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The End of College – It Gets Better!

October 10, 2016
MOOC, cocreate

Two elementary school students record Munsell colors on ceramic vessels in Nivin, Peru.

Debbie Morrison’s review of the End Of College by Kevin Carey convinced me to read the book.  I am glad I did.  Carey’s basic thesis is that traditional higher education, particularly for undergraduates, is not working well today and is in need of restructuring.  Carey uses the MITx MOOC Introduction to Biology: The Secret of Life taught by Professor Eric Lander as a framework to explore and pose solutions on what that restructured undergraduate model might look like.

Critique of Critiques

As Debbie notes in her review, much of the criticism of The End of College misses the point of the book.  I wholeheartedly agree.  For example, when I first read John Seery’s review in the Huffington Post I wondered if I should read the book.  However, reading The End of College revealed Seery’s review to be more of a defense of his past, present, and future vision at Pomona College where he has taught for the past 25 years.  In fact, I had some question if we even read the same book, waiting for the evidence of the damning indictments Seery made of Carey’s book.  Seery concludes his review with “The End of College is an embarrassment. And it’s not because Kevin Carey lacks a PhD” I find Seery’s review an embarrassment that he can find no value or validity in Carey’s critique of undergraduate education.

Though less inflammatory than Seery, the review of the book by Audrey Watters and Sarah Boldrick-Rab in Inside Higher Education similarly does not acknowledge any problem in higher education or propose an alternative to Carey’s analysis.  The general tone of the noted reviews reminds me of folks like Arthur Keen in his Cult of the Amateur or the more simplistic “the sky is falling” arguments against MOOCs of a few years ago.  The reviewers do a disservice to their own arguments by presenting critiques at odds with the facts.

What is the book about?

Debbie’s review does a great job in reviewing the content of the End of College.  Carey contextualizes his proposals within the historic development of higher education and hybrid (joint research and undergraduate) institutions. Of particular value is the discussion of engaging more digital technology in restructuring undergraduate curricula.

The Illusion of MOOC’s Declining Numbers

The above critiques and those noted in Debbie’s review point to the alleged failure of MOOCs as an educational tool.  As Seery notes in his review “The MOOC run-up has already run its course.”

  • Yet in the most recent issue of LAS News (Fall 2016) I received in the mail this week from my alma mater, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), I read “Illinois Education is becoming more accessible thanks to new offerings via massively open online courses . . . These include the Department of Statistics, a partner in Illinois’ new Masters of Computer Science in Data Science degree offered through online education company Coursera.  And Cary Nelson, Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts & Sciences and emeritus professor of English is teaching the campus’ first lecture-based MOOC in American Poetry on Coursera.”
  • A review of the coursera.org catalog shows that at UIUC alone over 50 instructors ( from Lecturers to Full Professors) are offering 70 MOOC courses in 2016 Fall semester.
  • The MOOC aggregator Class Central notes that the “total number of students who signed up for at least one MOOC course has crossed 35 million—up from an estimated 16-18 million last year.”

A review of available resources demonstrates that MOOCs have in fact not already run their course.  Seemingly, major universities throughout the world are jumping more on the MOOC bandwagon as Carey notes.

The Illusion of MOOCs as a Failure

Critics allege MOOCs are failures for a host of reasons.

  • The completion rate for most courses is reasonably low – I am not certain how completion rate equates to success or failure.  I have started perhaps 20 MOOCs over the past few years and completed 25% of them. (I have a much smaller completion rate for films I start to watch on Netflix, but the streaming video business seems to be thriving.)  Have MOOCs failed me or vice versa?  I think not.  When filling in a MOOC course registration survey, one is typically asked if they plan to complete the readings, quizzes and so forth.  As a well-trained student and believer that I must finish whatever I start, in the past I always checked the ‘plan to complete everything’ box and was disappointed if I didn’t.  Then I had an interesting experience about one year ago.  I registered for a course only because I wanted to listen to the lectures from one week of the six-week course – I had no intention of finishing the course, or completing any of the assignments.  I am more mindful when completing these surveys today.  Now I view registering for MOOCs similar to checking out a book in the bookstore.  Most books that I pick up, I don’t end up buying or reading.  I review the table of contents, read the Intro (often on-line) and then I will commit or not to the entire book.  As Carey (p.154) notes, if only 2% of the world took one MOOC course annually at $74.00 that small enrollment will create 10 billion dollars in revenue.
  • Critics argue that the primary users of MOOCs are male with advanced degrees – or perhaps that is the demographic filling out the evaluation surveys on same since the data are largely based on enrollee responses to surveys – that might be an interesting study in itself.  Yet the table below (Table 2 of linked article)  suggests that the greatest number of folks completing the courses are actually high school students!  Debbie Morrison posted a while ago an interesting piece on the role MOOCs can play in high school student decision-making on future careers.
Course Auditing Completing Disengaging Sampling
High school 6% 27% 29% 39%
Undergraduate 6% 8% 12% 74%
Graduate 9% 5% 6% 80%

