Thursday, June 20, 2013

Godzilla Versus the Swamp Creature: MOOCs, the Control of Online Education and the Move From Education to Training for Labor Markets

While much attention has been drawn to MOOCs from the perspective of large institutions and those charged with increasing the productivity of teacher-workers to deliver high margin education enhancing capacity, I have been considering some of the side effects of MOOCs.

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2013)

These include the way in which MOOC development has managed to weaken shared governance, and the way in which MOOC operations has deepened recent movements to move education and course/program policy making from the academic side of the university administration to its finance (and non-academic) side. More important, perhaps, have been two additional side effects.  The first is the way in which university administrations have used MOOCs to extend their control over faculty creativity--seeking in effect to capture all individual work whenever produced on the basis of the fact of an individual's hire.  While this has the feel of extraction without compensation, the issue remains unexplored.  The second is the way in which MOOCs may make it possible to leverage teaching by aggregating teaching capacity across universities and using that aggregation and leveraged delivery of education products to reduce the size of expensive staff.

It is with this later point in mind that it may be worth reading carefully the intervention of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) provosts in the contests for the control of MOOCs and their revenue generating and faculty cost generating potential. CIC Ad Hoc Committee for Online Learning, CIC Online Learning Collaboration: A Vision and Framework (June 15, 2013) (The CIC Provost Report).  This post includes the bulk of that report along with the way in which the COIC action was reported in the academic trade press, the Chronicle of Higher Education, in Steve Kolowich, "Universities in Consortium Talk of Taking Back Control of Online Offerings," Chronicle of Higher Education, June 19, 2013.  While the trade press characterizes this story as one of a battle between institutional giants for control of a revenue generating new form of student training (and thus the title of this post); a closer reading suggests a more potent theme, the way in which innovation is being used to continue to strip faculty of control of any meaningful role in setting the direction fo courses, course content and educational programs.

In his reporting of the CIC Provost Report for the Chronicle of Higher education, Steve Kolowich emphasizes the institutional conflict over control and exploitation rights to  new technologies for delivery of courses.
Colleges looking to expand their online course offerings have often enlisted help from education-technology companies. A college might buy a learning-management system from Blackboard, e-tutoring software from Pearson, and so on.

Coursera, the Silicon Valley-based company that specializes in massive open online courses, recently became the latest technology firm to offer services aimed at credit-bearing online programs at large universities.

Now the provosts in a consortium of major research universities are considering whether their group should build its own online infrastructure that would enable the universities to share courses, digital resources, and data without ceding control to outsiders.

In a position paper, a task force of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation—a consortium of 13 research universities, mostly in the Big Ten Conference—this month proposed that its members figure out if they can work together on a common "framework" for their online offerings. (Steve Kolowich, "Universities in Consortium Talk of Taking Back Control of Online Offerings," Chronicle of Higher Education, June 19, 2013).

Kolowich reported that the effort was no so much to resist MOOCs and related technology levering educational course methodologies, but rather to begin to think through how institutions might more effectively exploit their financial and efficiency potentials.

The provosts who led the task force told The Chronicle that the paper is not meant as an outright refutation of MOOCs—or any other vendor-supplied technology, for that matter. Two of the task-force leaders serve as provosts at institutions (Ohio State University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) that offer MOOCs through Coursera. In fact, most universities in the Committee on Institutional Cooperation have partnerships with that company, as well as numerous other technology vendors.

The consortium is interested, however, in how its members might avail themselves of sophisticated online tools while limiting their reliance on the education-technology industry, said Lauren Kay Robel, provost of Indiana University at Bloomington. (Ibid.).
Indeed, at the heart of the focus of these senior administrators was the objective of hoarding for their institutions as much of the marginal value of these technologies as they could get.  "As online learning and its associated technologies become more integrated into traditional university curricula, the provosts would prefer to retain, where possible, ownership over the intellectual property and distribution channels, she said. And a consortium-based approach might give them the best shot at that." (Ibid..  Tellingly absent form this battle between these institutional megaliths were those critical factors in the production of this wealth and exploitation potential--the faculty who would be made to produce and use these technologies. Indeed, faculty appear to be effectively cut out of all aspects of this process, from policy formation, to sharing in intellectual property rights to shaping the form and content of these efforts, to its assessment, including the underlying philosophy of education to be advanced by these new technologies.

