What Is Being Learned From MOOCs? New Report!

Dear Commons Community, 

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article on a new report just issued on MOOCs and learning.  It seeks to answer the question “Where is research on massive open online courses headed?  The report is the work of the MOOC Research Initiative, funded with more than $800,000 in grant support by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The group put out a call for research submissions and used much of the grant money to fund 28 of them, which were then analyzed for the report.  As reported in The Chronicle:

“When MOOCs emerged a few years ago, many in the academic world were sent into a frenzy. Pundits made sweeping statements about the courses, saying that they were the future of education or that colleges would become obsolete, said George Siemens, an author of the report who is also credited with helping to create what we now know as a MOOC.

“It’s almost like we went through this sort of shameful period where we forgot that we were researchers and we forgot that we were scientists and instead we were just making decisions and proclamations that weren’t at all scientific,” said Mr. Siemens, an academic-technology expert at the University of Texas at Arlington.

Hype and rhetoric, not research, were the driving forces behind MOOCs, he argued. When they came onto the scene, MOOCs were not analyzed in a scientific way, and if they had been, it would have been easy to see what might actually happen and to conclude that some of the early predictions were off-base, Mr. Siemens said.

The goal of the MOOC Research Initiative was to take a step back and get a better understanding of MOOC research and literature. Though the public’s interest in MOOCs has dwindled, academic literature on the subject is on the rise. The researchers examined who was writing about MOOCs, what fields they represented, what type of research has been done, and the various themes in the research that has emerged, Mr. Siemens said.

Five key research themes were identified in the report: student engagement and learning success, MOOC design and curriculum, self-regulated learning and social learning, social-network analysis and networked learning, and motivation, attitude, and success criteria.”

This is an interesting development and worth a read for those interested in the future of online learning including the MOOC model.



University of Wisconsin Notifies Staff of Layoffs in Light of Proposed State Budget Cuts!

Dear Commons Community,

University of Wisconsin administrators began plans for layoffs and buyouts in preparation for the budget cuts proposed by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.  As reported in The Huffington Post:   

“Scott Walker hasn’t even gotten his proposed budget cuts passed into law yet, but that’s not stopping the state’s prestigious public university system from moving to lay off staff, prompting fears of a “massive brain drain.”

Within the next few weeks, the Wisconsin state legislature will begin considering the Joint Finance Committee’s recommended budget, which may or may not include $300 million in cuts to the University of Wisconsin system that Walker proposed in January.

Public university systems are a common target of governors looking to slash state budgets this year. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) has proposed similar cuts to that state’s university system, as has Gov. Pat McCrory (R) in North Carolina. But experts say the potential slashing in Wisconsin is among the most significant.

“I don’t think [governors and legislators] have an appreciation for or respect for just how disruptive these draconian budget cut recommendations are, even if they aren’t fully realized,” said Daniel Hurley, associate vice president for government relations and state policy at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. “It just puts the institutions and the system overall in a tremendously difficult bind.”

… According to Hurley, these preparations are “good fiscal stewardship. They can’t simply wait and see what happens, they have to take, in this case, extraordinary steps in case there is not a resolution.”

Aaron Crandall, president of United Faculty and Staff, American Federation of Teachers local 223, said morale is down among faculty and staff, “especially since most employees now for sure can anticipate no pay increase anytime soon, and that jobs may go unfilled, which means more work for those employees in units that have vacant positions.”

Seventy percent of Wisconsin residents oppose cutting $300 million from the system budget, according to a Marquette University Law School Poll conducted in mid-April.

The University of Wisconsin system has experienced considerable cuts since the 2008 recession, as have most public universities across the nation. Many other states, however, have begun putting money back into higher education. Only a few states are still cutting, and Wisconsin’s cuts have been among the biggest.

Some lawmakers have expressed concern about the cuts, and members of the legislative committee have proposed a different plan that softens the cuts Walker initially put forward.

The final answer won’t come until sometime in June, however, when the legislature votes on a budget plan.”

We wish our colleagues at the University of Wisconsin well and hope the legislature can ease Governor Walker’s evisceration of public higher education.


Education’s Bottom Line: Tests, Competition, and Market Models of Reform!

Dear Commons Community,

The online edition of the Teachers College Record has republished an essay (from 2013), entitled, “The Will to Quantify: The “Bottom Line” in the Market Model of Education Reform”, written by Leo Casey, Executive Director of the Albert Shanker Institute, a think tank affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. Dr. Casey describes marketplace school reform as the desire to break up the monopoly that is public education. To do so, common measures such as test scores had to be established to take the place of corporate “bottom line” profit statements. He traces part of the history of market-driven reform to New York City during the chancellorship of Joel Klein.

