University World News liked my post about MOOCs, which was nice of them since I criticized their previous writer so much. They wanted me to expand on a few things for their commentary section. We went through a few iterations, and the resulting op-ed is an almost entirely different piece, found on their site.
“My argument is that to the extent that a MOOC focuses on content, like a traditional course, it begins to fail. A MOOC should focus on the connections, not the content.” — Stephen Downes
I read University World News frequently, and find it a great place to keep abreast of what’s happening in higher education in other countries, especially in the low and middle income countries covered by their Africa edition. But that doesn’t mean everything they print is necessarily entirely on point, and a recent case in point is their commentary Yes, MOOC is the global higher education game changer, by Simon Marginson from the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne.
Given Prof. Marginson’s impressive resume, I was surprised that this piece had factual inaccuracies, even from the very first sentence. Firstly, “MOOC” doesn’t stand for “Free Massive Open Online Courseware”, it stands for “Massive Open Online Course”. Courseware is something a bit different, and while MOOCs might make use of open courseware, and while the same institution might offer both (most famously MIT), they’re not the same thing.
Secondly, the MOOC offered by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig late last year was a great success which rightfully got a lot of attention, but it wasn’t the first MOOC. It’s tough to draw a bright line here, but the real first one was probably one offered in 2008 by George Siemens and Stephen Downes through Athabasca University.
Thirdly — and I’ll admit that this point is more in the realm of opinion and prediction — the idea that MOOCs will spell the death of higher education as we know it may be exciting to say, but there are some fundamental barriers involved that will be pretty challenging to overcome. As someone who’s worked in online education for a long time, I can assure you that not everyone wants to learn online, even if from a well-regarded school. Another is that MOOCs from prestigious universities do not lead to academic credit, and this is an important drawback to them that their cheerleaders need to consider a little more closely. Moreover, if I may be allowed a prediction, they never will lead to credit, especially from top universities. Education is not a university’s true product, prestigious credentials are. When employers start accepting MOOC certificates of completion as the equivalent to a university degree, then one will be able to consider them a substitute. Until then, one simply cannot.
Don’t get me wrong, MOOCs are a great new tool in the toolbox of adult education. I’m glad schools are offering them, in fact I’m doing one myself later this year. But as exciting as they are, they cannot be all things to all people, and local universities are in no danger whatsoever of being supplanted by them any time soon.
“I read the newspapers avidly. It is my one form of continuous fiction.” — Aneurin Bevan
I admit it: I’m a news junkie. Every day I catch up on what’s happening around the world and in the field of eLearning thanks to various news outlets that scour the globe to find out the latest goings on. Sure, sometimes the mainstream media doesn’t cover something important, and independent media have to pick up the slack, but that’s just how it is. No industry is perfect, after all, and for the most part the news media does a lot more good than harm.
Right, for the most part. But these are tough times for news media. The Internet has not been kind to newspapers in particular, or even television news. At the same time, it’s not like Internet-only news sources tend to have a large number of actual journalists writing stories. As a result, many news outlets have cut back on their reporting staff levels, filling pages with stories that were obtained as cheaply as possible from third parties rather than going out to find out firsthand what’s really happening.
Unfortunately, this can be dangerous. Recently I saw a supposed news story on Yahoo! News that is so irresponsible that it makes me pretty angry. It’s a press release from a notorious diploma mill called MUST University that has scammed many people. No journalist sat down and wrote this article, or even checked it out before it went up on Yahoo! News. It was simply written by the scammers themselves, submitted to a company that they paid to promote it as a real press release, and then picked up and published online without any review for accuracy.
When you’re a prospective student looking for the right school through which you can earn a degree by eLearning, it’s hard enough even choosing a college or university from all the real choices out there. But when this sort of deliberate misinformation is added into the mix, things are downright dangerous! But there are a few things one can do to minimize the risk of being taken in by this sort of scam. First, remember that just because it looks like news doesn’t mean you can trust it. Second, if a school wants you to make a one time payment in exchange for a degree, with nothing more required, that’s not a “life experience degree”, that’s just a fake.
