‘Irrational exuberance’ over MOOCs

(by Katherine Frey - The Washington Post)
(by Katherine Frey – The Washington Post)

Conversations about higher education these days always find their way to MOOCS, otherwise known as Massive Open Online Courses that some think will revolutionize higher education. Here’s an argument that they won’t by Larry Cuban, a high school social studies teacher for 14 years, a district superintendent (seven years in Arlington, VA), and professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, where he has taught for more than 20 years. His latest book is “As Good As It Gets: What School Reform Brought to Austin.” This appeared on his blog.

By Larry Cuban

Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan said in 1996 that the high-flying stock market was an instance of “irrational exuberance.”

Nearly two decades later, were he so inclined  to inspect the swift expansion of elite universities into sponsoring Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs), he might have said pretty much the same thing.

Certainly, there is “exuberance.”  The hype, the constant flow of words like “revolutionary,” “transformational,” speak to university officials becoming trumpeters for  expanding the reach of top-notch professors and brand-name institutions into every corner of the world where there is an Internet connection. The inspired hopes of university-based entrepreneurs to monetize these courses and bring in fresh dollars drives some professors to leave tenured positions and start new companies. The dream of pedagogically- riven faculty to use MOOCs to spread their expert knowledge to thousands of hungry students and, at the same time, enhance student-centered collaboration through networks where they come together to share ideas and help one another spurs professors to finally convert typical lecture courses into truly learner-centered experiences.  So there is exuberance.

And “irrational?” The Harvards, MITs, Dukes, Berkeleys, and Stanfords of higher education  offer these free courses now to anyone in the world. They give certificates of completion to the few who end up completing MOOCs. But not for credit toward a degree. That is a lose-lose proposition for elite institutions. Even irrationality has its limits.

Where the incoherence and mindlessness enter the picture is the current thinking among university officials and digital-minded faculty that delivering a degree or college-level courses to anyone with an Internet connection will revolutionize U.S. higher education institutions. While teaching is clearly an important activity of universities, doing research and publishing studies is the primary function. The structures (e.g., departmental organization, professional schools) and incentives (e.g., tenure, promotion) of top- and middle-tier institutions drive tenure, promotion, and time allocation for faculty. MOOCs will do nothing to alter those structures and incentives. If anything, MOOCs could accelerate and deepen the split between tenure-line faculty and adjuncts with the latter taking on these larger courses for a pittance. To think that such offerings by professors will transform higher education  gives new meaning to the word “flaky.”

The phrase, then, “irrational exuberance,” came back to me when I listened a few days ago to four enthusiastic Stanford University professors talk about their experiences teaching online courses including MOOCs. These professors in mechanical engineering, computer science, management science, and human biology told a filled auditorium of faculty and graduate students of their excitement, hard work, and surprises in re-engineering their courses to teach  MOOCs that included Stanford students in face-to-face classrooms.

The professors’ enthusiasm was infectious. They were animated in their remarks and energized by the experience. I was delighted to see professors so engaged in figuring out how best to teach a particular topic, how to get their students across the globe to work as teams on projects, and how they creatively went beyond pre-recorded lectures.

As I listened to them tell how satisfying these experiences were, how students across the globe gave feedback of how appreciative they were to learn from the professor and classmates–it occurred to me that I was hearing a great deal about student and professorial satisfaction but I was not hearing about what students learned.

Had there been more time for the Q & A after the presentations, perhaps the issue of student learning would have come up. Or the often-asked question in K-12 when an innovation is launched: does it work? Is it effective? Have students learned?

If degree of student and professor satisfaction is a measure in evaluating higher education courses, the anecdotal evidence on MOOCs thus far points to much student delight, the enjoyment of absorbing new knowledge, and professorial exhilaration. Both professors and students appear engaged in offering and taking these courses. Widespread student participation in course activities and collaboration in completing tasks seem to have increased, according to professors’ reports. But satisfaction, engagement, and networking, while important in of themselves,  cannot be assumed to have led to student learning. Such outcomes fall short of answering the basic question: Have students who have completed MOOC — recall that these courses have more than three-quarters of students dropping out – learned and applied the knowledge and skills? That is the question asked repeatedly in K-12 schools. Why not for MOOCs?

To duck this basic question becomes another instance of “irrational exuberance.”

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | January 26, 2013