To unbundle the university

Ethan Gach, responding to Aaron Bady’s critique of the piece by Clay Shirky that I quoted a month ago, discusses exactly what part of higher education will (or should) be unbundled by the coming of MOOCs and other forms of online learning:

The original point of the university was the efficiency of large classes and large faculties all housed in the same location. That efficiency can now be gained in other ways. Especially if you already have the tools to do most of the learning on your own, which large lectures more or less require anyway. […]

What putting lectures online does do is allow them to be revised, stored, and retrieved whenever need be. This is the point of textbooks, and while I would be the first to recognize the limits of most of them, they are extremely effective as repositories for standardized information and references. […]

Of course, to simply recommend then that all large lectures be turned into online courses skips an important question, which is whether they should be turned into small seminars instead. And this is the real alternative to online lectures (since, unlike Bady, I do think the physical lecture is a dead medium).

While not agreeing with every aspect of Gach’s reasoning – of which the above is only one small example – I think his contribution to the debate is very much worth reading.

Expanding the audience

Clay Shirky drills down into the question of what MOOCs are and what they are not:

The possibility MOOCs hold out isn’t replacement; anything that could replace the traditional college experience would have to work like one, and the institutions best at working like a college are already colleges. The possibility MOOCs hold out is that the educational parts of education can be unbundled. MOOCs expand the audience for education to people ill-served or completely shut out from the current system, in the same way phonographs expanded the audience for symphonies to people who couldn’t get to a concert hall, and PCs expanded the users of computing power to people who didn’t work in big companies.

If he is right, the big question is: For how many current and potential students will MOOCs be “good enough” to justify not attending a traditional college?

MOOCs: A reader’s digest

Over the summer there has been intense discussion in higher education circles about MOOCs, massive(ly) open online courses offered by prestigious institutions like Harvard, MIT and UC Berkeley. By now I have realized I will never get around to writing the extensive and thoroughly argued piece on the subject that I have been thinking about. Instead, for what it’s worth I have tried to summarize below some of the main points I am taking away from the discussion in a sort of “reader’s digest”.

The number of contributions to this debate is somewhat overwhelming so I can only link to a fraction of them here, but some of the pieces I found most interesting were those by Audrey Watters (1, 2), Timothy Burke and Dominik Lukeš. There was also a good round-up of posts on MOOCs in Digital Humanities Now that featured, among others, a four-part series by Mills Kelly of Edwired (1, 2, 3, 4) that anyone interested in the subject should read. (I linked to parts of this series in a brief post here on 19 July.)

Based on the above (and more), this is my bullet-point(ish) summary:

1. Everyone is really excited about MOOCs and their promise of transforming higher education by harnessing the potential of digital technology.

2. “Everyone”, that is, except those who actually have any knowledge or experience of using digital technology to improve the quality of higher education. For instance, it is striking how virtually every leading digital humanist you have ever heard of is sceptical or critical of MOOCs as currently conceived (and marketed).

3. This is so significant that it deserves to be reiterated in a bullet-point all its own: Those voicing these concerns are not the educators who never understood the value of digital/social in the first place and who think universities and colleges should just carry on as they always have. (Well, they are also critical but that is another story.) Rather, some of the loudest critics are the very people who have worked for years or even decades to “harness the potential of digital technology” in education because they think it is sorely needed.

4. According to these critics (and I agree), the main reason to be skeptical of MOOCs in their present form is that they are simply not transformative at all. In most cases they consist of little else than a series of video lectures delivered to massive student audiences. No matter how good these lectures are, they provide little to no opportunity of meaningful teacher-student interaction. In other words they may constitute a very efficient method of content delivery, but communication is not what they are about.

5. This is a problem since it is the potential of digital technology to increase communication and interaction that is transformative, not its potential of distributing goods more efficiently or economically. What conventional (as in non-MOOC) education needs is not less interactivity but more, and the current model of massive online courses does not provide that. If anything they go in the opposite direction.

