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Massive Open Online Uncertainty

MOOCs are the hot new education trend everyone’s talking about, but no one really knows how much good—or damage—they will bring to higher education

by Molly Eadie on May 1, 2013 · 2 comments

“If you can MOOC some of your courses . . . you’re just starting that much ahead of the game”: Tina Grant. Photo by Molly Eadie.



Carol Yeager first entered the world of “massive open online courses,” or MOOCs, in 2008.

“I dipped in, lurked and left,” she said during a Google Hangout, which she uses to talk to students—who come from as many as 50 different countries—in the MOOC she designed and facilitates through Empire State College, “Creativity and Multicultural Communication.”

Yeager has designed and facilitates two MOOCs with her colleague, Betty Hurley-Dasguta, the first two MOOCs offered by SUNY schools. SUNY Geneseo also launched one in January.

The first self-described MOOC was “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge,” created by Stephen Downes and George Siemens at the University of Manitoba, Canada, in 2008. In 2012, elite American universities began to pick up on the idea of free, open online courses. Two Stanford professors, Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig, offered “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” that year, and more than 160,000 students in 190 countries enrolled in the course. The duo started Udacity, a website and platform on which many MOOCs from several colleges and universities are now offered. Similar sites like EdX (initiated by MIT and Harvard) and Coursera (out of Stanford) also began in 2012, and offer MOOCs taught by distinguished faculty from a number of top-notch universities.

According to Udacity’s mission statement, they “believe that higher education is a basic human right,” and this seems to be the idea behind the MOOC. These courses generally don’t eran students college credit, but are available to anyone in the world with access to the Internet who is interested in learning—for learning’s sake.

Robert McGuire has dipped into dozens of MOOCs over the past four or five months, and he’s about to finish one for the first time—MOOCs do currently have about a 90-percent dropout rate—a feat he believes is reasonable for someone who works full time. With no real barrier or lengthy enrollmentprocess, it’s easy to join a MOOC or two, or many. All it takes, usually, is a username and password.

While MOOCs have only about a 10-percent average completion rate, it’s important to note that many MOOC students may not be there with the intent to finish the course, but to drop in, poke around, and “lurk” like Yeager did, grab material and knowledge from areas they are interested in—and get out. Recent research from Stanford puts MOOC students in four categories: completing learners, who participate in a majority of the assessments; auditing learners, who complete few assessments but watch video lectures; disengaging learners, who do not do assessments but also show a decrease in engagement; and sampling learners, who enter and leave the course quickly, participating minimally during their time in it.

McGuire teaches freshman composition at Southern Connecticut State University, and says with MOOCs, he tries to put himself in a position similar to that of his students.

“What would be something that’s introductory and unfamiliar to me, and challenging and interesting to me also—those are the ones I actually take and try to follow along and do the material,” he said. He’s about to finish “Foundation of Business Strategy.”

“I’m re-creating the uncomfortable space my own students are in.” He also says he observes courses he’s curious about to see how they work—he’s dipped into a Freshman Composition class, for example.

“For the students in these classes, what they’re trying to achieve may not be what we all assume a college class should do,” said McGuire.
McGuire is editor of MOOCsnewsandreviews.com, a site he launched in April. His contributors are classmates he’s met in MOOCs, and come from all over the world.

“Because, right now, there’s no tangible benefit in the form of credit, what you have in the environment is the most enthusiastic classroom setting I’ve ever seen, people are there just because they want to be there,” he said. “And that really influences how you learn material.”

McGuire also says the multicultural aspect of the MOOC classroom adds to the learning experience.

“What happens when you open it up to a broader audience is you get perspectives from people from different countries, different cultures, and it makes the learning richer,” said Yeager.

Creativity and Multicultural Communication is the MOOC Yeager has designed and facilitates—not “teaches.” It is a connectivist MOOC, or a cMOOC, which she describes as “an aggregation of people who connect and build their learning among and between one another through various aspects of social media.”

Participants in these courses use Facebook, Twitter, blogs, YouTube and discussion boards to share knowledge. Yeager’s MOOC, and other cMOOCs, use an RSS congregation roll called gRSShopper to combine these media venues into a comprehensive stream. There are no textbooks or assignments, but students taking the course for credit need to complete a final project to show they’ve learned. On the other hand, xMOOCs are content-driven with regular assessment and the type of course offered on Udacity, Coursera, EdX and other platforms.

“One of the things with the cMOOC, and some faculty may find this a little off-putting, is we go into it as a learning facilitator, which I call myself,” said Yeager. “You have to be willing to cede control, because it then becomes student-directed, and that’s part of the beauty of the learning.”
Yeager’s MOOC can be taken without earning credit, or for two to four credits through Empire State College.

At this time, very few MOOCs are offered for college credit. But some colleges and universities—including public university systems like SUNY—are seeing potential uses for these massive courses.

Tina Grant is the director of the Albany-based National College Credit Recommendation Service, an organization that evaluates nontraditional educational courses for college credit. This includes MOOCs, but can include a range of things.

“It’s a natural tendency when someone completes one—and they’re not easy—to want to get credit for it,” she says. “When you’re spending all this money on education, there’s no guarantee you’re getting a job, but you paid so much tuition. So if you can MOOC some of your courses and patch together a degree, you’re just starting that much ahead of the game.”

Grant is serving on an expert panel for Open SUNY, a network of online courses and open educational resources (OERs) that will be available to all SUNY students.

OERs refer to any openly licensed learning content—which could mean YouTube videos, textbooks, software, or any educational content that is free for public reuse, revision or remixing. The content in a truly open MOOC comes from OERs—they are available for anyone on the web to use. Empire State College, SUNY’s leader in distance learning and experimental education, is part of OER University, a “virtual collaboration of like-minded institutions committed to creating flexible pathways for OER learners to gain formal academic credit.”

