Tag Archives: online education

MOOCs and the Honor Code

Teresa Sullivan. Photo credit: Virginia Business.

Teresa Sullivan. Photo credit: Virginia Business.

In an interview for its June issue, Virginia Business interviewed University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan about Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs). University professors are teaching six MOOCs this year. On the positive side, Sullivan said, the experience is changing how the professors are teaching their classes on the Grounds and promoting the UVa brand around the world.

But there’s one knotty issue the university hasn’t worked out yet:

We have a special issue with the MOOCs, and that’s the honor system.  It is known that, in the online environment, cheating is rampant.  It’s been difficult to develop ways that you actually know who’s taking an exam.

That’s a legitimate quandary. As far as I’m concerned, the honor code is sacred. Inviolable. It’s a bastion against moral decay and it cannot be compromised. The University of Virginia has systems in place on the Grounds to indoctrinate students and enforce the code. That system cannot possibly be replicated for 20,000 people taking a course around the world.

UVa may have to settle for two standards — one for students physically enrolled at the university and one for everyone else. Unfortunately, if the university cannot vouch for the integrity of online students, it will be understandably reluctant to grant them degrees, as Georgia Tech plans to do in a program I posted about recently. It’s a big issue to work out.


Crunch, Rumble, Shake. Georgia Tech Goes MOOC.

Georgia Tech has a great campus -- which many of its new students will never need to visit.

Georgia Tech has a great campus — which many of its new students will never need to visit.

The tectonic plates of higher education continue to shift and slide. The latest rumble you heard emanated from Atlanta, where the Georgia Institute of Technology recently announced that it would offer an online master’s degree in computer science at less than one-third the cost per credit hour.

Georgia Tech is partnering with Udacity, a company that runs massively open online courses (MOOCs), and AT&T, which is donating $2 million to get the program started, reports The Chronicle of Higher Education. The program is expected to take most students three years to complete and to cost less than $7,000. The university and Udacity will split the tuition revenue 60/40.

“This is not going to be a watered-down degree,” said Georgia Tech Provost Rafael L. Bras. “It’s going to be as hard and at a level of excellence of a regular degree.”

“These students will never have to set foot in a classroom to earn degrees on par with those received in traditional on-campus settings—degrees that will be equally valued by their future employers,” blogged Scott S. Smith, senior vice president for human resources at AT&T, which aims to ensure a stream of qualified job applicants. “By harnessing the power of MOOCs, we can embark on a new era for higher education and for the development of a highly skilled work force.”

Bacon’s bottom line: There are several significant aspects to this story. First, Georgia Tech, a highly reputable academic institution, is willing to stake its reputation on offering an online degree program. We’re not talking about Phoenix University here. Second, AT&T, a Fortune 500 company, hopes to snap up a large number of the program’s graduates. So much for the concern about the value of MOOC credentials. Thirdly and most importantly, the economics of MOOCs are such that Georgia Tech can slash prices by two-thirds.

This experiment should send paroxysms of fear into every established institution of higher education in Virginia — and across the country. Academics can talk all they want about the putative advantages of traditional, face-t0-face education, but we’ll see what students say when they are given the opportunity to cut tuition costs by two-thirds. Higher ed — and in all likelihood, much of K-12 education — will be disrupted as thoroughly as newspapers, music CDs and book retailing have been. The big question for the Old Dominion is this: Will we be in the vanguard, or will we be bringing up the rear?

The move to MOOCs will not proceed glitch-free. Much to its embarrassment, Georgia Tech had to cancel one of its MOOCs, “Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application,” after a series of technical snafus. But the technology will evolve, the online pedagogy will innovate, and the experience will continue to improve.

A sign of the times: Interest in MOOCs is now so fevered that Hybrid Pedagogy, which bills itself as a digital journal of learning, teaching and technology, is launching a MOOC… about MOOCs.


“Not about Doing Education on the Cheap”

Philip Zelikow

by James A. Bacon

About a year ago, Philip Zelikow, the White Burkett Miller Professor of History at the University of Virginia, knew little more about online learning than the average man. But one day he found himself in an executive retreat at the Boar’s Head Inn with Meredith June-En Woo, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, to brainstorm the college’s future.

