Thursday, May 30, 2013

The MOOC Monster Morphs

Yesterday Coursera announced that it had formed partnerships with ten state universities and university systems.  These partnerships are distinct from the deals cut with elite, MOOC provider institutions (some of the details of the contract are discussed here).  These deals are about making Coursera's platform the exclusive provider of online content to these  institutions. That is, as Phil Hill points out, MOOCs as courseware and are entirely about the push to monetize their product (see also Mike Caulfield's blog post on this topic, his Educause post, and The Ed Techie).  The contracts allow for faculty at these partner schools to be producers of content; but the main intention is for these cash-strapped, formerly state-supported public institutions--and their students--to consume content that is produced especially by the more elite Coursera partners (e.g. Penn, Duke, Brown, Yale, Michigan, Cal Tech, etc.). Thus, the contracts have detailed provisions for "adopted" and "guided" courses on these new partner campuses.

Steve Kolowich describes a typical scenario, "In a typical case, the company would charge the university a flat fee of $3,000 for "course development." After that, Coursera would charge a per-student fee that would decrease as more students registered for the course. The first 500 students would cost the university $25 per student; the next 500 would cost $15 per student; the university would pay the company $8 for each student beyond that.  Payments to Coursera for use of "adopted" courses—those developed elsewhere—would be similarly tiered. Under the contract, if the university charged each student in a course the same tuition rate, it would get to keep a greater share of tuition revenue as it enrolled more students in the course."

One obvious thing here: the fee structure encourages extremely large classes.  After decades of pushing to reduce student-instructor ratio at public institutions, we are apparently embracing the Massive.  It is difficult to see how these universities could offer much by way of additional interaction with instructors or classmates without driving up the cost of these courses substantially.  State universities have long known that large lecture courses are a sub-optimal form of instruction.  Instead of trying to improve on that, to "hack the large lecture", they are giving up entirely and handing over the keys to private ed tech companies like Coursera.  Sure, for now, administrators can say that they have no plans to use Coursera content to remake entirely the residential college experience; but my suspicion is that it's only a matter of time before the temptation becomes to great--a temptation driven by a combination of state disinvestment in higher education and the false belief that MOOCs are the only answer to the real problems of cost and efficiency at public institutions (the comments on Kolowich's article are worth reading for additional concerns about the logistics of implementing Coursera MOOCs on campuses and across state systems).

Why am I pretty confident that this is how it will play out?  Because it is incredibly expensive, time-consuming and labor-intensive to produce a MOOC (my own institution is finding this out as they prepare to roll out the first set of UTx MOOCs in the fall).  Administrators are cutting these deals with Coursera to cut their instructional budget, not to spend more money developing content in-house.  Indeed, if it was about developing content in-house, there are a number of other and better platforms that could be used (e.g. Instructure's Canvas).  What we have here is Coursera bringing in partners to act as consumers of the content that their producer partners are creating.  Coursera is the middleman who will take a cut of revenue on both sides of the transaction (As Ry Rivard reports, "A network of universities will be creating or using and buying or selling course material from each other, with Coursera in the middle as a content broker, consultant and host.")

Why is Coursera pursuing these partnerships, which involve the implementation of their content on campuses?  Because they have realized that, far from providing education to those without, the MOOCs appeal largely to people who already have degrees, who already know how to learn (and more to the point, who are unlikely to become paying customers).  Daphne Koller tries to put a more altruistic spin on things, claiming that the move into public institutions is about helping to solve problems: "If you're looking to really move the needle on fundamental educational problems, inside and outside the United States, you're going to need to help people reach the first milestone, which is getting their degrees to begin with," Ms. Koller said.  She continues in this vein in the New York Times coverage of the new partnerships: “Our first year, we were enamored with the possibilities of scale in MOOCs.... Now we are thinking about how to use the materials on campus to move along the completion agenda and other challenges facing the largest public university systems.”

