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Disrupting Reason: MOOCs, Politics, and the Future of Higher Ed

BY Sam Roudman | Monday, May 13 2013

Can Sebastian Thrun's Udacity help reinvent California's higher ed? Photo: Steve Jurvetson

With rapidly rising tuition costs, overflowing classrooms and students struggling to graduate on time, it's no wonder California Gov. Jerry Brown and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom are willing to entertain outside-the-box solutions for their state's education system.

Newsom and Brown are aggressive supporters, in particular, of massively online open courses, provided by a mix of for-profits like Coursera and Udacity and non-profits like edX, which promise to let thousands of students benefit from a single professor. Pilot programs now underway with San Jose State University and the broader California State University system would test the potential of "MOOCs" to save money and increase access to education.

But a bill now in California's State Senate would mandate each of the state's three systems of higher education to put MOOCs into place — before administrators have time to parse the results of pilot projects.

Is California's love of disruption leading it a MOOC too far?

There's no question California's higher education could use some work. Some officials say the state's three systems, the California Community Colleges, California State University, and University of California, are not doing enough to help students graduate. A recent survey showed 85 percent of California community colleges had at least 7,000 students on waiting lists for courses in fall 2012. Only 16 percent of CSU students finish their degrees within four years. At the same time, tuition at California's four-year colleges is 70 percent more expensive now than it was five years ago.

The 145 schools of California's three higher education systems are saddled with inefficiencies and dated processes, in short, and state lawmakers say they are fertile ground for Silicon Valley to do what it does best.

“Every industry has been disrupted by the Internet," says Dean Florez, a former California state senator, "every single one of them. And higher education is probably next on the docket.”

After term limits forced him out of the state Senate in 2010, Florez became the president of 20 Million Minds, a nonprofit that advocates for lower-cost higher education and more online resources for students. Funded by Gary Michelson, a multi-millionaire surgeon and inventor of medical devices, 20 Million Minds worked with Senate lawmakers last year to pass SB-1052 and SB-1053, bills that require California's higher education institutions to provide free access to online textbooks for the 50 most popular classes. Faculty are by and large supportive of the bills, which task a committee of nine faculty to select courses and plan the books.

Building on that success, Florez and State Senate President Pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg are promoting a new bill, SB-520, that calls on each of the state's three higher education systems to pick out up to 50 of their most over-enrolled lower division classes and offer them online, rather than in person, teaming with private providers in the process. Providing MOOC versions for credit should, per the bill, "meet critical demands for enrollment and reduce time-to-degree."

But what legislators hope technology will do and what close observers say it's likely to do are often different, and this is one such case.

"Here you have the legislature already deciding that MOOCs are a decent substitution for courses based on no evidence whatsoever," says Siva Vaidhyanathan, a media scholar and professor at the University of Virginia. Vaidhyanathan himself is helping his university implement its own MOOC experiments, but he says it will be a couple of years before there will be conclusive evidence on the effectiveness of MOOCs. Even then, there's no telling how much they might cost to create and maintain.

There are smaller-scale experiments under way. San Jose State University participated in one such experiment last fall, to what Newsom, the lieutenant governor, has called great success. That project, a collaboration with edX, will be expanded to engineering courses at 11 CSU campuses. Another San Jose State experiment with Udacity is supported by the National Science Foundation, but Udacity won't say how much it's being paid to participate.

Gavin Newsom at a March meeting of the CSU Board of Trustees. Photo: Charlie Kaijo / Flickr

And naturally not everyone thinks this is a bad idea. I asked Udacity for comment, and received a statement through a third-party public relations firm.

"It’s a sad reality that many students are unable to access the classes they need to attain their education goals," the statement read. "We believe it’s a bold effort toward ensuring anyone and everyone has access to a high-quality education.”

Udacity doesn't appear to be involved in shepherding the bill through the State Senate, but its co-founder Sebastian Thrun and bill sponsor Steinberg have been in the same room at the same time.

In January, Steinberg attended a conference hosted at the University of California Los Angeles and organized by 20 Million Minds called re:boot. Steinberg, Newsom, Thrun, and Daphne Koller, co-founder at another major MOOC provider, Coursera, were all headlining speakers.

At around the same time, a white paper published in Oct. 2012 by San Jose State University President Mohammed Qayoumi and Silicon Valley entrepreneur Kim Polese, called “Reinventing Public Education”, offered some intellectual cover: It called for between 25 and 40 standardized, lower-division online courses across California's three college and university systems, part of an approach to lower educational costs and increase the number of graduates in science, technology, engineering and math — the so-called STEM disciplines, also a pressing concern of the times.

