Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Will MOOC’s Change the Course Development Model ?

The course is in some sense the fundamental organizational unit of undergraduate education and the predominant mode of course development is the Sole Practitioner model. Most of the courses offered at American universities and community colleges are the unique work product of individual professors working alone. Though the typical course may leverage chapters from one or more published textbooks, the lion's share of the course -- the syllabus, the lectures, the assignments, the activities, the assessments -- are typically developed by the professor alone, or by the professor and a small group of her colleagues and perhaps a teaching assistant or two.

The rise of the Internet and the spread of personal computing devices over the past two decades has brought with it a rising expectation that courses somehow make use of these technologies to "improve" them. Nearly all U.S. institutions have made investments in learning management systems and other tools with the goal of helping individual faculty members incorporate technology within their courses as these individual professors see fit. A relative few have embraced the trend with abandon while others have adopted these new technologies only reluctanly, if at all. Most use technology to streamline administrative functions -- to metaphorically “pass the papers out at the beginning of class, and to collect them at the end”.

But whether the SolePractitioner is an early adopter or laggard, the fundamental scale for course development and improvement has remained unchanged. Courses today are still primarily developed one instructor at a time, and make use of technology to the degree that the individual instructor -- sometimes aided by an institutional support person or two -- can muster on their own. This limits how much intellectual and monetary investment any one course can receive.

In the past year, the sudden rise of the Massively Open Online Course (MOOC)  has presented a challenge to this SolePractitioner model of course development. In a MOOC, responsibility for course development lies not with the SolePractitioner but instead with a team of subject matter experts, instructional designers, videographers, content developers and technologists who work together to create and then continuously improve a complete course designed to teach not 10's or 100's of students at a time, but hundreds of thousands or even millions of students at a time.

At this new scale of instruction, the amount of monetary and intellectual investment that can be directed at the development and continuous improvement of the course may be orders of magnitude greater than what any individual professor could ever muster working on their own, even over the whole of their academic career.

Do these team-based, higher scale development models represent a lower cost, lower quality alternative to the Sole Practitioner model? Or are they the leading edge of a wave of change that might bring with it increases in effectiveness?

What effect will these emerging model have on institutions and faculty over the next 5 years? Can we expect major changes? Something more gradual? Or are MOOCs and Master Courses a fad?

Some of the strongest educational brands -- Harvard, MIT, Stanford, etc. -- have moved aggressively in the past year to champion these new models, lending them a strong air of academic credibility. Are MOOCs only the province of the elite? What implications do they have for other kinds of schools?

What are the inherent advantages of course development at scale? Which things can be done better? Were these models to begin to seriously displace the Sole Practitioner model, what would be gained? What would be lost? Can they be effectively combined to create something superior to the current state of the educational art? Or do they threaten to destroy a tradition of quality?

How might MOOCs be similar to textbooks? How are they dissimilar? How might they be better? How might they be worse?

If these new models spread, what effect will they have on today's institutions and faculty? What opportunities will they create? What might they destroy?

How are things like Open Educational Resources, the Khan Academy and the Flipped Classroom model related to the MOOC?

At present, MOOCs are offered at high scale (serving tens to hundreds of thousands of students at a time) but at no cost. While in the early stages, venture capital funding has allowed intensive investments to be made -- in the long term this is unsustainable in the absence of new business models. What is the role of the market in facilitating this move to scale? How can such a market develop? What changes would faculty, institutions, and education companies have to make to foster such a market?

Are these new approaches suitable for only certain disciplines? More appropriate for lower division than upper division?

If complete digital courses do become available, what would become of the university bookstore? Are institutions prepared to deal with the disruptions a transition from print to digital might entail?

 As a faculty member, what do these new models mean for me? Can I safely ignore them, and continue on as I have? Do they create any new opportunities for me? How might they change my role in instruction? If they were to bring about significant change in how courses are developed and delivered, will I like my job better or worse?

Clearly there are a lot of issues that this raises and I hope we can get a lively discussion going around the possibilities.


George Saltsman October 4, 2012 at 2:48 PM  

I believe Adrian has hit on most of the pressing questions that MOOCs and Master Courses present to higher education. There is no single way to address all of these questions in a single post. There is no way to address even one of these questions in a single post. Nevertheless, I'll toss my ideas into the ring.

