Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Underbelly of CA's Community College MOOC Bill

As an online California Community College (CCC) instructor who has worked hard to promote practices for cultivating high quality, high touch, humanized online learning, I am watching the news about Steinberg's proposed bill (SB 520) to allow California's community college students to complete MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) offered by third party vendors to complete high demand courses that the students are unable to access through California's community college system. 

The concept is rough but is being applauded by open educational resource (OER) supporters and certainly makes significant strides to support a mission of the CCC system which is to promote access to low cost higher education to Californians.  And Steinberg has been quoted, "This is about helping students. We would be making a big mistake if we did not take advantage of the technological advances in our state" to do so.

But is it high quality learning (another thread of the system's mission)?  This is the question I want to untangle here. 

The concept at the heart of SB520 is driven by the exciting work of Simon Thrun, who received a 2012 Smithsonian Ingenuity Award for "transforming the way people learn around the world" and Daphne Koller, co-founder of the MOOC-hosting site Coursera.  Thrun and Koller have become to popular pioneers of MOOCs (but are by no means the founders -- scroll to "The Forgotten History of  MOOCs" by Audrey Watters here) which are massive open online courses.  MOOCs are online classes that have lots of students -- lots of students, like over 1,000.  This is why the model in California would promote alleviate the road blocks that students have hit in recent years as the system has cut classes in response to the state's devastating budget deficit.

To date, there is no large scale effort in the uS have an entire system of education grant college credit for the completion of a MOOC.  If SB 520 is approved, California's community college system, the largest system of higher education in the nation which serves roughly 2.6 million students, would make a huge precedent in higher education and MOOCs would make quite a foray in formalized learning.

The Problem

I agree that MOOCs will find a place in the future of formalized learning.  But I also believe figuring out how, where, and to what extent is a fragile venture and the leap that is proposed in California is poised to fracture the foundation of community college student learning. 

The problem lies in the demographics of the students that are served by the MOOCs.  Thrun and Koller are Stanford professors.  They do not teach community college students.  Those of us who teach community college students understand the unique blend of needs our student demographics bring into our classrooms and how these unique needs tie into our pedagogy -- whether the class is face-to-face or online.  When teaching a community college class, you (the teacher) are pivotal to the success of the learners.  That is true regardless of whether the class is face-to-face or online. 

Each semester, in my online class, I work to support students with a variety of needs.  For example, many have cognitive disorders like ADHD and I often identify students who I suspect have dyslexia but have not yet been tested.  I have a student now who is about to give birth -- her due date was yesterday and we have made arrangements to support her through her delivery.  And I have another student this week who I needed to set up a special quiz for to accommodate his ADD.  I understand that by reaching out to understand and support the needs of my learners, I will increase their chances of success. 

That's just one of my roles.  I also must design learning activities that support a range of cognitive levels and differences.  Using tools like VoiceThread and blogs, in addition to traditional assessments creates scaffolded learning spaces where students receive personalized voice and video feedback from me and their peers.  My teaching and social presence resonates with my students. Dyslexic students have accommodations built in and more proficient students take roles as community leaders in our participatory learning environment.

 MOOCs are teacherless.  That's why they are so efficient.

The Issues

Taking the teacher out of an online community college class is a bad idea for students.  The active presence of a teacher in an online class has been validated as an essential element of a student's success for decades (Anderson, 1979; Paloff & Pratt, 1999; Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000;  Richardson & Swan, 2003). And when the the mix of learners in a class becomes more diverse, the demands of the teacher to work more closely with the learners to understand and facilitate their understanding and comprehension of the mastery of the objectives becomes more critical -- not less

Some studies have noted that MOOCs have a success rate as low as 20%.  A strategy Udacity is using to improve this is to hire "human mentors." 

I could not agree more that we have problems in California's community colleges and that students are feeling the pain of an ugly financial crunch that has landed on our community college system.  But the problems that we are disregarding pertain to the value of high quality community college teaching.

To start, more than 300,000 students have been turned away from California's community colleges because our state has elected to cut programs and classes and get rid of teachers.  And this solution replaces them with MOOCs developed by third-party vendors that are teacherless.

Moreover, out of the roughly 58,000 faculty members that teach California's community college classes, Jonathan Lightman from FACCC shared that only 31% of them are full-time.  Even though state law mandates California to maintain a 75:25% ratio of full-time to part-time faculty, this has been deferred in recent years because the budget has just been too weak.  I find it interesting that the system's proposed increased funds this year may go to support teacherless solution.

The solution proposed by Steinberg is not good for community college student learning.  It does not support the diversity of student needs that are critical to success in community colleges.  Community college learners need teachers who are held accountable to high standards to foster high quality, community-oriented learning experiences.  Motivation, engagement, morale, and ultimately cognition will not thrive in a MOOC environment with most community college learners.  Some will do fine, yes.  But most will not. 

Alternatives

In the future, learners will have no shortage of access to free, open content.  So what will the function of a community college be in society?  That is the question.  I think we are in the midst of re-envisioning the role of the institution from an access provider to a facilitater of learning.  In a lifelong learning society, individuals need to understand how to master their own learning and this will continue to play and increasingly critical role to both the success of the lives of people in the 21sst century and the relevance of educational institutions.

To put this more clearly, learners -- with all their learning differences in tow -- will come to community colleges because they will need teachers to inspire them, to help them understand and master new skills, and to help them create digital content that will demonstrate their mastery to the outside world.  Access to the content will not be the issue.  It will be how to learn the content.
 
Community college leaders today should be funding the creation of centers of innovation in teaching and learning -- empowering hotbeds of research and experimentation where instructors are incentivized to understand what it means to teach effectively with emerging technologies in their discipline and how to foster high touch learning environments that demonstrate ways to develop students into critical, mindful users and creators of digital media.  From these sites, resources would flow to other colleges through an interconnected, open sharing system that would empower faculty to learn together in community. 

In contrast, as an instructor in California, it's devastating to experience how disconnected I am from my 55,000+ faculty peers at the most connected time in human history.  We should all be learning in community from each other, sharing with each other, and in a constant dialogue with each other.   A new online instructor at a college in Chico should be able to locate an experience online instructor in Palm Springs in a moment and develop an informal mentor-mentee relationship.  A simple online commons, like the Academic Commons developed by CUNY, would foster a space for sharing and connecting across the state.

Innovations in teaching and learning is the area in which California's community colleges should be leading the way.  We have tens of thousands of committed, bright, passionate educators who teach because they are dedicated to their students.  Instead, we're sending our students to third party vendors and applauding the use of technology to deploy content to them.


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