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MOOCs of Hazard
April 3, 2013 8:41 PM   Subscribe


 
I'm glad to read that at least one of these outfits is providing remedial courses at a lower price, but my experience with for-profit online schools has been that they're scams that target the vulnerable.

The problem wasn't with the course material, which was perfectly reasonable. The problem was that many of the students being given the hard sell to sign up for these programs had few computer skills and often had problems with literacy in general. This is not something that's easy to correct with online education, and allowing these companies to continue to exploit vulnerable-but-hopeful students for significant profit on the government dime (we're talking non-dischargeable federal student loans here) is unconscionable.
posted by asperity at 9:19 PM on April 3, 2013 [12 favorites]


But the sun never rose on television as an educational “delivery system.”

Perhaps he's splitting hairs over what the term "delivery system" means but teleconferencing for educational purposes is pretty common, right? A friend of mine from Upstate New York who attended a high school there in the early nineties described to me how he was able to take courses that weren't available at his own school via a teleconferencing session.

And come to think of it I've actually delivered (private, corporate) product training courses myself over teleconferencing.
posted by XMLicious at 10:26 PM on April 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


XMLicious: "A friend of mine from Upstate New York who attended a high school there in the early nineties described to me how he was able to take courses that weren't available at his own school via a teleconferencing session."

My impression is that that kind of teleconferencing for coursework is very rare, both at the secondary and post-secondary levels.
posted by crazy with stars at 10:49 PM on April 3, 2013


But the sun never rose on television as an educational “delivery system.”

The ghost of Harold Wilson would like to point out that the Open University in the UK was delivering proper degrees to people who had no other access from 1971, with television as an important and characteristic vehicle.

It's no longer so important, but many older Brits have fond memories of stumbling across some long-haired bloke with flares and thick glasses talking earnestly about high-order polynomials on the telly at about four in the morning.
posted by Segundus at 11:04 PM on April 3, 2013 [20 favorites]


Australia has "School of the Air". More here.
posted by vidur at 11:20 PM on April 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


my experience with for-profit online schools has been that they're scams that target the vulnerable.

Yes, that tends to be true, but I think it's starting to change.


From the article:

Quite apart from the MOOCs, there’s an impressive array of new efforts to serve low-income students—including the online public Western Governors University, which charges around $6,000 in tuition and awards reputable degrees in such fields as information technology and business.

I actually just started at Western Governors this month. I was extremely skeptical and did a lot of research before committing.

Being a lifelong autodidact it's a perfect fit for me, and I think it's serving an important demographic (namely working professionals who have lots of on-the-job knowledge and experience but nothing on paper, which tends to put them at a disadvantage in hiring/promotion decisions).

I've been impressed with them so far. They take online learning very seriously and make a lot of effort to impress upon the student that this is Serious Business. The fact that they're non-profit and also following the same accreditation standards as the state universities in their region goes a long way to making them more reputable than some of these fly-by-night operations. And the price really can't be beat.

All that said I still highly value my early college experiences and I hope that traditional academic life never fully goes away. For those lucky enough to participate in it, even if only for a little while, there are some learning experiences that can't be adequately delivered via a broadband connection and are worth seeking out.

I think more access to education for more people of all walks of life is on the whole a very good thing. There will always be predatory institutions, but they exist in brick-and-mortar forms as well. The more legitimate institutions work to fill this space, the better.
posted by Doleful Creature at 11:25 PM on April 3, 2013 [8 favorites]


Not sure about how widespread this used to be nationally, but at least in Wisconsin, where the "Wisconsin Idea" from the 19th century expanded the notional boundaries of the campus to the state line, we have University of the Air -- not exactly courses per se but interviews and engagement with UW faculty. For a while there was also a TV program that included, I do remember, lectures. So yes, there have been prior attempts to disseminate education at least in a broadcast mode. But it was more like auditing a course than enrolling in it.
posted by dhartung at 11:26 PM on April 3, 2013


I agree with one thing said in the article; without real feedback from an actual human, online courses are fundamentally the same as learning from a book. That's true in the positive ways (some people can indeed learn from a book), and maybe a flashy book with lectures and video content could do better than a paper book. However, most people can't learn difficult subjects from a book, and I don't think online courses are going to do better.

