Monday, July 8, 2013

"Pigs Get Fat; Hogs Get Slaughtered"--On Strategies for Getting Money Out of MOOCs

The idiom, "Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered"  reminds us that being too greedy can ruin even the best laid plans or ambitions.  And so it appears to be the case with university administration and MOOCs.  

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2013)

Like children with little sense of control--and no accountability to anyone with the sense to remind officials with far too much unconstrained power of the dangers of obsessive behavior translated into policies affecting the university, University administrations have been falling all over themselves to squeeze money out of MOOCs.  This post considers some of the ways in which universities may slaughter MOOCs and one example of the way in which administrators will change the landscape of MOOC development that will impede rather than facilitate its development as the price of a short term search for money. A pity but when the finance side of the house grows far too influential, academic quality assumes an entirely different character. 

Steve Kolowich writes in "A University's Offer of Credit for a MOOC Gets No Takers," Chronicle of Higher Education,  July 8, 2013:
It was big news last fall when Colorado State University-Global Campus became the first college in the United States to grant credit to students who passed a MOOC, or massive open online course.

For students, it meant a chance to get college credit on the cheap: $89, the cost of the required proctored exam, compared with the $1,050 that Colorado State charges for a comparable three-credit course.

That is a big discount.

Yet almost a year after Global Campus made the announcement, officials are still waiting for their first credit bargain-hunters.

Not one student has taken the university up on its offer.

Jon Bellum, the provost, said the university had not expected a deluge of transfer credits from Udacity, the MOOC provider it is working with. The offer applied to only a single MOOC, in computer science, and the credits might be useful only to students who intended to finish their degrees at Global Campus.

The Colorado university is not the only one that has noticed a lack of activity on the pathways between MOOCs and credit-bearing programs.

The Council of Adult and Experiential Learning, through its LearningCounts program, helps adult students assemble evidence of outside-the-classroom learning into portfolios that can be redeemed for credit at some colleges.

After free online courses exploded onto the scene, the council expected that freelance learners would come calling in hope of converting their MOOC success into college credit.

But none did. (Ibid).

Kolowich quotes Chari Leader Kelley, vice president of LearningCounts suggesting an upbeat disappointment: ""It's not happening as quickly as we had hoped," . . . .As I've learned more about the students in the MOOCs, I've become more educated about my expectations,"" (Ibid.). Kolowich also noted that
The various partnerships between MOOC providers and colleges can give the appearance that this new species of online education is making swift, possibly disruptive inroads. Indeed, the videos, automatically graded homework assignments, and data tools that Coursera, edX, and Udacity developed for their massive open online courses could be used by professors in their credit-bearing courses.

However, when it comes to granting credit to students who take a free-floating MOOC instead of a tuition-based course at a traditional university, institutions remain largely in control of what courses they will abide and how many credits they will allow students to transfer in from such sources.

The American Council on Education, which advises college presidents on policy, has evaluated eight MOOCs—four from Coursera and four from Udacity—and recommended to its members that students who pass those courses should be awarded transfer credits. It remains to be seen how many of those colleges will take the council's advice. (Ibid.).

Despite this universities that have invested heavily in this form of knowledge transmission in with the expectation of cashing in quickly remain hopeful of near term returns.  (Ibid). For many people reading stories like these there may be a sense of dissonance with earlier stories about MOOCs that helped feed the euphoria about MOOCs in particular and their potential as the magic bullet that would help solve the cash flow difficulties of universities slow to adjust to the realities of the changing markets for education and its segmentation.

I suggest here some reasons why university administrations may take soemthing promising, like MOOCs and ensure that its promise as an educational tool remains unfulfilled:

1.  De-Centering faculty from the MOOC enterprise.The latest trend for university administrators and those on the faculty who serve them is to operationalize the mantra--de-center faculty from the education process. I have spoken to the way this policy choice is informing efforts to push engaged scholarship as a new pedagpgical standard for university undergraduate education (e.g., Engaged Scholarship--De-Centering Faculty From Research and Teaching in a Relentless March Toward a Training Model for Middle Tier Universities?).  But the same policy idea can be generalized--that the faculty role ought to be reformed and reduced so that rather than serve as a critical actor in education design and knowledge transmission, they are reduced to a mere factor in the production of education product, the process for which is now driven by and for others--usually either students or labor markets, but always in the service of productive efficiency and income generation for the university.  MOOCs development suggest the same sort of pattern--where faculty are viewed instrumentally and in which the product is understood as an income generating device, educational pieties notwithstanding, especially if the process is driven by the financial side of the academic house.   

