Wednesday, May 29, 2013

More thoughts on MOOCs

(Back, after a travel break. Summer classes start next week.)

I read, in passing, of a school somewhere that wants to offer a "hybrid" degree (part traditional teaching, but largely using these MOOCs - Massive open online courses) that is sharply less expensive than a traditional degree. (More detail: Georgia Tech, the degree is claimed to cost $7000 rather than the $20,000 or some a traditional degree would cost. Not clear what proportion of the coursework is MOOCs) On my own campus, there's a movement afoot to offer a "three year BGS" degree (BGS = Bachelor of General Studies, meaning there is no specific major. When I was a snooty college kid in the STEM field, we used to refer to the BGS majors as "The Future 7-11 Managers of America." Not that there's anything wrong with managing a 7-11, but you shouldn't be spending upwards of $10,000 a year (yes, even back then) at a Public Ivy for it)

I don't know about this. I worry about the idea of making a "second class" of college degrees. From what I have heard of people's experience in MOOCs (students who have taken them, a friend on another campus who is doing one for fun), they are fine for enrichment learning, and they work okay if you are very self-motivated and have the necessary background...but I think any of us who teach know that those students aren't all that common. (And of the ones I've had, in informal conversations? They vastly prefer traditional in-person classes.)

I get that online classes serve a lot of purposes: people in remote areas, people who work odd hours (at least, if it's an asynchronous class you can "attend" at any time), people with medical issues that makes leaving the house difficult, possibly stay-at-home parents....but for the traditional college student, I think there are some hurdles they have to be able to clear.

Way back when, when I was a student, I had to take biochemistry for my degree. (Actually few biology degree programs, unless it's something really jazzy like Biotechnology, seem to require that any more. As an option, yes; as a requirement, no). Anyway, I had two choices: I could take the 15 minute walk three days a week to the med school campus and take a traditional lecture class, or I could do something called "Keller plan" which was, I guess, self-paced with modules you learned from. (Kind of like the old SRA reading program from grade school, at least that was how I envisioned it). I thought about it - hiking a 30 minute round trip early in the morning vs. Keller plan. Ultimately, I went with the med school and the hike. I chose that for a couple of reasons: first, I knew I was going to be busy that semester and with something I was "doing on my own time" it would be far, far too easy to put off doing the "modules" and wind up scrambling at the end of the semester to get done (and thus, not really learn the stuff). And second, I knew if I did the route with "real" professors, if I had a question, I could stop by their office hours. I'm sure there was some kind of help structure built in with the Keller plan class, but I knew about going to office hours and asking questions and was comfortable with that. (It turned out I did not need it; the professors were all excellent and I learned really well from them)

So anyway: if someone with the level of time-management ability and maturity that I had knew she couldn't handle a self-paced course well....

But my concern with these "hybrid" degrees is the impression the schools are giving is that they are just the same as a regular degree - that there's no difference in taking maybe half (I'm guessing here) or more of your classes as MOOCs rather than in-person classes (or even small-format online courses, where the prof behind the computer might have 75-100 students, rather than the thousands that are in a MOOC). I'm guessing "individual attention" totally goes out the window in those cases. And a lot of students need some level of individual attention - I'm not even talking about the students who are "snowflakes" or who have some kind of emotional issues that affect their learning, and who need regular building-up and reassurance from a professorial figure - I mean just your regular, garden-variety, resilient student, they run into problems and need assistance. And I suspect it will be harder to get, and involve more red tape, when the professor "teaching" the class is at a different campus and has thousands of students all over the world....

My worry is, we're going to wind up with "Neiman Marcus Degrees" and "Wal-Mart Degrees." You go to a store like Nieman Marcus, you know you will be spending a lot of money. However, you expect good service and you expect a quality, durable product for what you are paying. You also might expect something a little different, a little more special, than the ordinary. When you go to Wal-Mart, you're going because it's cheap. You know if you need help you probably won't get it (or at least, I have found it very hard to get ANY help when I've needed it). The store might not be as clean as the Neiman-Marcus, it won't be as nicely lit, the music won't be as nice. You know that the product you buy will probably be cheaply made, not last all that well, and it may be made in factories whose labor conditions you'd really prefer not to know about. But it's cheap, and it's quick, and it's all that's available to some people.

The problem is, when someone begins pretending that a....I don't know, a blender....from Wal-Mart is JUST AS GOOD and is TOTALLY EQUIVALENT TO one from Neiman-Marcus. Oh, they both blend and whip and frappe, they both make milkshakes....but maybe the one from Wal-Mart breaks in a year and a half. Or maybe the blades stick after a while.

The problem isn't that there's Wal-Mart and there's Neiman-Marcus, the problem comes when there's nothing in between - no little mom-and-pop stores, no traditional department stores, no appliance stores. So you have the choice: spend a lot of money and get something that is most likely top of the line, or spend much less money and get something that's not that great, but hey, it was cheap. And so we wind up with the few who can afford a pricey degree from a Harvard or some such, and everyone else who has to do most of their coursework as distance-learning as part of an enormous cohort of students.

And while we're not there, I could see that beginning to happen, as smaller schools decide to "outsource" a lot of their subjects to MOOC creators....and the pressure for "cheap" and "fast" degrees grows. (You have heard the old engineering dictum? "You can have something good, fast, or cheap. Pick two." Though more often, it's pick ONE). I just worry that we will wind up with legions of people who earned quickie online degrees, or BGS degrees, and they STILL can't get a job with it really that much less of a waste if you spent three years of your life rather than 4, and $10,000 rather than maybe $25,000?  You still don't have a still might not have the preparation expected.

I'm not saying "don't do this ever," I'm saying "Let's think about this a bit more before we rush headlong into it."

1 comment:

Kate P said...

SRA! Weren't there all those different color cards? I remember that from 2nd grade. When I transferred the following year, the new school didn't have it. (They also had a FAKE science lab nobody used, so there you go.)

For as long as online classes have been around, they're still not highly regarded. I don't feel my degree is any less because I went online (fully accredited, really one of the original developers)--it was the only way to go full-time and keep working full-time (which I don't recommend). I have not encountered much negativity; however, I don't advertise it, either.

But I also made sure I got quality educators. One time I started a course, and I could tell it was a TA who had just thrown everything up on BlackBoard, and essentially it seemed far less "taught" than a regular course would be. So I transferred--actually, begged to be admitted--into the other section of the same course. I wonder how that other section did.