Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Bezos University and the Metropolitan Opera: Academic swan song?

A piece in "Inside Higher Ed" describes the frantic race by the 'top' universities (self-proclaimed) to put their courses in the MOOC (massive open online courses) category, perhaps an inevitable outcome of the unrestrained onlinification of the world.  The Bezos or Google mentality is taking over -- pull the rug out from under the stodgy competition and take virtual control.  We quote the story at length because, well, because it's pretty jaw-dropping. 
Coursera [a major provider of online courses] continued its ambitious expansion in the growing market for MOOC support today, announcing accords with 16 new universities to help them produce massive open online courses — more than doubling the company’s number of institutional partners and pushing its course count near 200.
The new partners include the first liberal arts college, Wesleyan University, to leap formally into the MOOC game, as well as the first music school, the Berklee College of Music.
Coursera also announced deals with name-brand private universities, such as Brown, Columbia, Emory and Vanderbilt Universities; some major state institutions, such as the University of Maryland System, the Ohio State University and the Universities of Florida, and California at Irvine; and several international universities, such as the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and the Universities of British Columbia, London, and Melbourne.
The company already boasted the most courses and student registrations of any MOOC providers, having registered 1.3 million students for its courses (although far fewer have actually stuck with a course). Andrew Ng, one of its co-founders, said Coursera will probably double its university partnerships at least one more time before it stops recruiting new institutions.
Is this move dwarfing any other kind of academic reform than universities might think up?  Like actually requiring students to do some work, such as we posted about recently?
MOOCs are free, but if you want credit you have to pay.  Maybe it's the ultimate come-on tantalizer.  Can they deliver good education? Time will tell, but the major questions are first, whether the level of education will typically be close to that students can get from face-to-face contact in class, and whether this will undermine universities across the country (and world).

Will 'Bezos University' mean that local real colleges and universities can dump much of their faculty?  Will on-campus work consist mainly of things that require physical presence, such as labs or perhaps art museums?  Will that be restricted to the elite who can pay?

There are the large threats from online enterprises, such as the ones to whole industries -- Amazon and publishing houses, e.g. -- and there are smaller threats, as to local theaters from the distribution of live broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera.  If this, e.g., is a money raiser for them, and it seems to be since it's been going on for a few years, then are local musical companies being squeezed out of business?  If you can see prima donnas on the Big Screen with great sound and subtitles, why pay to see lesser local singers ply their trade?  Or will the telecasts whet the appetite for in-person theater?

We don't know the answer, but the issues are serious.  We are training gobs of graduate students across the country, largely aiming them at academic jobs.  Will those jobs be there?  Or will the jobs be much lesser ones, of doing online tutoring of the students who pay for downloads of the 'real' professors who are professing on Bezos U?

Time will tell.  It doesn't seem the train can be stopped, as every me-too university that can join the online club will frantically do that so they don't get left behind.  This is not based on anything reasoned or rational at this stage, but purely on the 'business' model of education.


Holly Dunsworth said...

I don't even put my lecture notes online because I believe in learning and it's a whole different learning animal than can occur with an online course.

rich lawler said...

Last night, at a dinner party, I learned that this massive! Coors brewery/factory (in the 10's of thousands of square feet) that is about 20 miles away from our town only has 27 people working there at a's all automated.

These MOOC universities could be heading in that direction, since you can basically have one professor per field do a series of advance-recordings of courses and have those courses put online and "adaptively released" (I want to punch whichever Blackboard employee who thought up that phrase) so that the material is dispensed throughout the semester.

Perhaps, I'll quit my job to become an air force pilot so at least I can fly planes through the, wait, I can command drones from a small windowless building in Nevada--Never mind!

Differing from Holly, I do put my notes online, but simply for the reason that I don't use a textbook (in my intro class) as they are way too expensive. My .ppt lectures serve as a textbook of sorts. I just tell students--if they want a textbook, though it's not required--to get a recent edition (not necessarily the latest) of any old biological anthropology textbook.

Holly Dunsworth said...

(I don't want to mislead: I put handouts with daily outlines online, just not all the notes and all the slides like many profs do.)

Holly Dunsworth said...

I empathize with that, Rich, but I like forcing students to read books. I think it's good for their mental training and improves condition and strength. I see education very much like athletics, one of the many reasons why I can't imagine online higher ed.

Anne Buchanan said...

There's a shake-your-head story in today's Times about some of NYC's best students and how much they are, or aren't, into mental training.

Holly Dunsworth said...

People who are tearing down higher ed must not have had a quality higher ed experience... otherwise how could they kill something so good?

It's not hard to go through college in the last few decades and come out thinking it was pointless and it needs to change. But what's going on now, with more online courses and the threat to tenure and academic freedom, is not the right solution.

Amit said...

I took a Coursera class in the spring of this year. (The subject of the class was very relevant to my research project,Probabilistic Graphical Models, and to some of the themes of this blog, since it talked about how to do inference in causal networks).

I liked the lecture format - the videos had quizzes in the middle of them - to help see if you were understanding the material. The programming assignments were intense. My only complaint was that some of the hw's were poorly designed. The aspect of the course I did liked the best were the discussion forums. It was a great resource and I felt less stupid knowing I wasn't the only one getting stuck on certain aspects of the assignments and it was nice to see fellow students helping each other.

I'm not sure what the effective population size of these classes are - i.e. how many students actually finish all the assignments, etc. In the meanwhile, its quite amazing to see just how many classes Coursera is offering. I'm still not sure what their business plan is. (Right now I suspect universities are using it to help market their brand. And Coursera does seem to get a lot of free press in the NYT.) But as a bioinformatics grad student who wants to take more classes in math/stats/CS at a school that has very limited course offers in these subjects, I find MOOCs useful, even with their imperfections.

Anne Buchanan said...

Thanks, Amit. It's not a surprise to hear that the class was excellent. This is exactly why they can be such a threat to higher education as we know it, just as Amazon is shaking up the publishing industry. There are many problems with higher education as we know it, and we have blogged about them from time to time here, and others write about them all the time. Some change is welcome. Whether this is the right change is open to debate. It's certainly taking education as a business model to the extreme.

Holly Dunsworth said...

I do love the idea of being able to take a guided course in something that's not offered nearby or that you can't take nearby because of your work schedule.

And as a continuing ed tool it's amazing.

It just seems like, to me, for undergraduate education... Online education is taking much of what's wrong with higher ed--the stuff about it that makes it a horrible educational experience for so many: huge "classrooms," very little extemporaneous speaking, little independent and spontaneous critical and synthetic thinking, etc, etc etc etc--and making a business model out of that!

Ken Weiss said...

I agree of course. We have been processing students too often, rather than teaching them. At least at some level, more 'real' teaching is important.

Holly Dunsworth said...

How much of my protesting is self-protection? How much of the change that occurs is driven just by whoever's self-protection efforts (software companies, university admins) outweigh others? I dunno. But I do think that my objections to online education on educational grounds are valid and not just because I'm invested.

Amit said...

More free press for Coursera in the Chronicle:

' "What I don't enjoy is grading 400 homeworks. And so our thinking was to automate some of the grading so it frees up more faculty time for the interactions."

But you don't get any interaction with the prof with MOOCs and that is one thing I don't like.