Local universities not ready to join the online revolution

Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, may be the future of higher education, but local universities are leery of the drawbacks and complications, and only HPU has taken a few tentative steps

September, 2013

Thomas Friedman, global columnist for The New York Times and the author of “The World Is Flat,” overflows with enthusiasm. “Nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty – by providing them an affordable education to get a job or improve in the job they have,” he wrote this year. “Nothing has more potential to unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems. And nothing has more potential to enable us to reimagine higher education than the massive open online course, or MOOC.”

The key word in Friedman’s testimonial is “potential,” because, while MOOCs offer the possibility of an educational revolution, the reality today is a lot more complicated. That’s one reason Hawaii’s universities have not rushed to adopt this financial panacea to their growing costs and curricula challenges, though Hawaii Pacific University has taken a few small steps.

Among the complications are the accreditation of MOOCs and the difficulties of properly evaluating and grading students.

“Colleges and universities are evaluated by accrediting agencies with consistent standards,” says Todd Simmons, VP of marketing of Hawaii Pacific University. “That’s what MOOCs are lacking now: There’s no governance, consistency or measurement of outcomes. You can take a credential to an employer, but how an employer would interpret that is not clear.”

(Disclosure: Your humble reporter is an HPU senior.)

This year, the American Council on Education recommended five science and math MOOCs offered by Coursera for academic credit, according to reports on the website Inside Higher Ed and in the Wall Street Journal. The punch line is that the very universities producing the online courses – Duke, Pennsylvania and California Irvine – would not give credit to the online versions, even if their own students were to take them.

Two other recent large-scale efforts to award institutional credit to MOOC takers have flopped.

Colorado State University’s Global Campus announced a partnership last fall with Udacitythat allowed enrolled students to take MOOCs for CSU credit. All learners had to do was pay $89 for a proctored exam, a steal considering that’s 10 percent of the cost of regular credits. Yet, there were no takers. The school is not completely disheartened, though, and this fall is offering the first MOOC of its own, a course called Science of Relationships.

A similar pattern of infatuation followed by disillusionment took place at San Jose State University. Collaborating with Udacity, the institution in the heart of Silicon Valley offered five entry-level math and science classes for $150 each, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. These courses were quickly dropped after final exam failures reached disappointing levels. Even more publicity went to the open letter from the school’s Philosophy Department that protested the administration’s plans to bypass the faculty and outsource a social justice class to Harvard through another MOOC provider, edX.

The bravest champion of accredited MOOC learning so far is the Georgia Institute of Technology. With Udacity’s help, Georgia Tech announced in May 2013 the first all-online curriculum delivered through a MOOC provider. Instead of paying $45,000 in tuition for out-of-state students or $21,000 for Georgia residents, students can take an entire master’s degree in computer science for $6,600.

The biggest and most prestigious universities behind MOOCs have both altruistic and pragmatic motives, and two of the three biggest MOOC providers are for-profit ventures. So, it’s no surprise that MOOCs in general are veering away from the original ideal of no-strings-attached education. Other than contracting courses to universities, some ways to make money include charging for verified certificates of completion and proctored exams, and selling star-student data to prospective employers.

Bill Chismar, dean of Outreach College at UH-Manoa, sees another strategy: MOOC providers helping universities develop their own online materials for a fee. “I expect that Coursera is going to come up with course software fairly soon in order to get some income,” says Chismar, who has been involved in computer-aided education since the 1970s, both as a provider of software and other tech products, and in academia itself.

Effective MOOCs require a lot of time and resources to create, explains Jared Marcum, director of online learning at Brigham Young University-Hawaii and an instructional technology specialist.

“You do have MOOCs created just by professors, but usually there’s a team of instructional designers,” according to Marcum. In a typical case, he says, it takes thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of concentrated group effort to create a quality online course.

So why do MOOC professors painstakingly record videos, build quizzes and sacrifice time to deliver content for which they don’t get paid?

“One, it’s the reputation, and two, it’s the impact,” Chismar answers. “It’s nice to know there are students out there learning from you.”

In marketing terms, free online courses are a cost-efficient way to advertise a university, as shrewd teenagers use them as no-commitment window shopping.

“Part of it is marketing in terms of attracting good students,” continues Chismar. “[MOOC providers] have data on who went through these courses – they find somebody who did amazingly well in some country around the world where you wouldn’t normally recruit. Invite them in!”