The problem is that they're trying to get around the need for instructor time, but you can't take that out and still get quality education. To get anywhere in most subjects, you need real effort from another person, and sometimes facilities. In the sciences, of course, you need labs; can't do that online. You can't get anywhere in the languages or the arts without someone who knows what they're doing reading and analyzing your work. Math and physics suffer significantly from not having a real person grade (you need to tell people what they've done wrong on their equations). And so on.

It feels like a lot of this ultimately comes down to people having poor experiences in college - either not seeing any classes but the 600-person lecture hall nightmares or content-poor classes that really could be taught by a computer - and not realizing it should be better than that.

If a class can function with a class size of ten thousand (assuming there's not a few hundred TAs), it's not a class, it's a series of videos with a few autograded tests thrown in.
posted by Mitrovarr at 11:27 PM on April 3, 2013 [18 favorites]


Last fall, I heard the chief financial officer of an urban public university put the matter succinctly: The difficulty, he said, is not so much the cost of college, but the shift of the financial burden from the state to the student.

And the difficulty is that unlike the state, the student might begin to realize she's paying way too much for far too little.
posted by three blind mice at 3:18 AM on April 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


I do not think there is such a thing as "The College Experience". It is a stereotype made up of many experiences at particular colleges that, for one reason or another, are assumed to be universal.
posted by LogicalDash at 3:49 AM on April 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


The problem is that they're trying to get around the need for instructor time, but you can't take that out and still get quality education.

Exactly. I have in fact taught myself some difficult subjects out of books for some other difficult subjects I haven't been able to get around asking questions of other humans. When your mental model is just wrong, or missing entirely, it often takes another human-level intelligence to figure out what you are missing. You can't boot yourself up into it, or not without massive effort.

I think the big drive for "online learning" is not so much to bring education to the masses as it is to reduce labor costs. If we really wanted to educate everyone, just make college free like high school is. There's no reason we can't afford it other than the opposition of those who hate to contribute their fair share.
posted by DU at 4:04 AM on April 4, 2013 [5 favorites]


Betteridge's Law of Headlines has something to say about this article (and I think I agree).
posted by barnacles at 4:28 AM on April 4, 2013


Will online education dampen the college experience?

No, people can binge-drink just about anywhere.
posted by jonmc at 4:47 AM on April 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


I do not think there is such a thing as "The College Experience". It is a stereotype made up of many experiences at particular colleges that, for one reason or another, are assumed to be universal.

Indeed. I lived with my parents and commuted first to a local community college, then a state university. I've been told frequently I did not have a College Experience. On the other hand, 100% of my education was paid for with a fairly minor academic scholarship, as opposed to a crushing debt.
posted by Foosnark at 4:50 AM on April 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


I've been told frequently I did not have a College Experience. On the other hand, 100% of my education was paid for with a fairly minor academic scholarship, as opposed to a crushing debt.

In my observation, the College Experience(TM) is a leisure based thing available only to some people. It's like we talk about a teenage experience of utter vapid narcissism based self discovery that applies to the children of the affluent middle and upper middle classes. Nevermind that plenty of teenagers are instead, working and doing childcare or even were forced to move out early.

It would be like assuming that marrying and courtship looked like the regency era London social season. for everyone of that period. Or that being the valet to some chap on his "grand tour" was the same as being the tourist.

Coming of age in that sort of experience is a luxury available to those who get their on their own pace rather than being delivered into adulthood by necessity.
posted by Phalene at 5:29 AM on April 4, 2013 [8 favorites]


Coupla points, FWTW. I teach philosophy at a fairly well-regarded, but merely regional, and IMO decidedly unspectacular, M.A.-level university, so I've some insight here of some kind I guess.

