Saturday, August 27, 2016
Last updated: 11 months ago
January 13, 2014, 9:29pm PDT

The end of MOOCs and the future of education

By Lawrence Neal Garcia
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In her first year at UBC, Ennas Abdussalam took an introductory computer science course, “Computation, Programs and Programming.” Abdussalam sat with hundreds of others in a large lecture halls with hundreds in attendance, went to lab sections, wrote midterms, submitted projects and eventually completed the course — and like most students, she paid for the credits she received. Now a computer science major, Abdussalam is in her fourth year and the introductory course that she took is now offered online — for free.


Now called “Introduction to Systematic Program Design, Part 1,” the course is taught by Gregor Kiczales, Abdussalam’s professor from first year, is one of four non-credit massive open online courses, or MOOCs, first offered by UBC in partnership with Coursera in May 2013.

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MOOCs — online courses aimed at theoretically unlimited participation (“massive”) and free access through the web (“open”) — have captured much of the spotlight in debates of higher education practices over the past two years. Coursera first emerged in 2011 as a dominant platform for MOOCs from different universities, operated by Stanford University professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller. Two other major providers, Udacity and edX, swiftly followed; The New York Times even dubbed 2012 “The Year of the MOOC.”

“When the MOOC thing started happening … exactly how that was going to go was unclear, but that it was going to be important was pretty clear,” said Kiczales, who had been teaching and reinventing his introductory computer science course for many years. The course became one of the first four MOOCs offered by UBC through Coursera. It has now been run twice, with another session offering in September 2014; during its first offering, Abdussalam was one of the teaching assistants.

But while UBC has jumped on the MOOC bandwagon, the university insists that is only one aspect of their pedagogical innovation — which may be for the best, given that MOOCs are not free of skeptics and critics. UBC’s partnership with Coursera is one element of a broader project: the Flexible Learning Initiative.

"When the MOOC thing started happening … exactly how that was going to go was unclear, but that it was going to be important was pretty clear."
— Gregor Kiczales

The initiative falls under the domain of the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology, (CTLT) which academic director Simon Bates says is positioned to support faculty members and departments to transform teaching and learning at UBC.

According to Bates, the flexible learning initiative can be divided into four “planks” or “strands”: the transformation of undergraduate courses; the development of new professional programs; non-credit space, which includes community access and lifelong learning; and finally, what is simply termed “experimentation.”

For UBC, MOOCs fall under the fourth strand.

For now UBC has limited its offerings on Coursera to five MOOCs: “Introduction to Systematic Program Design, Part 1,” “Climate Literacy: Navigating Climate Change Conversations,” “Game Theory,” and “Useful Genetics, Parts 1 and 2,” — a choice which Bates says is deliberate in order for UBC to maintain a focus on both undergraduate and graduate education, as well as limit cost.

Paradise lost

That even UBC, whose initial partnership with Coursera generated quite a bit of fanfare, is expressing caution when it comes to MOOCs speaks to a growing skepticism that has emerged in academic circles.

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Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller has played up the the unprecedented reach of online education, particularly to underserved demographics, making the case that MOOCs may bring world class education to those who are otherwise excluded for socioeconomic or geographic reasons. But a recent study from the University of Pennsylvania revealed that over 80 per cent of surveyed individuals taking MOOCs already hold college degrees.

“What we’re doing is providing an additional route to access learning, knowledge and courses for a group of people who, by and large, already have that,” Bates said. Coursera “has not really delivered yet on the ‘educate the world’ promise that 12 months ago was being touted as the value proposition for platforms like this.”

Indeed, Kiczales shared that in the Coursera offering of his systematic program design course, a large number of students already had previous programming experience and were only taking the course to “clean up” their foundations. Similarly, Abdussalam, who has taken a few MOOCs in her own time, says she probably wouldn’t have majored in computer science if she had only taken the online version of the CPSC 110 course. “I think that these free courses are valuable for me personally as a resource, to help my education in university, but I wouldn’t view them as something that can replace that.”

"Right now when people look at MOOCs, they say, ‘Well, that’s nowhere near as good as a real university education.’ And they’re absolutely right. It’s nowhere near as good as a real university education."
— Gregor Kiczales, UBC professor and MOOC instructor, UBC

For UBC, then, the focus is on taking lessons from the MOOCs they offer and applying them to classrooms in Point Grey.

“There’s things we can learn from teaching in this environment and teaching at this scale, [things] that we can … bring back to on-campus courses, whether they’re face-to-face, distance courses, or a blend of online and face-to-face,” said Bates, a sentiment Kiczales agrees with.

