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Cathy gave a two part interview this month as part of the The New York Times“Ask An Expert” column series.  She answered questions from Baby Boomers on accessing and using MOOCS.  You can read the full text of the second installment here.  

September 11, 2013

Advice for Middle-Age Seekers of MOOCs, Part 2


Cathy N. Davidson, a professor of English and interdisciplinary studies at Duke University, is answering readers’ questions about how to find and use Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and other online continuing education tools. Part 1 of her answers is here.

Professor Davidson, besides teaching a class, “Making Data Matter,” co-directing the Ph.D. Lab in Digital Knowledge and holding two distinguished chairs, is a co-founder of the Humanities, Arts, Technology and Science Alliance and Collaboratory (Hastac), which describes itself as “a network of innovators dedicated to new forms of learning for the digital age.” She was appointed in 2012 by President Obama to the National Council on the Humanities and is co-director of the annual MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions. Her 20 books include “Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn” (Viking, 2011).

Earlier this year on the Hastac site, she posted an article, “Clearing Up Some Myths About MOOCs,” describing her mixed experience sampling online courses and her decision to teach a free, open, public MOOC offered through Coursera in January 2014, called The History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education. (Besides working with Coursera, she is an unpaid adviser to another for-profit provider of MOOCs, Udacity, as well as dozens of other educational institutions.) She blogs as “Cat in the Stack” at and you can follower her on Twitter @CathyNDavidson.

Battling High Drop-Out Rates

Q. Online learning has notoriously high drop-out rates for K-12 and college students. For-profit private online education companies are rushing to profit at the trough of public education money. When nonprofit education institutions offer coursework online, they depersonalize education, create a two-tiered education system, eliminate diversity of instruction, and put educators out of work. —Amy, Nevada

A. Due to length, we decided to break my answers into two parts, the first focusing on mostly positive aspects of MOOCs, and this part addressing some of the negatives. One of the biggest downsides of MOOCs is the “magical thinking” that leads people to believe the hype that MOOCs will solve all the economic problems of higher education. They won’t. I’ve written about this before in more detail (e.g., “Why College Costs So Much—and Why the Pundits Get it Wrong”). MOOCs cannot in themselves reverse the drastic cuts in higher education that have driven the tuition increases at public institutions over the last decades.

It is those cutbacks that have also resulted in the terrible problem in the college teaching profession: right now more than 70 percent of the teachers at American colleges and universities are contingent or adjunct faculty, meaning they teach on a per-course basis (for as little as $2,000 for a quarter- or semester-long course), without health insurance or other benefits, and without even the assurance that there will be a part-time job the next term. This situation arose long before MOOCs, but many worry MOOCs will create even more “homeless adjuncts,” a term for Ph.D’s in an array of fields in the social sciences, humanities theoretical sciences, math, and other areas who live below the poverty line.

Amy, I see that Michael Williams (the “homeless by choice” volunteer educator whom I cited here last week and the sole proprietor of the World Mentoring Academy) has already addressed a number of your concerns, so I’ll focus here on just one: the 90 percent drop-out rate in MOOCs. That drop-out rate is why I do not believe MOOCs threaten traditional education. Most people around the world who take advantage of MOOCs are not people who would otherwise be taking college courses — for reasons of cost, distance, work and family life, disability, academic prerequisites, or other factors. MOOCs extend education to a new audience (which is also why they won’t bring down the cost of higher education in and of themselves).

If we view MOOCs as a public service, not equivalent to a college degree, then the poor retention rate is on par with other voluntary self-improvement programs. People take MOOCs for all kinds of reasons, ranging from a desire for job training and retraining, skills development, professional development, self-enhancement, or just pleasure. This is true of all kinds of instruction online, not just MOOCs — there’s an array of priceless content available to anyone with an Internet connection on iTunes U, millions of instructional videos on YouTube and elsewhere, and so forth.

It takes will power and self-control to finish a MOOC, especially when you do it alone, without a peer group or community or study group to support you. Most people begin MOOCs with the optimistic expectation of how much good they will gain from the experience and an under-estimation of how much work will be required to attain it. It’s like that New Year’s resolution to lose 10 pounds. By mid-January, we’ve realized we’re not going to do all that exercise and dieting and we give up, resolving to lose the weight some other year.

Improving Peer Feedback

Q. Compare and contrast ( ;-} ): MOOC vs. an online class with 20 – 30 registered students, for, let’s say, English composition.—Tony Davidson, Houston

Q. I took a lit course (Coursera) a year and a half ago and was hugely dismayed to find that my weekly essays were graded by other students who put almost no effort into the grading (I graded theirs professionally and carefully, as a former teacher) and often in a flippant manner. (I wasn’t working for a grade or credit.) I was also surprised at how many students’ essays proved to be plagiarized – at least partially! It was a very disillusioning experience. –Serena Rachels, Rochester, N.Y.

