Compete with MOOCs?! Why not co-opt them instead?

Since I won’t write another blog post until the beginning of spring term, I thought I’d write something a little different.  Instead of a traditional data-filled post, I am going to weigh in with a suggestion – an opinion that is merely my own, not to be confused with some broader administrative position.  I’ve been mulling this one over since the explosion of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) last year, but it really came to a boil last week when I read about Scott Young and his MIT Challenge.

At first glance, Scott Young’s MIT Challenge smells like the arrogant prank of an affluent Silicon Valley prodigy.  A recent university graduate who fancies himself a blogger, writer, and “holistic learner” decides to see if he can complete the entire MIT curriculum for a computer science major in a year without enrolling in any MIT classes.  Instead, he plans to download all course materials – including lectures, homework assignments, and final exams – from MIT’s open courseware site and MIT’s edX.  He’ll only spend money on text books and internet access, which he estimates will cost about $2000 over the course of the entire curriculum (a paltry sum compared to cost of attending MIT for one year – $57,010 in 2012/13).

Well, he did it (that little @$#&!).  From September 2011 to September 2012, Mr. Young completed and passed all of the course work expected of MIT students to earn a major in computer science.  And just in case you think it a braggart’s hoax, he posted all of his course work, exams, and projects to verify that he actually pulled it off.  Essentially, If he had been a paying MIT student, he would now be considered one of their alums.  He might not have graduated cum laude, but you know what they call the person who graduates last in his class from Harvard Medical School (for those of you who haven’t heard the joke, the answer is “doctor”).

My point isn’t to celebrate the accomplishments of a brash, albeit intriguing, young man from Manitoba (wouldn’t you know it, this guy turns out to be Canadian!).  In the context of the academic tendencies we all too often see in students, his feat suggests more that he is an outlier among young adults than that a tsunami of self-directed learners is headed our way.

Rather, the simple fact that the full curriculum of a computer science degree from MIT is already freely available online should blow up any remaining notion that we, or any other small liberal arts college, can continue to act as if we are the lone gatekeepers of postsecondary content knowledge.  The ubiquitous availability of this kind of content knowledge delivered freely in educationally viable ways makes many a small college’s course catalogue seem like a quaint relic of a nostalgic past.  Moreover, if any major we offer is merely, or even mostly, an accumulation of content-heavy survey courses and in-depth seminars, we make ourselves virtually indistinguishable from an exponentially expanding range of educational options – except for our exorbitant cost.  And though we might stubbornly argue that our classes are smaller, our faculty more caring, or the expectations more demanding (all of which may indeed be so!), if the education we offer appears to prospective students as if it differs little from far less expensive educational content providers (e.g., general education is designed to provide content introductions across a range of disciplines, majors are organized around time periods, major theoretical movements, or subfields, students earn majors or minors in content-heavy areas), we increase the likelihood that future students will choose the less expensive option – even as they may whole-heartedly agree that we are marginally better.  And if those less expensive providers happen to be prestigious institutions like MIT, we are definitely in trouble.  For even if there is a sucker born every minute, I doubt there will be many who are willing to borrow gargantuan sums of money to pay for the same content knowledge that they can acquire for 1/100th of the cost – especially when they can supplement it on their own as needed.

Admittedly, I am trying to be provocative.  But please note that I haven’t equated “content knowledge” with “an education.”  Because in the end, the bulk of what Mr. Young acquired was content knowledge.  He’d already earned a undergraduate degree in a traditional setting, and by all indications, seems to have benefited extensively from that experience.  At Augustana, our educational mission has always been about much more than content knowledge.  This reality is clearly articulated in the composition of our new student learning outcomes.  We have recognized that content knowledge is a necessary but by no means sufficient condition of a meaningful education.   With this perspective, I’d like to suggest that we explicitly cast ourselves in this light: as guides that help students evaluate, process, and ultimately use that knowledge.  This doesn’t mean that we devalue content knowledge.  Rather, it means that we deliberately position content as a means to a greater end, more explicitly designing every aspect of our enterprise to achieve it.  Incidentally, this also gives us a way to talk about the educational value of our co-curricular experiences that directly ties them to our educational outcomes and makes them less susceptible to accusations of edu-tainment, extravagance, or fluff.

To date, the vast majority of successful MOOCs and online programs focuses on traditional content knowledge delivery or skill development specific to a given profession.  The research on the educational effectiveness of online courses suggests that while online delivery can be at least as effective as face-to-face courses in helping students develop and retain content knowledge and lower-order thinking skills, face-to-face courses tend to be more effective in developing higher-order thinking skills.  So if our primary focus is on showing students how to use the knowledge they have acquired to achieve a deeper educational goal rather than merely delivering said content to them, then . . . .