The subject came up of online learning and the recent launch of Coursera, a Silicon Valley-funded start-up that had signed up some prestigious universities to teach so-called massively open online courses, or MOOCs. “Email Coursera,” Woo told Zelikow. So he did, then and there. And thus started the College’s engagement with state-of-the-art online learning.

UVa’s Darden School of Business had already initiated contacts with Coursera, but Zelikow became the College’s point man. Indeed, he became so engaged in online learning that he now teaches “The Modern World: Global History since 1760,” to some 70 UVa students and 25,000 other enrollees around the world. Last night Zelikow regaled an audience of Richmond-area UVa alumni with observations about his experience in online education and how it will transform the University of Virginia.

The bottom line: Zelikow sees online learning as enhancing the experience for university students residing on campus but also opening up opportunities for a lesser, though still valuable, education around the world.

Further, he said, the University of Virginia will be a leader in this brave new world. “We’re on the eve of a transformation of higher ed around the world. It will be led by about 15 universities. The University of Virginia is one of them.”

The standard method for teaching a college history course has not changed in centuries, said Zelikow, whose non-academic accomplishments include heading the 9/11 Commission and working as a deputy to Secretary of State Condelezza Rice. The professor delivers lectures in a lecture hall students who passively take notes. Later, the students break into smaller classes where they interact with graduate teaching assistants.

The MOOC works very differently. Zelikow spent considerable time up-front converting his lectures into 92 video presentations of varying lengths that students could view at any time on their own. The lectures are supplemented by reading and digital-source materials accessible online and quizlets by which students can test their mastery of the knowledge going forward. UVa students can participate in discussion forums with 25,000 students enrolled around the world. Getting the perspective of a student from Colombia, say, on South American independence revolutions can broaden their understanding.

What’s more, because he wasn’t delivering lectures, Zelikow has time to interact with his UVa students. He has broken his class into two, which allows him to conduct meaningful discussions.

Zelikow says that the exercise has allowed him to develop a more powerful version of the course he has taught for years, and it forces students to stay engaged consistently throughout the semester as opposed to alternating between goofing off and cramming for tests.

Creating MOOCs is expensive — hundreds of hours of work must be invested up-front. But making that investment allows UVa to powerfully enhance the residential college experience. “This is not about doing education on the cheap,” Zelikow said. “This is about how to leverage 21st century technology to reinvent the classroom.”

UVa is determined to be one of the handful of elite institutions that shape the market for online learning, Zelikow said, but it is not yet clear how the effort will be paid for. His justification at this time: Online learning “powerfully enhances the experience of the students who pay the tuition. Parents are willing to pay for something that enhances their children’s experience.”

Online learning is still evolving and even Coursera hasn’t figured out yet how to make a lot of money from the technology, he said. “We want to be in the space because we recognize the potential.”

Fighting the Long Battle for a Virginia Virtual School

Online teacher: Beam me up, Scotty.

by James A. Bacon

Del. Dickie Bell, R-Staunton, knows he faces an up-hill climb creating a public online alternative to local school districts in Virginia, but he’s not giving up. The challenges are many. The educational establishment doesn’t like any idea that would turn schooling over to private-sector contractors. The governor’s office has not signed onto it. And, oh, incidentally, some say that the latest incarnation of his proposal, HB 1555, is unconstitutional. That’s OK. He’ll keep on tinkering with the legislation until he gets it right.

His first effort to expand virtual education opportunities did pass a couple of years ago, Bell says, but it was a program in name only – it had no funding. His goal was to get it on the books with the promise of finding money later. Thirteen vendors signed up to deliver online courses but financial support never materialized.

So, he went back to the drawing board. HB 1555, submitted for the current General Assembly session, would set up a virtual school division to deliver online courses. Anyone in the state could enroll, and the school would be funded through transfers of students’ state and local share of Standards of Quality per-pupil funding, up to $6,500. But it turns out, Bell says, that creating a separate school division might be unconstitutional. Rather than fight that battle, he decided to restructure the proposal again.