I've resisted online courses because I fear they'll contribute to the downfall of Western civilization.

I fear a future in which a few "superstar" professors make the videos, and all other professors (" ") are, in effect, their TAs.

However... I've come to think that online courses can actually do some things *better*.

For example, I teach a critical thinking course. Students need it (or, well, something like it but, y'know...better...) and need it bad. But students hate it (and, indeed, all CT courses taught by everyone/anyone in my department. It seems to be the course, not me...or so I'd like to think...)

I've come to believe that most of what students need is just drilling over and over and over on some fairly simple examples. But that is just deadening in class. But only after they've done this can they benefit at all from actually talking to me about the stuff. So I'm now trying an experiment where I set things up online, and they have to do the drills. Once set up, that doesn't demand much of my time, so I can meet with smaller groups of students, which is just better. So, so much better.

So, in stead of bigger classes with little interaction in which few students have actually done the work, with me yammering on ad nauseam about stuff that they really need to do rather than hear about, we can have a system that can guarantee that they have done the work they need to do (else they can't dome to class), then I can interact with them in smaller groups and do the stuff that can't be done online.

Anyway, my current hypothesis is that there is just a bunch of stuff that can be done well--even better--online, and that doing it online frees up the professor to focus on the other stuff.

But I think it would take one really super online course to do everything online...and I'm not sure it could really be done.

But I also want to say: I hear so many bad things about so many of my students classes that I've come to believe that a high percentage of college courses are largely BS. I just doubt that, overall, we're doing a terribly good job. It's hard to believe that that it couldn't be done a lot better. Whether MOOCs are the ticket or not...well, I dunno.
posted by Fists O'Fury at 5:42 AM on April 4, 2013 [11 favorites]


I don't care if everyone goes to college, but I feel very strongly that everyone should at least have the option. The current education system doesn't provide that, so I say tear it down and keep rebuilding it until it does.
posted by blue_beetle at 5:49 AM on April 4, 2013


In my observation, the College Experience(TM) is a leisure based thing available only to some people.

As are many things but that doesn't make them worthless to those for whom it is available.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:51 AM on April 4, 2013 [5 favorites]


Metafilter: a leisure based thing available only to some people.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:01 AM on April 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


In my observation, the College Experience(TM) is a leisure based thing available only to some people.
OK, but tarring the entire on-campus "college experience" as elitist is an elitist move in itself. Yes, that experience will always be available to the truly privileged, but historically, what's been most altering or revolutionary are those times when that experience has been opened up to people outside the elite. It happened in the '60s and '70s in Britain and it happened in the US after WWII as a result of the GI Bill. I don't think people able to experience the transformative nature of that shift first hand would be likely to write off the "college experience" quite as blandly as you do.

Here's a certain prominent Mefite talking at length about what it was like for him, a working-class kid from an urban background, to get access to that world through the GI Bill after the Korean War. I don't see him describing that opportunity as trivial.
posted by Sonny Jim at 6:03 AM on April 4, 2013 [5 favorites]


Fists O'Fury: I've come to believe that most of what students need is just drilling over and over and over on some fairly simple examples. But that is just deadening in class.

I have recently been doing a French course offered by Duolingo - my observation from that is much the same: the material is structured like a game and this lets me learn grammar in the same way I would PacMan - I can make lots of mistakes and eventually either learn the patterns intuitively or take time to discern them from the underlying theory. In the end the technique I choose does not matter as long as I get the answers correct (IMHO). Trying to take this approach in a class would be incredibly tedious and slow by comparison (which might be one reason why Duolingo is claimed to be more effective than classes for language learners). The reality is that an online course, such as this, provides just one strand of several complementary approaches that are needed to learn a foreign language. The up side is that using a tool like this could do a lot to make actual face to face classes more interesting and productive.
posted by rongorongo at 6:07 AM on April 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