What emerges is a determination to move forward with a top down set of initiatives to reshape both programs and education delivery systems.  That reshaping has a more comprehensive reform objective as well, one which the provosts took no pains to hide: to change fundamentally the content and approach to teaching courses themselves.  All of this, of course, is necessary, of course, to meet perceived challenges and emerging realities.  But it is not clear that the project necessarily requires control by provosts and a passivity about authority over pedagogy, courses and the educational experience by faculty.  Technological changes producing experimental approaches to teaching seems to be the new doorway through which authority for shaping courses and pedagogy can be transferred from faculty to senior administrators (all through the mechanics of technology and assessment discourses) and the relationship between administrative authority and academic freedom can be reshaped as well, and reshaped in a way that limits substantially the real power of faculty over the development of courses, course content and assessment.

In a world driven by a drive to revenue and in which education is increasingly understood as training--the focus of the academy continues to shift from one grounded in the production and transmission of knowledge to one focused on made to market training for the most efficient insertion of workers into labor markets.  While this is not necessarily a good or bad thing, the increasing marginalization of faculty input in these transformations ought to give all stakeholders some significant pause.

All of these themes are candidly revealed in the CIC Provosts Report, extracts form which follow. The full report can be read HERE.

CIC Online Learning Collaboration: A Vision and Framework

CIC Ad Hoc Committee for Online Learning:
Ilesanmi Adesida, Provost andVice Chancellor for Academic Affairs—University of Illinois
Joseph Alutto, Provost and Executive Vice President—Ohio State University
Lauren Robel, Provost and Executive Vice President—Indiana University

With assistance from:
Nicholas C. Burbules, Gutgsell Professor of Education—University of Illinois
Mark Sandler, Director of Center for Library Initiatives—CIC
Karen Partlow, Senior Associate Director—CIC

Online Learning Collaboration: A Vision and Framework

The main drivers of innovation in higher education are not simply a function of what is technologically possible; they are—or should be—a function of pedagogically sound and cost –effective strategies that advance our institutional missions in ways that best serve our students, are fair to our faculty, and advance the interests of our communities. The ability to project a course online such that hundreds, thousands, or hundreds of thousands can tune in is not, in and of itself, a means for extending educational opportunity to millions of potential “students.” To effectively provide the highest quality educational opportunity to all learners—distant and residential—we need to enlist the best minds at our universities to fundamentally rethink teaching and learning; analyze the needs and learning styles of the many constituencies we serve; provide for the responsible stewardship of institutional resources; develop appropriate metrics for assessment; and articulate an overarching vision of the future of higher education.

While new and cost effective technological capabilities make certain changes in higher education possible, it does not necessarily follow that such changes are desirable, or would be endorsed or utilized by our existing students, faculty, or community members. Nor does it mean that we fully grasp the costs and business models that might surround new strategies for broadly disseminating course content. University leaders committed to addressing the new opportunities in higher education need to recognize that the primary basis for motivatingand inspiring faculty to engage these opportunities will not be the technologies themselves, but rather, the fundamental academic values and pedagogical principles that need to be infused in these emerging instructional technologies. For these reasons, we believe that the chief academic officers of our CIC member universities are in the best positionindividually and collectivelyto be leading these efforts.

Provost Engagement:

To affirm their interest and leadership in the campus deployment of emerging instructional strategies, the CIC Provosts concur that any adoption or development of new pedagogical methods should be informed by the principles of the highest quality of teaching, learning and research, and that this commitment to instructional quality inform both the development of individual campus strategies as well as any collective efforts undertaken by the CIC institutions working in concert. To move this dialog forward, the Provosts propose thefollowing exploratory efforts to conceive, deploy and assess online instruction across a group of participating CIC Universities:
1. A project to transition a targeted set of less commonly taught languages to a robust online environment, delivering the courses both within the CIC and externally to partners in high–quality liberal arts colleges or peer research universities.

