Blog Post

What I Hope To Learn By Teaching a MOOC on "History and Future of Higher Ed"

What I Hope To Learn By Teaching a MOOC on "History and Future of Higher Ed"

If I had a magic wand and could reverse the neoliberal funding trends depriving public state universities of support, of course I would.  

If I had a magic wand and could make private universities affordable by the best students, not just the richest, of course I would. 

If I had a magic wand and could raise the percentage of students worldwide who have access to higher education, of course I would.  To put that wish into perspective, you need to know that, right now, less than 2% of those already pre-selected by excellent test scores in high school to take the college entrance exams are able to attend the technical universities of South Asia.  There are similar depressing statistics for many other countries around the world . . .

If I had a magic wand, I would make community college education available to the 450,000+ students currently waitlisted for such colleges in the state of California.


I do not have a magic wand.  We are facing an education shortfall of epic proportions. 

I will continue to work with others to urge legislators to address this crisis.   They do not seem to be hearing me or anyone else about this crisis. 

And if I am a student now, today, I am desperate for some help, for some answers.  (We know the #1 reason for dropping out of high school is knowing you have no chance in the world of going on to college:  why bother?  why bother?  why bother?   This is a national tragedy.)


We live in a world where, at present, the average GPA of a student entering the University of California Irvine is 4.1 on a 4.0 scale.   That is appalling.  We are expecting our children to be better than perfect--AP courses galore, perfect test scores, perfect grade point averages, perfect attendance, some sports, lots of community service, all that.   We are teaching them that even a tiny deviation from perfection is failure, it means being excluded from admission to an affordable in-state university.

Of course the global 1%, the world's truly wealthy, can gain a great education.  And the sons and daughters of professional people--let's say the top 10% in income-- can receive fine educational preparation and get a great education without being "better than perfect."   If you have enough money, you can always pay for a very good education at one of the private schools where tuition (rather than fancy endowments) pays the bills and where the acceptance rate is conducive to the less than perfect). If you have enough money, you can also go to a state school that happens not to be in your state and pay the out-of-state tuition required to subsidize public education in just about every state of the union (how perverse, hypocritical, and unfair is that?   why isn't THAT the basis of a Supreme Court affirmative action case?  If I live in California, someone less qualified than me gets in to my state's university just because they come from Arizona?  Where's the outrage over that structural unfairness?)   For more and more students today, higher education is simply out of reach.

Are MOOCs the answer?  No, not at all.  But they are a new way of thinking about the problem.  And we need new ways to instigate creative thinking and I'm hoping that we all can come up with much better ways in the future to address these issues.

Personally, I'm skeptical of many MOOCs as they are structured now.   This is precisely why I am planning to teach one.   I am not someone who criticizes alternatives before I've explored them.   And I really do not like to criticize nascent new alternatives when the existing system is not working to solve existing problems:   by "existing problems" I mean the one I've outlined (higher education is unavailable to millions who want it), as well as the problem of much current education being out of touch with the needs, possibilities, methods, and modes of learning that students use out of school and that they need to use well for the world of work they will inhabit once they graduate. 

Do existing MOOCs address these problems?  Potentially.   That's why I'm going to experiment and teach one.


I have begun to make and am awaiting for final approval on a Coursera MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) on "The History and Future of Higher Education," to be offered for six weeks to anyone in the world for free in Spring of 2013, even while I'm teaching my Duke students a course on "The History and Future of Higher Education" as a f2f course (they'll take the Coursera course the first part of the class as their "text book" and then meet to discuss it and then work in research teams to analyze it once it is over).  

I am excited to explore the kind of peer-to-peer learning that the 11,000+ HASTAC network specializes in and champions.   I'm creating Forum topics now, such as an ethnographic assignment someone suggested to me just this week when I told them I was hoping to transform a top-down hierarchical sage-on-the-stage course into a peer-to-peer platform for engaged, interactive learning.   She suggested I ask in the Forum:  "Go find someone ten, twenty, forty, or second years from your age (in either direction) and interview them about higher education or any education (if they are, say, 8 years old) they experienced.   Write a summary of your interview."  I will supply five or six prompts and ask the students to add others.  Can you imagine if 90,000 or even a measly 9000 people from all around the world filed such an ethnography of past education and present?  Think about what we will all learn from this array of experiences.

I also have already recorded my first 15-minute segment, on the origins and ideology of multiple choice testing and I've written some quiz questions which turn "summative" (end of topic) assessment into "formative" (feedback that helps you learn better) assessment by having the questions be all about the ways you can turn multipe choice testing into a formative, inspiring, experience, with answers drawn from real teachers who have told me their ideas over the years.   The answer will be "all of the above" and, in answering, everyone will learn at least five new well-practiced techniques for making multiple choice testing into a complex multiplier for good learning.   The Forum for that week will be a discussion of other workarounds for this form that is  so poor at learning motivation or even at capturing intelligence and knowledge, yet is easy, standardized, and required in so many countries (including K-12 in America, thanks to the 2002 No Child Left Behind national policy--and to higher education's obsession with SAT/ACT scores as well as, for grad and professional schools, GRE, L-SATs, MCat's and so forth).

We'll talk a lot about Finland in the Forum.   Finland, of course, abolished multiple choice testing and then shocked the world by placing in the top 5 in global test scores when, almost on a lark,  they had their students take a multiple choice test of the kind the OECD administers.   

