MOOCs and the Failure of Innovators

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Today at IEEE Spectrum, Robert Ubell has a rough and telling explanation of “How the Pioneers of the MOOC Got It Wrong.” It includes some important lessons for many of the “innovators” in the education world today.

Massive Open Online Courses took off five years ago, when Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig decided to stream the computer lectures from Stanford out across the internet to the world. It seemed like such a winner of an idea that Thrun co-founded Udacity, one of the leading providers of interwebbified education. Thrun was so sure of this idea that he predicted in a 2012 interview at Wired that in fifty years, only ten higher education institutions would still be standing. He and other MOOC launchers were certain that they “had inspired a revolution.”

They did not know what the hell they were talking about.

In the beginning, MOOC completion rate was a whopping 7%. Nowadays that has inched up to almost 13% average. These are not impressive numbers. Nor are MOOCs putting universities out of business. As Ubell reports, research shows that people just graze or glance or bounce in for a minute. Those “who did finish a MOOC were accomplished learners, many with advanced degrees.” In other words, people who are more than capable of teaching themselves from whatever resource, whether it be a MOOC or, say, a book.

What happened? A common reformster problem– MOOC-ophiles were trying to disrupt practices that were no longer the norm in education. They figured that a MOOC would be more engaging than a traditional lecture (even if early MOOCs were just lectures on line, because computer technology!); they didn’t realize that educators were already ditching and replacing lectures.

The three principal MOOC providers—Coursera, Udacity, and edX—wandered into a territory they thought was uninhabited. Yet it was a place that was already well occupied by accomplished practitioners who had thought deeply and productively over the last couple of decades about how students learn online. Like poor, baffled Columbus, MOOC makers believed they had “discovered” a new world. 

How many times have we seen this played out in ed reform circles. Edbiz McSellsalot comes running up, hollering, “Quick! I have just chiseled this circle out of stone. I call it a ‘wheel,’ and if you will all start using it, your transportation will be revolutionized.” Experienced educators, riding on automobiles mounted on inflatable tires and sophisticated suspension systems, fail to respond with the proper level of awe and wonder. Unfortunately, too often the next step is for Edbiz to run off and convince some policy-makers to mandate the use of the “new” stone wheel.

And so vendors tell us that a multiple choice test (the kind of test that forty years ago we figured out is a poor assessment tool) will be totally awesome if we administer it on a computer. Charter operators announce proudly that they’ve discovered that personalized attention in a resource-rich environment will help students learn, particularly if you make sure that only the right students are in the room. Occasionally reformsters will grudgingly admit that some innovation doesn’t actually work, just as we told them it wouldn’t years ago. Who knew that having high stakes testing would warp and narrow instruction in schools? Every single teacher in the country– but nobody would listen to us.

One of the assumptions of reformsterism (carried over from the business world) is that you don’t need to be a trained experienced educator to be a great education leader. That assumption is disproven on a regular basis. That is why the teacher reaction to a reformster idea isn’t always “You have got to be kidding me”– sometimes it,s “No shit, Sherlock.”

Sometimes outsiders see bold new angles because they’re outsiders, but sometimes outsiders just don’t know what they’re talking about. Not every reformster is tripped up by ignorance of the territory or the arrogant belief that they don’t even need to look at a map. But MOOC creators are not the only befuddled Columbi on the scene. If folks can’t learn from the actual MOOCs, they can at least learn the lesson from MOOC creators.

How the Pioneers of the MOOC Got It Wrong

Illustration: Gary Waters/Getty Images

By Robert Ubell

In 2011, when Stanford computer scientists Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig came up with the bright idea of streaming their robotics lectures over the Internet, they knew it was an inventive departure from the usual college course. For hundreds of years, professors had lectured to groups of no more than a few hundred students. But MOOCs—massive open online courses—made it possible to reach many thousands at once. Through the extraordinary reach of the Internet, learners could log on to lectures streamed to wherever they happened to be. To date, about 58 million people have signed up for a MOOC.

Familiar with the technical elements required for a MOOC—video streaming, IT infrastructure, the Internet—MOOC developers put code together to send their lectures into cyberspace. When more than 160,000 enrolled in Thrun and Norvig’s introduction to artificial intelligence MOOC, the professors thought they held a tiger by the tail. Not long after, Thrun cofounded Udacity to commercialize MOOCs. He predicted that in 50 years, streaming lectures would so subvert face-to-face education that only 10 higher-education institutions would remain. Our quaint campuses would become obsolete, replaced by star faculty streaming lectures on computer screens all over the world. Thrun and other MOOC evangelists imagined they had inspired a revolution, overthrowing a thousand years of classroom teaching.

These MOOC pioneers were therefore stunned when their online courses didn’t perform anything like they had expected. At first, the average completion rate for MOOCs was less than 7 percent. Completion rates have since gone up a bit, to a median of about 12.6 percent, although there’s considerable variation from course to course. While a number of factors contribute to the completion rate, my own observation is that students who have to pay a fee to enroll tend to be more committed to finishing the course.