When MIT and edX offered their course called 6.002x, Circuits and Electronics, last fall, there were 340 perfect scores on the final exam; one of them was from a 15-year-old resident of Mongolia named Battushig. MIT might have made a nice offer to that boy.

One criticism of MOOCs is the inherent cultural insensitivity that derives from their wholesale approach. Each course has a single value set and framework of reference, oblivious to local differences.

If MOOC makers are really serious about educating the world, they should address the thinking patterns of different cultures, says Ghanashyam Sharma, a professor of writing and rhetoric at the State University of New York in Stony Brook. From this perspective, MOOCs may end up as education’s version of a one-size-fits-all Hollywood blockbuster movie.

BYUH’s Marcum is well aware of this problem. Currently working on his Ph.D. in international online learning, he chose Hawaii for the perfect place to experience teaching in widely divergent cultural contexts.

Among BYUH’s ongoing projects is meeting the specific demands of South Pacific nations such as Tonga and Samoa, where familial solidarity, and not individual ambition, dictates educational achievement. From a pedagogical standpoint, the experience of taking a MOOC would be very different in a collectivist population, Marcum suggests, because in such a context, the reliance on tradition might be incompatible with the laissez-faire ethic of a free online course and the intrinsic motivation it calls for.

“It may be that a MOOC will be successful in some cultures and not in others, and I think that’s what we’ll find,” Marcum says. “A democratic form of education may be widely accepted in societies with a democratic culture, but, in societies that highly value authority, MOOCs won’t be appreciated as much. The idea behind MOOCs, that is, Harvard and MIT’s idea, is to educate a billion people. Unless they address cultural issues, I don’t think they will.”

Flippant Classroom

For most observers, however, the greatest obstacle to taking MOOCs seriously and awarding academic credit lies elsewhere: Providers have no satisfactory way to control for cheating.

Coursera, for instance, requires its users to agree to the platform’s honor code – that is, check a tiny box on the screen before submitting assignments. Obviously, that’s not authoritative. If credit begins to get awarded more consistently – and become more meaningful – people will have the incentive to cheat.

If the stakes are high, a crooked enrollee can hire “tutors” for a few hundred dollars from websites like boostmygrades.com, onlineclasshelpers.com or wetakeyourclass.com. Some of these even feature social media platforms to share the information that the course taker has resorted to their kinds of services. #Brilliant!

Substitute test-takers is an obvious way to cheat in a MOOC, but here’s a more devious method: Set up multiple accounts from different emails, ascertain the right and wrong answers from the dummy accounts, and use the right answers for your prime account. Even if controlling for IP addresses is used in the future, determined cheaters can find workarounds.

Automated grading systems can handle right and wrong answers in multiple-choice quizzes and in many science and math tests, but automation cannot substitute for a smart human mind in checking for content relevance in the answers to open questions. The sheer volume of text produced by 10,000 participants in an online liberal arts course goes far beyond the capacity of any instructor. That’s why MOOC providers use peer grading: Everyone must read and evaluate other people’s assignments to complete the course. For his experience at BYUH, Marcum sees pluses and minuses to that approach: “It’s a good exercise for students to review each other’s work and assign a score because it really helps them learn, but we found that students are much more lenient doing that, so scores are inflated.

Sam Joseph, an associate professor of computer science at HPU, who teaches online from his home in London, is more optimistic. “I don’t think (peer grading) is yet quite in a form that delivers an ideal learning experience, but it’s an excellent start.”

In collaboration with two University of California Berkeley professors and edX, Joseph just finished teaching a 12,000-student summer course called CS169X, Software as a Service. In an email to Hawaii Business, he offered ways to flip our perspective on the issue of integrity in online education: “I believe the focus should be on igniting the imagination of individual students. … I would argue that plagiarism and academic dishonesty comes largely from students not being interested in performing the academic exercises they are being set.  The solution is not to ask how to control plagiarism through technology, but what is it that interests an individual student? Unlock the interest of the individual student and they will have no incentive to be academically dishonest.” Joseph says his thinking is partly informed by an online course he took this summer titled, “Understanding Cheating in Online Courses.” The professor in that course told the Chronicle of Higher Education that he would ask participants in the course to cheat, then disclose to the rest of the class how they cheated. The point is to understand the phenomenon and figure out ways to minimize it.

