Blog Post


Last week was Open Education Week (March 10-15). This annual event followed the final week of the “History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education”, a six week Coursera MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) that several of us at the University of Otago (Dunedin, New Zealand) took part in. #FutureEd (the hashtag used for the course in Twitter and other social media sites) dealt with the opportunities for changing how we teach and learn in higher education, given the development of the Internet and innovations in pedagogy. It was a very American-centric course, which is understandable. As a colleague likes to say, the best way to begin is to "dig where you stand".  The issues that were raised by the instructor, Professor Cathy Davidson are relevant to New Zealand and most of the other OECD countries. The course has encouraged me to dig where I stand, and to contribute what I find to the ongoing global conversation about change in higher education.  The next step is to work collaboratively with others to apply what I am learning to my local context.

MOOCs are adding to the increasing number of responses to the wicked problem of how to provide higher education in an environment characterised by continuing financial austerity and rapid technological change. It won’t be (and never has been) a one-size-fits all winner-takes-all single (or best) solution. We are likely to see an increasingly varied and complex future for higher education in which the various players and providers are more deeply intertwingled than ever.

CCK08 (Connectivism and Connective Knowledge, 2008) and the cMOOCs that followed could be described as pedagogically disruptive, as the coordinators (George SiemensStephen DownesDave Cormier) and followers were (and still are) experimenting with techniques that are intended to help individuals to build and maintain their own personal learning network, rather than focussing on creating better (traditional, institutional) courses. CourseraUdacity and the other xMOOCs (the “x” is from edX, the MOOC platform founded by Harvard and MIT) might be characterised as disruptive in terms of their business model (giving the course away, the freemium model, the long tail, etc.) but, however technologically sophisticated, they are not progressive in terms of their pedagogical approach or in their use of open strategies. The fundamental differences in the objectives and the degree of openness between cMOOCs and xMOOCs was the focus of at least one discussion about #FutureEd that took place on Twitter. #FutureEd was notable for the degree to which Professor Davidson and her team opened up the Coursera MOOC through the use of Creative Commons licences, connecting the MOOC to place-based courses, and encouraging parallel discussions on Twitter and on this HASTAC network, which, of course, is dedicated to “Changing the Way We Teach and Learn”.

The response to MOOCs by many university academic and managers (in response to Coursera, Udacity and other xMOOCs), is that they are an inferior experience offered by venture capital-funded start-ups that have not managed to develop a workable business model. Therefore, they can be dismissed as a short-term experiment. Sebastian Thrun’s admission that Udacity’s low completion rates signaled a failure that required a significant shift in strategy was picked up by many who were waiting for their “I told you so” moment. This, despite the view that ‘failure’ in business is like iteration in design — it’s the way you find the approach, model, and solution that works.

Within academia, some healthy discussions are taking place about how to best provide our students with a high quality public education in the context of networked communication. These discussions should include the opportunities that open strategies present, as well as the pros and cons of MOOCs as one of many possible models. Unfortunately, the high profile, privately owned, for-profit MOOC platforms, which usually employ the traditional lecture format and machine marking of multiple choice quizzes, have diverted attention from the more transformative possibilities of open, collaborative practices that digital networks can support.

Although we (university academics, administrators and managers) like to consider ourselves as the champions of advanced teaching, learning and research, and as the guardians of the institutions that support higher education, the future may not be determined by what we believe is best for our students and for the future of universities. It is much more likely to be determined by those who have the money and the power to influence public opinion and public policy (and the former does not necessarily determine the latter, as the US decision to invade Iraq demonstrated). The disappointing reality is that the cMOOC vs xMOOC debate, and the growing open education movement will be of little interest to large private businesses and neoliberal politicians. We have seen the freezing, or actual reduction, of the public contribution to higher education across the OECD countries in recent years, especially since the Global Financial Crisis of 2008. A belief in the public benefits of higher education has been replaced by a narrative in which tertiary education is considered to be a private good for which the individual consumer must pay. This is especially the case in America and the UK, although other countries, includeing New Zealand, are moving in the same direction. Unless we work hard to make our voices heard outside the academy, in every country, the public debate will be dominated by this view — one that devalues public education and shows more regard for the ‘free market’ than for the public good.

