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What’s the proper role of MOOCs in higher ed?

Armando Fox

Given the inordinate media attention and recent flurry of legislative activity around MOOCs (massive open online courses), I wanted to clarify the position of Berkeley’s Resource Center for Online Education (BRCOE) on the role of this new technology in our overall instructional system.

By way of background, long before MOOCs happened, Berkeley was already offering successful online courses, starting in 1992 with an online precalculus course for credit.  In 2011-2012, Berkeley enrolled more than 2,000 students in online courses for academic credit, more than 7,500  students in online courses for professional credit, and more than 75,000 students in free noncredit MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).  Many of the professional courses are offered by UC Berkeley Extension, whereas the online for-credit courses are offered through Extension and Summer Session in collaboration with campus faculty.

The for-credit courses and degree programs undergo extremely stringent internal and external reviews to ensure that their rigor and effectiveness are comparable to those of their traditional counterparts, and that Berkeley’s high standards of fostering critical thinking are properly brought into this domain.

MOOCs, on the other hand, are relatively new.  The experience of Berkeley faculty who have taught them is  that MOOCs work well as a supplement to traditional courses, not a replacement for them.  Courses at Berkeley and other world-class universities have shown that a blend of online and classroom instruction can increase professor and TA leverage and expand course enrollments while maintaining or increasing student satisfaction and learning outcomes.

As a research university with a nationally-recognized Graduate School of Education and a strongly interdisciplinary School of Information, we are enthusiastic to conduct the research to better understand the opportunities and limitations of technology-enhanced learning — not only to innovate in this area, but to inform our practical efforts.

Indeed, BRCOE will soon announce a major effort to support new research into technology-enhanced education, including new research using MOOCs as a vehicle that can yield more abundant and detailed data than has ever been available to pedagogy researchers.

But in the absence of systematic research, BRCOE believes it would be a disservice to Berkeley students to consider using a two-year-old technology as a replacement for traditional instruction, which seems to be the thrust of recent media coverage and some current legislative activity.  Berkeley will become a leader in online education not by charging prematurely into overzealous use of a new technology, but by doing the research to uncover its potential and position us to do the right thing by our students in the coming years—not just internally but in non-UC settings such as community colleges, high schools, and K-8 that ultimately “feed our pipeline.”

We recognize the disconnect between BRCOE’s point of view on this matter and the sentiment of some legislators and spokespersons for the private sector.  To that end, both we at Berkeley and our colleagues on other UC campuses are working hard to proactively inform the media, the private sector, and the public servants in Sacramento and elsewhere about both the opportunities and the pitfalls of online education. Our intention is to persuade them that “proceed optimistically but with care” is the right thing to do by our students, who are entrusting us with four or more years of education and career development when they arrive on campus.

As with any new technology, effective use of online learning can improve both the quality and quantity of what we do, but misapplication of the technology can just as surely lead to teaching the largest number of people in the shallowest possible way, which is in nobody’s interest.  Using online learning to improve what we are good at, while doing the research to illuminate the opportunities we haven’t yet taken advantage of, are key to sustaining the reputation of quality that has taken nearly a century and a half to build.

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Comments to "What’s the proper role of MOOCs in higher ed?":
    • Fred M Beshears

      My take on MOOCs is that they’re closer to online textbooks than full courses. However, unlike printed textbooks, online textbooks can be seen as more than just supplements to the traditional course. In particular, online textbooks can perform some functions that have traditionally been provided by the instructor. So, MOOCs could be used as a substitute for commercial textbooks by brick-and-mortar schools; and, if this was as far as it went, you wouldn’t see much (or any) resistance from teaching faculty.

      However, if MOOCs are used as a substitute for the lecture, then you can expect resistance from the teaching faculty. Teaching faculty don’t want to innovate themselves out of a job, and they certainly don’t want to let technocrats do this for them.

      In my opinion, this is an unfortunate but easy-to-understand position. Now, if teaching faculty had some way to know that they could hold onto their jobs, things might be different. So, if the objective of introducing the online textbook is to improve the quality of instruction, then teaching faculty might be more willing to let the MOOC/textbook do the lecturing. The university could breakup the large lecture into small study groups where students could be given problem sets, discussion questions and other activities provided by the MOOC/textbook. And, the teaching faculty could move from group to group interacting directly with the students.

      But, it may well be that those who pay for education want to use the MOOC/textbook to reduce the cost of instruction (but hold the quality constant). In this scenario, the lecturer might be repaced by lower paid teaching assistants. Or, as in the case of the Tutored Video Instruction model developed at Stanford back in the early seventies, some well qualified students could be given training to act as study group facilitators.

      Either way, my conjecture is that adding the social element of the small, face-to-face study group would go a long way toward addressing the low completion rate problem suffered by full online MOOCs. The sticking point is how to get the on campus teaching faculty to go along.

      I tried to implement something like this back at Berkeley in 1988. It was called the High Tech Small Study Group project. Your readers can find more on this (and my idea for funding the development of open textbooks) at:

      Two ways to reduce the cost of education.
      http://innovationmemes.blogspot.com/2013/01/two-ways-to-reduce-cost-of-education.html

      The faculty were not ready for this change back in 1988. But, now things might be different.

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    • Pete Carney

      Great discussion, so much of the discussion in the media about ed tech is being driven by dark and mysterious industry forces. On the other end of the spectrum, academics seem unwilling to create the changes needed. If teachers don’t design the new digital classroom, they won’t be there.

      As a professor and high school teacher, I’m constantly amazed at the lack of technology curiosity among teachers. I’m working on my own solutions to create great content. The tools for teachers have never been better, but the interest level confuses me. Here’s my project: Interactive Listening

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    • Peter Berrett

      By simply enrolling. You say you are an international student in Kazakhstan (which is not doubted). You obviously have access to a computer and the internet.

      Whether it is through EDX, Coursera or another MOOC you simply research the courses available and select the one that you want to study. You enrol on the MOOC webpage and this gives you access to the subject’s course materials. You read the materials, do the homework and submit it on line, and do any exams online require for the course. If you pass at the end fo teh course you get a certificate saying that you successfully completed the course.

      Everything you need is provided online. All you need to do is to enroll.

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    • Avi Rosenzweig

      Armando, I very much appreciate this clarification of BRCOE’s position, but I worry about the relative strength of your group’s voice when compared to the cacophony of entrepreneurial cheer-leading and behind-the-scenes deal-making going on with regard to online educational “opportunities.”

      It seems like putting out bowls full of M&Ms and cigarettes and video game cartridges and then posting a reminder about healthy lifestyle choices.

      Please also keep in mind that our responsibility is not only to do “the right thing by our students” but to serve all our descendants and honor all our progenitors. Can virtual or virtually enhanced preparation of new generations of citizens, especially the ruling classes, ever yield the refined society we need and hope for?

      Criticism of the mass media, especially television, long ago pointed out that the leveling of all social values, be they political, religious, scientific, or what have you, through a simplifying medium has an inherently negative effect on our discourse and conduct. How much more true is this for the internet and remote, automated instructional formats?

      We’re already down here in the mud with Charlie Rose giving equal time to the Prime Minister of France and the stars of the latest Disney movie release, so what good can come of lowering an economics lecture to the same level as a YouTube video of costumed cats?

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