An advanced mechanism to identify fraud is ProctorU, a company founded in 2008 and based in Alabama. The company says it offers real-time online monitoring of test takers in which each student is assigned a personal sentinel remotely observing their screen during an exam. After a photo verification and some security questions, the proctor watches over the learner when signing into the school’s website; to intensify the effect, the custodian is visible at all times from a small window on the test-taker’s screen.

Partnering with ProctorU, the University of Illinois Distance Education program charges its students $14.75 for an hour or $30.25 for three hours of vigilance. This system may work too well: When San Jose State used it in the for-credit version of an entry-level math class this spring, only 29 percent of test takers passed.

Lost in the Shuffle

One of the prides of MOOCs – their massiveness – is somewhat of a problem, at least when viewed by traditional criteria. “Dropout rates” are as high as 98 percent, in part because of the one-click ease of enrolling and unenrolling. Coursera’s Social Network Analysis course, for example, had 61,285 prospects signed up, 60,059 of whom gave up at some point before the end.

“I don’t know that ‘dropping out’ as a concept is particularly useful for students who are not studying for credit,” responds Joseph, and he offers a simile to clarify his thinking: “When casual MOOC students are taking a course, it is much more like they are buying an encyclopedia.  They are gaining access to a set of materials that they can take and pick from as they please.”

After all, MOOCs are not that different from books. Both demand initiative that can be taken back at will. Recent motivation research shows that most MOOC takers give up for two main reasons: lack of time or the content didn’t match their expectations. Hence, for most online learners, the absence of commitment is a valuable asset; if this freedom were taken away, enrollment will surely plummet.

One reason the massive and open nature of the courses makes Marcum uneasy is the lack of real interaction between students and instructor, which often results in deficiency of authority and what he calls “education by democracy.”

Unless automated, grading MOOCs assignments is often crowd-sourced to other online learners. Some peculiarities of crowd sourcing are evident from the “karma” points in Udacity’s forums, where users award each other scores based on helpfulness when answering questions. There is hardly any official moderation and those who are always active, even if they rarely have anything substantial to say or even understand the subject, are more likely to be “upvoted” simply because of their exposure. In MOOCs, democratization has erased much of the clear, if authoritarian, standards of the traditional classroom. Instead, there is a Facebook-inspired system of “likes,” where users vote to boost the importance level of a question so it can reach the instructor. Social media rules, and we know the low common denominator social media can produce.

Local Colleges

It’s understandable why local universities have avoided such complex and fluid learning environments. Nonetheless, Chismar identifies four possible ways for UH to partner with MOOCs:

  1. Offer an open course to the world.
  2. Fully outsource introductory classes to MOOC providers.
  3. Use MOOCs in “flipped classrooms,” so that basic learning occurs independently by the students using the MOOCs and is then reinforced and evaluated during classroom time by local professors.
  4. Buy content-delivery software from MOOC providers and use that technology to teach UH’s own students.

Chismar draws a clear line: the first is not going to happen because UH has “no resources to educate the masses of the world,” and the second would likely face “resistance from faculty who would have something to say about the possibility of replacing them to save costs. … The other ones, though, could happen,” he concludes.

BYUH is even more reluctant to implement MOOCs in its curriculum. “We looked at that as a university and quickly said, ‘No,’ ” explains Marcum. “MOOCs are great for personal improvement, and I take my hat off to Harvard and others who try to be philanthropic in their efforts and help people throughout the world. But problems like cheating, cultural insensitivity, absence of a teacher who interacts with the students, which I think is the biggest one, and the often inflexible content are important.”

On the other hand, HPU is feeling adventurous. The school already offered an open course this past spring semester, a combined CSCI 4702 Mobile Programming & MULT 4702 Mobile Design, taught by Joseph via Google Sites. Essentially an online HPU course that was open to the public, it awarded credit only to people enrolled in the school. The instructor, who holds a Ph.D. in cognitive science and natural language, describes the experience with a touch of wry British charm: “Our online public course trial had around 20 students combined, so I think it qualifies more as a SOOC (small open online course) than anything else.”