“For Michael Bloomberg, Joel Klein, and a cohort of similarly minded education reformers across the United States, the fundamental problem with American public education is that it has been organized as a monopoly that is not subject to the discipline of the marketplace. The solution to all that ails public schools, therefore, is to remake them in the image and likeness of a competitive business. Just as private businesses rise and fall on their ability to compete in the marketplace, as measured by the “bottom line” of their profit balance sheet, schools need to live or die on their ability to compete with each other, based on an educational “bottom line.” If “bad” schools die and new “good” schools are created in their stead, the productivity of education improves. But to undertake this transformation and to subject schools to market discipline, an educational “bottom line” must be established. Standardized testing and value-added measures of performance based on standardized testing provide that “bottom line.”

This theory of action applied not only to schools, but also to the teachers that worked in them. Here Bloomberg, Klein, and other education reformers adopted the “stacking” theory of personnel management first popularized by Jack Welch, the controversial past CEO of General Electric. (Welch was hired as a consultant in the early days of the DOE’s school supervisor training program, the Leadership Academy.) Welch believes that the disciplining power of competition must be applied within the business itself: all employees needed to be ranked, or “stacked,” from the highest to the lowest performing, and each year, the bottom 10% of employees must be fired. Welch’s theory relies upon what might be called a Hobbesian market model, in which the workplace is organized around a competition for survival, a war of all against all. This cut-throat competition engenders a fear-ridden, conformist culture and an ethos of servility in which the autocrat who rules the workplace exercises unchallenged power. To this end, the price of challenging autocratic power is deliberately set very high, so that few will overcome the fear and muster the courage to take such a step. Moreover, workers are pitted against each other in bitter competition precisely because that competition will make it more difficult for them to mount the solidaristic actions that could make challenges to autocratic power successful.

The Hobbesian market model of personnel management is therefore as much a political theory on how to rule the workplace as it is an economic theory of how to maximize enterprise productivity. Welch’s well-known anti-union animus played a pivotal role in developing this model: on principle, he is opposed to the idea that workers should have a collective voice in how their workplace is organized and run, and he conducted harsh campaigns against the General Electric unions during his time as CEO. A significant part of the attractiveness of Welch’s approach for Bloomberg, Klein, and like-minded education reformers has been their own ardent opposition to teacher unions and to a meaningful professional voice for teachers in the important decisions at their schools, as well as their general distrust of career professional educators. Once this common ground is grasped, the obsession of Bloomberg and Klein with having unfettered power to “fire” teachers and the constant talk from the NYC DOE about the legions of “bad” teachers who need to be replaced becomes comprehensible, as part of the Hobbesian market approach to personnel management.

Seen in this context, decisions that are inexplicable in terms of the well-established, professional code of the Standards become intelligible as part of a theory of action which seeks to remake schools in the image and likeness of competitive businesses. If the objective is to produce an intense competition for professional survival among teachers, in which the “bottom” 10% are fired each year, than what one needs is an annual ranking, period. Using three years of value-added data will produce a more reliable and valid measure of a teacher’s performance than one year of value-added data, but it would also make it impossible to do annual rankings for many teachers. Similarly, using only larger sample sizes will eliminate the more unreliable and invalid measures, but then many teachers would no longer be ranked. What is important here is the political effects of the competition that comes from the ranking and the firings, not the educational soundness or quality of the ranking. The market model of education reform has become a prisoner to a Nietzschean will to quantify, in which the validity and reliability of the actual numbers is irrelevant.”

We have become obsessed with test scores and teacher evaluation measures in our public schools, much of which is now promulgated by the U.S. Department of Education and state education departments. People like Joel Klein and Jack Welsh had no place in public education. They caused great harm by their insistence of reducing children and teachers to entries on a profit-loss spreadsheet.



At Rutgers University – Camden Today: The eLearning Conference 2015!

Rutgers eLearning Conference 2015

Dear Commons Community,

Today I will be at Rutgers University in Camden at the eLearning Conference 2015. The program includes a number of excellent presentations by faculty on innovative uses of online technology. I will be giving a talk entitled, The Online Learning Landscape: Implications for Teaching and Learning. It will focus on a review of the state of online and blended learning and their implications for teaching and pedagogical practice. This presentation will trace back to how we got to where we are as a succession of four waves or stages starting in 1993:

  • The First Wave (The Beginnings) – 1990s
  • The Second Wave (Into the Mainstream) – Early 2000s
  • The Third Wave (The MOOC Phenomenon) – 2008 to 2013
  • The Fourth Wave (Reconciliation of the Blended and MOOC Models) – 2014 ->

For each wave, pedagogical models as well as critical research and evidence will be referenced.  The presentation will conclude with speculation as to where online and blended learning technology is heading in the not-too-distant future.