Looking closer at students’ MOOC habits, researchers found that some people quit watching within the first few minutes. Many others were merely “grazing,” taking advantage of the technology to quickly log in, absorb just the morsel they were hunting for, and then log off as soon as their appetite was satisfied. Most of those who did finish a MOOC were accomplished learners, many with advanced degrees.

What accounts for MOOCs’ modest performance? While the technological solution they devised was novel, most MOOC innovators were unfamiliar with key trends in education. That is, they knew a lot about computers and networks, but they hadn’t really thought through how people learn.

It’s unsurprising then that the first MOOCs merely replicated the standard lecture, an uninspiring teaching style but one with which the computer scientists were most familiar. As the education technology consultant Phil Hill recently observed in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “The big MOOCs mostly employed smooth-functioning but basic video recording of lectures, multiple-choice quizzes, and unruly discussion forums. They were big, but they did not break new ground in pedagogy.”

Indeed, most MOOC founders were unaware that a pedagogical revolution was already under way at the nation’s universities: The traditional lecture was being rejected by many scholars, practitioners, and, most tellingly, tech-savvy students. MOOC advocates also failed to appreciate the existing body of knowledge about learning online, built over the last couple of decades by adventurous faculty who were attracted to online teaching for its innovative potential, such as peer-to-peer learning, virtual teamwork, and interactive exercises. These modes of instruction, known collectively as “active” learning, encourage student engagement, in stark contrast to passive listening in lectures. Indeed, even as the first MOOCs were being unveiled, traditional lectures were on their way out.

The impact of active learning can be significant. In a 2014 meta-analysis published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [PDF], researchers looked at 225 studies in which standard lectures were compared with active learning for undergraduate science, math, and engineering. The results were unambiguous: Average test scores went up about 6 percent in active-learning sections, while students in traditional lecture classes were 1.5 times more likely to fail than their peers in active-learning classes.

Even lectures by “star” faculty were no match for active-learning sections taught by novice instructors: Students still performed better in active classes. “We’ve yet to see any evidence that celebrated lecturers can help students more than even first-generation active learning does,” Scott Freeman, the lead author of the study, told Wired.

Unfortunately, early MOOCs failed to incorporate active learning approaches or any of the other innovations in teaching and learning common in other online courses. The three principal MOOC providers—Coursera, Udacity, and edX—wandered into a territory they thought was uninhabited. Yet it was a place that was already well occupied by accomplished practitioners who had thought deeply and productively over the last couple of decades about how students learn online. Like poor, baffled Columbus, MOOC makers believed they had “discovered” a new world. It’s telling that in their latest offerings, these vendors have introduced a number of active-learning innovations.

To be sure, MOOCs have been wildly successful in giving millions of people all over the world access to a wide range of subjects presented by eminent scholars at the world’s elite schools. Some courses attract so many students that a 7 percent completion rate still translates into several thousand students finishing—greater than the total enrollment of many colleges.

But MOOC pioneers were presumptuous to imagine they could not only topple the university—an institution that has successfully withstood revolutions far more devastating than the Web—but also ignore common experience. They erroneously assumed they could open the minds of millions who were unprepared to tackle sophisticated curriculum. MOOCs will never sweep away face-to-face classrooms, nor can they take the place of more intensive and intimate online degree programs. The real contribution of MOOCs is likely to be much more modest, as yet another digital education option.

About the author:

Robert Ubell is Vice Dean Emeritus of Online Learning at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering. A collection of his essays on digital education, Going Online: Perspectives on Digital Learning, was recently published by Routledge. He can be reached at

Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching in Australian Higher Education

Wednesday, January 4, 2017
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The Australian Government funds the QILT Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching website. One point to note is if your browser has an ad-blocker, such as AdBlockPlus you may not see any institutions listed (I didn’t until I disabled the ad-blocker for the QILT site). QILT lists 55 institutions offering Teacher Education(including Vocational Education & Training, and Higher Education and Special Education). There are 44 institutions offering programs at the postgraduate level (39 Universities and 9 Non-Universities).

One limitation with the QILT site is that there is no option to select institutions offering on-line courses. The assumption seems to be that the potential student will select a state and then look at institutions in that state.The site requires the student to select no more than six institutions to compare. There is no way, for example, to list all the institutions in Australia, by quality ranking and then select the top six. The student would have to look at each institution and manually note and sort the top six.

There are  5 ACT Universities with Postgraduate courses in Teacher Education listed. So I selected all five, plus Montessori Institute (a non-university postgraduate provider, which, not surprisingly trains Montessori teachers). Only four institutions were shown, due to too small a number of students for the with two. The four institutions were around 80%, on “Overall satisfaction” and with confidence intervals so wide that this which not be of use in selecting between institutions. On the “Teaching scale” 

University of Canberra was 10% above the others.  On the “Skills scale” University of New South Wales was slightly ahead.

What is not clear is how useful this information is for students selecting programs. The differences between institutions are minimal. A better approach might be to put resources into ensuring all institutions meet an acceptable minimum standard, so a student knows that if they enroll locally they will receive an acceptable quality education.