We are fooling ourselves if we think that higher education is immune from the significant changes that have reshaped other sectors. We are not likely to be left alone. The New Zealand government's intention to reduce the size of University councils and to increase the number of ministerial appointees, despite considerable opposition, makes this clear. New Zealand Tertiary Education Minister Stephen Joyce's statement, that universities need to "think more strategically and move more quickly on areas like online learning and MOOCs," suggests what might be in store. Change is going to come. The question, in New Zealand as in other countries, is whether it will come from within or from without, and whether it will serve the public interest or whether it will deliver yet another slice of the public sector to the maw of the market — one institution and one student at a time.

Note: This post, which was also published on the Open Otago blog and on my personal blog, is a revised version of comments that were published in response to blog posts by Jonathan Rees and Mark Brown.



Students in secondary school take courses that, today can be accepted towards a post secondary degree. The faculty for these structured environments have many hours of training in the priciples of good pedagogy and many have advanced degrees, often Ph.D.'s. There are several key elements here:

a) Students aren't caterpillars who change from secondary programs to butterflies capabile of functioning fully in a post secondary environment. And university faculty have, often, no skills training either in the best processes or the transition. Content is considered to be the divide of importance, yet, by the acceptance of courses in both directions, is a diminished differentiator

b) The cost for accessing basic knowledge is asymptotically approaching zero separate from the cost of delivery whether by distance methods or a hand-crafted, face-to-face experience on campus. Funding of public education is designed to meet the needs of society, primarily knowledge competency and sufficient skills to function as a citizen. Again, one can obtain the basics at one cost or the total experience of campus life at another price. This is often the differentiator between private medallion campuses and public alternatives.

The issue rests primarily in the mind's eye of the academic and their function within the university at a point in time when the world is realizing that academics have lost control as gatekeepers of advanced knowledge. MOOC's and other vehicles for transmitting those critical elements are the canary in the coal mine.

Also, as with other "experiences", post secondary education is now "a la carte". One can seek the low priced, basic model, or one with other amenities. It has always been clear that a degree from "east gravel switch university" was different from Oxbridge just as a Kia is different from a Rolls Royce. It's not the super professor leading the MOOC, but the question of the price/value of a myriad of "hand crafted" experiences against alternatives. The issue standing in the wings is the rapidly advancing AI assisted delivery or total delivery via AI, the much vaunted "Singularilty" in a not so far off science fiction future.

One should not let the AI alternative defocus the issue at hand which goes beyond remedy via better process skills for academics. That time is fast passing. Rather, the issue is the fact that traditional academics have lost their sinecure via control of knowledge or what is valid for competencies. The rise of universities now offering degrees based on competencies vs seat time as the meteric is a more critical change-agent than any technological delivery vehicle.



A point of amplification to the previous post

In the US many secondary schools are able to offer, through a variety of programs, courses that are dual credit acceptable, secondary/post secondary. This bridges the gap between institutions and narrows the gap between secondary and post secondary faculty. Both have their advantages which can be discussed and debated. The fact that this exists and will grow points to the economic interests of the State which is pushing for what is now called "Early College" or variants. Here students can essentially eliminate overlap between secondary and post secondary programs, a costly bottleneck.

This opens up a number of issues such as faculty staffing at both institutions and the functions of the institutions and hence the faculty. The arguments about the impact on students seems to be, in part, similar to the arguments offered when new alternatives displace jobs.


Early College High Schools have been around for a decade, and general studies or extension colleges for over a century. There have - virtually always - been back ways to get high quality discount degrees. And most of these have not required a high school diploma, so the "edge" between high school and college has been avoidable for a very, very long time.

That means - and has meant for many decades - that the task is to qualify that learning at the least cost with the most benefit ... to the student rather than to the college. Now that colleges are competing on merits like dining hall menus, and have massively reconfigured themselves as "consumable" products, the value of their certification is a lot less reliable, and their pretention in awarding certificates like degrees has less and less to do with age.

It's about time colleges realize that they've undermined their own products. Whether as Hacker and Dreifus figure, or as Jeff Selingo formulates it, even high prestige places should post "buyers' beware" and students are - but very rarely - well advised to comparison shop for every amenity, and maximize their return on every dollar.