See you in Camden!


Rebirth of the Research University: Is Arizona State University the Model?

Dear Commons Community,

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article on the future of large research universities.  Citing the vision of Michael M. Crow, president of Arizona State University, the article posits it may be time to rethink higher education master plans and develop a new model for the research university.  As desribed in the article (subscription required);

“The signal feature of Crow’s tenure at Arizona has been a febrile pace of experimentation and innovation. Units have been reorganized to create research and collaboration opportunities for students and faculty, such as the School of Human Evolution and Social Change and the School of Earth and Space Exploration. A variety of new schemes to generate revenue have been explored, ranging from doubling down on technology transfer and philanthropy to newfangled ideas like the development of ASU Online, which doesn’t just deliver traditional content via the web but also experiments with ways of fostering online student interactions. Expanding the latter program has entailed new sorts of partnerships with corporations, like Starbucks, to recruit their employees. And the campus has also energetically promoted the expansion of the traditionally enrolled student body, adding more than 20,000 students, with special efforts made to attract more low-income and underrepresented students. Arizona State University, in short, is taking its “mass education” mission as seriously as any university in the country today.

It’s probably too early to evaluate the success of its model, though early signs are promising. Under Crow’s leadership, the percentage of students with Pell Grants (i.e. students from low-income backgrounds) has steadily increased (much higher than at most flagship public universities, though still lower than the top institutions in the University of California system), but graduation rates have stayed frustratingly low. At the same time, while Crow correctly notes that admission to Berkeley (and the University of California at Los Angeles) has steadily become more difficult (now admitting less than 20 percent of applicants), ASU has adopted admissions policies similar to those of Berkeley in the 1950s and 60s, when high-school seniors needed only to graduate with a 3.0 grade-point average to qualify.

Research productivity has also increased: Crow and Dabars report that expenditures on research are up by more than 250 percent since 2002, without significant growth in the faculty. But Arizona State is not (yet?) a member of the Association of American Universities, and many of its more-innovative programs have not been in existence long enough to measure their real contributions or ultimate success. Certainly not all these innovations have always been warmly greeted. Crow’s effort to channel resources into productive new arenas has also involved tough decisions to end programs, decision that have been met with great resistance. Perhaps the best-known case was the attempt to dismantle the Cancer Research Institute, which led to lengthy public controversy and litigation. It remains to be seen if genuinely advanced research can be productively pursued in a great many areas of endeavor, given the challenges of a student body and educational mission that resemble the Cal State system far more than they do UC.

Beyond the excitement generated by many of Crow’s proposals, what is perhaps most heartening is his commitment to the idea that research is a fundamental feature of the university, not one that can be dispensed with on the road to mass delivery of education. In this, Crow is arguing against the premise of most, if not all, for-profit education corporations, both online and off, which implicitly, if not explicitly, assume that educational “content” can be delivered to “customers” absent funding by corporate “suppliers” for the complex (and expensive) process of supporting research.”

The Arizona State University model is one to be watched.  It will probably be emulated by other publicly-funded research universities.



After a Disruptive Intervention: Cooper Union Faces Attorney General Investigation!

Dear Commons Community,

Once one of the proudest schools in the country, Cooper Union is facing an investigation by the New York Attorney General over the way it has handled its finances.   Over the past year, Cooper Union’s reputation as a world-class training ground for engineers, architects and artists has taken a back seat to headlines about the investigation, a lawsuit over the imposition of tuition, and the future of its president.  According to the Associated Press:

“..Cooper Union graduates and students hope all the turmoil results in more financial stability and maybe even a return to the tuition-free model that has been central to the school’s unique, egalitarian character.

“We know that students have had to refuse our offer because they couldn’t afford it,” said Mike Essl, a Cooper Union alumnus and faculty member who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit over the decision to charge tuition starting with this year’s freshman class. “That has never happened before in the history of Cooper Union.”

The attorney general’s investigation includes a look into the management of Cooper Union’s prime asset, the land under the Chrysler Building.

Investigators are also questioning a $175 million loan, with the landmark skyscraper as collateral, used by Cooper trustees to finance a new engineering building.