Also with the transition to e-learning the quality of legacy classroom based courses will be of little relevance.Students are increasingly likely to follow the approach I took in looking for a program in 2013. First I looked in the city where I lived. After finding nothing suitable in my city, I think looked internationally. Once beyond commuting distance, it makes little difference if the institution is 1,000 km or 10,000 km away. In the last five years I have been a student of ANU and CIT (within 10 km of home), USQ (1,000 km) and Athabasca University (14,000 km).

Be the Online Teacher You Want to See in the World

By Christopher Haynes
December 22, 2016
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The reciprocal relationship between pedagogical practices and the environments in which teachers and students implement them is often lost in conversations about the future of higher education. Educators are likely to be more concerned with their practices — the instructional strategies, assignments and activities, and grading that keep them connected to their students on a day-to-day basis — than the details of their physical classrooms. When teachers find themselves confronted, abruptly, with the concerns of learning online (concerns like having to navigate new learning spaces, fearing a lack of technical proficiency, and anxieties over losing control) environment gets read as a barrier rather than an opportunity. Focusing on continuities of practice rather than disruptions in platform can ease the anxiety many faculty feel when confronted with the possibility of migration to and adoption of online learning.

This is a compelling logic, and it is the approach taken by Robert Ubell in a recent essay for Inside Higher Ed, “Why Faculty Still Don’t Want to Teach Online,” published December 13th, 2016. Ubell recognizes, importantly, that “the battle should not be fought between brick-and-mortar and new digital space but between old and new ways of teaching — those that encourage more interaction among students and instructors.” For Ubell, the critical task is developing student-centered pedagogy and a greater degree of meaningful contact between student and faculty. One would be hard pressed to find an educator today who would dispute the importance of these needs. And indeed, Ubell tacitly acknowledges that ad nauseum debates over the relative benefits or dangers of shifts from physical to digital in our tech-infused culture have become tedious and rote. But in downplaying questions about learning environments in favor of focusing on the pedagogical practices that might take place there, we miss an important opportunity to draw online learning more meaningfully into the legacies of learning that define higher education.

Framing pedagogy as a set of practices (“best” or otherwise) rather than a holistic system of teaching and learning situated within particular environments feeds a face-to-face bias. More importantly, privileging what and how teachers teach at the expense of where and in what environments they do it insulates the work of teaching from the real conflicts surrounding the rapid expansion and development of online learning, divesting faculty and teaching staff of their role in shaping the experience current and future students will have in their online studies. Without skin in the game of building the structures of online learning students encounter, faculty and teaching staff cede policy control to university administration and course design and development to offices of information and academic technology.

By investing themselves in understanding online learning platforms and paying closer attention to the interfaces they produce — interfaces like Blackboard, Desire2Learn, Coursera, etc. — faculty and teaching staff might shape the future of higher learning, rather than simply react to it. Facilitating meaningful and transformative learning experiences for the students in their care has been the role of the faculty since the earliest days of the university. If faculty and teaching staff seek continuity of practice, surely helping to build new environments of learning is part of it.

Ubell’s article thus unintentionally exposes an important irony: it is precisely a perceived loss of faculty agency that stands as one of the “largest roadblocks to pursuing online teaching.” Since, typically, “faculty members enter classrooms on the campus entirely on their own” and “what they teach and how they teach it is almost totally in their hands,” the sudden presence of “technical and pedagogical support from sophisticated videographers, instructional designers and other personnel” appears to threaten their ability to control the terms of teaching and learning in their classrooms. In Ubell’s terms, when online, “the autonomy of the instructor is threatened.” I do not disagree. It’s the rhetoric of “threat” that is difficult to swallow — it puts faculty and teaching staff in a defensive position, reacting to the perception of conformity instead of driving the conversation. Facing threat, it’s easier to revert to what you can control. The harder and more valuable task is accepting the vulnerability that comes with collaboration and dialog.

Faculty and teaching staff might better inhabit environments of online learning as open-minded designers, rather than simply educators. Easier said than done, considering most educators have never been required to think about designing spaces of learning. The traditional features of the physical classroom, along with the behaviors of its teachers and students, have been by virtue of their ubiquity rendered invisible, and thus rest below the threshold of attention. Teachers and students take for granted the boundaries — buildings, doors, walls, tables, desks and chalkboards — that shape the environments in which they learn. Physical space conditions the mind as much as the body. This is true of both teachers and students.

These invisible constraints, and the practices their structures reinforce, solidify their influence by their unregistered presence, silently proclaiming this is the way things are done. The lineage of this relationship is long, and has become so intertwined with the nature of higher learning as to make learning appear impossible in the absence of these structures. Because both students and teachers are habituated to these spaces, reflections on face-to-face teaching and learning focus almost entirely on relative continuations and disruptions of practice, at the expense of the impact environment has on their development. Endorsed by familiarity, both pedagogical and institutional practices have become tacitly canonized.

Teachers and students do not have to build the lecture hall or the seminar room or the laboratory from scratch each and every time they inhabit it. Instead, we atomize institutional roles related to creating and sustaining these environments. Teachers and students often have no contact with the architects and contractors that build academic buildings, with the facilities management crews that maintain their features, with the information technology experts that keep their wires connected, and with the custodial staff that keep them free of waste and clutter. Because some of these processes can happen below the level of their pedagogical attention, teachers and students are not consciously aware of their importance in creating environments of learning.