A. Thanks, Tony, for raising the comparison between MOOCs and smaller-scale online classes that have been around for decades. Personally, I’ve not seen a MOOC that is as effective at developing writing skills as the best of the older, online writing courses. One baffling aspect of MOOC Mania is that some legislators, administrators and pundits are embracing MOOCs without even turning to their own faculty experts in online methods. They are so convinced (wrongly) that MOOCs can bring down the cost of higher education that sometimes they are not even aware of pioneering online programs already existing at their own universities. New technology often bedazzles common sense. MOOC Mania is a good example.

As Serena observes, one of the big problems with MOOCs is the often ad hoc, unstructured form of peer feedback. It can work well in some cases, but most of us who champion peer-to-peer learning know that it requires careful attention and oversight. Learning how to listen in order to understand (not just in order respond), learning how to collaborate productively with others of diverse backgrounds and skills, and learning how to revise together (whether in a composition class or when writing software code) are invaluable skills in our time when more and more of our work and life happens online, often with people we’ve never met.

You cannot just assume people know how to do this. Businesses pay a lot of money to help their managers and employees work well together online and off. Students online don’t come by the skills any easier. In fact, last spring, in one of my graduate digital literacy classes (face-to-face with students from Duke, the University of North Carolina and North Carolina State University), my students proposed, in lieu of traditional term papers, to write a book together on open learning. They have published it online, and I recommend it to anyone interested in peer learning: Field Notes for 21st Century Literacies: A Guide to New Theories, Methods, and Practices for Open Peer Teaching and Learning.

Competing With Traditional Instruction

Q. Do you see MOOCs competing with, complementing, or having no effect on face-to-face instruction at colleges and universities? —Jennacole13, Kentucky

A. Thanks for this, Jenna. Several people asked a version of this question. MinuteMan from Boston asks about whether MOOCs will “replace” public schools and “disrupt” universities, while Andrew Kahr of Cebu asks why accredited universities aren’t offering MOOCs for course credit and degrees, rather than turning this over to the for-profit MOOCs.

To address that last issue first: several accredited schools (including the Committee on Institutional Cooperation that includes the Big Ten schools plus the University of Chicago) have banded together to mount MOOCs of their own. They say they plan to do this without relying on the corporate big-tech companies to supply the hardware or to skim the profits. This is a trend worth watching, especially if these courses find a new audience beyond the traditional students attending their universities and can employ more teachers at living wages than is currently the case. If we’re serious about educating a new kind of student, as the Open University has done in England since 1969, that requires a serious pedagogical commitment — to mentors, advisers and others supporting the success of the students.

Jenna, your distinction between “competing with” and “complementing” face-to-face instruction is a central concern right now. The expected population dip of the coming few years poses a major problem for smaller, residential colleges with high tuition. But even with a half-decade of “baby bust” years ahead, the real tragedy is the high number of students who want but cannot afford higher education. The crush of students desperate to get into our state universities is a national crisis. Right now, the media grade point average of a student entering the University of California Irvine is 4.1 on a 4.0 scale (the extra .1 comes from Advanced Placement courses). Better than perfect to get into your state university? How is that “public” education anymore?

Because states have to find a way to make up for declining public support, it is now easier to get into other state’s universities than your own — because then you pay the higher out-of-state tuition. What a terrible system! There’s not an “oversupply” of professors but an “under supply” of support for education as a public good. Currently 450,000 students in California alone are on the waiting list for community colleges. The United States now ranks 11th in college graduation rates. That’s deplorable.

The hope of MOOCs is that they might give students who need advanced training the opportunity, but that won’t happen if those who run MOOCs are in it to make a profit. Someone is paying, one way or another, although at the moment it is not clear who besides venture capitalists, angel investors — and state legislators who want to believe technology can magically solve this problem.

Mitigating Income Inequality

Q. I would like to understand how you see the potential of MOOCs to mitigate income and racial inequality in the States. Can you share anything about how you see MOOCs evolving into to serve those many boomers who are on the wrong side of the inequality reality? What has to change? What change is already in place going in this direction? — Michael Josefowicz, New York City

A. This is an important question, Michael. MOOCs did not create income inequality, including for underpaid contingent professors, and they won’t remedy it. But the sad fact of American life in 2013 is that higher education no longer fulfills its traditional role as a route to the middle class. The most recent figures indicate that higher education now adds to, rather than mitigates, income equality. Currently, students from higher income brackets are represented disproportionately to their high school academic achievements in our universities. It’s not just intelligence that gets you into college. If you can pay the full private university or out-of-state public university tuitions, you have a greater chance of going to college. A college degree still leads to substantially greater lifetime earnings. It also can lead to huge student debt, of course. All these factors together are a crisis and, indeed, tragic in a democracy that counts on an educated citizenry.

