A Philosopher's Blog

MOOCing Education

Posted in Ethics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on November 27, 2013
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On the face of it, a MOOC looks rather good to administrators worried about budgets and for-profit education industry companies. After all, the MOOC promises to do for education what automation and outsourcing did for manufacturing. In the case of the purely online college level MOOC, a pre-packaged class is delivered to students via the web and grading is either automated or outsourced. From a financial standpoint, the main virtues of this sort of college level MOOC is that it eliminates the expense of the full time professor and allows for mass education.

While the main concern of the for-profit and the financially focused administrator is money, actual educators tend to be concerned with education. As such, there is the question of whether or not the fully online MOOCs can deliver adequate education. While some faculty have been accused of opposing MOOCs simply out of fear of losing their jobs or because they fear or do not understand the technology, my main concern is the issue of whether or not MOOCs can deliver. If they can, in fact, deliver quality education to more people and at a far lower cost than traditional education, then I would supports MOOCs—even at the cost of my own job. This is not to say that I want to lose my job, just that I am willing to make personal sacrifices for the greater good. That is, in part, why I passed on vastly more lucrative careers in order to be an educator.

Last year San Jose State University (SJSU) conducted what amounted to a controlled experiment comparing MOOCs to hybrid and traditional classes. SJSU partnered with the non-profit edX to offer hybrid classes combining MIT lectures in engineering with SJSU faculty providing direct educational support for the students. These hybrid classes proved to be winners: the students performed better than in the traditional classes.

The results of these hybrid classes matches my own experiences. I taught a successful hybrid class on Ethics last spring and have incorporated hybrid elements into all my classes to good effect. One reason that the hybrid classes seem to be effective is that it allows students to watch the educational videos and consume other material at their own pace (and repeatedly) while also being able to be directly guided and supported by an actual professional. Another reason is that providing the students with the ability to do or submit work online frees them from the need to be on campus at a specific time.

Unfortunately for the students at SJSU, the school also partnered with the for-profit Udacity. This company got a no bid contract to offer online-only classes in developmental math, algebra and statistics. While the price was only $150, most of the students did not pass the classes. In the case of developmental math, the pass rate was 25% compared to the pass rate of 65% for the traditional versions of the class. None of the classes had a higher than 50% pass rate, which is clearly rather bad. Not surprisingly, 80% of the students indicated that they needed more help with the class content than was offered online.

Udacity did have some apparent success: one summer algebra course had a 72% pass rate. However, this class was mostly people who had already graduated and the online exams now came with hints to help the students. As such, this mainly showed that college graduates who are given hints on exams will be able to pass such a course. This hardly serves as support for MOOCs in general.

It is worth considering that this is but one “experiment” and there very well might be factors specific to Udacity or SJSU that caused the poor results. As such, it could be possible for fully online MOOC to be a success and MOOCs should not simply be dismissed based on Udacity and SJSU and more data is needed. That said, there is a clear moral concern in regards to additional “experiments” involving MOOCs.

One aspect of this moral concern is that charging students to serve as experimental MOOC subjects seems to be unethical. A student who is paying has a reasonable expectation that the course will be up to the proper standards of a college course.

Another moral concern is that students who take a MOOC class as part of their required curriculum are at risk of losing time due to the failures of the class (and not their own failures). As such, testing MOOCs on students when they are paying for the classes and taking them for real seems to be unethical. However, there is the legitimate concern that students who are taking a free class that does not count will be far more likely to drop out or not put in much effort—thus making it challenging to judge the efficacy of a MOOC. A partial solution might be to offer such classes at a significantly lower cost (or free) and allow students to retake the class as a traditional or hybrid class if they fail (with the new grade erasing and replacing the MOOC grade).

As a closing point, I am also concerned about the partnering of for-profit MOOC companies with colleges and universities. The rather obvious concern is that universities and colleges already have full time education experts that are creating and running classes, namely the professors. As such, there would seem to be little need to contract with a for-profit company to do what can already be done in house.  To us an analogy, it would be like a hospital deciding that it will contract out its health care to a company that provides automated medical care and bypass its own doctors and nurses.

Providing such classes is also the core mission of an institute of higher learning. To contract out education is to bypass the professors and to hand over the core mission of the institution to an outside company. While this is clearly a good deal for the for-profit company that gets the contract, it seems to take a significant step towards turning the institution into a shell. This, of course, could be the dream of some: a school that has no faculty, but only well-paid administrators and well-paid education contractors.

Naturally, it might be contended that I am merely expressing fear about losing my job. However, as noted above, my concern is with the quality of the education that such MOOCs provide. The existing data indicates that they are lacking in quality. As such, handing over education to the MOOCs would seem to be a bad idea. Except, of course, for those who see education as merely another area of profit.

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