stamenka Uvalic-Trumbic. University World News (9/2/13):258: “[I]t is risky to assume that university brand is a surrogate for course quality.”
  • Where MOOCs Miss the Mark: The Student-Teacher Relationship.” Matt Levinson. Edutopia (8/2/13): “[F]or many learners, MOOCs lack the possibility of mentorship and close guidance that comes through the building of a meaningful relationship between student and teacher.”
  • Memo to Trustees re: Thomas Friedman’s ‘Revolution Hits the Universities’.” Kris Olds. Inside Higher Ed (27/1/13): “We are now in a new (normalized) normal, at least in the US, where austerity is accepted and indeed viewed positively for it can be perceived as a mechanism to restructure higher education systems and institutions.”
  • Revolution Hits the Universities.” Thomas L. Friedman. The New York Times (26/1/13): “I can see a day soon where you’ll create your own college degree by taking the best online courses from the best professors from around the world — some computing from Stanford, some entrepreneurship from Wharton, some ethics from Brandeis, some literature from Edinburgh — paying only the nominal fee for the certificates of completion. It will change teaching, learning and the pathway to employment. “There is a new world unfolding,” said Reif, “and everyone will have to adapt.'”
  • Skepticism About Tenure, MOOCs and the Presidency: A Survey of Provosts.” Scott Jaschik. Inside Higher Ed (23/1/13): “When it comes to whether MOOCs and other innovations will hurt the business models of higher education, many provosts are worried. In fact they are decidedly more worried about MOOCs than about other reforms.”
  • Students Rush to Web Classes, but Profits May Be Much Later.” Tamar Lewin. The New York Times (6/1/13): “Many educators predict that the bulk of MOOC revenues will come from licensing remedial courses and “gateway” introductory courses in subjects like economics or statistics, two categories of classes that enroll hundreds of thousands of students a year. Even though less than 10 percent of MOOC students finish the courses they sign up for on their own, many experts believe that combining MOOC materials with support from a faculty member or a teaching assistant could increase completion rates.”