Joseph pitched the idea for the class “as a public beta” to the school’s administration and it was approved. “But there’s distance,” says Simmons, the HPU marketing VP, “between offering a MOOC from an individual faculty member and having that as an accepted part of the university curriculum.” Simmons says the university’s official position is that it is both “interested in the dialogue” and “among the majority in higher education that just don’t have a position.”

To gain wider perspective on the motivation to take a MOOC, Hawaii Business organized a Saturday afternoon get-together for “Courserians” via meetup.com. The result was six RSVPs, but none of them showed up; the only other person who did was Larry Rowland, the chair of HPU’s Financial Economics and Information Systems Department.

According to MOOC demographic reports, Rowland is not an untypical MOOC user, as the majority of learners tend to already have at least a bachelor’s degree. He says his motivation for joining University of Melbourne’s Exercise Physiology course is also compatible with many course-takers’ motivation, which is enhancing their professional development.

“I feel validated,” Rowland says with a smile. “I’m taking it as an opportunity to see how (MOOCs) are made, as I’m in the process of reinventing the information systems classes I teach online.”

Rowland also declares himself an avid observer of everything new in higher education and a long-time practitioner of the “flipped classroom” approach.

Where Rubber Meets the Road

For now, let’s set aside the wonderful notion of learning for learning’s sake and focus just on what MOOCs can do as far as learning for your career’s sake. In that latter category, Chismar emphasizes the existence of two separate education consumers: those who can attend colleges and those who cannot because of time, distance or money.

MOOCs might be a viable choice for the latter group, he says. For instance, adult learners can benefit from professional training that awards certificates, as opposed to entire degrees, if the credibility and evaluation problems are solved.

“Then there are people in geographic locations that they can’t leave,” continues Chismar. “Even here in the state of Hawaii – someone over at Molokai helping with a family business – they can’t just leave for four years to get a degree even though it’s only 30 miles away.”

But how can MOOCs help the group of people who could attend a university? Can a couple of MOOCs add significantly to a bricks-and-mortar college degree? Can MOOCs substitute for one?

Arlene Burgess, a career counselor at HPU, encourages college graduates to experiment and gain experience in as many ways as possible. “I hear from employers on a daily basis that young professionals who succeed are the most flexible ones, and the ones with the most skill sets,” she says. “… Someone who writes well, is very comfortable with digital photography and knows how to build websites – oh my gosh! – you can write your ticket.” If taking a MOOC would make a difference, Burgess is all for it.

So, if MOOCs can turn you from a bank teller into a bank teller/entry-level accountant/marketing innovator, then your career prospects are much better, at least in theory. However, local employers see MOOCs as supplements and enhancements to traditional college degrees rather than substitutes for them.

Kyle Tanouye, founder and CEO of Milan Marketplace, a local mobile and location-based advertising startup, admits he hasn’t seen the term “open course” on a resume yet, but has had unsatisfactory experience hiring people who have tried to substitute college degrees with some sort of online certificates. However, Tanouye adds, “In general terms, I would say that online education could be equal, or potentially better in some cases, if the participating individual already has a good foundation.”

Brandon Kurisu, president of the Web development and consulting company Upspring Media, sees college partly as sort of a boot camp for character building and strengthening communication skills. Nevertheless, Kurisu acknowledges an ever-increasing role for online education. “Whether we like it or not, things will probably move in that direction. Right now it’s in its infancy and there are a lot of kinks to work out.”

The Big Three Online Education Providers

The three largest providers of MOOCs in America areCoursera, Udacity and edX. The first two are for-profit companies, financed by Silicon Valley venture capital, with roots at Stanford University. edX is not commercial and is sponsored by MIT and Harvard.

Coursera is the most popular provider, with 415 courses across a wide range of subjects offered from 83 universities. This July, the company surpassed 4 million users, slightly more than Indira Gandhi National Open University, which is sponsored by India’s government and popular in Asia and Africa.

edX has a more contained list of subjects and supporting institutions than Coursera, while Udacity is dedicated exclusively to its 25 self-paced courses in the STEM field.

Beyond the three big ones, there are quite a few independent providers, as well as many stand-alone courses offered by individual schools. Motivated learners can also benefit fromApple’s iTunes U, which offers a variety of courses with user reviews, and the Khan Academy, which provides mostly high school-level content focused on science and math.

(See also: Will Free Online Courses Replace College Degrees?)

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