As a Staunton resident, Bell was familiar with the Virginia School of the Deaf and Blind (VSDB) in his home town. VSDB is a public school that accepts deaf and blind children from all across the state. When a child leaves his or her home district, their school funding goes with them – just like his earlier proposal. The key difference is that his online program would be a state agency with its own board of visitors, analogous to VSDB, instead of a school division. When I talked to Bell Friday, he was working to amend his bill along those lines.

The former special ed school teacher sees online learning as a game changer for public education in Virginia, especially in small towns and rural counties like his Shenandoah Valley district where school often cannot bring enough kids under a single roof to justify advanced math and language classes. Highland Couny, in his district, has 200 students – in the entire county. “We don’t challenge the gifted kids enough. … I want the kids to have the same classes and opportunities as schools from other parts of the state.”

But the goal is bigger than providing advanced placement classes, which the state’s existing Virtual Virginia online program already does. What Bell really wants is to inject some competition into the public school system. “Generally speaking, folks want more school choice. And this is another choice. I’m an advocate of school choice. Folks don’t always feel like they’re getting the best education for their kids where they are.”

Under his proposal, says Bell, online students could sign up for an online program with parental permission. While instruction would be contracted to private-sector vendors, students still would be subject to Standards of Learning testing. “This would have the same educational requirements of a brick-and-mortar school. … The standards will be high. I’m not interested in anything that lowers the bar for public education.”

Herndon-based K12, Inc., which has contracted with several rural public school systems, pitches its online program as appealing to home-schoolers, high achievers, strugglers, dropouts, teen parents and victims of bullying – anyone who cannot get the individually focused and flexible learning they need in a one-size-fits-all classroom.

I called the Virginia Education Association for a comment on Bell’s bill but did not get a response. However, Bell says the reception by the public education lobby has not been favorable. “The educational establishment always rises up in opposition if there’s any threat to their money,” he says. “That’s been the struggle.”

Public school educators also are unlikely to be happy about inviting private-sector competition through the back door of online learning. The Old Dominion has been hostile to charter schools, vouchers, teacher accountability, Standards of Learning or anything else that would disrupt the status quo. Bell was disappointed that Governor Bob McDonnell didn’t include the virtual school idea in his education reform package, but he says the idea is getting increased attention. Once he addresses the constitutional questions, he says, “I think we can get some dialogue.”

Thinking Outside the School Yard

Dickie Bell

by James A. Bacon

Step aside Bob McDonnell, you and your tax-hiking, burden-shifting transportation-funding package. Make way for Dickie Bell, R-Staunton, who has introduced what may prove to be the most audacious piece of legislation of the 2013 General Assembly session — a bill to create a state virtual school organized as a free-standing statewide school division. Among other virtues, his proposal won’t raise taxes!

Under HB 1555, the state would establish the Virginia State Virtual School “in order to provide full-time online educational programs and services to school-age persons in the Commonwealth.” The school division would be subject to the requirements of the Standards of Quality and would be required to submit an annual report to the General Assembly, although contracts with online providers would be exempt from state public procurement laws.

Any student could enroll for free in the virtual school provided that his parent “makes, in his own discretion, the determination that access to the educational services of the Virginia State Virtual School is in [his] best interest,” and provided that he completes the enrollment through “any multidivision online provider that provides online courses and virtual school programs through the Virginia State Virtual School.”

The virtual school would be funded through transfers of students’ state and local share of Standards of Quality per-pupil funding, not to exceed $6,500.

Bell, a former high school special ed teacher, has submitted several small-bore bills this year pertaining to schools and children, including deaf and hard-of-hearing children, teacher contracts and evaluation, and public school student screenings for eating disorders. But none of them touch HB1555 for their potential to shake up Virginia’s public school system.