6. Those most fervently arguing for the blessings of the MOOC model are politicians, administrators and technology companies. The two former groups hope to save money while the latter hopes to make (a lot of) it if this model is widely adopted. All of them are probably sincere in their belief that MOOCs actually improve the quality of education, but “quality” is then defined in terms of economically and technologically efficient content delivery, not of learning as a complex and distributed process that requires human interaction in order to be effective.

7. Put differently, those who enthusiastically portray MOOCs as the future of higher education tend to focus narrowly on technology as such rather than on its social ramifications in an educational context. Again, it is here that we find the truly transformative opportunities, as digital tools and social media dependent on them can be used to alleviate and overcome (rather than compound) the flaws in traditional educational models. It is this social aspect that those who have long advocated “digital” or “online” learning are basing much of their work on, and this is the reason they are sceptical or critical of MOOCs.

8. All this being said, unlike many digital humanists I believe there is still an important place in future education for conventional lectures as well as textbooks (although in both cases in digitally evolved forms). While it is true that digital/social tools liberate us from the need to depend on these linear, one-way and static forms of presenting and organizing content, the very diversity and heterogeneity of all the new materials available online will underscore the need for some kind of common frame of reference on which to base more interactive and exploratory learning processes.

9. The reason for this is that learning takes place by relating new data to existing cognitive patterns. The main value of both textbooks and traditional lectures consists in providing such basic structures, not in conveying individual pieces of content. This does not mean, of course, that we should passively rely on those structures in teaching and learning, but rather use them as a starting point for discussions and critical analyses of how knowledge is produced, organized and disseminated.

10. Finally, then, this suggests the role I think that MOOCs do have to play in higher education of today and tomorrow. They can serve as providers of a common core of (high quality) lectures and other mass-distributed content around which more dynamic – on- and offline – learning activities can be built, led by teachers that students can interact with on an individual basis. In such a model we are harnessing the potential of digital technology as well as the opportunities opened up by its social consequences.

If students stop coming

In a follow-up to a previous blog post on “the online course tsunami” Mills Kelly of George Mason University speculates on what may happen to the academic labour market if MOOCs (massively open online courses) gain real, long-term traction:

If general education is to be delivered through whatever means (online only/hybrid) seems most cost effective and/or universities opt for a competency model such as I proposed in those long ago posts on the free economy and higher education, then we will eliminate the need for large numbers of junior and/or contingent faculty, because our students will be able to present credentials that demonstrate their mastery of what is currently called general education. Someone, somewhere, will be making money on these courses or course-like options.

This is only one of the possible outcomes that Kelly is discussing, but if this scenario would become real, “tsunami” is no exaggeration of the impact on the entire landscape of higher education (and with it, research).

Update: Kelly has now published a third part in the series focusing on the potential impact on upper-level courses if many students take their introductory courses via MOOC providers.

Fortsatt debatt om massiva nätkurser

Apropå massiva nätkurser som jag skrivit om tidigare verkar en kritisk diskussion om dem ha blossat upp på allvar i USA de senaste veckorna. Det slående med denna kritik är att den inte kommer från motståndare till ny teknik eller nätutbildningar. Istället formuleras den av några av dem som mest gått i bräschen för en utveckling av undervisningsformerna med anledning av den digitala revolutionen. (Även de personer jag refererade i det förra inlägget på temat hör, utan tvekan, till denna kategori.)

En anledning till att debatten tagit fart igen är det uppmärksammade fallet med University of Virginias avskedade “president” (i praktiken motsv. rektor) Teresa Sullivan. Trots starkt stöd från personalen ombads hon lämna sitt uppdrag efter bara två år, eftersom styrelsen (Board of Visitors) tyckte att hon reagerade för långsamt på det hot mot UVa som de massiva nätkurserna ansågs utgöra. I själva verket är UVa en av pionjärerna inom digital humaniora och andra framåtsyftande initiativ, vilket styrelsen inte verkar ha varit medveten om.

