Monday, January 28, 2013

Between excitement and despair

I find myself swinging between excitement about using emerging educational technologies in my teaching and despair (or cynicism, or anger depending on the day) about unrealistic expectations around these technologies. Etmooc offers many reasons for the excitement—but also provides important connections to the wider debates—and thus to the despair.

Today I am thinking especially of the spate of writings in the popular press about MOOCs as a revolution that presages the end of higher education as we know it and the congratulatory tone regarding anticipated cost-savings to universities from offering more online education options (illustrated by California State University’s pilot project with Udacity to offer several remedial courses at San Jose State University). There are some helpful analyses out there too. Here I point out three that I’ve found useful this past week: Audrey Watters' “MOOCs for Credit come to California”; Ian Bogost’s Inequality in American Education Will Not Be Solved Online; and
David Theo Goldberg’s “MOOC Mania” with Siva Vaidhyanathan identifying some missing considerations.

So, with these authors, I’ve been pondering questions about inequality and about the consequences of this “online movement” for post-secondary faculty. Today I begin with a little background on my own context and offer a brief comment on inequality. I’ll talk about the faculty issue in another post.

I am a professor of sociology at Eastern Oregon University, on sabbatical this year (making it possible for me to participate in etmooc with some free attention). Eastern is a small rural state school that serves a geographic region the size of the US state of Pennsylvania, and has 17 regional centers (assisting the 50% of our students who attend online). As the de-facto community college option in our county, Eastern also admits a growing number of transfer students , especially from the two community colleges within a hundred-mile radius, and offers 4-year degrees in the usual liberal arts and sciences fields, and professional degrees (both BA and MA level) in education and business. Over 88% of the students are of white ethnic background, and many are the first in their families to attend college. How does this national debate around “remedial MOOCs” affect us?

In a recent NYT article about the partnership between San Jose State University and Udacity, SJSU provost Ellen N. Junn, asserts that this pilot project is a response to a crisis – in this case the problem that 50 percent of entering students cannot meet basic college requirements. The anecdotal evidence presented in the Times' article about a former successful Udacity course attended by a small number of “at risk” students may be hopeful, but I’m not convinced that this can scale well to resolve the problem at SJSU.

Students who have suffered the hidden injuries of social class in poorly funded k-12 schools deserve access to high quality education, requiring the kind of commitment evident in the work of creative teachers participating in Etmooc. Perhaps Udacity will provide all the mentors, facilitators, personalized approaches, accessible and easy to navigate tools needed to create a positive learning space for these students to be successful. And perhaps they can do it with the kind of corporate support for new initiatives that has made possible the development of this massive open course model. However, unless the funding model envisions continuing private initiatives and grants in a time of continuing public disinvestment, I don’t see how Udacity can afford to continue such a partnership. Further, as Siva Vaidhyanathan asks in his comment on Ian Bogost’s article (referenced above):

So shouldn't we be pushing for universities to host and publish their own MOOC content? Why do we need Udacity and Coursera? No one has been able to answer that. The Universiteit van Amsterdam runs its own MOOC service. It's not complicated. And a university that runs its own can collect its own data (and protect student privacy) for study and analysis instead of allowing the corporation to monetize it.

Regarding the question of students needing remedial courses, I don’t have the exact figures for students at my small university who are not ready for college level coursework, but I don’t think they are much lower than those at San Jose State. The reasons for this are complex, and a resolution would require new approaches much earlier in students’ lives, involving richly varied educational opportunities that tax-averse citizens have been increasingly unwilling to fund.

The despair side is winning out today. I see the present (and imagine a future) with the creative and curious children of wealthy parents exploring the far reaches of galaxies and human cultures, guided by caring and demanding teachers with access to amazing digital resources; and the creative and curious children of poor parents having a very different experience. With regard to inequality, predictions about a MOOC revolution don't do much to transform my despair to hope.

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