According to Qayoumi, the bill and his white paper were drafted independently, and he says he had no contact with Senator Steinberg or his staff about the bill.

"We're talking about access and giving students choice," says Florez, "and making sure they have a path to completion. Students stay too long, incur too much debt, can't get through, and it's costing everyone a lot of money."

Steinberg wouldn't return our calls requesting comment. But Florez, his former colleague, says the numbers back up the premise.

"I think I can show you some research that probably says that minority students do better in certain types of online [courses]," he told me.

He never cited his source for that claim.

The needs of a growing student body, he says, have not been met by greater effort from faculty.

"The reality is they have not provided, have not stepped up to the plate to meet this demand for the student body," he says. "They can point to funding in the legislature, but at the same time I can show you higher budgets for faculty members who teach less in class than they did 10 years ago."

So rather than rely on faculty, SB-520 would replace them — giving thousands of students the option to access the core courses they need online, get on with their degrees and finish on time.

But this "reality" is not one on which Florez and faculty agree.

The pushback

"The plural of anecdote is not data," says Bob Powell, chair of the Academic Council for the UC Academic Senate and a professor at UC Davis. "All of the data show that faculty are teaching more. Perhaps we are hindered in our claims by the need to provide data."

Here's the data Powell is talking about: students are accumulating more credit-hours. At the UC Regents retreat in September 2012, officials circulated a figure, which Powell forwarded to techPresident, showing that the student-faculty ratio has gone from roughly 15 students per faculty member in 1966-67 to more than 20 students per faculty member in 2010-11. At an upcoming Regents meeting in May, he expects to see updated figures showing that ratio will have gone up even more than the eight percent rise already described.

At the same time, faculty at California's higher learning institutions agree their students are overflowing out of lecture halls — but it isn't because of professors too busy to teach.

"As a consequence of the economic downturn, more students come to community college," says Michelle Pilati, president of the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges. "We're now coming out of that."

Enrollment projections in the community colleges show the student population leveling off or declining in the coming years, she said. Meanwhile, the system is struggling to serve record numbers of students with less funding.

Since 2008-09, the California Community Colleges have had their budgets slashed by 12 percent, or $809 million.

One level up the ladder, in the CSU system, the students arriving are not the stereotypical fresh-faced, teenaged undergraduates.

"Eighty percent of [my] students are working more than 35 hours a week," says Steve Filling, vice chair of CSU's Academic Senate.

Faculty say CSU students take so long to graduate because they are more likely to be older, working, and supporting a family than students in the UC system. In a letter to Steinberg on April 4, ASCSU chair Diana Guerin wrote that the organization was "not aware of reliable data demonstrating that students have widespread problems accessing lower division courses in the CSU."

SB-520 states that over-enrolled courses "contributed significantly" to only 16 percent of CSU students graduating within four years. That's selective statistics. While it's true that fewer students graduate inside four years, it's also true that a more robust 62 percent of students finish within six.

Older students working nearly full time and balancing school with family might seem, anecdotally, to be just the right audience for MOOCs — but researchers and educators say that's not the case.

"The same populations that struggle and don't do as well in the classroom, do even worse when you move the course online," Pilati told me.

In a paper released by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University Teachers College, researchers analyzed recent studies on online courses and concluded much the same thing.

“The studies suggest," they write, "that community college students who choose to take courses online are less likely to complete and do well in those courses. The results also suggest persistent achievement gaps between student groups.”

The report covers many of the lower division requirement courses that SB-520 would provide online. It finds that online courses have higher dropout rates and widens achievement gaps between high and low performing students, as well as between white and black students.

Diagnosing education

Meanwhile, in the UC system, problems simply aren't as prevalent.

Over the last 20 years, the University of California's graduation rate has consistently improved. Five UC campuses are in the top 20 for graduation rates for US public colleges. Powell, of the UC Academic Senate, points out that this happened in the face of state budget cuts.

“If one assumes that graduation rates are somehow related to this concept of impacted courses,” he says, “one could say that there were more impacted courses in 1992 than there are today.”

Not everyone is in as fortunate a position. CSU faculty can't deny they have room for improvement. They've even gone online to do that — the CSU system already offers about 13,000 online classes. And Filling, from CSU's Academic Senate, says they've found that online classes really do have a place in the future of higher learning.