With an endowment of $735 million, Cooper Union is not in imminent danger of failing. But a leveling-off of rents from the Chrysler Building in the early 1990s triggered massive budget deficits, according to a report from Cooper Union President Jamshed Bharucha a few weeks ago.

According to the report, the accumulated deficits from fiscal year 1990 to fiscal year 2012 topped $300 million. Bharucha said the tuition-free model he inherited when he took over as president in 2011 was not sustainable “without a disruptive intervention.”

State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is seeking to mediate the lawsuit and will reportedly push for a review of whether the school can go back to being tuition-free.”

We’re cooperating fully with the attorney general’s office,” said Cooper Union spokesman Justin Harmon, who refused to comment on a report that the trustees offered not to renew Bharucha’s contract if it would help end the investigation.

Many alumni and students feel that luxuries like the new building and Bharucha’s $650,000 salary are at odds with Cooper Union’s history as a no-frills haven for strivers.

We wish Cooper Union well and a rebound from its disruptive intervention.



“At Risk” Students Benefit from a Four-Year College Education:  Two New Studies!

Benefits of College

Dear Commons Community,

The New York Times today has a featured article on the benefits of a four-year college education.  Citing two recent studies, the conclusion is that there are clear benefits in terms of employment for those earning a college degree.  Even among “at risk” students,  the benefits are quite substantial compared to those who do not have a degree.  Here are several excerpts focusing on “at risk” students:

“How much money should taxpayers spend subsidizing higher education? How willing should students be to take on college debt? How hard should Washington and state governments push colleges to lift their graduation rates? All of these questions depend on whether a large number of at-risk students are really capable of completing a four-year degree.

… two separate — and ambitious — recent academic studies have looked at precisely this issue. The economists and education researchers tracked thousands of people over the last two decades in Florida, Georgia and elsewhere who had fallen on either side of hard admissions cutoffs. Less selective colleges often set such benchmarks: Students who score 840 on the SAT, for example, or maintain a C+ average in high school are admitted. Those who don’t clear the bar are generally rejected, and many don’t attend any four-year college.

Such stark cutoffs provide researchers with a kind of natural experiment. Students who score an 830 on the SAT are nearly identical to those who score an 840. Yet if one group goes to college and the other doesn’t, researchers can make meaningful estimates of the true effects of college.

And the two studies have come to remarkably similar conclusions: Enrolling in a four-year college brings large benefits to marginal students.

Roughly half of the students in Georgia who had cleared the bar went on to earn a bachelor’s degree within six years, compared with only 17 percent of those who missed the cutoff, according to one of the studies, by Joshua S. Goodman of Harvard and Michael Hurwitz and Jonathan Smith of the College Board. The benefits were concentrated among lower-income students, both studies found, and among men, one of them found.

…Perhaps most important, the data show that the students just above the admissions cutoff earned substantially more by their late 20s than students just below it — 22 percent more on average, according to the Florida study, which was done by Seth D. Zimmerman, a Princeton economist who will soon move to the University of Chicago. “If you give these students a shot, they’re ready to succeed,” said Mr. Zimmerman, adding that he was surprised by the strength of the findings.”

The article concluded by citing the political scientist Robert D. Putnam:

“…his new book on inequality, “Our Kids,” is a lamentation. In past decades, Mr. Putnam argued, the United States made a series of investments that essentially treated children as everyone’s children. The best example was the rise of universal high school in the 20th century, an expensive undertaking that did not directly benefit many taxpayers.

Back then, a high school education was the new ticket to the middle class. Today, a college education is. And when it comes to people’s own children, there is remarkably little disagreement about the value of college, even when it requires taking on debt. Affluent, middle-class and lower-income parents alike, in overwhelming numbers, aspire for their children to finish college.

Americans agree that “our kids” should go to college. The debate is really about who qualifies as “our kids.”

The key question:  Is America ready for college for the masses?  I say we are!



Shrinks:  The Untold Story of Psychiatry by Jeffrey Lieberman!

Dear Commons Community,

I just finished reading, Shrinks, the Untold Story of Psychiatry by Jeffrey Lieberman with Ogi Ogas.  Dr. Lieberman who as Professor and Chairman of Psychiatry at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, tells the story of psychiatry as an insider.  He traces the field from its beginnings as a “pseudoscience” through its “cult of shrinks” years to its current stage as a science-driven profession that saves lives. 

