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Cathy wrote this article for edSurge on the possibilities and challenges presented by MOOCs for the future of higher education. The full article is posted below, or can be read on the edSurge site here.


What is the cost of MOOCs for society at large? Who profits? And who loses?

In the last few weeks, faculty at universities from Amherst to Duke to San Jose State have been pushing back at the incursion of MOOCs on their campuses. The San Jose professors offered this reason: that giving in to MOOCs now means that “public universities that have so long and successfully served the students and citizens of California will be dismantled, and what remains of them will become a hodgepodge branch of private companies.”

Point well taken! If we centralize teaching through a few commercial or even non-profit MOOC providers, what is the future of the professorate? If undergraduate teaching is centralized by MOOC providers, how can we sustain future graduate programs except at a handful of elite universities? Without graduate departments, what is the fate of basic research?  

Government and industry offer less and less support for theoretical and specialized research in the sciences; neither do they support the full range of research in the human and social sciences. As the prospects for teaching careers grow dim and support for teaching assistants dwindles, many fields at many universities will simply disappear. That’s a problem, particularly because it may well be the research in these fields–pursued without a clear commercial end product–that results in transformative, world-changing insights, possibilities, discoveries, and breakthroughs.  

MOOCs are forcing universities to confront some challenging issues including the cost of tuition, and who wins and who loses as this kind of online education emerges. Faculty and institutions are wrestling with these questions and are often rightly concerned about their future.  

But left out of that conversation are the urgent demands of hundreds of thousands of students who are struggling with the cost and access to higher education–and potentially with staggering personal debt. Currently 450,000 students are on the waiting list for California community colleges alone. In the great technical schools in India, the admission rate is less than 2% as selected from only that tiny percentage of students eligible to take the entrance exams.  The average GPA of a student entering the University of California Irvine this year is 4.1 on a 4.0 scale, and the students need perfect test scores and a host of extracurricular activities to get into their state university, too. That’s a tragedy for the students and for society. 

MOOCs address students’ cost problems by offering free or low-cost courses to anyone, often without prerequisites or entrance requirements.  Sebastian Thrun, CEO of Udacity, in a recent video has said that 300,000 students have enrolled in just one Udacity computer science course.  And, thanks to individual mentoring and tutoring, drop out rates for a number of the San Jose courses offered by Udacity are falling rapidly, even as new research suggests that problem-based, online learning in areas of study such as computer programming can achieve comparable retention rates of traditional lecture-style classes–and rival those classes when assessed on the “applicability” of the work. 

It’s for those kinds of reasons that Georgia Tech recently announced its first online master’s degree in computer science, funded partly by AT&T and offered by Udacity, and intended to reach a global audience far beyond the normal student body taught by Georgia Tech faculty.   

What we have at the moment are competing values, competing goals, and, unfortunately, a lot of anxiety. 

In the present mood of high polemic, hyperbolic promise, and hysterical panic, it is almost impossible to sort out the questions, let alone the answers to these questions, on either a national or international level: Is now the time to reject or embrace massive online learning? Do MOOCs yield improved learning and free and open access to those who have been excluded from higher education—or are they yet another cynical attempt to defund the public and extract profits from tax payers and diminish the value of what virtually all universally claim to be the public good of higher education? 

As a small attempt to find clarity and some creative new answers to the problems of access and affordability, I’ve decided to teach a MOOC this coming academic year that, among other things, I’d like to offer up as a referendum platform on MOOCs.  

In January 2014, I will offer a six-week Coursera class, “The History and Future of Higher Education,” free and open to anyone. I’d like to turn the class’ weekly forums into an opportunity for a massive, global, collaborative, constructive, peer dialogue about how higher education got to its current dilemma. And from there, I hope we can come up with some creative, innovative, and workable ideas to make a better future. 

To start to demystify MOOCs, I’ve already started blogging at least once or twice a week on the website about MOOC mechanics, methods, and financing. I’ve also posted the draft storyboards for The History and Future of Higher Education videos here. I’m happy to hear your feedback. We plan to begin filming the videos for this class in June. 

Starting in January 2014, I will also be teaching a face-to-face course at Duke on “The History and Future of Higher Education” right alongside the Coursera course. These Duke students will meet and discuss ideas with one another and then also register in the Coursera course and participate in similar online conversations, in the forums that can host literally thousands of participants worldwide. My goal is to use the stable online Coursera platform to build an engaged and expanded community interested in this topic. I suspect I’ll have about 30 on-campus students and who knows how many online. 

Even better, I’ve been hearing from other teachers who want to teach similar courses also during the Winter 2014 semester, in their brick-and-mortar classrooms, using a similar method of face-to-face conversation combined with online interaction.

So far, I have heard from about twenty college professors and high school teachers—and one teacher at a middle school—who plan to teach a version of this course alongside me. We’ll use the six hours of video as a “textbook” for the course. I will also have two student-produced textbooks available for free download. Others will be invited to contribute to an online bibliography for the class. 

Together, the students in our face-to-face classes will all have a chance to take part in the weekly global Forums where we will address current problems in higher education, explain existing solutions that individuals have come up with for their institutions or region, and propose still other new ways of learning and teaching together. MOOCs will be key to the conversation in every way.

You’re invited to join us! I love the idea of using the centralized Coursera platform of “Sage on the Stage” videos to generate a connectivist, peer-to-peer sharing of ideas, insights, and methods. Perhaps together we’ll come up with an action agenda, something better for the future of higher education.

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Cathy N. Davidson

Cathy N. Davidson

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