Joe's statement opens up an interesting situation. As more people want to obtain a post secondary certifcation, there is an increasing pressure on the institutions (as we see when students can't get into desired classes. There probably is a larger spread in the qualifications of the students. If one uses automobiles as an example, there were certain presitige vehicles where the dealers were selective to whom they sold their hand-crafted cars. Today, money is the deciding factor. Universities are similar as we see by how they market or brand their institution as well as the amenities they provide. The analogy between universities and auto dealers becomes closer to congruency. While the faculty may decry this effort, it is seldom, at the bachelor's level that students make their choices on that factor. They believe that the "brand" sets the standards and quality. The metaphor can be spun out and made more explicit. The issue is whether the students are as knowledgeable about their post secondary choice as they are in selecting a new vehicle. The faculty can rant about treating students as consumers, yet, the universities treat the students as if they were.


Universities have done that to themselves. While partnering with MIT in EdX, Harvard is focused on building a $3billion additional campus across the river from Cambridge, as if online meant nothing, while they're also eagerly negotiating "wholesaling" courses through Massachusetts colleges and universities as joint ventures produced by Harvard for retail clients in many different colleges.

What will be interesting is to see whether, if, or, more likely when, such cash-based MOOCs are delivered by local school systems - since they don't have admission requirements - and free-of-charge, the way Harvard itself was until the post-Civil War era when they discovered the merits of tuition. By then, of course, those schools may well have discovered other MOOC's and other providers, since EdX is one of many, most of whom are already online in many different forms - just like HASTAC's. That will be the "interesting time" for higher ed. Will it really be "higher" when anybody can get it any time at any price? And will those college "retailers" further undermine their own "market" by wholesaling others' MOOC-ware for less while giving it credit for career-worthiness by the more ambitious retailers.

And, when employers figure out how to do it, will they bother with any of that other superstructure in getting just-in-time modules for their staff?


Hi Joe


Remember that Western Governors University gives credit based on competencies, not on seat time or where/how the knowledge was created and demonstrated. Others are moving to competencies also.

As I have said, elsewhere, the cost for basic knowledge is asymptotically approaching zero. Like buying a car, one can choose the low cost, economy, model or the hand-crafted luxury one, or somewhere in the spectrum.

All chemistry 101 or 404 courses and all English Lit courses in the spectrum are not created equal. This is why universities struggle with acceptance of transfer credits. And, in fact, often the decisions are not handled by the academic's in the departments which is another perogative given away by faculty.

Thus what an institution has left is its awarding of certification and degrees. The other benefits are part of the persiflage which universities promote. Again, it's like a luxury car. What one gets are the externalities and the prestige gained from the awarded degree plus the continual residual benefits of association.

The car/institution comparison may be a stretch and grate on an academic's ears, but they too strive for positions in these institutions, also. A tenured position or a certificate of graduation from East Gravel Switch U carries a different weight than from Medallion University. In fact some engineering companies, when recruiting, go to the midwestern schools for plant engineers and to east or west coast engineering schools when recruiting directly for engineers to go into management, though graduates from both are registered engineers in the same disciplines. It's the emblem on the grill or the class ring which counts.




It's not just WGU that credentials prior knowledge - SNHU's College of America does it as well, at $2500/semester. I do think that will become the new standard for most B.A.'s, and I strongly suspect that more and more places will retail courses like those created by high prestige places. They already do it with their faculty's books. And, in this case, I really don't think the Medium is the whole Message....

Yet I do think that most students learn more from their peers than their faculty anyway - how to beat a system, how to negotiate, create alliances, new ideas and networks, and how to use the knowledge the faculty think they own. And that will still take a year or two of strong peer interaction. Probably more important than the prestige of a college will be its peer culture: if students focus exclusively on sports (the way Harvard is this weekend), they may well sacrifice the peer counseling available in a seminar, study group, or dormitory room with those same peers. Probably the sharpest contrasts are between residential colleges and commuter colleges, and, rather than focus on cost, the contrasts should look at that peer culture to see how they predict degree completion rates, years in school, functional alumni networks, career and life-long options. The credential is the "take away" but probably not the most important outcome, in spite of elaborate graduation ceremonies....