Duration in time is a marker of value for higher learning, as we know from the unmatched prestige of the oldest of its institutions. And yet, the physical work required for the endurance of these learning spaces remains ignored by faculty and teaching staff. Educators benefit from this legacy without investing much in maintaining it. Because institutions of higher learning have severed the bonds that hold pedagogical practice and learning environment together, faculty and teaching staff are ill-equipped to suddenly become design thinkers.

And here is where the real benefit of investment in online learning environments comes into play. Teachers and students may not have the skill or the ability to build physical classrooms themselves, but they can take a more active role in shaping digital learning spaces. Investment in campus debates over learning management system adoption, opening lines of communication between teaching staff and administration about course and curriculum design, active collaboration with learning and instructional design teams, and recognition of the capacity for students to help design the spaces of their own learning — each of these must be folded into the practices that shape teaching and learning on our campuses.

Continuing the work of academic technologists by asserting pedagogy in the infrastructure of online learning lays the groundwork for clear and effective online course design. The structure and flow of online learning is still forming, still an emergent combination of environmental manipulation and innovative praxis. Development and implementation of online learning must remain grounded in decisions made, at least in part, by those whom it most directly impacts: teachers and students.

In Counternarratives, Colin Lankshear, Michael Peters, and Michele Knobel brand the features of traditional teaching and learning (features like lecture halls, seminar rooms, and laboratories) “spaces of enclosure” which “separate educational engagement from wider spheres of social practice” (154). The physical classroom is thus often represented as a haven, a separated space in which we might reflect, ask questions, and investigate truth without fear of repercussion. But in an era of unprecedented threat to the mission of higher learning — both economic and ideological — perhaps enclosure is the wrong metaphor. Perhaps higher learning needs to be projected out into the world, inviting all who might benefit it. When faculty and teaching staff extend their pedagogical convictions to all environments of learning, physical or otherwise, we come one important step closer to realizing that vision responsibly.

Rather than seeing the future as an inexorable march toward online, educators must encounter the changing conditions of the present, along with their memories of the past and their hesitations over the future, as interlocking components in a shared endeavor to provide meaningful and transformative learning to all of the students entrusted to them. The story of online learning so far has too often been disruption, suspicion, and distance (both literal and metaphorical). But the reality of online teaching is — and can continue to be — passion, experimentation, and exploration. It’s time we changed the narrative.

Works Cited

Lankshear, Colin, Michael Peters, and Michelle Knobel, “Critical Pedagogy and Cyberspace,” in Henry Giroux, Colin Lankshear, Peter McLaren, and Michael Peters, Counternarratives: Cultural Studies and Critical Pedagogies in Postmodern Spaces (New York: Routledge, 1996), 149–188.

Driving Down Costs, Driving Up Quality in Higher Ed

by: Fishtree – December 22, 2016
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What are colleges doing to cut costs, amid budget constraints and public concerns over skyrocketing student debt in America? For years, colleges have looked to a number of options to contain the costs, rather than bumping up tuition prices. In many cases, departments have put a freeze on hiring, which in turn increases general faculty workloads and without an increase in pay. The programs with the lowest performance get cut. College administrators have also squeezed IT budgets, outsourced apps and storage technologies, and pushed some of the costs onto students.

To continue from our last post about the “iron triangle,” we’re taking a look at a few ways how colleges and universities are increasing the quality of college courses without increasing spending.

Embrace Online Courses and Programs

Online courses enable colleges to enroll and serve more students than before, as they’re not limited by physical space limitations. And aside from instruction-related costs, the online model is able to lower or completely slash textbook and overhead costs per course. There is evidence that virtual instruction can be as good or even more effective than on-campus teaching. At the NYU Tandon School of Engineering, they found that 96 percent of the school’s online students completed their courses and 89 percent of their online master’s students earned their degrees in three years.[1]

Make the Most of High-Cost Assets

Classrooms and labs are examples of the assets with a high price to build, maintain, and expand. As the demand rises or falls, it is difficult to easily change these resources. The blended learning model is one of the most promising options for the future of higher education. While there is some perceived risk of success with taking a course online, blended learning takes the best of both formats to maximize student learning. This will reduce face-to-face seat time and make use of a digital learning platform that will result in a cost-effective solution for colleges.

Use More Open Educational Resources

There are millions of valuable resources that are freely available for teachers and professors – complete courses, modules, video lectures, books, quizzes, audio, and more – and would eliminate the hundreds of dollars in textbook costs that students are paying for now. Since 2006, the cost of a college textbook has increased by 73 percent, which is four times the rate of inflation, leaving students budgeting for $1,200 a year for their college textbooks. Open educational resources (OER) are underused in classrooms, but have proven to be high quality and even more effective than traditional texts. And while traditional textbooks could take years before an updated version is available, OER can provide up-to-date textbooks and curricula to meet new academic standards.[2]

Shift Costs from Fixed to Variable

As mentioned above, CIOs on campus are using outsourced services to stretch their IT budgets. This includes pushing campus technology services out of campus data centers and into the cloud for significant savings. In meeting classroom technology needs for faculty, they are also shifting learning management systems, grading, interactive assessments, and other teaching tools into the cloud, in order to make the most cost-effective investments in innovative technologies. Although this means giving up local control, the outsourcing approach helps create more flexibility and allows you to pay for what you actually use.

