MOOCs at the University of North Dakota

This past week our new(isn) provost challenged the University of North Dakota community to consider the role of MOOCs in higher education in the state. As he undoubtedly knows, the University of North Dakota has long considered remote and “correspondence learning” a part of its mission. The sparsely settled character of the state and the concentration of resources in the eastern Red River valley has pushed the two large universities in the state to innovate in how they reach diverse stakeholders across the state. Despite that tradition, when the idea of MOOCs were floated on campus several years ago (the ambitious, but still born UND for Free initiative), the reception was chilly and skeptical.

How times have changed!

As the provost noted, 2012 was called, by some, the Year of the MOOC (and “recent” coverage… ahem… trumpeted MOOC’s transformative potential). MOOCs offer the potential to expose anyone with an internet connection to the faculty and at least some of the resources available at UND. They have obvious potential to continue the tradition of serving the state by providing the underserved communities of the Northern Plains with quality content. It is hardly surprising that our neighbors to the north at the University of Manitoba were the pioneers in the development of this form of learning. The platform and approach offers a unique opportunity to communicate what’s good about the University of North Dakota to a larger regional and national audience.

If UND became involved in MOOCs, however, it would cost money, time, and expertise. Whether we rely on existing MOOC platforms or develop our own, deploying technical knowledge, production savvy, and faculty expertise will necessarily detract from other priorities at the university. At a time when the university is scaling back its commitments to programs as the UND Writers Conference and core infrastructure like the library, shifting resources to MOOCs will likely leave faculty with a mixed message and suggest a confused set of priorities. 

The concern will be, of course, how this kind of outreach program will produce a return-on-investment that will benefit the entire campus community and replenish the resources from which it draws (i.e. faculty time, access to research materials, and technical support). We all know that during tough economic times, we have to do more with less, but it seems hard to imagine entering the competitive MOOC market will result in a net gain for the core mission of the university. Even if we insist on calling ourselves Exceptional (and I’ve come to recognize that we mean exceptional in a good way!) and maybe on a good day believe it, we will have to deliver a product that can compete with truly remarkable institutions in the U.S.

Perhaps there is something that I don’t see or understand. So I think that the next step will be for the administration to bring a sustainable business plan to various stakeholders and provide clear evidence for how this initiative will benefit the campus community. (This is a bit of an inside joke. The administration has been asking faculty initiatives to produce sustainable business plans for the last 6 months, so I thought it would be clever to ask them to do the same thing.)

The flip side of the MOOC equation is whether instruction at UND could benefit by collaborating with MOOC providers. This has famously caused controversy at other institutions, but there are benefits to leveraging resources from other schools and institutions to engooden student experience at our own. On a simple level, bringing world renown faculty into UND classrooms and dorm rooms via the internet is remarkably appealing. In fact, the Working Group in Digital and New Media has a lecture series where we use Skype (or similar technology) to bring in world renown speakers on issues of digital humanities, history, and new media studies. At the same time, this use of technology serves to complement existing conversations and commitments on campus rather than replacing them.

Using MOOCs on campus has generated a good bit of consternation and several major players in the movement have backed away from continuing to develop them. A well-grounded fear is that without substantial on-campus support MOOCs risks viewing education as a passive process and see education as a commodity to be consumed rather than a process requiring engagement. A perspective that encourages a passive consumption of content or even content providers runs the risk of setting higher education back 100 years.

On the other hand, MOOCs may serve as a kind of dynamic textbook that supplements classroom instruction and existing course material. Many faculty members already prepare substantial new and multimedia components to their classes or leverage existing multimedia content on the web or provided by traditional textbook publishers. The issues with this approach to using MOOCs are largely practical and logistical. For example, MOOCs may or may not follow the traditional semester schedule used at UND. They may or may not make course material available prior to the start of the course to allow MOOC instruction to be integrated into local course design.

This is all stuff that most people who have spent more than a moment thinking about MOOCs knows.

What I think is most exciting about MOOCs is this.

