Need-to-Know News: Lackluster MOOCs, Disengaged College Grads and ThinkCERCA

In this ‘Need-to-Know’ blog post series my aim is to share noteworthy stories that speak of need-to-know developments within higher education and K-12 that have the potential to influence, challenge and/or transform traditional education as we know it.

logo_mainIn this post I’ve included two interesting developments from this week and a new web 2.0 resource for K-12 educators. First off, it likely will be of no surprise to readers that numerous higher ed institutions are becoming disillusioned with MOOCs. State and institutional leaders are realizing that MOOCs are not the answer to lowering costs and improving access for undergraduate education.  I also cover results from a study that suggests that undergraduates are not enjoying their jobs once they graduate, in fact they are more disengaged than non-degree earners. And, I share an innovative platform for K-12 educators designed to teach critical thinking, and support common core standards.

1)  MOOCs in Undergraduate Higher Education
It seems that MOOCs are beginning to lose their luster. This week San Jose State University [SJSU] announced it would pause the working relationship with Udacity.  San Jose State partnered with Udacity last year to create three online courses, a remedial math course, a college algebra course and an introductory statistics course. It has not gone well. Several factors have contributed, but I believe the primary reason is the fact that entry-level undergraduate students, especially students requiring remediation, do not have the skills required to be successful in a MOOC. Furthermore these students require considerable instructional support, faculty feedback and skill development in how to learn in an online environment.

“Preliminary findings from the spring semester suggest students in the online Udacity courses, which were developed jointly with San Jose State faculty, do not fare as well as students who attended normal classes.” (Rivard, 2013)

Insight: SJSU pilot project is a costly mistake. Not only was the deal that SJSU struck with Udacity a significant expense, students’ learning was compromised. SJSU rushed into the project without a strategic plan or conducting an analysis, and are now suffering the consequences. Online courses [not MOOCs] can work for college students and are effective, however careful and thoughtful planning, detailed course development is critical, as is instructional support. Why San Jose State would think offering remedial and entry-level courses in a MOOC would work is beyond me.

2) College-educated Americans Disengaged with Work
A most interesting report released this week by Gallup’s State of the American Workplace Report found that employed Americans of all ages with college degrees are less likely to be engaged at work than are their respective peers with a high school education or less.

The engagement findings by education level are based on Americans’ assessments of workplace elements with proven linkages to performance outcomes, including productivity, customer service, quality, retention, safety, and profit”. (


Insight: At least half of graduates are working in jobs that don’t require a degree, which likely accounts for low-levels of workplace engagement. A workforce of disengaged workers is not a sign of a healthy or productive economy, nor is it good for individuals’ health and well-being. There are several ways to interpret these results. One is that workplaces are failing to provide environments that are stimulating; where workers can apply their skills. Another, is that colleges may not be preparing students to transition into the workplace as well as they could be. There is much discussion about the value of higher education, and how its purpose is far more than for vocational opportunities— agreed. However there is an opportunity for life skills education that could help students realize their full potential as they transition from college to the working world.

3) ThinkCERCA
A Method: Our focus on argumentation as a method for teaching critical thinking is a simple way to increase rigorous engagement with all sorts of texts. Simply by treating all texts as arguments we allow readers to take an analytic approach.

A Platform: Our platform allows teachers and students to collaborate more effectively by sharing a common language and set of practices that focus instruction on critical thinking.

A Library: ThinkCERCA™ allows teachers to collaborate more easily by providing a simple framework for sharing, using, and personalizing lessons. Our content library is CCSS aligned and engaging for students.

Until next week. In the meantime you can keep posted on articles I find of interest which I post on Twitter @OnlineLearningI.

Why MOOCs Are Hindering and Not Helping Higher Ed

mooc_web_final_wheel03The Chronicles’ web-diagram Major players in the MOOC Universe published this week, though beautiful to look at, adds to the confusion about what MOOCs are and are not. This confusion is no doubt a significant hindrance to constructive dialogue that educators are having about online learning; including how to leverage technology to improve access, quality and lower costs. The Chronicle is not alone in [unknowingly] promoting myths about MOOCs, which is not helping to move the discussions forward.

Several institutions and platforms associated with MOOCs quite often have little to do with MOOCs.  Khan Academy for instance, and even San Jose University’s pilot project San Jose State Plus are two programs that don’t follow the MOOC model. These misconceptions among others, divert attention away from the instructional and pedagogical models that can provide solutions. Online learning in small classes for example. Small online classes do not resemble MOOCs at all. The closed, online class, with a sound instructional plan, allows faculty to provide feedback and support to students, as well as provide opportunities for small group collaboration guided by the instructor. Another format, the blended model, combines face-to-face class time with web-based instruction. The blended model has proven to be effective in reducing costs and maintaining, and in some cases improving learning outcomes over traditional instructional methods. For further reading on blended learning click here.

San Jose Pilot Program: Not a MOOC
One significant error in recent articles, the Chronicles’ diagram included, is identifying San Jose State University as a MOOC player. There is a partnership between San Jose and Udacity as the link in the image shows, though the connection involves a pilot project with three math courses co-created between the two. Yet the courses are not MOOCs; they  don’t adhere to the MOOC model whatsoever. The classes in San Jose’s pilot were not massive—each had less than 100 students. Classes were closed—open only to high school students, community college students and members of the armed forces. Enrolled students participated within the schools’ learning platform where they could engage in discussion forums with the professor and peers. Yet the key differential was the academic support available to students. Students had access to a help line, instructor-facilitated peer meetings and even outreach counselors for those struggling with the content. Far from a MOOC, this model does provide the instructional support and feedback necessary for a successful college-level learning experience. Furthermore, San Jose’s pilot is an excellent example of a model for online learning that can be effective, though many outsiders are unaware of its instructional strategy.

Khan Academy: Also not a MOOC
Though Khan Academy is often described as a MOOC, it’s not even close. It’s not the first time that Khan Academy has been classified as a MOOC. Khan Academy is a robust library of open education resources that can be accessed by students, institutions, or anyone—for free. That’s it. It’s not a course with a start date and end date. Though it does include resources for teachers to build an instructional strategy of their own, the platform primarily is a repository for a collection of short videos that focus on a specific topic. No MOOCs here. Even Sal Khan emphasizes that his platform is not MOOC, but is what he calls a “transplantation” of a traditional course.

MOOC Players that Aren’t
Cathy Davidson, professor at Duke and founder of Hastac appears to be associated with the MOOC players as per The Chronicles’ diagram. Yet Dr. Davidson has little if anything to do with the MOOC movement. She was part of a small group that crafted a controversial Bill of Rights for online students, yet her involvement ends there. Davidson was quite surprised to find herself featured in the lineup of individuals associated with MOOCs in the web-diagram, describing it as “comical” in a blog post on Hastacs’ site—and even admits to feeling ambivalent towards MOOCs, with “more than a healthy degree of skepticism”.

Technology is a Tool
My point here is not to highlight all that is wrong with the web-diagram in question, or the reporting of the issues elsewhere, but to emphasize that misconceptions about online learning, MOOCS included, that are likely impeding constructive conversations within education circles. The Chronicle and other news organizations are not intentionally writing to deceive, but are caught up in MOOC mania as we all are. MOOCs will not solve the challenges of access, cost control and quality that institutions are struggling with, yet we need to be well informed about the technology, and what it can deliver.  It’s also helpful to remember that technological applications are tools to solve problems. The first step is identifying and analyzing what the problem is, determining the needs, then analyzing potential solutions thoroughly before jumping to a solution. Starting with the solution, and working backwards rarely works.