Share Data on University Costs

In recent years, business officers on campus have noted that their college or university hasn’t been able to effectively use data to inform their decision-making. Across the institution, there is valuable data that can be shared to improve financial efficiency of their academic programs. While many focus on graduation rates and overall budgets, there is a greater need to gather metrics about the efficiency of certain administrative or spending practices. Analytic technologies could offer more transparency for academic leaders, measuring the effectiveness of their classroom tools and course content through the year. Plus, if universities could see comparisons with other universities, they’d be able to see where their numbers fall.


[1] Ubell, Robert. “Why Faculty Still Don’t Want to Teach Online,” Inside Higher Ed, 13 Dec 2016. Link

[2] Weisbaum, Herb. “Students Are Still Saddled with Soaring Textbook Costs, Report Says,” NBC News, 10 Feb 2016. Link

Digital education: Pedagogy online

By Mike Sharples
December 14, 2016
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Mike Sharples weighs up a study on the great migration to digital education, from ‘flipped’ teaching to MOOCs.

Going Online: Perspectives on Digital Learning
Robert Ubell Routledge: 2016.
ISBN: 9781138025318

In 1993, educational technologist Seymour Papert suggested that a teacher from the nineteenth century transported into the mid-1990s would feel at home in the classroom. Twenty years on, this is no longer true.

Teachers in much of the developed world now use smartboards, tablets and student-centred, collaborative and project-based learning. Universities are adopting flipped teaching: students learn online, then solve problems in the classroom. Some can access remote lab equipment and telescopes. Some institutions — such as the University of Waterloo in Canada and Massey University in Palmerston North, New Zealand — blend online and campus teaching. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) involve people around the world in study and conversation. The continuing change is provoking existential dread among some faculty members, who envision teachers replaced with computer-based tutors and universities moving to online-only courses in the next decade.

Those shifts can also foster an excitement that Robert Ubell’s Going Online captures. The book is the view from the control room of the New York University Tandon School of Engineering, where Ubell heads the digital-education unit. He starts by observing that traditional university education has failed to engage students in active learning. The more accomplished the lecture, for instance, the more it may give a false impression that all the students have absorbed the material.

Ubell’s proposition is that online learning lets students process information in their own time. They can take part in online discussions and ask questions anonymously, without losing face. This demands a new pedagogy — teaching, learning and assessment for active learning communities. Academics must work with web designers and educational technologists to create conditions that let students control the pace and delivery of learning, yet continually share and respond to others’ ideas.

Ubell is right that anonymity can help students who are less confident, or not fluent in the language. But an important part of university is learning to challenge and debate. Some MOOC platforms, such as FutureLearn, promote constructive discussion, with thousands of learners bringing global perspectives to hotly debated topics such as climate change.

Going Online shows there are many ways to migrate education to the Internet. All require institutions to commit to opening up instruction, moving from a professional relationship between a teacher and students to a corporate process. It involves decisions about the online learning environment (be it Moodle, Blackboard or Canvas), whether to use a MOOC provider, how to negotiate intellectual-property rights and how to compensate staff. In offering students autonomy and activity, the online university may sacrifice humanity.

The way back from the mass corporate online instruction offered by some for-profit universities, such as the University of Phoenix in Arizona, is through blended learning. Students study the curriculum online from material provided by sources including MOOCs, web pages and interactive science simulations. They are encouraged to use social media to share knowledge. The classroom becomes a site for exploring a topic in depth by solving problems, debating and taking tests. In science, students can get hands-on experience with lab equipment, and then book remote access and analyse data online. Blended learning works equally well for apprenticeships and professional development. The Swiss government’s DUAL-T online vocational-learning initiative, for example, bridges the gap between classroom and workplace.

An academic who has spent a career lecturing may be uncomfortable with the shift to facilitating learning, but new teachers have grown up with online learning and social media. Many will have used collaboration tools like Slack, and professional communities such as LinkedIn and Stack Exchange.

At the centre of the book is a 2000 study by Ubell and his colleague Hosein Fallah that compares two graduate classes — identical in content and instructor, but with one delivered through lectures and the other online. The numbers are small (just 7 students online and 12 on campus), and the results inconclusive. A better demonstration is a metastudy led by educational psychologist Barbara Means (mentioned briefly in the book) that analysed more than 1,000 empirical studies. It found that, on average, students engaged in online learning did better than those who had solely face-to-face instruction. The advantage was bigger for blended learning (B. E. Means et al. Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning; US Department of Education, 2009).

