The ‘University Of Everywhere’ Isn’t For Everyone: The Future Of Learning Will Be A Big Tent

Andrew Kelly, Forbes
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Last May, I used this column to argue that Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are more like health clubs than hospitals:

Providing free access to a gym will encourage lots of healthy, motivated people to use it and get healthier. And that would be a good thing; healthier people will avoid costly visits to the hospital and will live longer, more productive lives. At the same time, though, doctors do not expect that access to a gym will automatically improve the health of less motivated people, especially those with serious health problems. Some will need a personal trainer to show them the ropes and hold them accountable, while others will require the kind of “high touch” care that doctors and hospitals provide. . .

MOOCs help many people learn new things—lifelong learners, college-educated workers who wish to build new skills, or gifted high school students angling for admission to an elite college. And that is a good thing. Up to now, though, enrollments in open online courses have mostly come from the ranks of the well educated. Helping the smart get smarter is a net benefit, but it does little for those who are currently left behind by our education system.

In his much-debated new book The End of College, Kevin Carey really wants us to believe that the future of undergraduate education will run through MOOCs, or at least things that sound a lot like MOOCs. Carey envisions a “University of Everywhere” (U of E) that will be powered by open, online courses: “Anything that can be digitized—books, lecture videos, images, sounds, and increasingly powerful digital learning environments—will be available to anyone in the world with an Internet connection” (pg. 5).

The U of E’s promise is that anyone, anywhere, at any time will be able to use these free digital resources to learn, and in turn earn some sort of credential. Carey admits that the lack of personalization and customization is a main flaw of current massive online courses. But he argues that this problem will eventually melt away in the face of advances in artificial intelligence that can “diagnose the strengths and weaknesses of each individual learner and customize his or her education accordingly” (pg. 232). In other words, the health clubs can start to approximate the hospitals, provided they are sufficiently personalized and customized.

To be sure, Carey (who is a co-author and podcast co-host of mine) writes about a lot more than MOOCs in the book. The opening chapters are a punchy and provocative diagnosis of what’s gone so terribly wrong with American higher education. He profiles other, more exciting innovations in teaching, learning, and credentialing as well—computerized cognitive tutors, open badges, coding boot camps, and so on. And he details some of what learning science is teaching us about the best ways to teach people new skills and knowledge (hint: it’s not the undergraduate lecture course with two exams and a paper).

But every chapter brings us back to the open online course as proof that the U of E is just around the corner. His experience taking an edX genetics course serves as the book’s main narrative device, proof that an elite college class can be faithfully reproduced online. “The long-term trend is unavoidable,” Carey writes, “a larger and larger percentage of the education that has been historically confined to scarce, expensive colleges will be liberated and made available to anyone, anywhere” (p. 233).

It’s a compelling vision, but I think it dramatically overstates the ability of open, purely online education to help students beyond the most motivated. The truth is, if you draw a Venn Diagram with three groups—those who are already well-served by our higher education system, those who are not, and those who complete open online courses—you’d find that the third circle is almost completely contained within the first. The second circle barely overlaps with the third at all—and much of the existing overlap reflects demand from bright, motivated international students. That doesn’t mean that open online courses won’t factor into the future of learning—they already are—only that they are not the future of learning.

Indeed, there are few signs that open online courses are on the verge of replacing college at all. Despite opportunities to do so, degree-seeking students have not flocked to redeem MOOC certificates for credit. The American Council on Education (ACE) has certified a set of MOOCs as being credit-worthy (a designation that more than 2,000 colleges use to award transfer credit), and a number of institutions lined up to accept MOOC certificates for credit. Yet, it’s hard to find a single instance where a student received credit for one. Sources at both American Public University System (43,900 undergraduates) and the University of Phoenix (227,000) confirmed last week that they had not awarded any credit. If the University of Everywhere were truly “on the horizon” (p. 231), wouldn’t we see somebody redeem an open online course for credit by now?

