The New American MOOC

Just a little while ago I wrote a short post on Arizona State University, mostly quoting Chris Newfield’s review of University President Michael Crow’s book on his vision of the university, and already there’s another thing to note. Inside Higher Ed reports that ASU is partnering with EdX to provide the first-ever MOOC for actual college credit.

The scheme, which allows anyone around the world to take MOOCs designed by ASU professors, offers a small up-front fee and a larger fee at the end of the semester to obtain university credit. The goal is that an entire freshman year of courses will be put together so that anyone around the world can complete a year of massive, open, online college before transferring elsewhere or moving to ASU proper.

Firstly, I’m struck by the decision by ASU to essentially become the middleman for EdX – essentially laundering a MOOC. Even if the class is created by a professor, if the platform and the mode of instruction are managed by a company, are there obstacles to accreditation? ASU will be offering very different types of education – and these differences will have consequences – but the difference will also be difficult to discern. And this could apply even to non-ASU-designed MOOCs, according to John Warner:

ASU has the potential to expand their laundry service to the entire edX universe. In other words, they may do what the founding partner institutions of edX – MIT and Harvard – would likely never consider, give full institutional credit for a course taken as a MOOC outside their own institution.

This would allow ASU to not only prey upon other universities by transferring MOOC credits, but also to appropriate MOOCs designed by other universities and accepting them, effectively accrediting whatever EdX churns out.

Crucially, Matt Reed points out the fact that all of this is marketed as a breakthrough solution – but to what exactly? According to Reed, the student who could take an ASU/EdX MOOC:

could take an actual course, online or onsite, from a community college. It would cost less, and would have an actual instructor provide actual guidance and feedback  throughout the course. The credits would transfer anywhere, not just to ASU. Tuition at Maricopa — the community college local to Phoenix — is $84 per credit, as opposed to $200 for the MOOC. Even in the higher-tuition Northeast, we come in well below $200 per credit. And community colleges run full slates of general education courses.

Even better, taking the course with a community college offers access to online tutoring, library resources, and other student supports that have been “unbundled” from the MOOC.

ASU is pointing out that a student doesn’t need to pass through the ASU admissions process to take a MOOC. That’s true, as far as it goes, but community colleges are also open-admission, and have been for decades.

If the cost isn’t actually a factor, then what is the appeal? In a second post, John Warner also argues that the drawbacks from the MOOC-for-freshmen approach could be drastic too:

The true cost, however, is in accepting this kind of redefinition of what it means to pursue education, particularly in a student’s first year, which we know has an outsized importance when it comes to students ultimately succeeding.

We know more now than ever before about what kinds of experiences are most meaningful to students, the “Big 6” as defined by last year’s Gallup survey of  the degree and quality of post-graduate engagement:

  • a professor who made them excited about learning
  • professors who cared about them as a person
  • a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams
  • worked on a long-term project
  • had a job or internship where they applied what they were learning
  • were extremely involved in extra-curricular activities

These are, of course, things that are more difficult (or impossible) to get out of a MOOC, especially if you are the kind of student that MOOCs are supposedly expanding higher ed access to – those least prepared for traditional college.

Lastly, and not that I care too much about it, where does this leave ASU Online? ASU Online is this quasi-university program through which many people take courses and earn degrees, but it’s separate from ASU. Just like Harvard’s Extension School and dozens of other distance learning programs, the curriculum and experience are entirely divorced from students in the universities’ actual schools and departments – even if you take online classes. I took a number of online classes at ASU through my departments, but never took an ASU Online course. With the introduction of the MOOC option – effectively offering three types of online experience – how will the different courses fair? It’s unclear where this MOOC or ASU’s other recent endeavors will take the university, but I don’t like the possibilities.

The traditional higher education may not have to be traditional, in any sense of the word. But massive open courses with little support for only 7.5 weeks do not an engaging experience make. According to an ASU dean, the goal isn’t necessarily enriching lives or expanding minds, though, it’s graduating people and churning them out into the world. As  Dean for Education Initiatives Philip Regier argues, “the end goal is graduating educated university students, which this country is increasingly dismal at doing.”

Maybe if universities didn’t keep undermining and eviscerating their own education, like ASU does (not just through MOOCs but through corporate initiatives, tuition hikes, heavy teaching loads, etc. etc.) the country wouldn’t be so dismal at graduating educated students. Maybe if our universities and our governments doubled down on improving education rather than “disrupting” and “innovating” our way into a deeper hole, things might start improving.

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