“In some sense, you can’t be doing a MOOC at UBC — or you shouldn’t be doing a MOOC at UBC — without some notion that it’s going to increase the quality of your on-campus course,” Kiczales said.

UBC’s reluctance to expand their free online offerings and instead use them as a sort of educational lab to glean lessons from can be further understood in the context MOOC-companies financial troubles. But the absence of a concrete business model is certainly not for lack of trying.

Around two months ago, Coursera competitor Udacity shifted their focus from higher education to corporate professional development through the Open Education Alliance, a circle of industry partnerships. Ostensibly a move to address the efficacy of the courses, the move also provides a source of revenue. Currently, Coursera offers Signature Track, a service that allows one to link courses taken to their identity — a form of certification — for around $30 to $100 per course.

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“There isn’t really a business model for these things right now,” observed Caroline Lemieux, a second-year honours math major and a teaching assistance in Kiczals’ online course. “You’d hope that there wouldn’t have to be a business model in education, but in our world you kind of do need to have one.”

Many, including Eric Mazur, a Harvard physics professor, see an impending “MOOC bust” — at least in the realm of higher education — as witnessed by Udacity’s courting of corporate partners and Coursera’s attempt to introduce a paid element to the classes.

Others, including Kiczales, contend otherwise.

"It seems to me that many of the so-called initiatives that are going on in flexible learning are about following a trend rather than thinking through what the role of the university is."
— Jon Beasley-Murray, associate professor, UBC

“If [Udacity and Coursera] switch to corporate education now, start generating revenue and spend time getting better at what they do, then that’s hardly failure,” he wrote in a blog post entitled “Udacity: premature claims of demise?” Still, he admits, ““Giving a very expensive product away is not a long-term business strategy.”

But the entire question of whether or not the companies facilitating UBC and other universities’ online offerings are able to turn a profit is irrelevant to other MOOC critics. For a great many — including Jon Beasley-Murray, an associate professor of French, Hispanic and Italian studies at UBC — the whole notion of a profit-seeking model is the problem.

“There’s a possibility to really democratize higher education, really open it up,” he said. “Unfortunately, what’s actually happening is a kind of ‘marketization’ and privatization of education.” Beasley-Murray speculates too that UBC’s heart may not really be in online education in any case. “It seems to me that many of the so-called initiatives that are going on in flexible learning are about following a trend rather than thinking through what the role of the university is.”

Bates said this is something the university has been careful about, but that he too sees the danger of viewing MOOCs as the hot new thing.

A number of institutions have kind of gotten distracted by MOOCs, and in some ways, I think a bit seduced… There’s a number of institutions that I think have dived in too deeply,” Bates said. “It’s not that MOOCs are going to drive everything and inform us about all aspects of on-campus teaching.”

Lectures and flipped classrooms

Mazur, the Harvard professor, gave a talk at UBC earlier this year entitled “The Tyranny of the Lecture” where he discussed the drawbacks of the lecture as the primary method of teaching. In an interview, Mazur explained that he sees education as a two-step process: information transfer followed by assimilation, or contextualization, of that information. After his first few years at Harvard, Mazur found that step one was getting in the way of his students’ learning. So, he threw it out — of the classroom at least.

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The result is what is now widely termed the “flipped classroom,” also a fixture of UBC’s Flexible Learning Initiative. In the standard approach, the bulk of class time is placed on the transfer of information — typically through lectures — with little or none allotted for students to internalize that information. The flipped classroom inverts this sequence; the move is to frontload information. Students are given access to content in the form of textbooks, screencasts, online resources and so on, and are expected to engage with it beforehand. Class time is used for learning activities and discussion.

“The information is already out there. It’s widely … and freely available,” said Bates. “There [are] so many more digital educational resources … that it just makes using lectures solely as the information delivery process a real waste of valuable time.”

Both Mazur and Bates acknowledge that in areas outside of the sciences, where they both teach, this is hardly a novel approach. Mazur highlights the case method of instruction developed by Christopher Langdell of Harvard Law School around 1890, where learning was done through student-focused discussions of various cases rather than a strict lecture format.

Arts One Open and flexible learning

In the 1960s, a report emerged to try and transform the way the arts and humanities were taught at UBC. A pilot scheme, launched in 1967, became the Arts One program. Over four decades later, it is a well-established program that integrates the disciplines of history, English and philosophy, promoting “an interdisciplinary focus on the ‘big questions.’

