Sunday, December 02, 2012

MOOCs and differentiated higher education

Dan's entry yesterday focuses on what he describes as the surveillance potential of data-mining in large courses and higher education more generally. That is in fact what EDx's founders promised: to use MOOCs as a research base. It is remarkably similar to the "personalized education" promise of those advocating algorithm-driven K-12 lessons, such as the School of One in New York City. I have argued elsewhere that there is a significant difference between personalized and algorithmic education, but maybe I should use an old Garment District joke to explain:
A wealthy patron enters the small dress shop. "I need a dress for a banquet!" She yelled to the dress shop's owner, who was in the back.

"Ah, Madam," he said, scurrying forward. "What were you thinking of?"

"It has to be unique."

"Of course, Madam. You have been our customer for years, and I know just the cut that will flatter you and no one else in the entire world. I've been waiting for the chance to try it."

"In a color that no one else could have."

The dressmaker took a stub pencil from behind behind his ear and started scribbling on a stained take-out menu by the cash register. "I know a man in Estonia who owns a hillside of berries that are of a shade of purple known nowhere else. I can email him and ask him to dye several silk bolts for me."

"You will make this dress just for me?"

"But of course, Madam. You are a valued customer. You deserve a dress no one else could have."

"But how long will it take to make this one-of-a-kind dress?"

"Next Tuesday."
Call me just a little skeptical of both the dressmaker's honesty and the ability of any algorithmic system to generate a truly personalized education.

If we are going to use the notion of surveillance in looking at MOOCs, or invoke James Scott's Seeing like a State, we need to also look at the likely ways that surveillance will #fail, in the way that overdrawn plans of central micromanagement usually fail. Data-mining is valuable to marketers right now, because ANY useful information about what makes individuals spend money has a high return on the investment in the technology. What that means five years from now, or in other fields, is different entirely from the first-mover advantage that Google had, or that the Obama campaign staff had. I think there is some research potential if EDx or any other MOOC platform has an architecture built around the research of teaching and learning (as opposed to the research of profit). But that is likely to be limited.

The claims of personalized learning are a pretty thin smokescreen given the lecture-oriented mode of most MOOCs and the high attrition rates, and I think the same is true of claims that MOOCs will unbundle higher education (as Clay Shirky among others has predicted). Students have been unbundling college for decades: that what the "swirling" term refers to, all the students who attend more than one college as undergraduates. (Yes, both Sarah Palin and Barack Obama can be called swirlers.) It's easy to take courses in many places. It's much harder to put all of that together as a package called a diploma.

If anything, I think that MOOCs will speed the differentiation of college degrees on the low end rather than break down barriers to access to elite credentials. So-called degree-completion programs are the obvious easy fit with MOOCs--put together a smorgasbord of courses from different places, a few courses from the degree-granting institution, and voilá! a degree. And to protect the value of current bachelor's degrees, this will be called something different, such as the Bachelor of General Studies. Or MOOCs will be part of non-degree certificate programs. And, like the degree-completion program, these certificates might be stackable with a certain amount of coursework completed at the degree-granting institution to make a distinction between a college graduate and someone who has accumulated a smattering of courses.

Call me skeptical, but I don't think MOOCs are disruptive in higher education, or at least nowhere near as disruptive as something like the 2008 financial crisis.