One Mind Opines about 20 Million Minds

20 million minds foundationOn Jan 8, 2013, an organization called Twenty Million Minds Foundation held a one-day conference/ symposium/ discussion/ thingy called “re:boot California Higher Education.” Check out Audrey Watters’ Storify about the whole day.

There were several things that struck me about the conversation throughout the day. I’ll pick five of the things that were said during the day and give my own point or counterpoint.

#1: Has online learning growth been faculty-driven?

Bob Samuels is the President of the University Council (California-based) of the American Federation of Teachers. You can also read his reflections on the day’s events. I have no bone to pick with Dr. Samuels, and I agree with him that the idea that the growth to online learning has NOT been faculty-driven. He says “this is all about reducing costs and making money.” Let me clarify that I partially agree with him but that I disagree with him in total. I agree with him that at the research universities – this move to online has NOT been faculty-driven. The research universities have, for the most part, been brought into the online arms race kicking and screaming. Let’s face it. The online learning growth over the past 15 tears has mainly been fueled by community colleges that want to increase access to education while growing their enrollments and by the for-profit providers who want to increase their profits by growing enrollments. Neither of those two things are especially important on the campuses of our major research universities.

Where I disagree with Dr. Samuels is when it comes to community colleges. In my experience in Minnesota, and in many other places where I’ve travelled to connect and share with people involved with e-learning; a great deal of the growth in online learning has been faculty-driven. I know a large number of faculty members who have embraced the advantages of online learning while putting up with the disadvantages of such, without any coercion from the dreaded college administrators. The point of this is something that was brought up several times during the day; namely that we cannot paint with such a broad brush to think that there is one problem here and that there will be one solution. Higher education is NOT a single industry. Community Colleges and R1 universities are as different as night and day.

I think the following tweet sums it up nicely:

Regarding Dr. Samuel’s other point that online ed is “all about reducing costs,” I would have to agree that it seems to be coming down to that during the past year or so. For 15 years of online learning growth, I was never involved in serious conversations about how this would dramatically reduce the cost of providing higher education opportunities. The main focus was increased access to education and flexibility to meet modern lifestyles and schedules.  But now, just lately, cost reduction seems to be the major focus. I suppose we can blame the governors who seem to think that a bachelor’s degree should cost no more than $10,000, or maybe we should blame some of the for-profits who (for a while) were making huge profits (and therefore had low costs relative to revenues generated) before they started getting slapped around by Senator Harkin and the like. Whatever the many causes of this shift in the conversation, this is not a good shift. If we focus on online education as being the way to reduce costs, we will certainly lose our way as a global leader in the education market.

#2: Will the best MOOC win?

I believe the question was asked by Lillian Taiz, President of the California Faculty Association (apologies if it was someone else). Her question related to the MOOC craze, and whether the logical extension (my words, not hers) of all of this would be a single course by a single provider for each needed course title. Thus, will there eventually only be one (presumably the best) Intro to Psychology course, taught by the best instructor in the world, and all the students in the world will learn from the feet of this 21st century reincarnation of Socrates.

I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately, ever since the MOOC craze kicked in. As you can see in the embedded tweet, I remember this same question being asked about 15 years ago. I was a faculty member in Minnesota and attended a state-wide Community College faculty meeting at Normandale CC in Bloomington, MN. There were many big fears about this unknown thing called online learning, and one of the biggest fears was that it would put everyone out of a job. “Why would they take my accounting course when they can take that course from Harvard or Yale or whoever has the best course and instructor?” Some of us thought that those concerns were overblown, but there definitely seemed to be more people who believed it would happen to them than those who didn’t believe it.

During the ensuing 15 years, there was nary a glimpse of anything close to that happening, and for lots of reasons that I won’t go into at this time. Suffice it to say that anyone who wanted to teach online was able to do so and have full or nearly full classes to teach – at least in my experience. And now all of the sudden, the MOOC thing seems to be turning that on its head. If I taught a course on Artificial Intelligence and saw that Thrun and Norvig attracted 160,000 students to their MOOC of the same flavor when first offered at Stanford, I might be just a little bit nervous about my job security.  My advice is to not progress beyond the stage of being a “little bit nervous.”

In the end, will the best MOOC win and everyone else die? NO – not even close.

#3: Is Bigger Always Better?

This one gets a lot of play. Just remember that there’s always more than one side to consider. Sure, Ng would need 250 years to “reach” as many as he did in the MOOC. The difference between “reaching” and teaching is something that definitely needs to be part of this discussion. The educational opportunity provided to the 100,000 students in the MOOC is very different from the 400 students on campus. The quote above that talks about 250 years is based on some media reports of the AI MOOC enrolling 100,000 students. Other reports say it was as much as 160,000 students – which would take 400 years of the small (400 is NOT small) classes to match.

But he also would need about 3,000 years to see as many of his students fail (not succeed or complete) his course as he did in the MOOC. BTW, 3,000 years is just a wild guess – but I feel pretty confident about it.

Okay, I’m running out of time here. Three is less than five. I’ll get around to a second post in the near future with a few more items from re:boot.

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