As Ubell says, critics of online learning generally point to training systems and MOOCs that deliver canned lectures. Success in digital education comes from social-networked learning, with global access to online materials, high-quality open courses and vibrant peer discussions. The flipped classroom can work in both New Delhi and New York City. It requires a decentred perspective to create communities of education providers and learners, welcoming differing cultural perspectives and pedagogies. The pioneers are universities committed to global open education, such as the Open University in Milton Keynes, UK; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge; Canada’s Athabasca University; and the University of Cape Town in South Africa. The most traditional universities are finding this step the hardest.

Just as modern education is becoming a melange of sources and services, so Going Online is pieced together from previously published, updated papers. Weaving a coherent narrative can be challenging, but the book captures aspects of an education system in transition from campus instruction to global enterprise.

How to overcome hesitation about teaching online: IHE contributor

December 14, 2016
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“In the hierarchy of [PSE] status, if you teach online, do you compromise your position?” asks Robert Ubell for Inside Higher Ed. The author explores the incentives and barriers that still exist for instructors who do or do not want to teach online courses, noting that some academic departments in the US actively discourage young faculty from teaching online because it is seen as a distraction from important career goals. One reason for this view is the fact that many instructors continue to have a negative view of online education. Another barrier, Ubell notes, is faculty’s fear of losing control over their classrooms, which they are used to leading with minimal supervision or input from peers or administrators. Yet ultimately, the author concludes that online education will continue to improve as more faculty develop new conceptual approaches to teaching and learning in the digital age. Inside Higher Ed

The 8 Blog: Online education: bias, hope and reality

December 13, 2016
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Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., Bakia, M., & Jones, K. (2009). Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: A meta-analysis and review of online learning studies. US Department of Education.

Why Faculty Still Don’t Want to Teach Online

As a teacher, you may prefer traditional classrooms full of residential students, but virtual education is here to stay and offers significant benefits, writes Robert Ubell.

