Technology Changes Everything (or How I Stopped Worrying About MOOCs)

Carleton University’s president Roseann O’Reilly Runte wrote an article today on the technological changes higher education face in the Globe and Mail (which may be behind a paywall for some of you). I’ve provided some out of context quotes to pick apart her argument.

“Technology brings additional information on learning styles and helps assess rapidly what has been retained, allowing lectures to be adapted to students’ needs and to be made more meaningful.”

While it can bring additional information – it takes some presumptive leaps to determine learning styles (if those even exist) based on how many times a person logs into an LMS or how long they spend on a piece of content. Also, assessing what has been retained, is well self-explanatory. Shouldn’t we be testing whether the knowledge gained is applied in a logical manner? Who cares if the student knows who the King of France is in 1560, shouldn’t we care about what is important about that person in a historical context? It’s useful to know if a student has basic knowledge, but with google, bing and wikipedia at our easy access, shouldn’t we care more about access to those tools and using that knowledge rather than the base fact that a student knows something?

And don’t get me started on making lectures able to be adapted to a student’s need… a lecture appeals to certain students – whether that’s in class, online or on Khan’s Academy or YouTube.

“Classes can combine Internet connections, Skyped conversation, video-teleconference and satellite hookups with videos and segments of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) produced around the world. Students can benefit from international online discussion groups. All of this enriches the learning experience and represents considerable up-front investment with intensive labour commitments from faculty and technical support.”

Actually, very few instructors do this because each University is stuck in their own silo, based on the last fifty years of in-fighting and competition for enrollments. Why collaborate with your enemy when they will take your students while you repackage their lectures? Yes, these things can be done, but often are not because of a myriad of factors – competition with other institutions (rather than collaboration), ego, discipline specific content, unique selling propositions of individual institutions, technical know how, and cost. Those costs don’t magically disappear after introducing the innovation – it takes continued effort and improvement, which is a continued cost. MOOCs (as EdX, Udacity, Coursera and the like) are used by many institutions as a loss-leader – a way to build a brand and maybe it serves the community (maybe it just serves itself as Coursera has found).

“MOOCs will soon conquer the mechanical glitches which have been highly publicized. Some have already solved the evaluation and accreditation issues. When this becomes the normal process, students across the world will have the option of taking a history class at 8:00 am on Friday or the Ivy League professor’s MOOC any time. Students will then ask for transfer credits.”

Oh, of course, evaluation is solved… well not really. Sure in math there’s a right and wrong way to do things – so a multiple choice, or fill in the blank can assess that (assuming the student has actually entered the answer and done the work). Other disciplines that require interpretation could crowd source the evaluation like Coursera does. Which is fine, but not exactly impartial or valuable (in many people’s experience). I guess my snide commentary is that it mimicks really well the higher education evaluations used. Honestly though, transfer credits are difficult enough to ascertain based on current standards in Ontario (I’ve tried to get my Athabasca University credits recognized at another institution for a prerequisite and was told I had to take it locally to get credit for it) – again this is a problem the system has to address, and not something that technology will particularly solve.

“How can this lead to cost reductions? The savings can accrue rapidly if the course is massively enrolled and subsections are taught by less well-paid individuals; or if the course lasts several years and the designers and lead professor may be paid over time.”

Clearly this is the crux of the cost-reduction argument. Reduce the pay of the experts creating these courses, and teaching these courses to massive numbers. Increase enrollment in first year and if they don’t succeed they can come back next year and try again in the same environment. The average sessional at my University is already making peanuts (on top of having paid out a lot for their PhD) – lets cut their pay too. If I were at Carelton, and a faculty member, I’d underline this and make sure it was front and centre at the next negotiation.

I’ve been fairly critical of the statements about technology being a panacea for all that ills higher education; it’s not and it never will be. To create a quality e-learning piece, it takes often 10 times the amount of time, and usually the same amount of cost to produce. So logically, you’ll have to use that item at least 10 times before it makes a return on your investment. If it’s a lecture that’s been professionally captured, captioned (as required by law in 2014), audio tweaked and perfected, slides intercut with video, title cards for the beginning and end, and you deliver that lecture once a year, you’ll have to wait 11 years for that to make any return. Think your video format will be out of date? How about the content itself?