Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Changing HigherEd one MOOC at a time

The links + excerpts below, although not about MOOCs relate to them and especially #EduMOOC Week 8. They are reactions to higher education disruptions and changes from various (and conflicting) perspectives on the future topography of higher ed. I recall, perhaps imperfectly, a comment by Stephen Downes on disaggregating courses and credits as the only way to keep learning open and certification available. That made sense to me, even though I immediately recognized the authority (and thus power) to bestow credits as a line in the sand issue not easily resolved. 

I was not wrong. Judging by the academic blogosphere's reaction to Stanford's open course experiment, WGU encroachments, charter universities and other tech transgressions, I may even have underestimated the reaction.  

Resistance to technological change does not fuel the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education and supporting blog Restructuring Public Hi Ed directly. However, it plays a major role as threat to the campaign's preservationist stance and stated purpose of educators having a voice in higher education changes. My own experience tells me they could have a voice in MOOCs and learn more about the unknown by listening to others with an open mind and the free exchange of ideas across the full spectrum of higher ed stakeholders. Nothing runs counter to the Campaign's basic principles.  

In the following collection of reactions and opinions, Stanford's "is it a MOOC or isn't it," moderately massive but not open online courses (i.e. IT courses at SFSU) already being taught online, and Western Governors University are neither MOOCs nor representative of their connectivist foundations. MOOCs (and distributed networks) could be the solution to problems (e.g. authentic interaction) the others still present. 

How then would a judicious application of MOOC and connectivism affect each of the following cases? How would it address concerns for the profession voiced by educators? 

The best way to eliminate grade inflation is to take professors out of the grading process: Replace them with professional evaluators who never meet the students, and who don't worry that students will punish harsh grades with poor reviews. That's the argument made by leaders of Western Governors University, which has hired 300 adjunct professors who do nothing but grade student work.

Pam Thomas, an instructor of biology at the University of Central Florida, decided to try robot grading because she loves to teach large classes—the more students in the lecture hall, the better. She had more than 1,000 in her "General Biology" course last spring, and she wanted to give them assignments more challenging than "punching buttons on multiple-choice tests."...Setting up the software takes some doing, she says. She had to carefully lay out what constituted a correct response, so the machine knew what to look for....

Idea Works...makes the software...called SAGrader....Only a couple of colleges are testing it, including Park University and the University of Missouri at Columbia ....Companies building essay-grading robots include the Educational Testing Service, which sells e-rater, and Pearson Education, which makes Intelligent Essay Assessor.... Skepticism is still the most common response.  

Today’s New York Times contains a report on a new, free online course on artificial intelligence being offered by Stanford University....I will admit, I’m of two minds about such courses.

On one hand, they allow many more students to have access to the ideas of the professors who offer such courses. It’s an interesting way of using the university, a physical place where scholars gather and work, to organize a virtual education, which reaches students far beyond the university itself.

On the other hand, the proliferation of online courses may pose a fundamental challenge both to the idea of the university and to the professoriat.

The question is, is it the technology of online courses that raises questions or the way online courses are being organized to offer a virtual and artificial education by the new corporate university?
Last week’s (August 7, 2011) article in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled, “Professors Cede Grading Power to Outsiders—Even Computers” triggered a very visceral reaction in me.  While I have been an advocate of hybrid/online learning at my institution, and have been following the field closely for over a decade, I too easily dismissed faculty resistance to online learning as reactive and ill informed. With this piece of the puzzle coming into focus, I starting to see that the traditional professor as we know him/her, may have good reason to resist new technological encroachments into their turf.  For the future of the professoriate may become what I term, “the disaggregated professor.”

The thrust to find cost saving, be operationally efficient and flexible, point to a “disaggregated” future for the U.S. professoriate. Faculty resistance may slow down, but not prevent this trend. We are in the midst of a major paradigm shift concerning the role of college professors in teaching and learning.
A rift is building between, on one side, university professors and, on the other side, university administrators (including finance officers), politicians, and parents.  The rift doesn’t fall into one of the usual conflicts over ideology (for example, leftist faculty vs. moderate or conservative others) or educational mission (for example, social justice vs. workforce training).  It opens over the meaning of faculty productivity.  With education funding threatened, efficiency measures evolving, administrative and extra-curricular costs rising, and tuition a point of bad publicity, officials on and off campus are increasingly posing questions about what academic work counts and what academic work doesn’t.
The next generation of technological advances could also promote greater income equality by leveling the playing field in education. Currently, educational resources – particularly tertiary educational resources (university) – in many poorer countries are severely limited relative to wealthy countries, and, so far, the Internet and computers have exacerbated the differences.

But it does not have to be that way. Surely, higher education will eventually be hit by the same kind of sweeping wave of technology that has flattened the automobile and media industries, among others. If the commoditization of education eventually extends to at least lower-level college courses, the impact on income inequality could be profound.
The Blackboard Monopolists, Raghuram Rajan and Brian Barry, 
CHICAGO – US President Barack Obama, like many Western leaders nowadays, made improving education one of his main promises to voters during his election campaign. But other domestic issues – health-care reform, budget battles, and high unemployment – have understandably loomed larger. And the United States is not alone: education reform is being held up in the United Kingdom and continental Europe as well.

Improving education remains one of the clearest ways that governments can make a lasting positive economic impact. A well-functioning education system is the most effective way to help equip people with the knowledge and skills they need to boost incomes and compete in a globalized economy. The key to such a system is embracing the role that competition can play in delivering better education to students.

That means, of course, considering the role of teacher unions as well – an issue that elicits very different reactions from the left and the right....Common ground can be hard to find in such debates if both sides disagree fiercely over basic principles. 

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