When Ernest L. Boyer, then-chancellor of SUNY, founded Empire State College in 1971, he called it an “open institution.”

“The idea of open isn’t necessarily just online or MOOCs,” says Robert Clougherty, acting vice provost for Research, Innovation and Open Education at Empire State College. “Open education is meeting the needs of students on their terms.”

Empire State College submitted a proposal for Open SUNY after Chancellor Nancy Zimpher announced her “strategic plan.” Open SUNY includes SUNY Complete, designed help SUNY students who have left the system without finishing their degree to complete their education, and SUNY REAL (Recognition of Experiential and Academic Learning). Empire State College has been awarded a $500,000 grant from the Lumina Foundation to develop SUNY REAL, which will assess nontraditional learning experiences. In a press release, Zimpher called it “a unique opportunity for military veterans, workers, and others to translate their life experiences into college credit,” saying it will decrease time to a degree and save students money.
Through Open SUNY, SUNY colleges and universities could offer their own MOOCs, which could be available for credit for SUNY students but also open to the public. Empire State College offers credits for MOOCs through assessments, even for non-matriculated students. After completing a MOOC, students would complete an assessment demonstrating what they learned—an essay, presentation, or other type of document—and the college will further validate that with an interview.

Excelsior College also has a system for granting credits for MOOCs, or other independent learning. If a student can demonstrate mastery of a subject and earn a “C” or higher on an Excelsior College Exam (ECE), they can receive college credit.

The State of California is looking at MOOCs as a solution to its problem of many students and few resources. With waiting lists to get into courses at community colleges, California lawmakers have introduced three bills that would create a “statewide system of faculty-approved, online college courses,” so students could take low-cost online courses like MOOCs to fulfill popular, introductory courses. Two of the bills mandate 10 percent of courses to be taught online. Assembly Bill 1306 “shall provide no instruction, but shall issue college credit and baccalaureate and associate degrees to any person capable of passing examinations.”

Cynthia Eaton, an associate professor of English at Suffolk Community College, is wary of California’s plan for MOOCs. She has taught both online and in a classroom setting, and says MOOCs are being aimed at the very students who struggle the most with them—community college students. Research from Columbia University’s Community College Research Center shows that community college students tend to lack the nonacademic skills needed to thrive in an online classroom.

“Sometimes I have students who persist through my online class and they might scrape by with a “C,” and I can’t help but think if those students were in my on-campus class, and I could look them in the eye, and I could see the look on their face when they don’t get something, or when they scrunch up their face when they’re confused, there’s more than you can do in an on-campus section with students who are more at-risk,” Eaton says.
The “massive” part of MOOCs worry her, “that it will be a massive catch-all of students, who, for some reason or another, can’t get into the classroom sections of a course.”

“We wouldn’t want a situation where students who are the ‘haves’ are landing in a traditional campus, and the ‘have-nots’—the more diverse, economically disadvantaged students—are landing in these open online classes. But I can see it happening, because the students who are less well-prepared may not get those seats.”

“You can say all you want, it’s not going to replace something,” says Andrew Sako, professor at Erie Community College, Faculty Federation of ECC president, and member of the New York State United Teachers board of directors. “If you’re giving someone credit from another institution, there’s one less person in that class. If it’s a quality course and it’s something that is appropriate for transfers then that’s fine, but there’s got to be parameters.”
In a statement, United University Professions spokesman Don Feldstein said, “Our first priorities are the educational needs of our students and the maintenance of high quality in the courses we teach.” He said UUP is also “concerned by how MOOCs may adversely affect the working conditions and workloads of our members” and is “looking to guard against any attempts to outsource online instruction to private companies.”
Private investors are already in the MOOC game, with venture capital firms like Andreessen Horowitz, New Enterprise Associates and Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers investing millions in Coursera and Udacity. Nonprofits, most notably the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, have also given funds to edX and the Khan Academy.

“Of course [these companies] have these handy solutions—they have a lot of money to be made,” says Eaton. “If you believe in education as a public good, and want a well-educated citizenry, having all this private influence just flood into public institutions—I think it’s very scary, it just isn’t healthy.”

Eaton criticizes public school systems for slashing budgets and putting more financial burden on their students, forcing students to work more to pay for college, and says this increases time to get a degree. Open SUNY boasts that its programs will help decrease the time to obtain a degree, creating feasibly obtainable three-year undergraduate degree programs and five-year graduate degree programs.

“I don’t know if what we need most for our students is less time in credit,” says Eaton. “Our mission statement is ‘we transform lives,’ and developing intellectual skill takes time.”

While MOOCs are being talked about by just about everyone in the education world, many schools aren’t looking to offer them anytime soon. Some colleges have already explored the possibility of getting involved with MOOCs and decided not to, for the time being. SUNY’s University at Albany is working on expanding its now-“traditional” online courses and degree programs to meet the needs of distance and commuting students. The university already offers four fully-online graduate degree programs and two certificate programs. The SUNY Learning Network is one of the biggest online education providers in the country and has granted degrees to tens of thousands of students.

“MOOCs are getting a lot of attention,” says Peter Shea, associate professor of educational theory and practice at UAlbany. “But no one’s getting a degree from a MOOC yet.”

With open-online education evolving, it’s unsure whether or not MOOCs will be the education of the future, prove to be a fad and disappear, or find a place in the fabric of the education world.

“I think it’s a significant possible disruption to higher education,” says Grant. “But I think it will settle in, find its place and just be another option.”
“Everyone’s afraid they’re going to miss the boat,” says Yeager. “But they’re not really sure yet what the boat is.”



UPDATE: The lede was missing in the original posted version, and has been restored.