Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Darwinization of Higher Education

Stanford president John Hennessy has described the current changes in higher education initiated by technological innovations as an approaching tsunami. His remark was prompted largely by the emergence and rapid growth of MOOCs (massively open online courses), first from Stanford itself, joined soon afterwards by MIT and Harvard.

Are MOOCs going to initiate, or be part of, an educational tsunami? I think it’s too early to say. But in true mathematical fashion, I’m going to pursue the hypothesis that this
is the case and examine what is happening. In doing so, I’ll draw on the insight into MOOCs I gained from giving my own a few weeks ago, which I wrote about in last month’s column, and have been blogging about regularly at MOOCtalk.org.

Hennessy's observation was widely interpreted as being about the structure and business of higher education, and that may indeed be what he had in mind. He does, after all, have the responsibility of ensuring the survival and continuing prosperity of one of the world's leading universities. (A task that, as someone who receives a Stanford paycheck every month, I wish him every success in fulfilling.)

But when you look a bit more deeply at the way MOOCs are developing, you see that the real tsunami is going to be a lot bigger than that. It's not just higher education that will feel the onslaught of the floodwaters, but global society as a whole.

Forget all those MOOC images of streaming videos of canned lectures, coupled with multiple-choice quizzes. Those are just part of the technology platform. In of themselves, they are not revolutionizing higher education. We have, after all, had distance education in one form or another for over half a century, and online education since the Internet began in earnest over twenty-five years ago. But that familiar landscape corresponds only to the last two letters in MOOC ("online course"). The source of the tsunami lies in those first two letters, which stand for "massively open."

Right now, the most popular MOOCs draw student enrollments of about 50,000 to 100,000. In this it’s not unreasonable to expect those numbers to increase by at least a factor of 10, once people realize what is at stake.

True, those numbers don't tell the whole story. In particular, roughly 90% of the students who sign up do not complete the course. But that leaves many thousands who do finish, many of them with near perfect scores. And when that tenfold increase kicks in, it will be tens of thousands that complete. Paradoxically, it's the high rate of dropouts that will generate the tsunami (if there is one).

A good analogy is Google. Before Stanford graduate students Sergei Brin and Larry Page came up with their search algorithm, finding information (on the Web or elsewhere) was a time-consuming, and often hit-or-miss affair. At heart, what makes Google work is the efficient way it discards almost every possible answer to your query. Occasionally, in so doing, it may throw away the one item you really should see. But, given the way the algorithm works, that happens very, very rarely. As a result, Google gives you answers that are good enough for your purposes, most of the time.

The ability to sift through a massive amount of data means that there is no need for precise identification in search; with enough data, "good enough" really is good enough. In information terms, it's survival of the fittest; the process has no respect for the individual, but overall is extremely effective.

Now, the same university that gave you Google has launched the truly massive, open online courses. (Earlier MOOCs were not really massive. Indeed, the really massive ones, with millions of students, are probably a year or two away - yes, it could be that short a timeframe.)

Right now, the media focus on MOOCs has been on their potential to provide (aspects of) Ivy League education for free on a global scale. But an educational system does more than provide education. It also identifies talent - talent which it in part helps to develop. That makes a MOOC the equivalent of Google, where it is not the right information you want to find but the right people.

And the world definitely wants to find the right people. Last year, the World Economic Forum and the Boston Consulting Group issued a report describing the scale of the increasing need for talented individuals in today's world, and the numbers are staggering. For instance, the report states, "The United States ... will need to add more than 25 million workers to its talent base by 2030 to sustain economic growth, while Western Europe will need more than 45 million." The educational systems of these countries are not coming anywhere close to meeting those needs.

At the level of the individual student, MOOCs are, quite frankly, not that great, and not at all as good as a traditional university education. This is reflected (in part) in those huge dropout rates and the low level of performance of the majority that stick it out. But in every MOOC, a relatively small percentage of students manage to make the course work to their advantage, and do well. And when that initial letter M refers not to tens of thousands but to "millions," those successes become a lot of talented individuals.

One crucial talent in particular that successful MOOC students possess is being highly self-motivated and persistent. Right now, innate talent, self-motivation, and persistence are not enough to guarantee an individual success, if she or he does not live in the right part of the word or have access to the right resources. But with MOOCs, anyone with access to a broadband connection gets an entry ticket. The playing field may still not be level, but it's suddenly a whole lot more level than before. Level enough, in fact. And as with Google search, in education, "level enough" is level enough.

Make no mistake about it, MOOC education is survival of the fittest. Every student is just one insignificant datapoint while the course is running. Do well, do poorly, struggle, drop out - no one notices. But when the MOOC algorithm calculates the final ranking, the relatively few who score near the top become very, very visible. Globally, talent recruiting is a $130BN industry (Forbes.com, 2.12.12). It's "Google search for people" in action.

For those of us in education, MOOC education requires a major adjustment in attitude. Most of us go into the profession because we care about the individual. We love to interact with our students. Moreover, universities have all kinds of structures in place to catch and help struggling students. But in a MOOC, all of that goes out the window.

Doubtless, some current higher educational institutions will step in and provide support for MOOC students who need it. But what they won't be able to do is make education a local affair, where it is enough to do better than most of your fellow students at University X, or even in country Y. The fight to hire top talent will be global. And for American students from even moderately affluent backgrounds, a lot of their competition will have far more to gain from doing well, with all the added motivation that will bring.

Yes, some organizations will make money from MOOCs, though it is unlikely to be the Ivy League course providers whose stellar faculty and exclusive brands make their courses so attractive. They cannot afford to lose their exclusivity. But new sources of revenue for some colleges and universities who can adapt to the arrival of MOOCs, and the possible death of those that cannot, is just a market adjustment. If we are going to witness a tsunami, it is likely to be the true globalization of higher education and talent search.