Sigmund Freud and the entire area of psychoanalysis does not come off looking very good whereas the work of Eric Kandel is presented as getting psychiatry on a firmer scientific footing.  Here is an excerpt from a New York Times review:

“Freud knew he lacked evidence for many of his “daring ideas about mental illness,” Lieberman says. Yet rather than conducting research to fill in the gaps, he instead began attacking anybody who questioned him. “He demanded complete loyalty to his theory, and insisted that his disciples follow his clinical techniques without deviation,” Lieberman argues, thereby “fossilizing a promising and dynamic scientific theory into a petrified religion.”

Lieberman hails the advent of the ­Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the “bible of psychiatry” that describes in symptomatic detail all mental illnesses currently recognized by its publisher, the American Psychiatric Association, and therefore billable for insurance purposes. He recounts, at rather too much length, the infighting that erupted over different editions of the manual, including the latest version, published during his tenure as president of the A.P.A., but he makes a convincing case that its format has given the field a precision and reliability it lacked in the past. Psychiatrists have also taken advantage of new imaging technology to scan the brains of living patients, tracking subtle differences between the well and the ill that may not be obvious post-mortem.

Ultimately, though, the real secret to psychiatry’s success is drugs. One by one, the most devastating and formerly intractable mental diseases were tamed, if not completely routed, by pharmaceuticals: chlorpromazine for schizophrenia, lithium for bipolar disease, imipramine for ­depression. Lieberman describes the ­serendipity behind each spectacular discovery. He glides over the very real problem of side effects, and the fact that psychiatric drugs don’t always work or stop working over time. Still, for all the hand-wringing in some quarters that we are an overmedicated society, psychiatric drugs give patients what no rubber hose or hectoring daddy can: peace of mind, a piece of sky, a life.”

The story in Shrinks is probably known to those who have taken coursework in psychology.  As someone who has not, I found the book most helpful in clarifying the evolution and current state of the field. 




Nicholas Kristof:  Getting Beyond The Education Wars – Let’s Focus on Early Childhood Education!

Dear Commons Community,

Nicholas Kristoph yesterday reviewed the sad state of public education reform in this country and made a plea for concentrating on the one thing that all agree on and that is the expansion of early childhood education.  His opening is a blast at the way we have polarized our education system into belligerent armies of competing ideologues. 

“For the last dozen years, waves of idealistic Americans have campaigned to reform and improve K-12 education.

Armies of college graduates joined Teach for America. Zillionaires invested in charter schools. Liberals and conservatives, holding their noses and agreeing on nothing else, cooperated to proclaim education the civil rights issue of our time.

Yet I wonder if the education reform movement hasn’t peaked.

The zillionaires are bruised. The idealists are dispirited. The number of young people applying for Teach for America, after 15 years of growth, has dropped for the last two years. The Common Core curriculum is now an orphan, with politicians vigorously denying paternity.

K-12 education is an exhausted, blood-soaked battlefield. It’s Agincourt, the day after. So a suggestion: Refocus some reformist passions on early childhood.”

“Even within early education, there will be battles. Some advocates emphasize the first three years of life, while others focus on 4-year-olds. Some seek to target the most at-risk children, while others emphasize universal programs.

But early childhood is not a toxic space, the way K-12 education is now. So let’s redeploy some of our education passions, on all sides, to an area where we just may be able to find common ground: providing a foundation for young children aged 0 to 5.”

Kristoph’s observations are right.   An investment in early childhood education might be the common ground on which to detoxify the environment we call public education.




CNN Host Fareed Zakaria:  We Need the Liberal Arts More Than Ever!

Dear Commons Community,

Fareed Zakaria, at an interview for his book, In Defense of a Liberal Education, commented that a liberal arts education is the best preparation for most careers.  The CNN host stated:

“The future of a country like the U.S. rests on our ability to master how technology interacts with how humans live, work and play,” Zakaria said to The WorldPost. “And that depends on skills fostered by the liberal arts, such as creativity, aesthetic sensibility and social, political and psychological insight.”

Because of tough economic times, the rising cost of higher education and an increasingly competitive job market, too many Americans — and American politicians — are turning away from the liberal arts under a false perception that they are a poor career option, Zakaria says.

In his new book, Zakaria writes that America’s success was built on a liberal arts education — on multidisciplinary study for the sake of learning rather than vocational study for the sake of a set career path. Liberal arts subjects — such as English, philosophy and political science — teach people how to think, write and communicate; those skills remain useful through the many twists and turns of a career in today’s ever-changing digital economy, he argues. And, he says, it is dangerous to overemphasize STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education as separate from or more important than the liberal arts.

Zakaria’s sage advice is timely as a number of policymakers promote career training in our colleges and universities.