The virtual school idea would give parents in school districts across Virginia a free alternative to their local bricks-and-mortar schools. Not only would the bill spur competition with local schools, it would create a venue for online providers to compete. A virtual school division would constitute the most radical change that Virginia’s ossified K-12 educational system has seen in decades — and predictably will inspire the ire of the usual entrenched special interests.

The online school movement has been developing quiet momentum in Virginia public schools in recent years. The Virginia Department of Education offers online Advanced Placement courses through its Virtual Virginia online program. Herndon-based K12, Inc., a provider of online educational programs, has partnered with Grayson County, Carroll County, Patrick County and Pittsylvania County to deliver online programs. Additionally, it works with two private online schools in Virginia — the Keystone School and K12 International Academy — and the George Washington University Online High School.

K12, Inc., has not gone public as a backer of Bell’s initiative but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the company is involved. According to the Virginia Public Access Project database, K12 has donated $136,000 in recent years to statewide and General Assembly candidates for office — $50,075 of it in the past year. The firm also has retained four lobbyists.

K12, which went public in 2007, is the nation’s largest operator of virtual public schools. Operating in 32 states and Washington, D.C., the company generated $708 million in revenue in 2012.

Appealing to home-schoolers, high achievers, strugglers, dropouts, teen parents and victims of bullying, K12 argues that many children cannot get the individually focused and flexible learning they need in a one-size-fits-all classroom. K12’s online curriculum and methodology includes “rich, challenging and engaging content,” an individualized learning plan, a learning coach (typically the parent) and daily online lessons. K12 trains its teachers to teach in an online environment and to adhere to state standards.

Not surprisingly, K12 has critics. Wrote the Washington Post in a May 2012 article: “Education activists, journalists, politicians and others have raised questions about whether such full-time virtual schools, which are clearly profitable for K12, are also good for students and fair to taxpayers.” The New York Times also blasted the company in a December 2011 piece, contending that “portrait emerges of a company that tries to squeeze profits from public school dollars by raising enrollment, increasing teacher workload and lowering standards.” The company responded that the Times piece was unfair and one-sided.

The long knives will be out for any company whose business model is as disruptive and threatening to the status quo as K12’s. There are legitimate questions to ask about the quality of online education and the accountability of the virtual school division before Virginia signs up for the program. At the same time, it would be fool-hardy to hold a Virginia virtual school to standards of perfection that all too many traditional schools fall short of themselves. Bell’s bill warrants serious discussion.

Hat tip: Larry Gross

Step Aside, Gutenberg

“Higher education is at a crossroads not seen since the introduction of the printing press.” So begins an op-ed written by L. Rafael Reif in the Wall Street Journal today. “Just as edX, Coursera, Udacity and other online-learning platforms are beginning to offer the teaching of great universities at low or no cost, residential education’s long-simmering financial problem is reaching a crisis point.”

The author doesn’t use the phrase “existential crisis,” as did Helen Dragas, the much-maligned Rector of the University of Virginia, to describe the Board of Visitors’ thinking when it demanded the resignation of President Teresa Sullivan (since reinstated). But he sure does a good job of summarizing the thinking that informed Dragas’ argument that higher ed had reached an inflection point.

And who is this this presumptuous pundit who dares lecture administrators and faculty who know far more about running a university than rich, fad-chasing dilettantes like Helen Dragas? Why, he’s the newly inaugurated president of MIT, one of the top-tier institutions driving the online revolution.

My key takeaway from Reif’s piece is how rapidly online learning is progressing. Universities have long shared some of their course content, but only in the last year, he says, have they developed technology that lets them “actually teach in an interactive format designed specifically for online learning.” Reif eviscerates the conceit that online learning can never replace the “face-to-face learning” — profs addressing students in lecture halls — that takes place in a traditional campus setting. Last year when MIT offered a course on Circuits and Electronics, 150,000 people from 160 countries signed up, he says.

The network of students that came together around [the course] was so powerful that the course’s instructor stopped his teaching assistants from answering questions in the online forum. The students had said they learned the material better when they helped each other out.

