Many recent articles and conference speeches have analyzed the potential of the MOOC (massively open online course) to revolutionize learning – even disrupt the education establishment beyond recognition! MOOCs interest me because they are scalable by design and, therefore, might purposefully be used to help scale up educational attainment– the proportion of a population holding a trusted higher education credential. MOOCs are also an extension of the digital OER concept (open educational repository, open education resources, and so on). A MOOC is not only an open education resource, but also is typically “taught” and monitored by one or more expert instructors, and may even incorporate adaptive learning or other personalized learning strategies based on advances in cognitive science and immersive digital “learningware.”
Today’s “MOOC madness” reminds me of the introduction about 15 years ago of the CMS (course management system), or, as it is now more often labeled, LMS (learning management system). The CMS was then imagined to be revolutionary and game changing – even before it was integrated with the earlier ERP (enterprise resource planning) innovation. As its name at the time implied, the CMS has been removing friction from course management for some years now – and has been integrated with the ERP. The CMS also has extended online, anytime (asynchronous) formal education well beyond the scaling capacity of synchronous forms of organized "distance learning." The CMS, nevertheless, has not revolutionized the teaching, learning, and credentialing processes that, for the most part, remain tightly linked to revenues from courses and credit hours, which measure learning by time and process, not by learning outcomes.
The course and the credit hour are increasingly anachronistic. They are barriers, for example, to open, competency-based learning that could be independently credentialed through multiple credentialing channels. To its credit - no pun intended - the U.S. Department of Education recently announced its intent to incorporate competency-based credentialing into its financial aid programs.
By scalably modularizing learning competencies in expert domains, rather than enshrining courses, MOOCs might help spawn a scalable and open credentialing marketplace (SOCM) – but only if independent evaluations of learning competencies were to become readily available, exchangeable, and affordable to all the parties involved. Meanwhile, let’s shift the focus from MOOCs to the policy challenges that are threatening to disrupt higher education, with or without MOOCs.
Educational Attainment Challenge: Scale up and sustain the proportion of the population holding a trusted higher education credential.
As far back as 1920, H. G. Wells linked education policy to the global common good by warning that “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” The pace of the race has quickened since 1920, and progressive policy makers are understandably disposed in 2013 to intervene in educational affairs because they want education to educate more people to higher levels as a strategy for avoiding catastrophe while scaling up and sustaining social, economic, and environmental justice.
Scaling up higher education attainment proportions will arguably remain the dominant thread in education policy worldwide for some time, and also must include a focus on scaling up scientific and technical expertise and the humanistic and civic habits of mind that nurture the mutual respect and cooperation so essential to addressing humanity’s grand challenges.
If progressive nations and their institutions of higher education are to honor the democratic principle that all people are created equal, then ensuring affordable access to successful learning experiences that lead to modular higher education credentials may be the best "equality" strategy. The population from the lower rungs of the economic ladder, however, is a significant proportion of population in most modern nations and is even trending upwards in many. Making education successful and affordable for this economic demographic is, thus, a necessary emphasis within the educational attainment challenge. Because metrics such as family income and net worth currently correlate directly with levels of educational credentialing, this is critical social justice challenge for progressive education policy makers.
Educational Justice Challenge: Admit and credential needs-tested students at a scale sufficient to reduce the proportion of the adult population standing on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.
Failure to pursue and achieve educational justice might be called educational poverty - in recognition that economic attainment and educational attainment correlate at the individual and aggregate levels. The loftiest goals of education and its "business models" are codependent! Costs and prices matter and are becoming mutually untenable!
Three-Way Unaffordability Conundrum: Neither potential enrollees from the lower rungs of the economic ladder nor the governments and institutions that have traditionally provided financial aid to them can afford to participate in today’s credentialing marketplace – which continues to rely on an inflationary revenue model based on credit hours attempted.
Progressive policy makers and higher education leaders must cooperate to decrease institutional per-credential operating expenses. Cooperation is the only rational strategy for resolving the unaffordability conundrum while pursuing educational justice and attainment in today’s credentialing marketplace, which cries out for increased credentialing productivity.
MOOCs re-enter the picture because they use technology to scale access to learning opportunities while driving down the affordability of access to those opportunities. MOOCs are far from a total solution at this point, but they can be incorporated into a more comprehensive high-tech/high-touch strategy for increasing credentialing productivity while also evolving towards a scalable and open credentialing marketplace (SOCM).