I might be interested in an online program that allowed me to set my own pace rather trudge through X number of weeks or months of instruction. Show me the material, be available to answer questions and quiz me when I'm ready. As a self-professed autodidact my College Experience was one of mostly tedium and boredom and I have avoided structured learning ever since...
posted by jim in austin at 6:09 AM on April 4, 2013


Online instruction could be a huge boon to education by providing complementary instruction and supplementing instructor-led classroom education; it could be those things, but when politicians hear about the idea, their first thought is, "Great! More leverage against the Teacher's Unions! Let's roll this out immediately and make it a replacement for classroom education. We'll save tons of money on all those teachers we get rid of and steer the difference to our business partners!" That's how you end up with some states that emphasize holding brick-and-mortar schools to rigid performance standards offering online alternatives that are held to no such standards whatsoever.

"The fastest growing public school district in Florida doesn't have football, school lunches or busing. It doesn't get a grade from the state, and it operates free of the rules and scrutiny that dog most public schools. Students in this district conduct frog dissections without ever stepping in a science lab, take PE without ever going into a gym and learn how to drive without ever getting in a car. They do all of it online."
posted by saulgoodman at 6:18 AM on April 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


(Granted, my comment/link relate specifically to an issue with middle school and high school on-line education, but the same economic motives probably apply just as well to higher education.)
posted by saulgoodman at 6:30 AM on April 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Something I've noticed recently in a couple of news stories and a keynote speech at a Higher Ed conference is that, despite the rhetoric, MIT and Stanford do not seem to think of MOOCs and replacements for their classes. In fact, the MOOcs they offer appear to serve partly as laboratories to improved the online delivery of their paid courses. If this is true, we are back in the "if you are not paying, you are the product" territory. Which, you know, is fair enough, but there is a whiff of "free online learning is a good idea -- for other people."

My largest issue with MOOCs, and I think this is a fatal problem, is that the completion rate is very low, like 8-12%. Now, if it's free, that's not critical -- likely a bunch of people sign up with no great enthusiasm and drop out. However, for MOOCs to really take off, they need to be monetized -- someone needs to pay for them so they will be self supporting. Once you start charging, it's frankly immoral to take someone's money when you know that even 2 out of 3 will not complete the course, much less 9 out of 10.

Related to this, something that the public (and even most students) don't seem to realize is that a degree is not just a bunch of courses. There are reasons for requirements, prerequisites, general education, etc. The unit of education is the degree, not the course, and imagining that a vague collection of 40 3-credit courses is somehow the equivalent of an undergraduate degree is wildly out of touch with reality. I am not going to claim that Higher Ed has done a great job of transmitting this to the public or even the students, but that doesn't make it less true.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:52 AM on April 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


This may be more appropriate for MeTa, but my partner is VERY interested in doing some collaborative research regarding the efficacy of various online teaching methodologies. If you have input or want to talk about it, MeMail me and I'll put you in touch.
posted by mfu at 7:06 AM on April 4, 2013 [1 favorite]




Online learning is fantastic. Right now (well not exactly this minute) I am watching the Stanford Sapolsky Biology of Behavior videos and they are better than watching "Chinatown", or whatever your favorite movie might be. Online "education" for purposes of getting a degree or certification that will help you get a job?

I am very skeptical but would be interested in seeing good examples because it would be like a utopia if I could take a bunch of online courses which fit my interests and then could reliably and with a minimum of friction could transform that into a skills profile that could be specifically optimally matched for some employment slot out there in the economy. That seems like something that could be possible in fifty years maybe.
posted by bukvich at 7:34 AM on April 4, 2013


BTW, that 2006 interview with Postroad I linked up-thread mentions another important part of the on-campus college experience no one's talked about so far:
[Interviewer]: In your teaching career, what did you like most, teaching students or doing research?
[Postroad] ... I loved teaching. I haven't taught now for, what, ten years? I love teaching. You know why? Because I found out that young [college] kids have easy access to drugs. [Laughter]
The whole interview's kind of a blast. Metafilter even gets a shout out.
posted by Sonny Jim at 7:50 AM on April 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


The real problem with online education is that it has the potential to let EVERYBODY learn. Traditional higher education can't tolerate that -- their whole business model is based on exclusivity and filtering people out of the learning flow. Well fuck those people, everybody should have the opportunity to learn as much as they can at whatever pace their situation and ability allows.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 7:55 AM on April 4, 2013


everybody should have the opportunity to learn as much as they can at whatever pace their situation and ability allows.