2. Development of tools and strategies to cooperatively aid faculty in the establishment and adoption of new and effective modes of instruction. A coordinated approach to developing and integrating learning analytics into course delivery could be a start in this area.

3. Consideration of a coordinated platform for the development and delivery of online or blended courses for a subset of interested CIC universities.

Collaborative Advancement:

For more than 55 years, the CIC universities, through the leadership of their Chief Academic Officers, have worked together to advance the academic missions of the member campuses. Together, they have moved from providing a forum for discussing issues of the day to a strategic partnership that nurtures change and innovation among CIC members, and higher education at large. The past decade has been highlighted by foundational CIC collaborations working at both scale and speed, including large–scale collaborations in fiber optic networking, library digitization and shared print collections, as well as creative leadership by member universities in online learning. For example, CIC universities collectively deliver over 112 online master’s degrees, account for over 16% of all MOOCs offered by Coursera, and have been sharing over 50 less commonly taught language courses to nearly 800 students from a distance. These initiatives, along with over a half –century of developing deep and trusting relationships, have established the foundation of success upon which they can now build to help all CIC members  collaboratively and boldly shape the research and instructional university of the future.

At the December 2, 2012 meeting of the CIC Provosts, it was agreed that the Provosts wouldIdentify and examine potentially high value, transformative collaborative opportunities emerging from the various CIC stakeholder groups. As a result of the exercise, the Provosts agreed to depute an ad hoc committee of Provosts to explore collaborative opportunities involving online learning.  Provost volunteers for this committee include Adesida (Illinois), Robel (Indiana), and Alutto (Ohio State),  This report summarizes the Provosts’ visioning related to online learning, the ad hoc Committee’s guiding considerations and principles, and recommendations for moving forward.

CIC Provosts’ Visioning Related to an Online Learning Collaboration:

1. By an overwhelming majority, the Provosts identified collaboration of online learning as an opportunity that would be of high value to their universities.

2. The Provosts also recognize and agree with the Liberal Arts and Sciences Deans that the extension and enhancement of the CourseShare approach, which has primarily involved the sharing of less commonly taught languages synchronously via videoconferencing, is a logical and attractive near–term goal for beginning to collaborate at scale.

3. Many Provosts, Liberal Arts and  Sciences Deans, and other academic leaders were adamant that collaborative opportunities involving online learning extend far beyond languages and that the CIC should pursue a bigger and bolder vision together related to online learning. (CIC Provost Report supra pp. 1-3).
 This introduction to the CIC Provost Report nicely frames the analysis--one controlled by senior administrators and focused on revenue generation and the modification of the core operations of the academy to meet what those at the top are beginning to perceive as fundamental changes in the "business" of education. Faculty are conspicuously absent from this portion of the CIC Provost Report, though it is likely that the obligatory reference to shared governance, even if only pro forma and after the fact, will be made at the appropriate time.

More important, though, are those portions of the CIC Provost Report focused on administration efforts to force (and I use that word precisely because there is no sharing of governance in this discussion and thus it reads more like imposition than collaboration in form and fact) fundamental changes in the way faculty must come to understand the project of education and their role within it. Of particular interest to faculty is this section:

On the Matter of Pedagogical Efficacy:
 For those who have taught online, the notion that online teaching is a second–best substitute for “real” teaching (i.e., face–to–face classroom teaching) is being challenged and refuted. Some faculty members report that their online classes have been among the most exciting and creative teaching experiences of their careers. Many said it has reinvigorated their instruction, encouraging innovative strategies for reaching and teaching students. These new practices are most often based on proven pedagogical strategies in the traditional classroom, but adapted to today’s new channels for delivering information.  Across the curriculum, the dichotomy between “traditional” and “online” offerings is breaking down, as a continuum of "blended" possibilities increasingly becomes the instructional norm across our campuses. Many faculty and many students are finding enrichment in this period of rapid instructional innovation. While not everyone has embraced the movement toward increased online learning, there is no conceptual or empirical data to support the contention that online classes lag in quality relative to the traditional classroom experience. It is more accurate to say that online classes have advantages and disadvantages, just as is the case for regular classroom instruction, and that these advantages and disadvantages play out in different ways for different subjects, and for different kinds of students. The question “Which is better?” is oversimplified. There are several dimensions along which these two modalities of teaching can be compared: student learning outcomes, motivation, engagement, satisfaction, confidence, social interaction, and so on; and these questions vary across different pedagogical approaches, and likely vary for students with different backgrounds, readiness, educational experiences and learning styles.
Technological reform in higher education ought to be seen as an occasion for rethinking teaching and learning, for examining and questioning entrenched ways of doing things, and for trying out new ideas and approaches. The driver must be high quality teaching and learning, regardless of the mode of delivery. An under emphasized dimension of learning technologies, from course management systems to MOOCs, is the potential to collect large amounts of data about what students do in courses, what they learn, and where they encounter difficulty. There are unprecedented opportunities to do systematic research on our teaching and student learning, and to use that knowledge to change and improve instruction. In short, this is bringing our approaches to instruction under the same ethos of systematic inquiry that extends across most other segments of the research university as a knowledge enterprise—something we have never really done before.

One promising approach is called, among other names, “adaptive instruction.” This means combining active, continuous data collection with powerful analytics to provide both instructors and students with real time feedback about where they are succeeding and where they could be doing better. For the teacher, adaptive instruction means that important information is provided about where students are mastering content and where they are falling behind, alerting the instructor of the need to adjust their teaching and the curriculum to optimize student success. For students, this means they’ll receive accurate and continuous feedback about their own strengths and weaknesses, a crucial aspect of metacognition, which is strongly associated with academic success. In some models of adaptive instruction, as in some online learning programs, the learning environment itself “learns” and adapts to individual student needs and learning styles. The result is a customized learning experience that adjusts to the strengths and weaknesses of each student, improving their chances of success.

The wider context of all of this is a focus on student learning and an attempt to identify and measure learning outcomes across a broad range of courses and disciplines. This means not only a philosophical shift of attitude from “What do I want to teach?” to “What do I want my students to learn?” It also means a shift of accountability toward promoting student learning and collecting systematic data about whether or not our teachers and students are succeeding—together. There are implications here for how we evaluate the quality of instruction within the institution, as well as how we respond to external demands from a variety of constituencies (including our students and their parents) to better document what students are learning from their coursework and degrees.  (CIC Provost Report supra, pp. 4-5).
The language used here is both curious and ominous.  It is clear that the Provosts are trying very hard to sell the idea that online teaching is both effective and that faculty are falling all over themselves about its potential.  The testimonials from faculty read almost like religious experiences.  The partisan demonization of traditionalists as dangerous to the institution is also telling.  More ominous, though, is the indication that, without any significant consultation with faculty, the Provosts intend to force a new approach to education, and to teaching, on the institution.  Without much discussion, it becomes clear that the Provosts have embraced emerging ideologies that reject traditional notions of education in favor of much more efficiency based systems of training. Thus the shift from what knowledge producers want to teach to what employers want their productive labor trained in marks a very real and fundamental change in the relationship between education and training and between the academy and labor markets.  Adaptive instruction is as much a means of moving to training for employment in middle tiers of national labor markets as it is a means of side stepping training in education traditionally associated as necessary for students seeking to play a role among elite ranks of business, the professions or politics.  Training versus education, then, is emerging as the new battleground on which issues of the relationship of education to labor markets, and social class will play out. 

While this result may neither be bad nor avoidable (and I take no position on this point here)--the form and approach to these changes undertaken at the instance of senior administrators, and without more than pro forma consultation with faculty, suggests either a desire to avoid engagement (and thus the advancement of more arbitrary forms of academic governance) or the first steps in the dismantling of current systems of power sharing respecting courses, moving such power from faculty and departments to senior administrators and the financial side of the academic house. 

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