By Robert Ubell
December 13, 2016
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At nearly all colleges and universities, online education is almost never mentioned in academic rules that judge faculty members and determine if they advance. If you teach online, you may do it for extra compensation — called “overload,” pay above your basic salary — or for the personal satisfaction of participating in what some believe is the next stage in the evolution of higher education. But teaching online may not be a wise move to further your academic career.
Teaching online can even be a dangerous career move, departing from the comfortable respectability of conventional classrooms for the exotic, suspicious digital world. In the hierarchy of status, if you teach online, do you compromise your position? Will your commitment to scholarship be questioned? Why would you go online when your future depends on publishing results of your research, not engaging in virtual instruction?
In fact, academic departments at some colleges and universities even strongly discourage young faculty from teaching online. It’s considered a distraction from your career objectives, while teaching on campus is not only viewed as part of a commitment to a full professional life but also required as the first step in climbing the academic hierarchy. Quality on-campus teaching may contribute to your rise in the ranks but rarely, if ever, does online instruction.
For the most part, that’s because many faculty members still don’t have a very high opinion of online education. According to research conducted by my colleague John Vivolo, director of online and virtual learning at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering, about why some faculty members are reluctant to teach online, more than half of Tandon faculty members surveyed believe that virtual instruction offers little interaction with and among students. On the whole, they think the quality of online courses is not as good as on-campus ones.
Most studies of faculty attitudes confirm those findings, especially the belief that online content is inferior. A 2012 comprehensive literature survey by Steven A. Lloyd, Michelle M. Byrne and Tami S. McCoy concluded that most professors believe digital education is not nearly as effective as classroom instruction because virtual instructors do not exchange visual cues with students.
Not surprisingly, the data showed that older and higher-ranking faculty members exhibit the least support for online education. The literature survey also uncovered the troubling fact that professors with the deepest resistance are those with the least familiarity with digital instruction. Conversely, the more faculty members know about online education, the less they reject it. But since most faculty members have little or no experience with virtual education, resistance is widespread.
In a number of other studies, faculty members also express serious concerns about the lack of institutional commitment — chief among them poor technical and pedagogical support. At some colleges and universities, faculty members are given an access code to their online class and sent into virtual space entirely without preparation. Faculty members who teach online also say they are inadequately compensated for the time it takes to migrate courses from on-campus classrooms to online ones. Moreover, they worry about institutional ownership of their intellectual property, as they often can’t take the virtual course that they developed at one higher education institution to another.
Finally, one of the largest roadblocks to pursuing online teaching is faculty fear of losing control. Except in rare cases of team teaching, faculty members enter classrooms on the campus entirely on their own. They prepare their syllabi, devise slides and hand out assignments all by themselves. What they teach and how they teach it is almost totally in their hands. What happens in the classroom is under their authority. But online, the autonomy of the instructor is threatened. Because digital instruction requires technical and pedagogical support from sophisticated videographers, instructional designers and other personnel, faculty join as members of a pedagogical team rather than operating as autonomous instructors. Anything might happen.
The case against online education is not, in fact, without merit. In the hands of underfunded and poorly managed public and private institutions, online learning often delivers mediocre education at best. If those failures represent the sum of online education, then faculty members who reject it have every reason not only to be suspicious of it but also to discredit it.
That said, online education is here to stay and will probably significantly proliferate in the coming months and years. Dogged by falling enrollments, rising tuition and unsupportable student debt, colleges and universities are under pressure to find new ways to dig themselves out of their economic troubles. For many institutions, online education looks like a good candidate to reverse those intractable trends. Trustees and state Legislatures imagine that digital learning is not only an agent of change but also offers the potential to lower costs and increase enrollment.
For colleges and universities with limited resources, digital classes can deliver enormous benefits. Online courses require relatively few resources — merely faculty members and students in virtual space. Other than compensating online instructors and installing technical infrastructure, nearly all other expenses — apart from websites, recruitment and managing student applications and acceptance — fall away. Compared with the enormous sums needed to run a giant campus, launching classes online is trivial.
Thus, new online programs are expanding rapidly, and colleges and universities must populate digital courses with reluctant faculty members. At many institutions, professors are under pressure to adapt, to acquiesce to university demands to teach online.
Moreover, as digital education enters the mainstream, more online and on-campus professors are offering courses in conventional classrooms to residential students and delivering the same class in virtual space to distance learners at the same university during the same semester. The division between online and on campus is rapidly disappearing, and, at some institutions, technology has penetrated the classroom so deeply that the distinction will soon be obsolete.
Meanwhile, the fact is that solid research over many years has failed to support the overwhelming negative attitudes that most faculty members hold toward virtual learning. Studies that have investigated effectiveness, retention and achievement by and large concluded that virtual instruction can be as good, or better, than on-campus teaching. Indeed, a massive U.S. Department of Education review of the literature showed that students taking online classes performed modestly better than their peers studying on campus.
Results of online graduate programs at NYU Tandon School of Engineering confirm the clear benefits of virtual education. Online student data at the school often show superior outcomes when compared with the nation’s on-campus science and engineering master’s students, with 96 percent of the school’s online students completing their online courses and 89 percent of online master’s students earning their graduate degrees in three years. And when comparing students’ grades online with on-campus classes, they are startlingly the same, semester after semester.
In response to such emerging evidence, growing numbers of formerly resistant professors at colleges and universities across the country are coming around to online education. At a small technical school in New Jersey, a serious scholar — revered for the depth of his research achievements and who for many years was among the most opposed to virtual education — made an about-face. He not only accepted online instruction, but he emerged as a champion of it. Soon after his conversion, faculty resistance at the institution began to crumble. Introduction of new converts accelerated, climbing higher and higher, until nearly all faculty became believers. In the end, 90 percent of the faculty members were teaching online.
These and other faculty members have realized that the battle should not be fought between brick-and-mortar and new digital space but between old and new ways of teaching — those that encourage more interaction among students and instructors.
False Dichotomy
Recognition is growing in academe that the best on-campus faculty members are best online, too. Online faculty must be as generous as those on campus with their students — devoted to students and their success and giving serious thought to devising compelling ways to teach. To be an exemplary teacher, in either virtual or physical space, you must enter the minds of your students, recognizing the struggle each confronts, remembering your own trials as a student. The best professors commonly love what they do and often love their students, eager to do what’s best for them — no different online than on campuses. Cynical ones who disparage their students are not cut out for it, whether they teach virtually or in the classroom.
Indeed, online technology demands far greater instructional insights. If you go online, the effort to rethink how you will present your content and reassemble your syllabus requires serious commitment, especially if you must now become a student yourself to learn how to be proficient at navigating software — a skill that requires you to be adept at things that may come more naturally to your students. You must enter the virtual classroom sympathetically, recognizing that virtual space requires the professor to be accommodating with remote students who may find the online environment alienating at first. You must find innovate ways to engage students whom you can neither see nor hear.
“Migrating a course from lecture to active learning format is as much work as developing a brand new course,” notes Ryan Craig in Wired (Craig, 2014). Most of us might conclude that online education merely requires that colleges and universities replicate the physical classroom in digital space. It turns out, however, that online learning is not simply the result of introducing technical means to migrate the campus experience online. Going online is like moving to a foreign country, where you must learn a new language and assimilate a new culture.
To gain insights into what online learning is all about, a good first step would be to contact your institution’s online learning unit. Chances are they’ll be delighted to take you on a virtual tour of how an online class works, especially how instructors encourage peer-to-peer interaction and teamwork. Probably the easiest and best way to get a feel for it is to go online yourself and take an online class in a field that intrigues you. You can enroll in a massive open online college course at Coursera or edX or take a how-to class at Khan Academy. For young faculty, overcoming prejudices against online instruction in your department is tougher. It may require that you propose online courses as a good way to reach out to disabled and other students unable to come to campus. Once people see the benefits, their resistance to it may fade and support may grow, as in the case of the technical college in New Jersey that I described.
The strengths of online education emerge from new conceptual approaches in teaching and learning. In dismissing it for its dependence on technology, opponents overlook crucial elements that make digital education transformative — an entirely new way of teaching with new methods of engaging students. In the long run, neither the guardians of the campus nor the champions of the digital revolution will claim victory. Already, the educational battleground is populated by faculty members who accept that neither physical nor virtual education will triumph but rather the best pedagogical practices that support active student learning.