POSTSCRIPT ADDED DECEMBER 5By chance, a day after this column appeared, Coursera sent out a mass email informing current and former students of their new talent placement service. (I have no connection to Coursera other than using their platform for my MOOC, and no knowledge of their business plans.) See my recent post at mooctalk.org for more details, where I also give a brief history of this column. (Yes, it has a curious past.)


Anonymous said...

My largest concern is cheating. When doing well at a MOOC is a low-key affair, cheating (while still present) doesn't matter, but if the top scores are going to matter somehow, the incentive to cheat goes up considerably.

Cheating is a difficult enough problem with in-person education; what about when the system is automated?

Anonymous said...

Cheating is pretty easy to handle when it comes to referrals. There are several options. The most obvious is that candidates go to a local center where they prove their identity and take an online exam under controlled conditions. This is the approach Udacity already takes, contracting Pearson to handle the controlled exam part. One thing I like about the free MOOC structure is that it separates education from credentialing. The learning is free, and a person who cheats cheats only themself. The credentialing (including job referral) is separate, and may include a fee (possibly paid only upon successfully obtaining a job).

Now factor in that the online record of a student's performance will capture any in-course cheating. Part of getting a referral may be the release of that record to the potential employer. I think there is reason to expect that with the advent of job placement, online cheating may actually drop significantly.

David said...

I think you are right, if there is limited incentive to cheat, then people won't do it (and when they do, it will hurt them most).

As for job placement, people cheat all the time when trying to get jobs. How else could so many incompetent people be employed? :)

Lynne Hand said...

Interesing article, and yes, MOOCs and their derivatives are the future of an open education system - at last. Tests are a throwback to traditional learning and that's what encourages cheating. No test no cheating. I'm not talking about the exercises embedded in some videos that allow you to ensure you've understood the material, I'm talking about the weekly tests that you have to submit. What is that all about? So - forget the tests and if you have to issue a certificate allow people to sign up for a final exam if they want to, which could be run 3 x 4 times a year - and maybe make them pay for the exam - thus financing the MOOC for the rest of us who aren't interested in getting a certificate. He he.

But my main problem with most of these MOOCs is the time constraint. IMHO to be truly open you should be able to study at any time, some people do not have much spare time and so the amount of reading / video watching is impossible and I believe that and not lack of motivation is the main reason for a high drop out rate.

My little MOOC has been running for over 10 years. It's not affiliated to any large university, is open to anyone at any time, with no formal tests, just the ability for students to practise what they've learnt. If I can do it, then surely it would be a doddle for MIT. ;)

Jin said...

I believe the true value of these MOOCs is to test the foundations of students in learning a particular subject in a field. I enrolled in these MOOCs but I don't care to follow the schedule set by the instructor since I have only a limited amount of time to study within the timeframe. The beauty about these MOOCs, is the quality of the outline on how to study a particular subject. For example, I mostly spend my time doing the MIT OCW courses because they provide me with references to other resources and the outline plus video lectures. I don't get rewarded with grades but I find my reward when I am able to solve the problem sets they set to be solved. In essence MOOCs are there to guide the individual how to learn a subject. This is more important than having good grades as grades become a brand of a person, but the quality of the brand can only be had when you enroll at a particular university not in MOOCs. MOOCs teach us the essence of educating oneself stripped of the brand that it creates.

Anonymous said...

Jin, While I agree you can use the MOOC videos and other materials as educational resources the way you suggest, I think that is very definitely NOT their true value. That usage regards a MOOC merely as a textbook on steroids. It's possible to learn from them that way just as people can learn mathematics from a traditional textbook. The true value of a MOOC, on the other hand, is that is is a COURSE. That means it has fixed start and end dates, and intermediate deadlines, and during that period of time, a group of people come together to form a community of learners who learn with and from one another. In my MOOC, I strongly encourage students to form groups to work in. I now that many do not, but that means they miss the greatest benefit MOOCS offer, which is that they offer at scale the long established best-known-method for learning there is: participation in a learning community. Group learning may not be the fastest way to pass a routine exam. But it is the best way to achieve long lasting, deep learning, that leaves the individual able to tackle novel problems (not just the problems that the course instructor sets, which as you say it whay you are getting from these courses). You should try approaching a MOOC like that one day. In the meantime, I'm still pleased you found my MOOC of use to you.

Anonymous said...


Seems to me you are not talking about a course, rather the provision of online educational materials. Both can have value, but to my mind they are very different. Courses are all about building a learning community that comes together for a fixed period of time and collaborates to learn some new material. The learning comes primarily from the personal interaction. Watching videos and doing online assignments is in principle little different from reading a book and working with paper and pencil, though many seem to prefer watching a video to reading a book. Videos can be effective, particularly for basic material, but hopelessly inadequate for more advanced study, where group work is essential (at least for most people).

I think the waters were muddied a lot by the way Sebastian Thrun launched Udacity. He said the idea was to have a genuine course with a student community, deadlines, and exams, but the first courses he rolled out were all focused on basic skills that could be mastered using lone study, where the communal pressure generated by a submission deadline played little role.

Coursera is putting a lot of effort into developing the platform to support communal work, and I think that is where the future of MOOCs lies.

As to tests and exams, even in a MOOC like mine, students are free to ignore them. I think they miss a lot by so doing, but that is their choice. I see a lot of freedom in how people take advantage of free learning resources, and there is plenty of room for many different models.

BTW, I don’t see the high dropout rate as at all a problem. In my first MOOC, about 60,000 dropped out. Many of them likely got some benefit, and doubtless some will return when I give the course again, and can do so as often as they want, but 6,500 or so completed the course at the first try, and that is a huge number.