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Goldman Sachs and Higher Education’s democratic dilemma

I  wrote a comment  on the report and the ongoing debate about cost/value in higher education on our other site, Liberal Ed Crisis.  The post is here.

The  real issue at stake is  not necessarily the cost of higher  education.   If we want to maintain the residential model  of higher education, costs will rise as maintaining the physical plant and keeping the student-faculty ratio as low as possible remain expensive.

What is especially troubling is that apologists for the cost of the American model of higher education equate liberal education with a model  of teaching that is expensive. They rebel against  the notion that liberal education can be conveyed  effectively through MOOCs, blended  learning or other  online educational models.  So, as costs increase, critics suggest that the well-to-do will get a “brick-based” education while the 99% will get more of a “click-based” education.

If we continue to resist technological advancement, we then doom the 99% to what  seems to be an inferior educational model that will not convey the benefits of liberal learning because it does not entail classrooms, residential campuses, etc.  The traditional, increasingly expensive model of education remains an ideal.  But, it is clear that if educators do believe that liberal education does convey a package of learning skills and democratic, civic values that are vital to the health of a society, then they have a responsibility to find a way to convey those values through more advanced technological means.  If they do not, they undermine the symbiotic connection between liberal education and liberal democracy that organizations such as the AACU celebrate.

If we look beyond the confines of American higher education, we see that technology is driving the democratization of access to  education.  This TED Talk by Daphne Koller is an especially powerful statement to this effect.  It would indeed be paradoxical if, in the name  of preserving the means of conveying liberal democratic values, liberal educators made those  values less democratically accessible.

The  challenge for our educators today is to find a way to  put liberal  learning  to work embrace technology so  that we can ensure that access to education,  knowledge liberal learning and democratic values is democratized.

Online ED and Moocs

Interesting to see the report in the current MIT Tech Review that laments the precipitous drop in MOOC participation rates.  (http://www.technologyreview.com/view/522816/data-mining-exposes-embarrassing-problems-for-massive-open-online-courses/)


The article cites “Learning about social learning in MOOCs: From statistical analysis to generative model”, by Christopher Brinton of Princeton and several colleagues.  In a study of 73 Coursera courses, there were 171,197 threads, 831,576 posts, and 115,922 distinct students (page 4).  Based on their analysis, Brinton et al. determine that MOOCs suffer two debilitating troubles:


First, there is a sharp decline rate in course activity.  “The amount of interaction in forums rapidly drops soon after a course is launched.”


Second, they suffer Information overload: “As courses reach a larger audience, often the forum is flooded by discussions from many students; thus it quickly becomes infeasible for anyone to navigate the discussions to find relevant information.”


One of the interesting discoveries, for example, is that the teaching staff’s active participation in the discussion on average increases the discussion volume but does not slow down the decline rate. (page 2)


Kinda interesting to read about all this in the same magazine that had proclaimed that MOOCs, etc. were revolutionizing the higher ed industry:  http://www.technologyreview.com/featuredstory/429376/the-crisis-in-higher-education


(There is also a great piece in there to the tune of “You promised me colonies on Mars and all I got was Facebook:-))


I think an important issue/problem is the debate about MOOCs is that “MOOC” is used as shorthand to refer to virtually anything outside of the traditional classroom.  This is inaccurate and misleading.  Around the world, tech is an absolutely democratizing force that is making it possible to bring education—and better education—to remote areas, poor areas, etc. where it is simply not feasible to build bricks, mortar and ivy campuses (viz. the Maldives) or where, particularly at primary levels, one can metaphorically toss a pile of iPads in a kindergarten schoolyard and, in an hour, the smarties will have figured the things out and in 90 minutes, they’ll be helping the other kids do so.


The scaling problems in the Brinton study remind me of experiences in my various online fantasy leagues.  You want to see heated, engaged, thoughtful discussion?  Pay attention to the couple of weeks either side of the opening draft.  After a month, tho, when the league pretty much shakes out, the chatter dies down (until, at least in baseball, the mid season trading deadline).


I do wonder if their analysis of the decrease in participation is not reflected in other uses of online fora that we use for classes.  Absent some sort of grade-based incentives, how eager are students to chat online much?  Do they prefer email/tweets among closer companions as opposed to public proclamations on the class forum?  Do rates and findings differ between large and small classes?


I’ve read that there is a huge melt from enrollments to finishers in the MOOC courses.  I do wonder how the actual finishers do.  So long as MOOCs are free, I suspect this trend will continue.  Once folks start charging, enrollments will plummet.


One thing I found intriguing was the comment about teacher/staff participation: it increases discussion volume but still did not decrease the decline rate.  So, it seems that successful online fora require some sort of Webmaster to monitor and even censor content.  This is the case with several listservs to which I subscribe. 


So, MOOCs aren’t dead.  We still can learn a lot from them and gain from the knowledge they will produce about online education.  As the recent piece by Tamar Lewin (@tamarnyt) in the New York Times indicated (“After Setbacks, Online Courses are Rethought” http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/11/us/after-setbacks-online-courses-are-rethought.html?_r=0), this is clearly perhaps the end of Round 1 in this discussion.