Take note, folks. It’s here: “MOOCs” for credit.

California Governor Jerry Brown, San Jose State University President Mo Qayoumi, and Udacity co-founder and CEO Sebastian Thrun held a press conference this morning to announce a pilot program that marks a first for the state: San Jose State will award college credits for special versions of select Udacity classes.

The pilot program will be available to a group of 300 students from San Jose State, community colleges and high schools, but it’s really aimed at the latter two groups — in the hopes of boosting students’ “college readiness” and with the recognition that the wait lists for California’s community colleges make it incredibly challenging for these students to get into introductory classes. (In the fall of this school year, The LA Times reported that some 470,000 California students were on waiting lists for community college classes.)

The pilot will offer 3 classes — remedial algebra, college algebra, and statistics — and will do so too at a cost one-tenth the tuition of regular classes (cost: $150), according to Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun, who quipped that “This is the single cheapest way in the country to earn college credit.”

But as Thrun stressed at last week’s Reboot CA Higher Education event, the emphasis must be on making education better not just cheaper.

The Year of the “MOOC”?

I can’t help but notice that even The New York Times didn’t use “MOOC” the its headline or URL for this story: “California to Give Web Courses a Big Trial.” I’d quibble, I suppose, that California has tried Web courses before now, but there you go. Even San Jose State itself has offered blended learning classes in conjunction with edX. But heck, “MOOC” isn’t mentioned in the NYT story ’til sentence number 4.

As for me, I’ve put “MOOCs” in scare quotes throughout this piece. Perhaps it’s clear by now that the evolution of these “new” online courses has veered away from the original MOOC vision — both the cMOOC and the xMOOC variety. There are now registration restrictions and enrollment caps; the content is not openly licensed; classes have offline components; they are not free.

Sebastian Thrun describes these iterations as “MOOC 2.0” and says Udacity has come to recognize that most learners require more than simply the videos and exercises that the xMOOCs have offered thus far. “They need mentors,” he told me in a phone interview this weekend; “peers and professionals” as he described it at the Reboot California Higher Education event last week.

The mentors for the pilot program will be hired and trained by Udacity. There will still be professor involvement in the classes (SJSU professors are the "faculty of record"); and while I cannot imagine that there won’t be some pushback, Thrun stresses that this pilot program has the approval of SJSU's faculty members. He stresses too that even though Udacity is offering more human support versus just the algorithmic feedback offered through the Web interface, that this all will still “scale.”

Remediation and Research

The additional support offered by the Udacity-SJSU pilot program aims to reduce the high rate of attrition from most “MOOCs.” As it currently stands, some 90% of those who enroll in MOOCs fail to complete the class. Whether you see the lower barriers to sign up and drop out as a feature or a bug, it’s not a statistic that will work with more formalized classes (particularly with new language in Governor Brown’s 2013–2014 budget that seeks to tie community college funding to course completion rather than course enrollment).

Indeed the high dropout rates from “MOOCs” might be particularly troubling for the program that Udacity and San Jose State are promising to offer — one that focuses on college prep and college remediation. No doubt there is a big demand for remedial classes — more than half of incoming CSU students need to take them, and these classes cost them tuition (and financial aid) dollars but do not count towards graduation. But it’s not clear that “MOOCs” are the right solution here. These students are, quite likely, a different group than those self-motivated learners who are successfully completing “MOOCs” in their current format.

Of course, this hasn’t stopped other groups from investigating/investing in the possibilities of “MOOCs.” The Gates Foundation gave a grant to edX to offer community college courses and has made additional funding available to those who develop remedial MOOCs. (I don’t want to make too much of the competition between edX and Udacity and Coursera here, but it’s probably worth noting, if even in passing.)

Much of the debate about “MOOCs” — how/if they will work; how/if they will work for the novice or struggling learner; how/if they will lower costs; how/if they will expand access; how/if they will boost quality — is now being framed in terms of “research.” Many of the panelists at last week’s Rebooting California Higher Education echoed this. (We need “rigorous research” into online learning, said Lillian Taiz, President of the California Faculty Association. "We owe it to the students.”) “This is,” as Thrun explained in our phone interview, “an experiment.”

While experimentation and research are both necessary, I do think we should consider exactly where — on whom? — this occurs and how it’s being framed. I think there are many questions to ask here about what high school students and community college students need to succeed in college — about the best ways to teach algebra and statistics, for example, about the support services students need, about what “MOOCs” can and cannot provide (and at what cost savings). I’d argue too that some of these things aren’t really “research questions”; the answers are already available (perhaps locked away in closed access academic journals, I suppose). We do know a lot about teaching and learning online and offline. There is expertise in high schools; there is expertise at community colleges; there is expertise at university campuses. Much of that expertise — be it in instruction, in instructional design, in student support services — has been stripped due to budget cuts. Can MOOCs really address this? And do we want for-profit companies to be the ones who try?

Thrun dismisses the hype about “MOOCs” as a silver bullet for all our budgetary and educational woes. But as he took to the podium with Governor Jerry Brown today to announce “MOOCs for credit” at one of California's oldest and largest public universities, the politics that push for silver bullets do seem glaringly obvious.

Audrey Watters


Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

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