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On-Line Headlines

July 20, 2012

Over the past three days, the NYTimes has featured three articles on on-line education in colleges. As regular readers of this blog realize, I am an advocate of blended instruction whereby the unarguable advantages of technology are merged with the unarguable advantages of traditional schooling.

The unarguable advantages of technology are that it is asynchronous, adaptable to the learning style of the student, supports mastery learning where it is possible, provides equal access to high quality instruction, and provides parents, students, the face-to-face teachers, and counselors with a wealth of data on the student. The unarguable advantages of traditional schooling are the opportunity for personal tutoring, for dialogue between the teacher and the student, for interaction with other students learning the same information, and for direct instruction and feedback in areas that cannot be delivered or measured in an on-line venue.

The July 17 Times featured an article by Richard Perez-Pina on Coursera, a new venture offering on-line courses that includes many “name brand colleges” including Stanford, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan… and, yes, the University of Virginia! Coursera will be offering MOOCs, Massive Open On-line Courses (see earlier post on this topic) that are currently offered for free by several “brand” colleges like CMU, MIT, and Stanford. To date there has been no way to make money from this model… but as one who I can recall when Amazon was not making any money I would not be at all surprised to see more and more “market share” going to MOOCs and, as employers begin to recognize these “standalone” MOOC offerings as worthy the university as we know it today will be changed. The article suggests that:

“The people who should be worried about this are the large tier of American universities — especially the expensive private schools — that are not elite and don’t have the same reputation” as the big-name universities now creating MOOCs, said Anya Kamenetz, an author who writes on the future of higher education.

On the same day, the Times had an article by Tamara Lewin entitled “Universities Reshaping Education on the Web” that reported on Coursera even more breathlessly:

“This is the tsunami,” said Richard A. DeMillo, the director of the Center for 21st Century Universities at Georgia Tech. “It’s all so new that everyone’s feeling their way around, but the potential upside for this experiment is so big that it’s hard for me to imagine any large research university that wouldn’t want to be involved.”

Because of technological advances — among them, the greatly improved quality of online delivery platforms, the ability to personalize material and the capacity to analyze huge numbers of student experiences to see which approach works best — MOOCs are likely to be a game-changer, opening higher education to hundreds of millions of people. (emphasis added

To date, most MOOCs have covered computer science, math and engineering, but Coursera is expanding into areas like medicine, poetry and history. MOOCs were largely unknown until a wave of publicity last year about Stanford University’s free online artificial intelligence course attracted 160,000 students from 190 countries. Only a small percentage of the students completed the course, but even so, the numbers were staggering.

The article also reported that University of Washington intends to offer credit for its MOOCs, which could have seismic consequences. The article also alludes to the potential for profit sharing, when the revenue model can be worked out.

Coursera does not pay the universities, and the universities do not pay Coursera, but both incur substantial costs. Contracts provide that if a revenue stream emerges, the company and the universities will share it.

Another echo of Amazon, who entered the online sales venue taking a loss on items in an effort to get market share. One of the criticisms of on-line learning is the opportunity for students to cheat and how courses would be graded… but surmounting the cheating obstacle presented education behemoth Pearson with another opportunity for earnings and surmounting the grading obstacle presented Coursera with yet another opportunity to turn schooling upside down:

“I would not want to give credit until somebody figures out how to solve the cheating problem and make sure that the right person, using the right materials, is taking the tests,” said Antonio Rangel, a Caltech professor who will teach Principles of Economics for Scientists in the fall. Udacity recently announced plans to have students pay $80 to take exams at testing centers operated around the world by Pearson, a global education company.

Grading presents some questions, too. Coursera’s humanities courses use peer-to-peer grading, with students first having to show that they can match a professor’s grading of an assignment, and then grade the work of five classmates, in return for which their work is graded by five fellow students. But, Ms. Koller said, what would happen to a student who cannot match the professor’s grading has not been determined.

Today’s Times features an op ed piece by UVA English professor Mark Edmundson called “The Trouble With On-line Education”, an essay that seems to be arguing against an on-line paradigm that is five years old:

Online education is a one-size-fits-all endeavor. It tends to be a monologue and not a real dialogue. The Internet teacher, even one who responds to students via e-mail, can never have the immediacy of contact that the teacher on the scene can, with his sensitivity to unspoken moods and enthusiasms. This is particularly true of online courses for which the lectures are already filmed and in the can. It doesn’t matter who is sitting out there on the Internet watching; the course is what it is.

In pre-YouTube and pre-Big Data days this criticism had merit… but as noted in the earlier excerpt from the June 17 article, today’s on-line model is more personalized, more interactive, and more sensitive to individual student needs than the traditional model of schooling. MOOCs are coming… and coming soon!

 

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