I agree wholeheartedly -- as long as it's free of charge. If there are fees, there must be some kind of filtering mechanism to ensure students have a chance at actually learning through an online program, and support to help them through it.

This isn't as much of a problem with the not-for-profit online schools (there's not much motive for them to take on students who are incapable of learning material delivered this way at their current educational level.)

It is a huge problem with the for-profit online schools, and while there are indeed many students that are served well by them, there are far too many who are exploited in ways that do serious damage to their financial, mental, and emotional well-being. It's not just snobbishness or the profit interests of "traditional higher education" that motivate critics of online education. Real people are being hurt here, and I've spoken with many of them. It's heartbreaking.
posted by asperity at 8:17 AM on April 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Fists:
So, in stead of bigger classes with little interaction in which few students have actually done the work, with me yammering on ad nauseam about stuff that they really need to do rather than hear about, we can have a system that can guarantee that they have done the work they need to do (else they can't dome to class), then I can interact with them in smaller groups and do the stuff that can't be done online.
I work at a college, and I heard a presentation a week ago bout this very thing. They call it a "flipped classroom," which refers to flipping the lecture outside of classtime and saving that face-to-face for higher-value stuff.

This was, of all things, a culinary class. The chef instructor said that doing this allows the students more time to actually, you know, cook: instead of listening to an hour lecture, cooking for an hour, and then cleaning up, they get two hours of cooking, much of which is spent in one-on-one or small-group interaction. The students are performing better, they are happier, and they get exposed to more material.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:24 AM on April 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


The real problem with online education is that it has the potential to let EVERYBODY learn. Traditional higher education can't tolerate that -- their whole business model is based on exclusivity and filtering people out of the learning flow. Well fuck those people, everybody should have the opportunity to learn as much as they can at whatever pace their situation and ability allows.
And the problem with this kind of broad-brushed critique is that it ignores the fact that (1) as mentioned above, long-standing HE institutions like the Open University have been doing online education for years, and (2) what makes that kind of education viable is the scaffolding of actual, human minds and bodies supporting it: the academics writing and producing the course material, and the tutors and support staff who phone, email, and regularly meet with and actually teach the students. And underpinning the success of all of this is regular assessment, which allows the University to see who's struggling early and provide the support and intervention where necessary so as to prevent people dropping out. It's hardly as if MOOCs are this Amazing New Thing That's Never Been Done Before OMG or that online teaching involves no human input whatsoever and the whole thing will just drive itself, GoogleCar-style. Those kinds of assumptions are naive and, yes, elitist, in that they will ultimately cause poor and unprepared people to fail.
posted by Sonny Jim at 8:33 AM on April 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


there must be some kind of filtering mechanism to ensure students have a chance at actually learning through an online program, and support to help them through it.

Absolutely this. WGU does this aggressively: you can't even start until you've passed a readiness assessment which includes reading comprehension, basic math and reasoning skills, and you also have to submit an essay that demonstrates you can write at a college level. Then after you've passed that you have to interview with an enrollment counselor who grills you to make sure you actually understand how online learning works and that you're willing to commit at least 20 hours a week to studying.

Then after you pass all that and you've agreed to pay tuition, you have to complete a 6-hour orientation with a number of tasks designed to prove that you actually know how to use all the tools, websites, email system, book store, discussion boards, and other resources in order to be a successful student.

THEN after that you have to meet with your program mentor once a week for the first month to verify your academic activity and make sure you're progressing in your studies. THEN after that you still have to have a phone call with your mentor every other week to make sure you're staying engaged.