Whether MOOCs make income disparities better or worse depends on what and who you believe. One issue is access to bandwidth, especially for the videos. Yet, to add a hopeful note here, I’ve seen public libraries in the United States and abroad, in under-resourced areas, become vital open learning hubs, gathering people together around the free WiFi. Check out the Hive Learning Hubs in several cities. There are examples from all over the world, at libraries and community centers and coffee shops, of adults using free Wi-Fi access to tlake MOOCs together, then discussing the contents and working together on assignments.

The real answer to your social justice question depends on the motivation and business model behind MOOCs. If corporate investors are turning to MOOCs as a source of easy profit (especially if they are counting on the government to subsidize their investments in infrastructure and technology or even per-student pay-outs), then solving the problem of income inequality is not driving the business model. However, if more and more universities and even communities were to address this social need and create courses designed to extend learning to all (including those currently excluded from college by cost or admissions standards), then it is possible that MOOCs could help mitigate soaring income inequality.

To succeed, though, this goal would require public or philanthropic support, including a commitment to pay a living wage to qualified professors to act as onsite and online teachers, guides, mentors, advisers, and motivators. To extend educational opportunity to the truly disadvantaged, MOOCs also need to address cultural issues. Middle-class people often take the ability to learn for granted, as if it were natural, rather than an acquired skill. True success requires mentoring, community and a pathway to success — what the MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning initiative calls connected learning. For people of any age or background, the ability to learn something new — that is, learn how to change productively — is one of the most important and under-taught skills of all.

Experimental Business Model

Q. I am now taking a MOOC entitled Social Psychology from Wesleyan University, and it is outstanding, rivaling my university undergraduate classes. Over 100,000 students are taking the same course worldwide. I am grateful for the professor’s dedication and commitment to a rich, personalized, multimedia learning experience. What is the business model for this class and all MOOC educational experiences? I can’t see how this level of planning, preparation, production, implementation, instruction, supervision, and evaluation can be sustainable. –Brent Green, Denver, Colorado

Q. Eventually these currently free, non-credit courses will no doubt begin charging an enrollment fee. I’m very willing to pay one. In your opinion, what fees might be charged for MOOCs for those who want full credit, those who want a certificate only, and those who do not want either?—Laraine, Carbondale, Ill.

A. I’m delighted to hear about this outstanding Wesleyan University offering. As you suspect, it may all be too good to last. The business model for MOOCs is a mystery and is certainly not sustainable. As Laraine’s comment implies, like most things offered to the naive for free, we all suspect this one is going to change as soon as we’re all hooked.

Any business model that requires the altruism of those producing the goods and charges nothing of those receiving the goods is doomed to fail in a capitalist economy. Let me get personal for a moment. I and a number of my colleagues spent the summer videotaping “The History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education,” a Coursera MOOC that will begin in January of 2014. I had a blast making the course, and I can’t wait to see what the anticipated 50,000 or 100,000 students worldwide will be able to contribute to the first truly global and highly regional and local crowdsourced history of higher education (even if only a small fraction actually contribute to the online forums). I am thrilled to think about that many students, of all ages and backgrounds and nations, thinking together about the future of higher education, and I hope the activist agenda helps them fight for the future of the university too.

But sustainable as a business model? No way! For my course, I was offered a stipend of $10,000, all of which I had deposited into a fund to cover technology, travel expenses, overtime for my colleagues and teaching assistantships. Before January we’re sure we’ll have worked a good 1,000 hours — $10 an hour — and then the students arrive and things really get busy. It’s a strictly amateur venture. I watched YouTube videos to learn how to storyboard and use cue cards so I don’t sound like a zombie. My associate, Kaysi Holman, studied lighting, sound and video editing at night on I’m working with a team of assistant teachers who will aid with the discussion forums and, together, we’re designing parallel human and machine-based assessment systems, including a peer badging system, which guides students in their peer-contribution and participation in the learning process. Our hope is that, by studying these different systems, we can learn more about what works and what doesn’t.

It’s a grand educational experiment, but, at this point, it’s not clear how it will fare as a business. MOOCs haven’t yet turned a profit for Coursera and my course doesn’t even count as part of my teaching load at Duke—working as an overload for free is definitely not sustainable long-term for professors. If I didn’t have a “day job,” there’s no way this would work.

So why do it? We’re all learning a lot and that, in the end, is what education is for. Learning should not yield short-term profits. It should be an investment in our future and in society’s future. The current business model of the MOOC is not sustainable. But here’s the true bottom line: without accessible higher education neither is the world we live in sustainable.

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Cathy N. Davidson

Cathy N. Davidson

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