Reif wants to preserve the residential college experience, but he suggests that can be done only by radically re-thinking the professor’s role in teaching a course. He describes how online learning has “flipped the classroom” — putting students in front of faculty only after they are prepared by material they have learned online on their own schedule and at their own pace. “Instead of being one of 200 people sitting for a lecture, a student is in the same room with a professor in order to have meaningful back-and-forth exchanges.”

The MIT president also sees online educating demolishing the financial model of traditional higher ed. MIT’s edX learning platform will offer, for a small fee, credentials for learners who demonstrate mastery of a given course. MIT’s value-add for students at the MIT campus is the opportunity to interact with some of the world’s best faculty members after they have mastered the basic material.

Not everyone is smart enough to get into MIT and not everyone could afford the tuition, even if they were. What will evolve, I predict, is a hybrid learning experience in which people will enroll in courses designed and taught by professors from MIT, Harvard, Stanford, UVa — and even some independents — in order to gain the core knowledge, which they will supplement by means of face-to-face interaction in “flipped classrooms.”

That model will create tremendous opportunities for the elite universities that design the courses, and it will create tremendous opportunities for anyone — community colleges, career schools, etc. — who can provide the “flipped classroom” experience while either (a) under-pricing traditional colleges and universities or (b) serving non-residential students who squeeze in their courses around work and family.

Here in Virginia, the question is whether we want to be early adapters who benefit from the most significant innovation in higher ed “since the printing press,” or will we be on the receiving of change.

Online Learning on a Roll: Picture a Steamroller that Accelerates like a Ferrari

Sophia Naide. Photo credit: Fast Company.

Sophia Naide, a high school student in Northern Virginia, is studying Computer Science 101 with her mother. Is she taking a high school course? No. Is she enrolled in a community college? George Mason University? The Virginia Tech satellite campus? No, no, no. She signed up for a free, online course with Coursera, the online teaching enterprise that recently forged an agreement with the University of Virginia along with a dozen other prestigious universities. Sophia is one of several learners interviewed by Fast Company writer Anya Kamenetz in an article about Coursera.

The article is worth reading because it sheds light on the growing competitive advantage of online classes in the higher-ed setting.  Traditionalists, reactionaries and others with a vested interest preserving in the status quo insist that nothing can replace the face-to-face interaction between teacher and student in a real-world, campus setting. But the Fast Company article makes it clear that online courses can do things that conventional classroom courses cannot.

For starters, the face-to-face experience isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be. “When you’re giving a lecture and you stop to ask a question, 50% of the class are scribbling away and didn’t hear you, another 20% are on Facebook, and one smarty-pants in the front row blurts out the answer and you feel good,” says Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller. “Why not take the 75-minute lecture, break it up into short pieces, and add interactive engagement into the video so that every five minutes there’s a question?”

In a Coursera course, students pause periodically throughout the lecture to answer questions. The program tells them immediately if their answers are right or wrong, thus whether or not they understand the material. Neuroscience research showing that exercises in instant retrieval enhance memory and comprehension more than complicated questions for later study.

As for that coveted  interaction, online students form virtual study groups. If students have questions, they can ask other students. Moreover, course designers can see how students interact with the lecture, tests and one another to continually refine the courses. Says Koller: “We can see every single click: pausing, rewinding, the first and second try on the homework, what they did in between.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Inevitably, the best teachers (“best” in their ability to deliver a quality online experience) will gravitate to online courses where they will be richly compensated for their talents and knowledge. Instead of teaching dozens of students or even a couple hundred, star teachers will reach thousands. What will that mean for the not-so-great instructors and the no-name educational institutions that employ them? Perhaps they will provide supplementary services, as intermediaries or subalterns, to students who crave that face-to-face experience. Perhaps they’ll go out of business. Either way, they will adopt or die.

Idealistic higher-ed officials see online learning as a way to disseminate knowledge to millions of students in developing countries who cannot afford a traditional degree. Perhaps it also will become a way as well to disseminate knowledge to millions of Americans who can’t afford a traditional degree!


Note: I have deleted Ms. Naide’s age and grade level from this post at her request.