Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Bad Management and the University Administrator: Giving Up on MOOCs?

 (Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2014)
American university administrators, like many of their counterparts in the business world, have begun to embrace a certain culture of managerial laziness and short termism that in the long run will likely be as detrimental to the project of maintaining the superiority of American university education as ti has begun to affect the reputation of American business.

Two characteristics especially appear to contribute to these trends. The first, managerial laziness, tends to evidence itself is the move to over exploitation of bought experts on virtually all aspects of university administration, In some cases one might suspect that administrators would hesitate to move their chairs in the offices without having paid an outside consultant first. The problem is not with consultation, necessarily, but with the way in which administrators now tend to mindlessly use consultation reports and recommendations as both a sword to manage and a a shield against personal responsibility for the consequences of following advice. In a sense this dependence on consultants is the more perverse side of risk aversion evidenced by cultures of mindless use of benchmarking to serve as a cover and excuse for doing or failing to do something without any effort to specific application to the context of the university that the administrator is paid to manage.

But more pernicious is the embrace of short term thinking within academic administration. Increasingly, programs and other managerial projects rise or fall within a very short time frame.  The judgement neither looks toward a shake out and development period, nor are hard analytics applied to determine  weaknesses and sites for improvement.  More perverse, perhaps, is that this short termism is deepened as the mad obsession with immediate cash rewards for administrative efforts becomes more prominent in programmatic decision making.  Thus, if a new program is rolled out and fails, without any tweaking or modification based on experience, to produce sizable revenues almost immediately, the program tends to be abandoned in search of the next quick fix.  That, over the long term, this may deny the university valuable income and prestige producing programs appears to make little difference.

Nowhere is this sort of emerging managerial culture more in evidence than in the rise and fall of MOOCs. I have been skeptical, myself about the way in which MOOCs have burst onto the scene--but principally because they have been developed haphazardly and supported by administrators with an eye toward easy money rather than toward academic and programmatic integrity (e.g., Do MOOC Faculty Have a Responsibility For How Courses are Used?Monitoring University Governance: "Pigs Get Fat; Do MOOC Faculty Have a Responsibility For How Courses are Used?; Debating MOOCs: Shared Governance, Quality Control, Outsourcing, and Control of Curriculum at Harvard, Duke, American, San Jose State; A Better Approach to Faculty Centered Discussion of Technology Enhanced Education ). 

Administrators have been approaching MOOCs as a means of either marketing or revenue generation for a few years.  In the worst cases and among a small minority of questionably motivated administrators, they have also been considered as a means of trimming faculty ranks by leveraging the device.  Both of these motivations have tended to work against the inherent logic of MOOCs.  They also almost guarantee that, unless the device is modified substantially, it will not be ale to produce the results, and produce these results quickly and without much effort, that administrators wish for them.  As a consequence, an initial failure to realize a questionable set of objectives by applying ill conceived programs badly might well result in the abandonment of a device that has substantial potential for both the dissemination of knowledge in useful ways and for the advancement of the teaching and service missions of universities. Rather than engage int he sort of cultures of short term deployment and then abandonment when expectations are not realized, a healthy dose of rethinking and considered application for reasonable objectives is in order. To that extent, the weaknesses of the emerging cultures of administrative managerialism is to be regretted.

This is not to suggest that the techniques of management in the early 21st century are to be faulted; one ought never to fault tools for the bad uses to which they might be put.  And among the more important tools in the administrative toolkit are those techniques of monitoring and feedback provided by survey, and the sense of the shape and direction of community notions.  Moreover, constant and rigorous review of administrative programs are a necessary part of an industry whose pace has picked up in the last several decades. Yet in the case of MOOCs one worries that what one is seeing is the invocation of tools without thought to direction.  That, indeed, MOOCs follow from the consequences of administrative financial and internal management goals, rather than from a careful development of an understanding of the value and use of MOOCs within an academic environment.  Until MOOCs cease to be constructed a consequence of badly directly administrative instrumentalism and instead become the center of efforts to draw from MOOCs natural strengths, the device will remain little more than a fashionable interlude in short sighted administrative efforts to raise revenue but not the value of the industry.
A recent report by Steve Kolowich, who follows MOOCs for the Chronicle of Higher Education, provides an excellent illustration of these administrative foibles--administration by survey, benchmarking, short term thinking, instant gratification, laziness in program development. Steve Kolowich, Doubts About MOOCs Continue to Rise, Survey Shows, Chronicle of Higher Education, Jan. 15, 2014.  Portions of the Kolowich article follow as well as the survey, along with the survey Report Press Release, 10th Annual Survey of Online Learning: Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States.  

Doubts About MOOCs Continue to Rise, Survey Finds
By Steve Kolowich
January 15, 2014

Academic leaders increasingly think that massive open online courses are not sustainable for the institutions that offer them and will "cause confusion about higher-education degrees," according to the results of an annual survey.

The Babson Survey Research Group has charted the growth of online education annually for more than a decade with support from the Sloan Consortium and other partners. The latest survey, conducted last year, asked chief academic officers at 2,831 colleges and universities about online education.

The findings, released in a report on Wednesday, reveal a growing skepticism among academic leaders about the promise of MOOCs. The report also suggests that conventional, tuition-based online education is still growing, although not as swiftly as in past years.

In 2012 the Babson survey asked about MOOCs for the first time. At the time, relatively few academic officers were concerned about whether their institutions would be able to field free online courses year after year—after all, less than 3 percent of them had even begun offering MOOCs at that point.

A year later, there were more doubts about the long-term prospects of teaching free online courses. In 2012, 26 percent of academic leaders disagreed that MOOCs were "a sustainable method for offering courses." In 2013 that number leapt to 39 percent.

. . . . .