When we get to the second half of the course---the future of higher education--I will emphasize all kinds of exciting ideas I've learned for others, transformative ideas that have changed whole institutions or simply one class or even one home-schooled parents' learning techniques.  Forum topic for these 90,000 or 9000 global learners:   What are YOUR ideas for how we can transform the future of higher education?

I can't wait.


MOOCs right now have captured attention as a "disruptor" of higher education because, in form, they are the least disruptive use of new technology in learning:  if you have a sage on the stage pontificating to the masses, you've simply changed the in-classroom lecture to a massive model.   Some profs are great lecturers.  We know lectures inspire learning and offer role models.   They happen to be notably poor for retention and for applicability . . . and the lecture-form of the MOOC replicates the downsides without adding the upside of that very human tendency to want to be together with other humans doing something exaltant (cheering, laughing, listening, viewing, praying, or learning).    

At the same time, problem-based MOOCs in areas where the methodology suits that individualized, participatory approach (I've taken Java and HTML5 and statistics this way and it's a far superior method than a lecture, with someone scratching away on a blackboard on these topics:  in fact I know many Duke and UNC students who take the CMU statistics course online and then ace the final exam for which they pay full tuition at their institutions just because it is a better way to learn the subject matter.)  MOOCs clearly can address many forms of skills-based learning and therefore do address a realworld problem, where advanced, complex education is required and yet only a tiny percentage of people who want that education are able to receive it in conventional universities. 


For all these reasons and many others, I'm excited to try out Coursera next year and see what students in the Coursera course come up with as BETTER ways, beyond the current MOOC.   We are at massive online learning 1.0.   It's barely beta.   And there are many questions MOOCs don't address yet:

  • Do current MOOCs solve the problem of overpriced and scarce education?  No. 
  • Do MOOCs today bring down the cost of higher education?  Not even close at present--it's insanely expensive to build a MOOC.  
  • Will MOOCs send every prof in the world to creating one?  No way!   My colleague Dan Ariely estimates it took about 150 hours of work by his team to build 1 hour of actual MOOC.   I've only done a 15 minute segment but my time is working out about the same . . . I can't see all my colleagues rushing to snap up slots teaching their classes in this way.  
  • Will MOOCs supplant existing courses?   Not in the short run, not all courses, not all fields--but possibly in some areas in some fields.  And, yes, this has to be watched carefully by all of us. 

And it is hard to imagine that, if you are fortunate enough in every way to attend a face to face university with real profs who listen to your ideas and respond to them passionately and personally, and who include you in their research and who help you on your way into a complicated world using all the best ideas and best methodologies and best tools and best theories available, that you would even want to give up all that astonishing privileged luxury to take a class online with 160,000 others (even if 90% of them drop out during the term).  If your profs are able to offer the full range of classes you wish to take, if they have kept current in their field, if they use exciting new methods and respect your own ability to learn and contribute in new ways, then they are doing a great job and you are spending your money well.  Why would you want to take a MOOC in this case?    If you are lucky enough to be getting a phenomenal education that prepares you deeply and profoundly for the complexities of the world beyond your own schooling, you are very very lucky.  Hang on to that with all your life!   Even if you are accumulating substantial debt, if the education is deep and fulfilling and inspiring and current and centered on your needs in this complex world, it is worth your investment.  Every penny of it.

BUT . . .

But  . . . I'm exploring this Coursera option as an experiment, not as a solution,  because only a small portion of the world's school-age population has access to that precious, fabulous, great education (partly real, partly mythical) that we all crave for young people today.   It's out of reach.  Perhaps, perhaps, if the best educators think together about alternatives, if we test and try and propose our own ideas for how to address this dilemma, we will be able, eventually, to come up with something better.   That's my hope.  

It makes me sad that, at a time of educational crisis, the ideas seem all to be coming from elite private schools (i.e. schools that do not need to change their base), from corporations (some of which have motives of public good but others of which do not and see a potentially profitable bottom line as a chief motivation for their investment in higher education now).  In terms of disciplines, the ideas are also coming out lopsided:  most are coming from the computational sciences, as if technology alone is the best way to solve a human problem.   To really reimagine higher education, we need brilliant ideas from the best teachers in the human and social sciences and the arts; we need modes of teaching that address real world problems but not with standardized, static modes of video-lecturing but with engaged, interactive peer-to-peer communities that enhance critical thinking and creative contribution.   We need that not just in higher education but, again, in the real world where that kind of in-depth thinking is desperately needed to address the possibilities and challenges of a future where technological change drives economic and social change at a blinding speed.  

I'm teaching "The History and Future of Higher Education" online through Coursera next year because I hope to elicit thousands upon thousands of great ideas from people who, every day, are coming up with great ideas and have not had a chance, platform, or opportunity to articulate them to a larger public. 

I hope that, next Spring 2014, you will join us and contribute your own ideas.  MOOCs are not the solution.  But perhaps this platfom offers us a starting place and maybe, together, we can come up with something good that will help shape a better future for higher education.  


1 comment

I'm glad to see you experimenting with MOOCs--and leveraging the experience with learning communities you've gained from the HASTAC experience! Quick sidebar on multiple-choice questions: Faculty in a variety of disciplines have been getting a lot of mileage out of multiple-choice questions facilitated during class sessions with classroom response systems. There's a lot of experience out there that you might leverage in your MOOC. For a short introduction to this idea, see my POD Network essay from a couple of years ago, "Multiple-Choice Questions You Wouldn't Put on a Test: Promoting Deep Learning with Clickers."