Tuesday, 16 February 2016

MOOCs and the changing role of teachers in higher education

The research and advisory firm Gartner produces an annual 'Hype cycle for emerging technologies'. Here is the picture for 2015:

In the hype cycle, a new technology is expected to go through a series of five stages starting with the 'innovation trigger' where expectations grow rapidly, then a peak of inflated expectations (which are generally not met), followed by a trough of disillusionment (where interest wanes due to repeated failures of the technology), a slope of enlightenment where the true benefits of the technology start to become apparent (and are often different from those initially envisioned), and finally a plateau of productivity when the technology achieves mainstream adoption.

Notably absent from the hype cycle in the Gartner report is online education. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are one of the most endemic buzzwords in higher education at the moment. The idea that there are thousands of potential students willing to study online, at very low marginal cost, is appealing to university administrators. The reality, from what I have seen, is that only a very small proportion of MOOC students complete, and the costs of developing a high-production-value MOOC are very high. Serious questions should be raised about where on the hype cycle MOOCs lie. Are they about to crash down a trough of disillusionment, and would universities be better to wait until others have identified where the real value in online education lies, before investing heavily? And how should faculty react - should we be upskilling for the new online regime, or waiting until things are more settled?

On the latter question, late last year the Journal of Economic Perspectives had two interesting papers that present contrasting (and sometimes complementary) views on the state of online education (with a particular focus on economics, as your might expect). The first paper, by Michael McPherson (Spencer Foundation) and Lawrence Bacow (Harvard Kennedy School) paints what I consider to be a realistic picture of the pros and cons of online education. They actually present a variation on the discussion I have with my ECON110 class every year - that the incentives for universities to be involved in MOOCs are different for the top quality and for the low quality universities. They write:
We noted earlier that more-selective and prestigious colleges and universities make less use of fully online courses than other institutions do. What explains this pattern of adoption? A natural explanation is that more-selective institutions compete on the basis of personal service, prestige, and brand while less-selective places are offering something closer to a commodity product...
One natural conclusion here is for the education market to rapidly devolve into two tiers: (1) a 'top tier' that uses high-quality (and expensive) online (or hybrid/flipped classroom) instruction to differentiate themselves, and as a quality signal and marketing tool to students (and their parents); and (2) a 'bottom tier' that offers a commoditised education based on modules drawn primarily from the online offerings of the top tier, with online tutorial support that is automated and involves minimal human input, at the lowest cost possible.

What happens to the mid-range universities in this system, that can't compete on quality, and can't compete on low cost either? Will we see a hollowing out of educational institutions? These are important questions for universities in New Zealand, for instance.

McPherson and Bacow provide some hope. They note:
...for those who believe that brilliantly produced online courses taught by a handful of the very best faculty in the world will eliminate the demand for live versions of the same courses, we note the continuing vibrant and growing market for live concerts, theatrical productions, and sporting events. Cheap digital downloads of music have not eliminated the demand for live concerts, nor has the availability of live sports on TV (often with better viewing angles, instant replay, and simplified access to bathroom facilities) eliminated the demand for tickets to live sporting events.
Moreover, it is difficult (read: expensive) to integrate current events, locally-specific content, and interactive teaching into online lectures, so students who want this type of learning (which, from my experience, is vastly superior to alternatives) will seek out institutions that offer it. My feeling then is that economics faculty should be focusing on the value-add they provide in-class. If you are teaching straight from a textbook, using the pre-packaged textbook powerpoint presentations and the instructors manual questions, then you are first in line to be replaced by a MOOC. Maybe that's what you intend (it would allow more time to focus on research, after all), but it doesn't bode well for long-term job security. However, how far away is that future? As McPherson and Bacow note, there are a lot of thorny issues that remain unresolved, foremost of which are intellectual property issues.

In the second paper, Peter Navarro (UC Irvine) presents a much rosier picture of online higher education (from experience - Navarro has been teaching using a flipped classroom model for many years, and in MOOCs more recently). He also presents some good arguments for (particularly new) faculty to up-skill on online (or hybrid) delivery modes. He notes that:
...online education technologies will both substitute labor and complement labor. For example, while MOOCs may spell doom for some type of teaching like traditional lectures that cover the basics of a discipline, a shift to more hybrid courses might increase the demand for other types of teaching, like personalized in-class discussions of examples and applications. While the overall effect on labor demand is unclear, there certainly will be distributional consequences, with winners and losers among educators depending on their skills, willingness to adapt, and ability to innovate.
Again, a good argument for preparing an offering that is different from the standard textbook treatment of a topic. Of course, the relationship between teaching and job tenure assumes that high-quality teaching is valued by universities alongside high-quality research, which is by no means a given in the current funding environment. But that is an argument for another time.

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