Many institutions have said they are building MOOCs in order to learn more about how to teach well, especially in online formats. But confidence in the importance of MOOCs as a learning tool for institutions has slipped.

Half of the respondents in the 2012 survey agreed that "MOOCs are important for institutions to learn about online pedagogy"; in 2013 agreement dipped to 44 percent, while the proportion of respondents who disagreed with that statement jumped from 19 percent to 27 percent.

MOOCs made no significant inroads in the past year in the existing credentialing system in higher education, calling into question whether they will be as disruptive to the status quo as some observers first thought. Still, academic leaders remain worried that "credentials for MOOC completion will cause confusion about higher-education degrees."

In 2012, 55 percent of survey respondents agreed with that statement. In 2013, 64 percent agreed.

MOOCs have generated a lot of buzz over the past two years, but relatively few colleges offer free, open-enrollment courses on the web. Only 5 percent of institutions in the latest survey were running MOOCs, and 9 percent more were planning to do so.

Those institutions were still largely uncertain about how MOOCs would play into their overall strategies.

Among the academic leaders at colleges that offer the massive courses, or plan to, the commonest reasons were marketing-related; the institutions hope MOOCs will improve their visibility and possibly help recruit students into their existing, tuition-based programs.

The early returns have been promising but inconclusive. Virtually none of the respondents said MOOCs were meeting "very few" of their objectives, and a handful said the massive courses were succeeding. But 66 percent said it was "too early to tell."
Quality Concerns Persist

. . . . .

As online education has grown, the challenges of educating students online have become clearer. In 2004, 27 percent of academic leaders said that retaining students was harder online than in face-to-face courses; in 2013, 41 percent said retaining online students was harder, even though online course delivery became more sophisticated during intervening years.

Additionally, a larger proportion of academic leaders now believe that students need more self-discipline to succeed in online courses than in conventional classes—although the Babson group's data indicate that officials at institutions that actually offer online courses have long understood this.


Title: 10th Annual Survey of Online Learning: Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States
New Study: Over 6.7 million Students Learning Online
release_date: January 8, 2013
Contact: Barbara Spies Blair;; 781-239-4621

Babson Study: Over 6.7 Million Students Learning Online
Most institutions remain undecided about MOOCs

(Wellesley, MA) – The 2012 Survey of Online Learning conducted by the Babson Survey Research Group reveals the number of students taking at least one online course has now surpassed 6.7 million. Higher education adoption of Massive Open Online Courses remains low, with most institutions still on the sidelines.

“The rate of growth in online enrollments remains extremely robust, even as overall higher education enrollments have shown a decline,” said study co-author Jeff Seaman, Co-Director of the Babson Survey Research Group. "Institutional opinions on MOOCs are mixed,” added co-author I. Elaine Allen. “Some praise them for their ability to learn about online pedagogy and attract new students, but concerns remain about whether they are a sustainable method for offering courses.”

Todd Hitchcock, Senior Vice President of Online Solutions, Pearson Learning Solutions, stated, “Learning is no longer limited to four walls – learning can happen anywhere – and it already is happening everywhere, everyday. The growth of online learning underscores this need for quality, flexible education programs that meet the demands of our 21st-century workforce.”

Frank Mayadas, Senior Advisor to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and founding President of the Sloan Consortium noted “As in past years, the survey demonstrates the continuing robust growth in a wide range of institutions. It underscores the importance of online learning in higher education in the U.S. What a remarkable ten year period the survey has captured.”

Key report findings include:
--Over 6.7 million students were taking at least one online course during the fall 2011 term, an increase of 570,000 students over the previous year.
--Thirty-two percent of higher education students now take at least one course online.
--Only 2.6 percent of higher education institutions currently have a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), another 9.4 percent report MOOCs are in the planning stages.
--Academic leaders remain unconvinced that MOOCs represent a sustainable method for offering online courses, but do believe they provide an important means for institutions to learn about online pedagogy.
--Seventy-seven percent of academic leaders rate the learning outcomes in online education as the same or superior to those in face-to-face classes.
--The proportion of chief academic officers who believe their faculty accept the value and legitimacy of online education has not increased – it now stands at only 30.2 percent.
--The proportion of chief academic leaders who say online learning is critical to their long-term strategy is at a new high of 69.1 percent.

The perception of a majority of chief academic officers at all types of institutions is lower retention rates for online courses remain a barrier to the growth of online instruction.

The tenth annual survey, a collaborative effort between the Babson Survey Research Group and the College Board, is the leading barometer of online learning in the United States. Based on responses from over 2,800 academic leaders, the complete survey report, “Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States” is available at

Previously underwritten by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the report has been able to remain independent through the generous support of Pearson and the Sloan Consortium.

Pearson, the world’s leading learning company, has global reach and market-leading businesses in education, business information and consumer publishing (NYSE: PSO). Pearson helps people and institutions break through to improved outcomes by providing innovative print and digital education materials, including personalized learning products such as MyLab and Mastering, education services including custom publishing, content-independent platforms including the EQUELLA digital repository, and the Pearson LearningStudio online learning platform and OpenClass online learning environment.

The Sloan Consortium (Sloan-C) is an institutional and professional leadership organization dedicated to integrating online education into the mainstream of higher education, helping institutions and individual educators improve the quality, scale, and breadth of education. Originally funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Sloan-C is now a non-profit, member-sustained organization.

The Babson Survey Research Group in the Arthur M. Blank Center for Entrepreneurial Research at Babson College conducts regional, national, and international research projects, including survey design, sampling methodology, data integrity, statistical analyses and reporting.
The report is available as a free download: PDF version: Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States (pdf); e-Book version for Kindle (.mobi format): Changing Course - Kindle version; e-Book version for iPad or Nook (.epub format): Changing Course - iPad and Nook version

The infographic is also available download the Infographic for the report.

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