Creative Destruction: the Economist on MOOCs

Can the Internet do to education what videotapes, television, radio and the post office could not?

I do all sorts of things online: news, network, Netflix, read, write, research, etc.  But I still like my Economist in my hands.  And since I don’t get it in the mail until Monday afternoon, you may have already seen the pieces on MOOCs in the June28-July4 edition.

With a leader, a Briefing, and a story on Brazil, there is much to enjoy.  As usual, the treatment includes recognizing the effects technology and the Internet have had/are having on many industries, embracing technology for scalability and cost savings, and looking at what some leading organizations are doing.  MOOCs might help as an alternative to higher costs and deeper debts.  The problem of credits counting toward useful degrees remains, but is beginning to be addressed. And so on.

Perhaps the most jarring note to higher education administrators and faculty was the comparison to the newspaper industry, with massive bankruptcies, closures, and job losses.  The Brazil article notes that there are large, coordinated efforts with some real success, many in a “hybrid” fashion combining online and in-person course work and discussion.

Perhaps most interesting was the ad in between the two stories.  The ad was for the The Great Courses ( DVD on “mastering differential equations” – 24 lectures from a professor from Boston University who happens to be former president of the Mathematical Association of America, winner of several teaching awards, with 14 books and over 100 scholarly articles to his credit.  Courses are also available on the Civil War (from a University of Virginia professor with seven books from university presses, incl. two from Harvard Univ Press); and other highly-decorated faculty on the history of European art, world religions, behavioral economics, Russian literature, and much more.

Twenty years ago, in an article “Ivy League Courses fro the Price of a Video,” the New York Times extolled the virtues of choosing the very best teachers at the best schools and making their lectures available to anyone with a VCR:

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, one of the company’s clients, says, “These tapes are outstanding, the teachers are brilliant and the educational value of the material is excellent. It’s like going back to class with the best teachers I ever had.”

The cost for the courses, ranging from $90 to $250, is about one- tenth of what a student would pay in tuition to follow such a class at an Ivy League school. However, the tapes do not lead to any recognized university credit.

(Wait, what’s that math – how much was Harvard’s tuition 20 years ago?)  Ted Kennedy and the New York Times loved The Learning Company (as it was then called), but universities survived.   Since that article, Netscape,, Google, wikipedia, and many others have transformed the landscape of nearly every industry.  It will be great fun to watch higher education as we know it struggle to evolve.

Creating “Coherence” in the College Experience ?

An interview that explores the role of the student in her learning – from the components of any individual course to a multi-year cumulative, coherent education. The recommendation is that a student, not faculty or administration, must drive – and “own” – her individual “learning pathway.”  One way to do this and to demonstrate it is by “saving, archiving, and curating evidence of work over time,” with an online e-portfolio.   It’s the “curating” that I like – thinking about, organizing, and presenting a thoughtful integration of the learning to date….


Technology and Work… in 2064?

The 50th anniversary of the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, which focused on the world of the future (that is, today), has generated a lot articles on “what really happened?” and “what will it all look like 50 years from now?”

IEEE Spectrum brought together Robert Reich, Moshe Varde and others to talk about these. Technology – and especially the Internet – has radically changed commerce, transportation, medicine, entertainment, media, even booksellers, and nearly everything else in the last few decades.  One impact has been the dislocation on American manufacturing jobs, changing the meaning and role of “working class.”   Reich and the rest discuss how workers in the next half century may be affected by new technologies.

Moshe Varde offered a similar (and to me, better), set of insights for IEEE in 2013.

Online learning, of a sort…

The ISIS crisis in Iraq is seen as a military assault requiring a military response, and that is part of it. But the Iraqi government is also responding online.

Shane Harris reports for Foreign Policy that the Iraqi government has ordered restrictions and shutdowns by ISPs of social media sites, VPNs,  and more.  Baghdad is using a more nuanced approach than “shut it all down,” aware that such an approach would (further) alienate ordinary citizens. In governance,  security, and the online battle for “hearts and minds,” governments are learning.

MOOC certification?