“Arts One has always been a vanguard of experimentation, of doing things a bit differently,” said Beasley-Murray, also a professor in the Arts One program, “and it remains in that position.”

At the beginning of the 2012-2013 academic year, Arts One Open (then known as Arts One Digital) was launched as an extension of the existing program. Described as a do-it-yourself alternative to open learning (“Has the potential to be something a little bit like a MOOC,” says Beasley-Murray), Arts One Open encourages the use of technology to break down the boundaries between the university and the public. Twitter is used as a form of live discussion during lectures, all which are later placed on YouTube. Student blogs are likewise hosted online. While there is a significant use of technology and experimentation with various forms of interaction within the program, what distinguishes Arts One Open — as its name suggests — is a commitment to openness.

“Arts One Open is distinct precisely because of its emphasis on openness on all levels: using open-source software, opening up beyond the walls of the university and being quite transparent on how we’re doing this and why we’re doing this,” said Beasley-Murray.

While it is less obvious whether Arts One Open will become the envisioned educational force that it aspires to be, it is clear that innovation is occurring.

“What’s happening now is the continuation of that idea, but spreading [it] to other disciplines.”

Along the same lines, Bates points out that the rebranded “flipped classroom” is already quite prevalent in the humanities at UBC.

In a post on his blog, Posthegemony, Beasley-Murray writes that in nine years of teaching, he has only given four formal lectures, and teaches almost exclusively in the seminar format. “My general rule of thumb for a seminar is that if the professor talks for more than 10 minutes consecutively at any one time, then something is going wrong,” he wrote. “If that’s a ‘flipped classroom,’ we have it already.”

But the approach remains far less prevalent other areas of study. “It’s still a significant change in practice from using lectures as transmission vehicles for information … for many departments, disciplines and instructors,” said Bates.

This is not to say there is no place for the lecture — indeed, Mazur cites departmental colloquia, academic seminars and even TED talks as platforms for which the lecture is in fact ideal — only that it fails as the primary teaching model.

But transferring the flawed model to thousands of students may only compound the problems, not serve as an innovative type of education, Mazur argues.

“I think the ‘massive open’ part of it has been so overhyped. Imagine a company placing an ad and saying, 160,000 people have looked at the ad. No one would be impressed. It’s not how many people look at the ad, it’s how many buy the product. With MOOCs it has been exactly the same thing,” Mazur said.

Part of the criticism of MOOCs is that they simply translate this flawed model to an online platform. By and large, MOOCs still look a lot like undergraduate courses, lasting six to 10 weeks, with quizzes, midterms, assignments and finals. While this is largely true, MOOCs still have the potential to offer something different.

Lemieux, who did the bulk of the video editing for Kiczales’ course, pointed out that additional graphics and animations in online screencasts enhance learning in a way that wouldn’t be possible in a traditional lecture. “It evolves a lot more,” she said, also addressing the possibility of rapid improvement. “It’s definitely not static.”

But even proponents of MOOCs are quick to acknowledge their limitations.

“Right now when people look at MOOCs, they say, ‘Well, that’s nowhere near as good as a real university education.’ And they’re absolutely right. It’s nowhere near as good as a real university education,” said Kiczales, who stresses that MOOCs are simply one of many possibilities that have opened up. “The real thing is when the Internet becomes the channel [between students and educators]. A MOOC is just one thing that flows across that channel, but other things can flow across that channel too.”

Even though MOOCs have not yet lived up to their initial ideals, that is not to say that they have no value. “There’s a role for these open online courses, that doesn’t have to be massive,” said Bates, who sees real value in such courses on a local or niche level; and in any case, there is still something to be learned from this kind of experimentation—howe­ver bombastic or overblown.

“[The] one positive outcome from all this MOOC hype is that people have started questioning what is it that we should do in the classroom if we start transferring the information outside the classroom,” says Mazur. “It’s forcing people to reconsider both the architecture of classrooms as well as the type of educational activities that take place in the classroom.”

Disruptive innovation

Whether it’s lectures, MOOCs or variants of the flipped classroom approach, the salient fact is that, for better or worse, much of this is now happening online.

The recent flurries of activity with regards to higher education are all products of what is known as “disruptive innovation.” The term, which refers to innovation that challenges old markets and creates new ones, was coined by Clayton M. Christensen in 1995, although in practice it goes back much further. Much like online platforms have radically altered traditional newspaper and print media models, the emergence of online platforms is affecting both higher education and its primary channels, namely universities.