The disconnect may reflect the existing evidence on online learning: recent research suggests that marginal students struggle in courses delivered entirely online. In two large-scale studies of online courses at community colleges in Washington and Virginia, researchers at the Community College Research Center (CCRC) found that students enrolled in online courses did worse than those in in-person versions, and that students with less academic preparation struggled the most. When Udacity and San Jose State implemented three online math courses for students who had failed the course once before and a cohort of disadvantaged high school students, success rates were pretty dismal. They were so discouraging that SJSU “all but ended” the partnership.

These parts of the story don’t make it into Carey’s narrative. Instead, we’re asked to embrace the promise of what adaptive online learning can become, not necessarily what it looks like now.

We’re beginning to understand what helps marginal students succeed, though, and it doesn’t look much like open online courses OR what passes for teaching on a traditional college campuse. An experiment at the City University of New York (CUNY), for instance, doubled graduation rates among remedial students by placing them in a structured, immersive experience: students had to enroll full-time, were part of a cohort, enrolled in courses with smaller class sizes that were offered in a block schedule, and received a tuition waiver, tutoring, and access to textbooks (among other things).

Higher ed traditionalists may cite this as evidence that the traditional model works. But make no mistake: the CUNY program represents a radical departure from what researchers Tom Bailey, Shanna Smith Jaggars, and Davis Jenkins call the “cafeteria approach” to community college.

Carey recognizes the value of immersive experiences when he profiles “learning accelerators” like General Assembly and Dev Bootcamp—intense, in-person programs designed to help students land jobs in tech. Learning accelerators are often selective, high-touch, and quite expensive (by higher education standards). Students often spend upwards of 60 hours a week working closely with instructors and with their peers on group projects. In other words, these accelerators have little in common with the traditional undergraduate experience or the open, online courses that power Carey’s U of E.

Indeed, the boot camp model really is old school; it involves face-to-face teaching and lots of interaction with instructors and peers, and it need not involve digital content or the Internet at all. A paramedic could teach a terrific accelerated program in a community center using only a chalkboard and a trauma kit. It wouldn’t be free or beamed worldwide, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t innovative.

Finally, Carey references blended models a number of times—where content is delivered digitally, freeing in-person educators to spend more time working directly with students. But he doesn’t discuss the fact that a future ruled by hybrid courses would be quite different from the open, online one that he envisions. We hear about how the Virginia Tech Math Emporium features “no professors or lectures,” but that teaching assistants are on-hand from 10 AM to 10 PM to provide “individualized instruction” (p. 108). We’re left to wonder whether the Math Emporium is successful because of the digitized content, the in-person support, the fact that it is individualized, or all of the above. Likewise, he describes William Bowen’s “conversion” to being a believer in how technology can change higher ed, but that conversion resulted from a study of hybrid courses at four-year colleges, not those that were open to anyone and delivered entirely online.

The point is: all of these ideas are part of the future of learning. Because the set of prospective students is large and diverse, that future must be a “big tent” containing a variety of new ideas, not just online learning. Some of the tools (i.e., MOOCs) will be low-touch, low-cost affairs with little interpersonal contact. Others will feature short, intense doses of direct instruction and mentorship and cost significant amounts of money. In short, entrepreneurs will produce different products because learners have different preferences. While The End of College implicitly acknowledges this by talking about more than just MOOCs, other models always seem to take a back seat to the open online courses that Carey expects to dominate in the future.

I share Carey’s sense that traditional higher education is running headlong into a deepening crisis, one where consumers increasingly feel trapped and desperate for an alternative. I also agree that unbundling postsecondary education can help lower costs and give rise to an entirely new array of providers and products that better meet the needs of today’s students. I just think we need to be clear that the future of learning will include more than open online courses. The University of Everywhere will be great for some, but it isn’t for everyone. And reformers shouldn’t pretend that it is.


This article was written by Andrew Kelly from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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