What if, instead of fearing the “threat” of MOOCs and online learning, we chose to see them as a wonderful cost- and time-saving opportunity?  What if we were to co-opt the power and efficiency of MOOCs and other online content delivery mechanisms to allow us to focus more of our time and face-to-face resources on showing students how to use that knowledge?  I don’t begin to claim to have a fully fleshed-out model of what all of this would look like (in part because I don’t think there is a single model of how an institution might pull this off), but it seems to me that if we choose to see the explosion of online learning possibilities as a threat, we drastically shorten our list of plausible responses (i.e., ignore them and hope they go away or try to compete without a glimmer of the resources necessary to do so).  On the other hand, if we co-opt the possibilities of online learning and find ways to fit them into our current educational mission, our options are as broad as the possibilities are endless.  I guess I’d rather explore an expanding horizon.  Enjoy your break.

Make it a good day,






The Value of Providing an Intentional Curriculum

Most of us have heard about – or tried to defuse – at least one student who blew a gasket over their inability to get into a course that they thought they had to take during the next term.  Since we’ve just finished the registration period for spring, I’ve been thinking a bit more about our analysis of one item on the 2012 senior survey that relates to students’ course taking experience.  Seniors were asked to respond to the following statement.

“The courses I needed to take were available in the order in which I needed to take them.”

There were five response options ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree” (we scored them from 1 to 5 for the purposes of statistical analysis).  Our 2012 seniors’ average response score was 3.42.  Their responses were distributed like this:

Strongly Disagree 26 5%
Disagree 87 17%
Neutral 97 19%
Agree 250 49%
Strongly Agree 47 9%

Of course, we’d probably like the vast majority of our students to indicate “agree” or “strongly agree.”  However, just over 40% of our seniors selected “strongly disagree,” “disagree,” or “neutral.”  This begs two questions:

  1. To what degree is our students’ response to this item important?
  2. What could we do to influence our students’ responses in the future?

Most of the time, the story of the aforementioned panicking student concludes with a successful resolution – at least in terms of whether or not they were able to take the courses required to graduate in four years.  Often, a student’s panic can be assuaged when they realize that there are multiple course-taking patterns that will get them to the same outcome.  So, how important should it be to us whether students think that they were able to get into the classes they wanted to take when they thought they needed to take them?

It turns out that it may actually be pretty important.  We conducted a series of analyses of our senior survey data to identify the experiences that might be most directly influential on two outcomes, 1) the degree to which a senior would choose Augustana again if they could relive their college decision (a proxy for the value that a student thinks they got out of their education), and 2) the degree to which a senior is certain that their post-graduate plan is a good fit for who they are and where they want their life to go (a proxy for the student’s sense of the quality and clarity of their preparation for life after college).  Even after accounting for differences in students’ race, sex, pre-college ACT score, socio-economic status, and a variety of other curricular experiences, the degree to which courses were available in the order the student needed to take them proved to be a positive, statistically significant predictor of both outcomes.  In other words, students who felt courses were available in the order they needed to take them were also more likely to say that they would definitely choose Augustana again and were more certain that their post-graduate plans were a good fit for who they are and where they want their life to go.

It seems to me as if two things are going on here.  First, students often perceive themselves to be customers (sometimes to our great aggravation) and expect that the education for which they’ve enrolled – and are paying a lot of money – should be available in the manner that they choose it.  So if a student didn’t get into the classes they initially wanted to take, or were not able to take all of the major courses that interested them, they may well think that they didn’t get the full value of their investment.  While we’d like to provide an environment in which every student was able to take the courses they want when they want them, we all know that this is simply impossible.  This reality further emphasizes the value of an advising conversation that helps students understand their college education as replete with options and opportunity rather than constrained to a single checklist.

Second, although our students’ sense of Augustana’s educational worth is important, I am particularly intrigued by the statistically significant positive relationship between our students’ sense of sequence in their course-taking experience and their certainty that their post-graduate plans are a good fit for them.  The history of curricular design in higher education reveals a substantial shift from an entirely prescriptive curriculum with few – if any – choices a century ago to a sort of modern day modular smorgasbord where students select from a range of choices across a series of categories.  As institutions have focused more specifically on student learning we are repeatedly finding that this cafeteria approach, while it might give faculty more freedom to teach what they want to teach, ends up numbing students to the possibility of a holistic learning experience.  In some cases, especially at larger institutions, it also produces an almost laughable lack of awareness of what is going on outside of a given faculty member’s courses or department.  For our students, I suspect that a more sequential course-taking experience allows them to see the developmental nature of their education and to integrate each of the pieces into an accumulative whole.  In addition, it allows faculty to talk about the curriculum as a developmental construction in conversations with students.

The correlation between students’ sequential course-taking experience and their certainty of post-graduate plan fit suggests to me that the value of a more intentional curriculum can be framed around its benefits for student learning – not just about better “customer service” (a phrase that makes my skin crawl when used to refer to educational concepts).  Establishing a curriculum that embodies the developmental nature of learning encourages students to think about their own growth and, through that process, become more confident in their own progress toward their future goals.

So if you are in the midst of a conversation about curricular revision, I hope you’ll be able to shape your efforts around an explicitly intentional design.  And when you are talking with students about their course-taking choices, I hope you’ll suggest to them a strategic way of thinking about course selection.

Make it a good day,