Samtidigt är det alltså många, både inom DH-rörelsen och ledande företrädare för andra lärosäten, som är skeptiska till just de massiva nätkurserna och hur de kan tänkas omforma universitetssektorn. Med andra ord är det mycket tveksamt att det är just det tåget man bör hoppa på om man vill ligga i den digitala framkanten, men eftersom UVa:s styrelse uppenbarligen bara läser glättiga pressmeddelanden från de företag och universitet som erbjuder nätkurserna har de inte förstått detta. Företagen själva (här via BBC) menar givetvis att MOOC:s är framtiden, och det finns många försvarare av konventionell campusutbildning som befarar att de har rätt. I så fall skulle det snart vara slut med universitet och högskolor i den form vi känner dem idag.

En mycket skarp och välskriven analys som effektivt summerar argumenten för att det inte kommer att bli så står Jordan Weissmann i The Atlantic för (tipstack till @peorehnquist). Han tillhör dem som menar att lärosätena visserligen kommer att förändras på många sätt av de digitala verktygen och miljöerna, men massiva nätkurser kommer inte att konkurrera ut campuskurser inom överskådlig tid. Resonemanget är mycket övertygande, inte minst för att det är så nyanserat, och hans förutsägelser om utvecklingen framöver tycks mig vara så rimliga de kan bli utifrån det vi vet i dagsläget.

Och Teresa Sullivan? Jo, efter en massiv storm av kritik från stora delar av det akademiska USA tvingades UVa:s styrelse snällt be henne att stanna kvar på sin post, vilket hon också gjorde.

Massiva nätkurser och Digital Campus

På senare tid har så kallade massiva nätkurser (“Massive Open Online Courses” eller MOOC:s) fått en hel del uppmärksamhet inom diskussionen om framtidens utbildning. Bland annat startade flera privata företag inriktade på sådana kurser i USA förra året, när välkända professorer lämnade sina prestigeuniversitet och startade eget. Några av dessa stora universitet har också gjort eller är på väg att göra egna, synnerligen massiva satsningar, nu senast MIT och Harvard i ett storslaget samarbete kallat edX. I en artikel på Ny Tekniks hemsida kan man läsa om edX och där finns också en översikt över några av de fristående aktörerna.

Med tanke på entusiasmen kring dessa initiativ – tydligt närvarande i exempelvis Ny Teknik-artikeln – kan det vara på sin plats att tipsa om podcasten Digital Campus. Den produceras vid Center for History and New Media vid George Mason University i USA och inriktar sig på “how digital media and technology are affecting learning, teaching, and scholarship at colleges, universities, libraries, and museums”. I de senaste avsnitten, särskilt nr 83 och 86, har de s.k. MOOC:s diskuterats tämligen utförligt och med viss skepsis till både själva upplägget och den praktiska genomförbarheten.

Eftersom flera av deltagarna i podcasten själva har anmält sig till kurserna, som i ett par fall ännu inte kommit igång trots att de skulle startat i januari 2012, är det särskilt intressant att höra hur man som student upplever dessa kurser. Ett intryck är för det första att de inte är så innovativa till formen, eftersom det egentligen handlar om en ganska traditionell distansutbildning. När detta faktum för det andra kopplas till den massiva mängden studenter, bokstavligen hundratusentals i några fall, resulterar det i en undervisning som både är opersonlig och föga interaktiv. Då är inte mycket vunnet jämfört med den konventionella universitetsutbildning i campusform som MOOC:s var tänkta att utgöra ett nytt och spännande alternativ till.

Det betyder givetvis inte att nätkurser, massiva eller andra, inte har en framtid eller att de inte kan komma att slå ut konventionella lärosäten på sikt. Däremot kommer det nog inte att gå fullt så snabbt och enkelt som vissa ibland tycks tro. Det visar också, än en gång, att den nya tekniken i sig inte innebär en revolution utan att det avgörande alltid är det sociala (i detta fall pedagogiska) sammanhang den sätts in i.

Oavsett om man delar den tveksamhet inför MOOC:s som uttrycks på Digital Campus, är det en podcast som varmt kan rekommenderas eftersom diskussionen där – i denna och andra frågor – är nyanserad, initierad och eftertänksam.