“Youth is not a time of life; it is a state of mind; it is not a matter of rosy cheeks, red lips and supple knees; it is a matter of the will, quality of the imagination, a vigor of the emotions; it is the freshness of the deep springs of life.” — Samuel Ullman
Now that it’s spring, at least astronomically, many people’s thought turn to spring cleaning. Traditionally that’s meant tidying up the house, getting rid of all the things that accumulated during the winter when it was too cold to spend much time outside, and taking advantage of the newly returned warmth to finally clean out the car. (Those of you with kids know exactly what I mean.)
I think this spring I need to go a step further. I think this year I need a thorough spring cleaning of my brain. Lately I’ve felt bogged down by a life filled with many things to do but without a lot to show for it in terms of reaching my goals. In fact it’s a bit worse than that, sometimes I’m not even sure what my goals are anymore. Just getting to the next paycheck without having a negative bank balance isn’t enough, but that seems to be where too much of my thought every month is going. I’m too young to let things like that make me feel old.
So I’m going to think about what it is that I’m doing, and what I really might want to do instead and start finding better ways of making that happen. Everything is on the table — my approach to school, the contracts I go after, everything. It’s not that everything in my life is bad, far from it. And I do enjoy most of what I do. But increasingly, I have a rudderless feeling, like these things don’t actually add to much of a destination, and with only so many years on this earth, it’s not okay to feel like they’re being… well, not wasted, exactly, but not maximized either.
Going back and rereading this, I see that it seems a bit jumbled. But I think I’ll leave it that way and post it anyway. I expect that in future posts what I’m trying to say will be a bit clearer. Besides, jumbled is a bit how my brain feels. See? A spring cleaning is definitely in order.
I participate mostly on forums that tend toward the former position, but as I’ve thought about these issues, and that thinking has evolved over time, I thought I’d offer a snapshot of what I think now. I’ve changed my mind about some things, so this may differ from some things I’ve written in the past. I may change my mind again, so this may differ from some things I’ll write in the future. Still, here goes:
- Regional accreditation is not the only legitimate sort. There’s nothing wrong with the CHEA approved national (including faith-based) accreditors. There are also institutions that are only state approved (i.e., unaccredited) that are legitimate as well. All other things being equal, it’s better to have credentials from a regionally accredited institution than a nationally accredited or unaccredited one because of perceptions in the marketplace. It’s rarely that simple, however, in that all other things are rarely equal. I’ve had the opportunity to practice what I’m preaching here, in that last year I convinced the administration at Southeastern University to switch from a policy of only accepting regionally accredited transfer credit to also accepting nationally accredited transfer credit.
- At the same time, I don’t think it should be a federal requirement that all institutions accredited by a CHEA approved agency should have to accept all credit from all others. This isn’t because I think that nationally accredited institutions are bad, but because I don’t think that’s any of Uncle Sam’s business.
- Proprietary institutions are not inherently worse than non-profit or public ones. However, since many people perceive that they are, it makes their credentials less valuable, and all other things being equal, credentials from a non-profit or public institution are better to have on one’s resume. (In this case, all other things often are reasonably equal, outside of specializations like test piloting, I can’t think of a program offered by a proprietary school that’s not offered by a public school at the same price or less.)
- Just because another country’s Ministry of Education approves of an institution in their country doesn’t mean it’s legitimate. This is the GAAP theory of international education, and while it’s a reasonable rule of thumb, it’s the start of the process, not the end of it. At the same time I’ve seen some people respond to universities from small and/or poor countries with kneejerk skepticism, and I find that’s unwarranted.
- About a year ago, I wrote the following throwaway comment on a forum:
“If I were one of those lucky/smart guys who had a lot of money and not enough to do with it, I think I’d start a Center for Academic Credential Integrity and hire a few people to do nothing but scout out those who have bogus credentials and inform local media and board of trustees of the scandals in their midst.”
In retrospect, this is one of the more obnoxious things I’ve ever said, and I withdraw it. In reality, I wouldn’t do any such thing.
So that’s where I stand at this point.