Fortunately, Coursera is there to facilitate this process.  Unfortunately, there is absolutely no evidence that anything they are doing is going to do more than make a few people very wealthy and further disadvantage the very population they claim they are trying to help.  Koller and her associates seem not to grasp that education is not a commodity and it involves much more than making content accessible (cf. William Bowen's remarks in the same New York Times article: “We have encouraged Coursera to work with the large state university systems, and the large state university systems to work with Coursera, because that’s where the numbers are, and that’s where there are the biggest issues in terms of cost, completion and access,” said Dr. Bowen. “It’s still exploratory, but this partnership has the potential to make real headway in dealing with those issues.”)

There is undoubtedly a place for MOOC content in the classrooms of public universities.  I suspect that it will be most effective in courses that benefit most from short concept lectures and lots of instructor and TA-guided in class problem-solving (as was the case for the Introduction to Electrical Engineering course that San Jose State piloted using MITx content).  I have a much more difficult time imagining this model succeeding in a history or philosophy or government course.  That's part of the problem with this conversation, in fact.  The MOOC Incs seem unwilling to concede that the process of learning (and, therefore, the pedagogy) differs from discipline to discipline.  They have created a one size fits all product and seem blind to the flaws of this approach. Ifstates are willing to credentialize whatever Coursera and the other MOOC Incs offer (and however low they set the bar), however, the absence of real learning will only be a problem for the student, uh, customer (and, of course, those charged with playing the role of instructor in this scheme). 

Paul LeBlanc, the President of Southern New Hamphire University offers a pretty reasonable guess on how this will ultimately play out: for all the idealistic claims of the founders, the push to monetize will win out and, eventually, content production and, likely, a large part of course delivery and curation will be in the hands of private companies.  In the inimitable words of Tressie McMillan Cottom, "If you can divorce yourself from your ideological leanings you have to recognize the elegant beauty of a perfectly executed hustle."  Indeed (and don't miss her awesome "Disruption playlist")!  It remains to be seen exactly how this will play out on the campuses of these new partners as well as future public institution partners.  My educated guess: not very well apart from a narrow selection of highly technical courses.  But even then, institutions will realize that their students require intense, f2f engagement with content specialists if they are going to actually learn the course content.  Content delivery is the easy part of teaching; facilitating learning is the hard, expensive part and none of the MOOC Incs have indicated that they have any ideas for solving that particular problem.

See also Jonathan Rhees' perceptive comments on the ways that the MOOC INCs, including Coursera, have contributed to the decline--in some places, utter destruction, of shared governance at colleges and universities.

5/31/2013: Alex Usher, Coursera Jumps the Shark (further expanding on the point that this new set of partnerships indicates Coursera's return to the stratosphere, efforts to compete more directly with established for-profit Ed Tech companies like Pearson)
6/2/2013: Kate Bowles, Business as Usual ("Education is a goldfield for opportunists, and MOOC providers are on it, head-to-head with LMS platforms who are also diversifying into hosted open learning. Both are able to exploit the fact that traditional higher education institutions acting competitively—which seems to be the only way we know how to behave—can only provide services at a scale calibrated to traditional staff-student ratios. And this is why the growth potential in these new markets is still tethered to the resourcing costs of academic labour.  The disruptive intervention by which commercial platforms have secured their startling competitive advantage is simple: they have done away with service labour costs.")

6/3/2013: Luke Walzer, "Assessing Coursera, the LMS" ("The most troubling aspect of the MOOC hype has been how quickly this approach to teaching and learning with technology has been seen by a variety of constituencies as a tool/excuse for slashing public funding for higher education....The second most troubling aspect of the hype is how poorly informed by the scholarship of teaching and learning so much of what’s happening in the xMOOCeshpere has been.")

6/3/2013: Lisa Lane, Why DeMoocification Won't Work ("As much as I don’t want to say this, I don’t think there’s a chance in hell that MOOCs will die on their own. I can’t think of any trend which saved large institutitions money and trouble, then died a natural death.")

6/8/2013: Report of the New America Foundation, The Next Generation Universities ("a handful of "Next Generation Universities" are embracing key strategies that make them models for national reform. The report The Next Generation University comes at a time when too many public universities are failing to respond to the nation's higher education crisis. Rather than expanding enrollment and focusing limited dollars on the neediest of students, many institutions are instead restricting enrollments and encouraging the use of student-aid dollars on merit awards. But, according to the report, some schools are breaking the mold by boldly restructuring operating costs and creating clear, accelerated pathways for students.")

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