Sure, you read the books, watched the video lectures, answered to quizzes, completed the exams, and even did some of the “additional readings”.  But can you prove it?

edX and Coursera have begun to offer varieties of “certificates” upon completion of their courses.  Each offers some evidence that you have consumed and digested the course material, but some courses offer different levels of “certification.”

edX courses offer an “honor code certificate of achievement,” a “verified certificate of achievement,” and an “XSeries certificate of achievement.”   The honor code certificate says you completed the course, but without verifying your identity.  The certificate includes a URL at which employers or others can check on the validity of this certificate.  A verified certificate includes a small fee, continuing proof of identity from a photo ID and your web cam, and an authenticating URL.  An XSeries certificate is earned upon the completion of two or more verified courses:  for example, MITx offers a two-course astrophysics series and a seven-course computer science series.  The total cost of these ($275 and $425, respectively) is less than what you would expect to pay just for books.

Coursera offers similar tiers:  a “statement of accomplishment” and a “verified certificate” via “signature track.”

In general, though, what these do not offer is college credit.  And in fact, you may not even get any certificate of completion.  I recently completed edX’s “Scientific Humanities” from France’s Sciences Po, and was told that in fact no, students would receive no acknowledgement of completion etc.

Sometimes education really is its own reward.

Law School Externships and Online Learning

While many universities have started to offer online-only or hybrid (much online; some on-site) degree programs, law schools have been slower.  Some of this is chicken-and-egg – the American Bar Association has not offered accreditation to any online-only programs and has seemed reluctant to do so.  In late 2013, it did agree to a 2015 pilot program with the ABA-accredited William Mitchell College of Law, to offer a hybrid program combining online and on-site education.

The National Law Journal reported that the ABA last week rejected a call to ease its ban on paid externships for law students – that is, what you know as “paid internships” in which the student receives both pay-for-work and academic credit. Law students who might go to Washington or New York for the summer, or who want to work in their field during the fall or spring semester, will be affected.  Critics charge that this most affects students who can not spend a summer working “for free” on Capitol Hill or elsewhere, or who must work during the school year and can not earn academic credit for that work, as their unpaid classmates can.

NLJ reported that removing the ban had been supported by the ABA’s Law Student Division but opposed by the Society of American Law Teachers and the Clinical Legal Education Association.

As law schools move toward online learning, this may affect many more students.  The importance of externships – both for education and for resume-building – could be especially critical for online-learning/distance-education students.  The ABA ban retains an important hurdle for future law students who will seek to combine valuable legal training and experience during the day while studying online at night.


Ann Ferren Conference 2015 – Call for Proposals

The annual Ann Ferren Conference bring together a great breadth of approaches to improving all aspects of instruction and instructional support:  teaching strategies, innovative assessment design, working with international students, supervising internships, and technology in – and out of – the classroom.  Browse recent years’ offerings, and consider a proposal about online learning, social media, the mobile student, or other topics that will make the rest of us better teachers:  call for proposals deadline September 22, 2014.

What’s up with MOOCs?

Online learning at American University and elsewhere tries to replicate the small-class experience of classroom-based courses: intense student-faculty interaction, student-to-student learning, and a community for discussion.  But in other places, the focus in the last couple of years has been on MOOCs – massive open online courses:  thousands of students, open admissions, no tuition, and no academic credit.  Here’s some recent MOOC news.

Study Finds MOOC Reality Not Yet Meeting High Expectations

Columbia University researchers conclude that from the educational and the business perspectives, MOOCs stll have a long way to go before they are fundamentally change the cores of higher education.  A summary and the entire report.

Another report concluded that so far MOOCs are “more like health clubs than hospitals” – a summary and the report.

In Defense of Teacher Learning

A blog from the global business school INSEAD notes the importance, but lack of discussion, of instructors reconsidering their courses when preparing them as MOOCs.  The new platform forces teachers to reconsider content choices, assignments, and assessments in ways that spill over into reconsidering their classroom-based courses.

Andrew Ng joins China’s Baidu

A Coursera co-founder, with roots at Google and Stanford will become chief scientist at Baidu, the Chinese Internet company with $1.5 in 2014 Q1 revenue.

MOOCs Go Global

From Jordan, Queen Raina’s Foundation for Education and Development will work to increase the number of Arabic MOOCs available for the benefit of Arabic students and scholars with a partnership with edX, called Edraak.  MOOCs are also being offered from Asia and elsewhere.

MOOCs – Not Just for Universities

Forbes notes that while MOOCs pose challenges and opportunities for universities, businesses like SAP and Sky News are also using the ideas that shape MOOCs for their own business purposes.

MOOCs on Everything – Including, Now, SABRmetrics

“An introduction to sabrmetrics, baseball analytics, data science, the R language, and SQL.”  From Boston University via edX.  Begins next week….