Flex Redesign Strategy: Optimize a blend of flexible high-tech self-service and personalized high-touch expert assistance as follows:
- Reduce institutional per-credential operating expenses by scaling up a common set of online (asynchronous) academic and administrative self-services to all institutional stakeholders (with a design focus on post-traditional learners) and, where possible, by sharing the common set of self-services inter-institutionally with partner institutions.
- Provide timely, personalized expert assistance, as needed by the individual (to overcome the limitations of self-service). Ensure that per-credential costs of these personalized high-touch services do not erode per-credential cost offsets from the shared self-services above.
A few observations will help clarify the comprehensiveness of the flex redesign strategy as a means to increase per-credential productivity on the path to improving educational justice and attainment in a more scalable and open credentialing marketplace (SOCM).
- Most learners require help in the learning process, at both the level of specific content mastery and the integrative level of curriculum purpose and choice. Rather than offering such help mostly through one-size-fits-all classroom activities and limited office advising sessions, the flex strategy seeks to personalize expert assistance, as needed by the individual who is trying to move beyond the limitations of self-service in a timely manner
- Online self-service reduces per-credential cost structures, especially when shared in common among multiple academic and administrative units – even among the constituent institutions in a system or other multi-institution consortium created to amplify efficiencies.
- It is the purposeful attention to cost structures that distinguishes flex learning from blended learning. Both blend traditional and IT-enabled pedagogy, but blended learning does not necessarily seek to reduce per-credential expenses by maximizing online self-service.
- The day is near when all stakeholders will expect academic/administrative resources, transactions, and support services to be available via self-service apps on mobile devices.
- Online self-service can include analytical and navigational applications that link together institutions, students, instructors, and academic advisors in mutual pursuit of student success. Such applications can support learning analytics and advising (as do Course Signals, Degree Compass, and Degree Works) and education/career navigation (as does the Education and Career Positioning System).
- The high-enrollment course redesign strategy (pioneered by the National Center for Academic Transformation) can be used in tandem with the flex redesign strategy to increase academic value and further reduce institutional per-credential costs. MOOCs could play a role, not only by scaling enrollments, but also by parsing high-enrollment courses into team-taught modular components, each module linked to an independent evaluation of competencies learned.
- The external sourcing/partnering redesign strategy popularized as “flattening forces” in Thomas Friedman’s “flat world” book also can be combined with the flex redesign strategy. Friedman labeled his eight technology-enabled strategies as out-sourcing, in-sourcing, open-sourcing, in-forming, supply-chaining, work-flowing, off-shoring, and steroid-ing, the latter referring to what today might be called mobile-ing. (The hyphens are my way of making Friedman’s forces actionable.) These models, especially when viewed as cloud-based models, can contribute further to the self-service per-credential cost offsets at the core of the flex strategy.
- Too often invisible in the flex redesign process is the critical role that educational interoperability standards play in reducing total costs. IMS and PESC help develop and certify such standards in the world of higher education, and insistence on standards should be part of any redesign strategy.
During my academic career as a professor of mathematics, I was time and again delighted to learn that two seemingly disparate concepts were, in fact, logically equivalent. In the language of logic, “A if and only if B” means that statement A implies statement B and that statement B implies statement A. If one statement is found to be true or false, then the other is also, respectively, true or false. A and B are totally intertwined, one with the other.
Scaling up educational attainment and educational justice in tandem has become education’s intertwined grand challenge in Well’s race between education and catastrophe. Wells’ race to secure the global common good might be restated in 2013 as follows:
Humanity’s Grand Challenge: Scale up and sustain social, economic, environmental, and educational justice.
A modest edit of John Lennon's lament to Yoko Ono speaks to the grand challenge: "Lord, you know it ain't easy." Technology will continue to advance at an exponential pace that defies human comprehension, even as human ingenuity and higher learning make possible that pace. The technology-enabled flex redesign strategy, nevertheless, can immediately start amplifying education's role and effectiveness in resolving humanity’s grand challenge. Let’s therefore focus ever more purposefully on educational justice and attainment and their mutual affordability to all participants, even as “cloud” technologies empower the MOOC movement and catalyze future digital innovations yet to be comprehended and made available in the "learning cloud."
Why SOCM and an Education and Career Positioning System? Think about the question, "Is Education's Past Its 2050 Prologue?"