MOOCs as a Supplement to Higher Education Offerings

A few years ago I posted a blog about the writing deficiency of many of my graduate student advisees.  I found that MOOC and other free-on line offerings of value to my students to obtain training in writing and other areas not available in their degree programs.

For example, a student with a career focus in cultural heritage administration was able to supplement her regular course-work with Build Essential Skills for the Workplace a ten-course specialization from Coursera.org taught by faculty from the University of California at Irvine.  The cost for the approximately 60 hours of course instruction and capstone project was $323.00 with credentials (or at no cost to audit).  Of importance, when I asked the student after completing the specialization “Was it worth it?  Did you get anything out of it you could not have gotten from your degree coursework?” they responded with an emphatic yes.

This semester a student dramatically improved their weak writing skills through a free English composition course I recommended at saylor.org.

In both of the above examples, the MOOCs provided offerings that were not available in the students formal coursework, they found the MOOCs of value, and they demonstrated increased skills as a result of the MOOC.  How is this not a good thing?

Takeaways from the End of College

Kevin Carey’s book, in a reasoned, linear, and well-organized approach and addresses several of the challenges facing higher education today.  Contrary to what his more adamant critics allege, I don’t think Carey believes he has received a mountain top divine revelation on this subject.  Rather, he provides a sober assessment, contextualized within an historic perspective, of the state of undergraduate education today.  MOOCs may very well be the Friendster of higher education replaced in the near future by a more effective tool.  I don’t think Mr. Carey will take issue with that point either.  However what Carey clearly lays out, and I completely concur, is that undergraduate education does not work well today.  Although some academicians present reasoned discussion on this issue, such as Michael Roth, President of Wesleyan College in his review of Carey’s book, there appears an overall polarization on MOOCs, like much else in the US today.

I often remark that if academicians think that they can just hold their collective breath and wait for things to go back to the “good old days” of funding, they will all die of asphyxiation and higher education as we know it will go the way of Kodak and daily newspapers.  Discussions of the real problems and viable solutions need to be put forward, particularly for undergraduate education.  It is just plain silly to rant about the low completion rates for MOOCs yet not address the similar decline in completion rates for Undergraduate degrees at bricks and mortar institutions.

I leave with:

Coursera currently hosts 1259 free courses on an incredible diversity of subjects taught by faculty at accredited university’s across the globe.  How is that not a good thing?

In my former academic department, the required graduate seminar on Research Design is taught once every two years.  Students often need portions of the coursework sooner to conduct their graduate research projects.  Coursera offers a Questionnaire Design for Social Surveys course by  Frederick Conrad, Ph.D., Research Professor, Survey Methodology at the University of Michigan.  Students can audit the course for free or register for $69.00.  Or they can register for the entire seven-course Survey Data Collection and Analytics Specialization, audit for free or register for 423.00.  How is having this option available as a supplement to their formal coursework not a good thing?

Finally, how does this relate to Archaeology, Museums, and Outreach?  Stay tuned.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 11, 2016 3:38 am

    Robert.

    Thanks for the expanding on the scope of my review on “The End of College”. The narrow viewpoint held by scholars who reviewed Carey’s book, as you mentioned, is disconcerting. Their refusal to acknowledge the need for change in higher education, even to acknowledge one of Carey’s points as valid, contradicts the premise of higher education—diversity of opinion, building on ideas of others, etc. How disappointing!

    I look forward to your next post! Debbie

    • October 11, 2016 12:37 pm

      I agree on the reviews. To not acknowledge the validity that particularly on the undergraduate level, serious problems exist in higher education – like basic literacy and communication skills – is plain silly, and totally self-serving for academicians. I base this assessment on national survey data, the anecdotal experience of others, and my own anecdotal experience, that form a mini-data set over the past 25 years I have been teaching in higher education.

      As an employer who deals with other employers, I find too that the considered value of a BA is reduced today. This statement is supported by the trend in job applications where experience can be count toward academic requirements, but not the reverse.

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