At the risk of having my academic credibility revoked forthwith, I'd like to use the 1998 RomCom, You've Got Mail as my analogy. As you remember, Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) and Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) are two romantically attracted business rivals on the extremes of the bookstore market. Joe Fox, the son of the big box discounter Fox Books, and Kathleen Kelly the shopkeeper of the quant and endearing The Shop Around the Corner. Meg's character, prides herself of personalized service and diversity of quality children's books. Tom Hanks' character provides the books at the lowest possible cost and at the highest possible quantity. The dramatic tension of quality vs. quantity.

There are two character building scenes that help emphasize this dichotomy. Joe Fox, shopping with his 4 year-old younger brother ("We are... an American family"), has a lovely time one Saturday morning in the bustling Shop Around The Corner. As he approaches the counter to purchase, he does a double take at the price. Later in the film, as Kathleen Kelly is checking out the new Fox Books store across the street, she does a double take as the clerk clearly has no clue what book won a specific award.

So, this has been a lengthy build up to get to this very key point. This is a scenario we are all familiar with in the Wal-Mart age. This is the argument I most frequently hear about MOOCs; "We are "Wal-Marting higher education!" The reality with You've Got Mail is it was written in a Web 1.0 world. Yes, the big box retailers took out The Shop Around the Corner's. But Amazon immediately killed off the big box store. The reality is that neither Fox Books nor The Shop Around The Corner won the war, Amazon did.

Amazon, with a Web 2.0 core architecture, is able to serve both extremes simultaneously. Amazon's technology and scale can provide books at a cost cheeper than even the big box stores can provide. It can also provide a wider array of products than even the speciality Shop Around the Corner can provide. And with Web 2.0, experts and generalist from around the world are able to provide comments and opinions about the appropriateness, quality, or function of every product in its inventory at a depth that even Kathleen Kelly couldn't do. For now, Amazon rules the physical book market and with the entrant of immediate delivery of digital books, it's going to own the market for a long time in the future.

This is where I see MOOCs. They provide scale better than big box University of Phoenix. They can provide greater variety than even the most diverse community college catalog (I'm confident we'll soon see the Science of Star Trek as an offering). And with Web 2.0, experts and novices from around the globe can comment and provide opinions about appropriateness, quality, or function, which bring in more global and cultural diversity than even the most international campuses can match.

The market will ultimately decide. I don't think there is anything any of us in higher education can do to stop it. Napster is here. The question is will we choose to leverage it (more of my ideas about that later), lobby unsuccessfully for legislation to stop it, or close up shop and move in with Tom Hanks (... ummm, perhaps I've taken my metaphors too far).

Paul Simeon October 24, 2012 at 2:11 PM  

Thank you, Adrian, for raising awareness of the problems with the sole practitioner model (or the sole proprietor model as you said in your lecture at Stanford on Oct. 9th).

I think MOOCs will force universities to admit that it is not sustainable to continue the SPM, just as it is not sustainable for each instructor to write their own textbook. For universities to survive, they must admit this fact and use the materials generated elsewhere to enhance their educational offerings and to strengthen the case that the most valuable things students get from attending university are not the courses. In the future, students will be learning most of their content knowledge from materials generated outside any particular university.

I think the current online courses look too much like the SPM compared with what is possible and with what will be available in the future. Take a look at the course listings for the MOOCs. Most of them have a single instructor; I saw only one course that had a new lecturer each week. Imagine making a movie when the writer, director, and only actor were all the same person. That movie could never compete with the HUGE effort studios put into their productions. Or, look at the video game industry, which is twice the size of the movie industry as of 2011, where the lead designers are usually never mentioned. The focus is on the immersive user experience. Now, don't get me wrong. I strongly believe that educational materials should not be simply turned into video games. However, they should be engaging experiences, and they should be large studio efforts. Look at PhET.colorado.edu and ManyLabs.com for alternative components to the traditional lecture format.

If it's merely the content knowledge a person wants, they will be able to get it for free or at a reasonable price. Textbooks will no longer be needed as the studio-produced, interactive educational materials fulfill the roles of reference materials and organized courses. If someone wants all of the advantages of attending a university, especially the opportunity to do research, they'll still have to pay for it, though I would hope these new materials will reduce the cost of higher education.

As you said, studios like this would need a market. How does that market grow, and what would it take for universities to adopt this style of content delivery?

Nicholas Livadas November 8, 2012 at 8:54 AM  

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Nicholas Livadas November 8, 2012 at 9:03 AM  

2) College students don't like waking up and going to a crowded auditorium at 9am. Their instructors don't like it either. From what we know, Instructors would rather monitor an online gen ed course allowing them more time for students in their higher level courses.

3) Bookstores are needed right now to handled the sales of curriculum resources, including online access. MOCs (massive online courses) are not equipped to accept financial aid like a university bookstore is.