You have to complete at least 60% of the classes you sign up for in a term or you're put on academic notice. Grading is not just based on taking tests (and all tests are proctored just like a regular school). You have to write papers, complete projects, and in those cases where you're submitting work your grader is actually a human being with a Master's degree in the field of that particular course.

Maybe there's something better that I'm not aware of, but my experience is that WGU is the gold standard of tuition-based online education.
posted by Doleful Creature at 9:06 AM on April 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


My largest issue with MOOCs, and I think this is a fatal problem, is that the completion rate is very low, like 8-12%. Now, if it's free, that's not critical -- likely a bunch of people sign up with no great enthusiasm and drop out. However, for MOOCs to really take off, they need to be monetized -- someone needs to pay for them so they will be self supporting. Once you start charging, it's frankly immoral to take someone's money when you know that even 2 out of 3 will not complete the course, much less 9 out of 10.

One thing I think you could do is to charge people for services like grading and feedback. Especially for courses where the student has to do a lot of writing, that would work. Something like a history course where the student is required to submit an essay every two weeks. That way they only pay per essay and if they stop taking the course half-way through they've still had the benefit of receiving feedback on their work up to that point.
Then, if they want credit for the course and have submitted every piece of work, you charge them another fee to:
a) take an exam under exam conditions
b) have the essays that are already marked cross-marked by someone else (to make sure that grades are consistent across the course)
c) Package everything together into a final grade and narrative feedback describing your achievement level

I know that some MOOCs have been pursuing a model where they charge to provide proof, but in my experience people do not like to pay for things that seem trivial (such as printing out a piece of paper and mailing it). Charging for actual tangible things has the advantage of linking what the student pays to the actual costs of providing it.

Of course, silicon valley people hate that idea because it isn't scalable in the way they like precisely because of that link between costs and revenue.
posted by atrazine at 9:24 AM on April 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Related ...

Online learning: It’s different.
The number of online educational offerings has exploded in recent years, but their rapid rise has spawned a critical question: Can such “virtual” classes cut through the maze of distractions — such as email, the Internet, and television — that face students sitting at their computers?

The solution, Harvard researchers say, is to test students early and often.
posted by ericb at 9:52 AM on April 4, 2013


In the mid 1980's, I participated in NJIT's Virtual Classroom, taking Intro to Sociology. (Based in Professor Hiltz's papers, I see they added video after my time.) I was a high school student at the time and could not have physically attended a class. I got into the program because my mother worked at one of the partner colleges, and we had a modem at home, and I guess I made a good test case. It was a bit of a hybrid by today's standards. We had three in-person classes: an orientation session, the mid-term, and the final. The rest of the class was through EIES, which was sort of like a giant BBS run by NJIT. The professor posted "lectures", reading assignments and other work assignments on a public forum. Discussions also took place in a threaded forum. I think we were given a minimum of salient posts we were expected to make each week. We had timed quizzes. There was a timestamp when we opened the email with the quiz in it and then our reply had to have a timestamp within the time allotted. I can't recall whether we emailed in homework essays or posted them, though at least some were posted publicly as part of the discussion part of the classroom.

There are a lot more tools to facilitate this sort of things now than during the original experiment. (To be fair, also more ways to cheat and more distractions.)

I notice that articles I see on this sort of classes do not mention the sort of class participation I remember from those days. It seems to me that there is value in setting up e-learning so that there's peer support, not just student-professor interaction.
posted by Karmakaze at 10:43 AM on April 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't think that the high rates of dropout are directly comparable to normal courses - because when courses are free you register / sign-up for lots of courses. Maybe multiple covering the same topic - then you drop the ones that seem to be the lowest quality.

I've recently dropped out of some MOOC classes - not because they were hard - but because they were shit. (ie the content was lower level than I expected). I also sign up for ones I"m only vaguely interested in. I think a lot of people do the same, which will tend to inflate the dropout rates.

You just don't take that approach to choosing classes when its a university Course.
posted by mary8nne at 11:05 AM on April 4, 2013




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