“Research that we’ve seen suggests that the most successful students for online education are in upper divisions and grad programs,” he says.

In short, MOOCs might work for the kinds of students that Coursera and Udacity's founders taught in courses on machine learning and computer science at Stanford — but the model breaks down precisely where California lawmakers are hoping to apply it next.

CSU is looking elsewhere to keep its students in college past their first year. Its plans focus on face-to-face advising and on-campus work.

"They involve the opposite of online education," Filling says.


At San Jose State University, Udacity co-founder Sebastian Thrun, edX and Newsom have an opportunity to test out their MOOC moonshot. Student outcomes may well prove that online education can help the state's three-tiered academic system fulfill the promises it made before money started running dry to help it follow through. Everyone has something to gain, after all — Udacity's competitor, Coursera, is starting to generate revenue. SJSU's president, Mohammad Qayoumi, stands to bring his institution shoulder to shoulder with the larger and more prestigious Stanford just a few dozen miles away by positioning it as a leader in online education.

Whether for-profit or non-profit, the companies working on online courses are refining their models. Coursera is working on proctored exams. EdX's model includes "flipped classes" where class time is spent in collaboration, and instructors and teaching assistants are on-hand to answer questions. The larger their test groups, the more adjustments they can make.

And Newsom, who has published a book that frames his entire approach to governance as one predicated on a close intermarriage of government and private, tech-driven industry, is making the kind of moves one would make before running for governor. Newsom sits on the board of trustees for the CSU system and the Board of Regents for the UC system in his role as lieutenant governor.

In a conversation earlier this year with techPresident's Sarah Stirland, he said he doesn't "subscribe" to the idea of "broadcast online education for profit." Instead, he said, he embraces "individualized learning" — such as Thrun's Udacity, which in its current pilots at San Jose State features "course mentors, tutors, and instructor-coordinated office hours."

"We’re engaging in the first partnership with San Jose State with Udacity University for accredited courses," Newsom said. "We’re having real conversations about changing the way we deliver the model of education we have today in a more cost effective manner, but more importantly, and more granular manner in terms of meeting people where they are in terms of how they learn as opposed to the older model of how we think they learn."

"So yes, we’re leaning in aggressively, and we want to lead the nation, UC and CSU on these principles," he continued, "but we want to do it right, and thoughtfully."

His office did not respond to a request for comment on SB-520.

UC and CSU officials don't think the bill is very thoughtful. Whether the bill ends up benefiting for-profit companies like Coursera or Udacity, or the non-profit edX, they see it as an unnecessary privatization of public education. Designing and accrediting courses is normally a more rigorous process internal to each institution which takes into account the material of the course, but also its eventual audience. Critics like SJSU's Qayoumi or Florez say each system does not need its own, separate version of common core classes or to teach them in person.

"There is no possibility that UC faculty will shirk its responsibility to our students by ceding authority for courses to an outside agency," Robert Powell, of the UC Academic Senate, wrote in a letter to Steinberg, SB-520's author, in March.

California's academics seem to be of one mind on this. Letters from various CSU academic senates say the same thing.

"We're not always on the same page," says Lillian Taiz, president of the California Faculty Association, which represents faculty in the California State University system. "But on this one there was unanimity that I have never seen before."

The three tiers of California's college and university system could, in theory, develop their own course systems to comply with the bill. The governor announced last year that he would carve out millions of dollars from each system's budget for them to devote to their own online learning projects. Twenty Million Minds, says Florez, just wants to make sure that each system considers third-party providers.

"We were a bit concerned because we wanted to make sure that everybody had an opportunity to look at the best online, whatever that might be," he said, and added, "it might be Coursera, it might be Udacity, it might be Straighterline."

Straighterline is another online course provider already accredited to offer courses for California community college credit.

This coming academic year California's public colleges will benefit from a budget increase that's tied to new performance metrics for degree completion to be proposed by Governor Jerry Brown. SB-520 would add a new layer of government involvement. Online courses would create the appearance of a solution, faculty say, but they would not actually address the underlying problems. The bill pits Silicon Valley futurists who say California's higher education system needs disruption against faculty who say it would leave California's institutions of higher learning with a case of disruptionitis — systems broken by technology entrepreneurs who lack the real ability to put them back together.

"It is harder to get courses because the funding has been cut, and so I think the legislators think this is a way to make this all go away," says Bob Samuels, of the UC's faculty union. "This is the kind of magical solution to not deal with the real problem."