“All of higher education is going to be dramatically influenced by the emergence of the Internet as a channel between educators and learners,” said Kiczales. “Exactly how that’s going to play out, nobody knows.”

In some conversations regarding higher education — particularly those that dovetail with discussion on MOOCs — some have questioned the future existence of universities. Sebastian Thrun, the founder of Udacity, famously predicted that by 2060, there would be only 10 universities thanks to MOOCs, an assertion that appears much less likely given the floundering state of his company. And while the role of the university is indeed less certain than before, that it will continue to play a role is widely accepted. The consensus: universities are not going away any time soon.

"You can learn locked in a cupboard with your favourite textbook or something like that. But I think for a lot of people, and what a lot of people get out of actually coming to be a member of an on-campus community, is you get direct access to that social component."
— Simon Bates, director of CTLT, UBC

For Beasley-Murray, those who predict MOOCs as the downfall of the university are simply wrong. “They miss the idea of what a university is about. They miss the embodiment of research, for example, [which] gets dropped out in many of these discussions.”

In his aforementioned blog post, Kiczales also points out that the danger to universities was never MOOCs, but “the confluence of a number of macro forces,” including increasing costs of education, the emergence of the Internet and its scaling power, increasing learner demand for flexibility in learning, and the breakdown of the idea that a university education guarantees a better career.

Others still point out the social aspects of colleges and universities. “You can learn locked in a cupboard with your favourite textbook or something like that,” said Bates. “But I think for a lot of people, and what a lot of people get out of actually coming to be a member of an on-campus community, is you get direct access to that social component.”

The future of the classroom

When I sat down with Bates just outside the Centre for Teaching and Learning Technology (CTLT), next to the main hall of the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre at UBC, he asked me to imagine the library of the future. Desks, couches and study areas are a thing of the past. Rows and rows of terminals line much of the building space. People come and plug themselves in, downloading or assimilating information as needed. Is this the future of the classroom?

“That’s a very kind of dystopian view that I think would be a real backward step compared to the enhancement of the engagement, of the interactivity, which is what I think we’re moving towards,” said Bates, who maintains that the social aspect continues to be of vital importance.

In terms of actual classroom design, Mazur believes classrooms that are currently amphitheaters will increasingly be replaced by spaces that permit more interaction, such as studio classrooms, case study classrooms, design studios and the like — a move that he already sees on his own campus in Massachusetts.

“That’s not to say that you can’t have that social or interaction component in a purely online course,” contended Bates. “You have to be more deliberate about creating those opportunities.”

"It’s a golden age for learners. Learners are going to have better resources than ever before. In some sense, it’s a great time for people who want to teach better, too, because we’re going to be in a very rapidly improving period of education."
— Gregor Kiczales, professor and MOOC instructor, UBC

In the current digital age, the question now is: what will those opportunities look like?

At the centre of this innovation at UBC, at least in Bates’ view, is the aforementioned Flexible Learning Initiative of the CTLT.

Bates is particularly excited for a flexible learning project that he is a part of: the pilot run of a “radical” 100-level physics course where students will be required to produce some of the learning material for the course. Bates describes it as a variant of the flipped classroom approach, since students will be given more autonomy to learn in their preferred modes, allowing them to choose a “learning object” to produce, which may be anything from a lecture slide to a concept map.

The methods may vary, but if there is a common thread, it is the increased emphasis on learners. “All these techniques that put the focus on the student rather than the instructor are likely to replace the lecture as more and more instructors are starting to use other means … to transfer information,” said Mazur.

A changing landscape

Whether through open platforms such as Arts One Open, variants of traditional approaches such as the “flipped classroom” or the increased prevalence of peer instruction, team-, problem- and project-based learning, the landscape of education is undergoing a fundamental shift — and one that’s not primarily centered on MOOCs.

“It’s a golden age for learners. Learners are going to have better resources than ever before,” said Kiczales. “In some sense, it’s a great time for people who want to teach better, too, because we’re going to be in a very rapidly improving period of education.”

Others, such as open education advocate Beasley-Murray, fear that in the midst of all this change and partnerships with outside entities, the basic ethos of the university is at risk of being forgotten. “A university is not meant to be a profit-making institution. A university is — it’s in the name — universal. It’s for all. It’s for the common good.”

Whether the trajectory of universities is heading in this direction remains to be seen. But if there is one thing that educators can agree on, it is that the precise future of higher education is practically impossible to predict.

“Even if I had a crystal ball, it would look really, really murky,” Bates said with a laugh.