The Good News About Learning by the Numbers


By Robert Ubell DECEMBER 11, 2016
(See original post)

In astronomy, the object of study is heavenly bodies. Focusing telescopes on the moon, for example, scientists collect data to gain insights into its characteristics. In education, the object of study is student learning. But until digital means of gathering data were introduced with education software — like reaching the dark side of the moon — little data emerged directly from the classroom, the very site where institutional learning occurs. Unless a professor videotapes an on-campus class, what happens there is rarely captured, except perhaps by those students who take a lot of notes. On-campus student data disappear at the end of each class, escaping the process of gathering and measuring what goes on.

In most fields of inquiry, the goal of data collection is to capture good evidence, allowing investigators to respond to questions that have been posed and to make educated guesses about what the future holds. While colleges routinely collect vast amounts of data about course completion, graduation and retention rates, and other measures of student and institutional performance, reliable information about what actually happens in class is essentially missing.

Colleges have been good at looking closely at the past but far less effective at uncovering what’s happening in real time and how students are likely to perform in the future.

Online, however, nearly every action and interaction can be captured. Using learning-analytics software, every moment can be secured, collected, and displayed, open to inspection and analysis. As a field of inquiry, learning analytics emerges from data drawn from course-management systems and other education software that uncover digital evidence generated by students and teachers in virtual classes. Learning-management systems — now commonly used at colleges across the country — routinely track students’ online participation, monitoring discussion-board postings and following students’ access to digital materials, quiz results, and assessments.

Results can predict students’ performance, provide them with personalized learning pathways, and intervene on behalf of students at risk or in need of faculty guidance. Some of the software displays data on dashboards, providing students and instructors with a graphic presentation of findings. Inherently interdisciplinary, learning analytics draws on such established scholarly areas as statistics, data mining, artificial intelligence, social-network analysis, visualization, and machine learning.

Certainly lecture-capture technology is available at many colleges, where cameras record content delivered by instructors, but not student behavior, participation, outcomes, or other data reflecting student learning. On campus, we don’t know if students have read the most recent chapter or how often they watched a video clip. Without substantive data, instructors cannot intervene until tests are graded or papers are read. Even then they have no idea how students are likely to fare on their next exam or how they will do in the course.

In contrast, online instructors have access to a continuous flow of student data. Mary Grush, an editor at Campus Technology magazine, has found three main ways of forecasting how students will perform — how often they log on to the course, how often they read or engage with course materials and practice exercises, and how they do on assignments. After the first week of a course, Ms. Grush said, instructors can predict, with 70-percent accuracy, whether students will complete it. By identifying levels of risk for each student, learning analytics allows instructors, advisers, and support-staff members to move in quickly to help those most at risk.

My colleague John Vivolo has proposed that in order to avoid being overwhelmed by a flood of data, online instructors focus on a narrow pattern of student behavior — say, in a single virtual course — rather than dig through large-scale data sets. He also recommends that teachers get a good idea of learner performance by examining student data in a targeted period, perhaps over a week — or even just a day — exploiting course analytics as a practical tool to provide online student support. He cautions, however, that deciphering student data is not simple; it’s prudent to grasp best practices before you dive in.

Without data to guide them, faculty members can only guess which parts of their classroom instruction are effective. Was last week’s lecture on track? Is this slide too complex? Should the class begin with an overview? Or should they plunge right in? If they feel they’re not getting through, the most common recourse is to wait until next semester, juggling things to fix the problem.

Using digital-learning analytics, faculty members can drive continuous improvement by understanding how students actually navigate through online courses. Data can show which elements students are ignoring or which ones they find puzzling or difficult. Instructors can modify curricula by restructuring content to make it more accessible or hone exams to increase chances of student success.

To give students greater flexibility, matching options with learner styles, it is possible to test outcomes against various delivery modes — text-based documents, audio lectures, slide presentations, video streaming — uncovering which approach might be most effective. Today, course modules can be reassembled, altered, inserted, or deleted with ease. Some instructors give students a smorgasbord of options, allowing them to pick what works for them, letting them decide how they learn best — reading a text, opening a video, clicking through slides, playing a game, joining a virtual discussion, or performing a digital experiment.

A 2014 report by the U.S. Department of Education explained that learning analytics can be used to build models revealing “what a learner knows, what a learner’s behavior and motivation are, what the user experience is like, and how satisfied users are with online learning. … Because these data are gathered in real time, there is a real possibility of continuous improvement via multiple feedback loops.”

A major concern is how faculty members and institutions maintain the confidentiality of student data. Personal information can be disclosed inadvertently or, worse, revealed by design — for example, when sold to commercial vendors without students’ permission. To protect students, federal rules require that colleges remove names, email addresses, and other identifiers from data sets.

As predictive analytics penetrates higher education, colleges must introduce formal policies guaranteeing that students own the rights to their data generated in online classes, that they have the right to correct errors posted in their files, and that they have control over how colleges share their data with others.

Robert Ubell is vice dean for online learning at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering. This essay is adapted from his book, Going Online: Reflections on Digital Education, available December 16 from Routledge.

A version of this article appeared in the December 16, 2016 issue.