MOOCs, like so much in higher education, are unstable creatures. They’ve yet to endure the full scale scrutiny of a rapacious and soul-killing assessocracy that has come to push university education into the bleak reality of modernity. The variety, practicality, curiosity, and frivolity of MOOCs are part of their charm. They embrace the concept that education can be life changing, important, and a goal unto itself and that student outcomes can vary widely and be totally unrecognized. It is interesting to see the divergence between, on the one hand, education leaders who see MOOCs as ripe for the plucking and search for ways to monetize, commodify, assess, and validate these rather untamed creations. And, on the other hand, the emergence of a  diverse community around MOOCs that harkens back to radically democratized (and largely romanticized) ideals of education where people come as they are to learn what they want. Perhaps some of the appeal of the MOOC is the realization that the industrial models of higher education no longer suit the post-industrial models of contemporary capitalism.

(As an aside, I remember a former dean who wanted desperately to convert our offices in O’Kelly Hall into perfectly uniform corporate cubicles at the very moment when the most dynamic and innovative companies in the U.S. had offices that looked like a combination of artist studios and frat houses.)

If the formal American university is designed to create productive little capitalists who do work on schedule and on specification. The MOOC began as the ad hoc answer to the failing of this system. Students came to MOOCs to get what they wanted; instructors taught MOOCs in the confidence that what they said and did had value. The relationship between these two ideals did not require assessment or validation. Students, like their Medieval predecessors, voted with their feet (and clicks); Professors did what they have done from time immemorial, professed. Engagement was voluntary, outcomes varied, learning styles, patterns, and practices swirled. Even something as simple a plagiarism (which must be seen as the product of the professionalization of the disciplines) could be tolerated because the stakes and accountability were purely personal.

So, the most exciting about MOOCs is that beneath the hype, there are the seeds of a radical departure from the relentless move toward modernity (typified by the assessocracy where we “assess everything and call it peace”). MOOCs are the wild west and require a tremendous amount of trust and faith on the part of the administration to cultivate this foreign body in their well-oiled industrial education factory. Completion rates, learning outcomes, student engagement, efficiency studies, and other conceptual tools run counter to the radically democratized spirit of the MOOC.

3 Comments

  1. One of the most annoying aspects of how MOOCs are advertised is the line “study with a world-renowned professor at Harvard (vel sim.)” despite the fact that in most cases the expertise that made these professors world-renowned has zero to do with their ability to teach courses that at best have the content equivalent to a regular first-year lecture course.

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  2. MOOCs are interesting to think about in relation to the current ‘business model’ running US universities (and rapidly proliferating into the British system) because I can’t yet see how universities can make money from them, which seems to be their new mission (maybe I don’t know enough about MOOCs yet).

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  3. It’s so funny for this interest to come on the heels of so much not-so-good press about the MOOC (such as this: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/11/us/after-setbacks-online-courses-are-rethought.html), when other schools, having tried, are going back to the drawing board. I am not ready to throw the baby out with the bath water on the idea behind MOOCs, but I see their place as more of an industry model than a university-based model, especially in their current form. If I were a professional in the field wanting to do a three-session study on the latest technology, for instance, I’d be much more likely to log-in to a MOOC than if I were a college student who needed a little more well-rounded support. “Well rounded textbook”- I’ll buy that argument too. But a panacea it is not.

    I’ve signed up for about 4 different MOOC courses.In one or two of them I skimmed through the first few weeks of content and got some good stuff out of it. Then I got busy. In one, I posted an introduction message and then got about 1000 emails that were follow-up introductions and couldn’t figure out how to turn the announcements off. In the end, I got busy, had no “skin in the game,” found the courses generally disorganized and difficult to navigate, and gave up. Which means I am about like the other 95% of MOOC non-completers.

    I know our brave leaders are on the search for sustainable and efficient program delivery models- I (a tech-loving assistant prof) think this one, at least for now, is a dead end. How about we invest more in engaging faculty interest in the ways they can innovate around tech through strategies like department-based training and embedded instructional tech staff who can help faculty with flipped classroom models and other good teaching practices that improve student engagement and retention?

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