2.  Reverse Engineering education--income generation driving program/course design.  A large part of the problem here is the inversion that may be occuring in program or course design around MOOCs.  While MOOCs have a great potential to revolutionize the dissemination of knowledge, they also have the potential to leverage income generation for knowledge production.  Universities that might give in to the temptation to design MOOCs for income generation, or to increase the margins of tuition payments may find that the product has fewer buyers.

3.  Segmentation marginalizes.  One of the most interesting characteristics of MOOCs, like that of "distance education" and its progeny, has been the almost uniform decision (in part because university administrations lack either imagination or the courage to deviate from the benchmark perhaps because they tend to be risk averse in peculiar ways)  to segregate on-traditional education delivery from the rest of the education enterprise. This segmentation has been useful for a variety of reasons, especially during the infancy and incubation periods of much of what has emerged as new technology driven pedagogy.  However, segregation that becomes structural, and that itself begins to preserve power and revenue centers has consequences for the legitimacy of the pedagogy which it was meant to integrate into the general fabric of the university.  MOOCs, like other forms of distance education remain segregated, and as segregated, remain a marginal form of education.  The university sends the message by the forms of its its organization of education delivery production.  It is hardly surprising that such marginal programs must then be underpriced (relative tp traditional delivery mechanisms) and the underpricing itself serves as a signal of inferiority.  Its use it marginal--that is it serves the marginal needs of students as a cost reducer and gap filler but hardly more than that.

4.  Segmentation and marginalization suggests that the greatest long term benefit for MOOCs and related knowledge dissemination techniques is in those marginal areas that are increasingly serving as income sources or hard pressed colleges that no longer are self supporting in other ways.  Principal among these are general education and growing markets in minors.  From the student perspective, perhaps (and we are talking here about their importance in faculty-decentered driven curricula), such programs may be necessary to produce evidence of "well rounded education"but are otherwise understood as impediments toward an increasingly training focused approach to "education", one which has been carefully cultivated by university administrators and the labor markets on which their revenue is dependent.  In this sense, general education could be understood, in a faculty de-centerd and student centered universe, to constitute a transaction cost to degree of marginal utility either to labor markets (that emphasize the specific training components of university course work)  or to the students who might understand them as raising the real costs of education with little corresponding return.

5.  Despite the usual recitation of "bottom up" development and university centered quality control of content and programmatic direction (something itself problematic), it is becoming clearer that MOOCs may serve as an important vehicle in the transformation of education to training programs for the wage labor markets and the economic enterprises that are their principal stakeholders.  To that extent MOOCs serve as a harbinger not merely of the move to de-center education from faculty, but also to de-center it from the university institution itself.  Industry appears to be betting on this transformation, and funding those mediating enterprises that will serve as instruments of this change.  Steve Kolowich, Coursera Snags $43-Million in Venture Capital, Chronicle of Higher Education, July 10, 2013 ("The jury may still be out on how much money massive open online courses stand to generate for the companies and universities that offer them, but that has not deterred investors from betting big on Coursera, the largest MOOC company. The company announced on Wednesday that it had raised $43-million in its second round of financing, adding to the $22-million it raised last year. . . . Coursera is also seeking revenue streams that have less to do with MOOCs than with providing technology and services for public universities to use in their tuition-based, credit-bearing online courses.").

6. Taken together, the current course of MOOC development is both inevitable and likely to contribute to the change in the culture of university education.  From education to training; from faculty centered university cultures of knowledge transmission to one grounded in engagement (markets centered) or consumer demand (student centered).  With this change in culture, universities, already concerned about the cost of education will cede control over the "manufacture" of its product from its "operations" centers (faculties) to its finance centers.  In this, at least, it will have the marvelous example of American manufacturing business to serve as a referent. 

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