Revolution in Higher Education: chapter 1

Revolution in Higher Education, coverOur online book club begins!

This week we’re discussing the first chapter of Richard DeMillo’s Revolution in Higher Education: How a Small Band of Innovators Will Make College Accessible and Affordable (2015) (publisher; Amazon).

The chapter is entitled “Map of the World”, and focuses on the rise of open courseware (MIT OCW) and MOOCs, with notes on flipped classes, Khan Academy, gaming (via Dragon Box), and the Minerva Project (now Minerva Schools at KG).   DeMillo dubs this the Magic Year of 2012, when his titular revolution began.  We see Coursera when it was just “DKandme”.

This chapter takes us through the critical work of selected people, including Sebastian Thrun, Daphne Koller, Andrew Ng, George Siemens, Stephen Downes, Charles Vest, Anant Agarwal, and John Hennessy. The authors adds his own role in contributing to the #change11 MOOC, plus his initiation of the George Tech MOOC-driven computer science program.  The chapter touches on some open precursors, such as “England’s Open University” (Kindle location 670).  What unites these projects?  “[T]he same ideal: to bring high-quality, affordable college education to the world” (Kindle location 828).

DeMillo sounds several themes as he takes us through this recent, familiar history, starting with opposition between MOOC-creators and institutions.  Stanford’s provost opposed Thrun writing completion letters to students who finished the latter’s AI class, which Demillo interprets in institutional interest terms:

The last thing that a university like Stanford wants is to overthrow its carefully administered admissions office – and its tuition invoices, although nobody was saying so – for the Internet-like chaos of an open course. (Kindle location 654)

MIT’s provost is more willing to try out certificates (Kindle location 795). DeMillo returns to this theme when he differentiates his MOOC desires from those of Siemens and Downes, by wanting college credit for MOOCs  (Kindle location 728).  Universities appear as major players in this account so far, with the American MOOC scene looking like a battle between Stanford and MIT.

Another is economic sustainability.  Demillo sees online as being cheaper, and therefore “[a] university that staked its future on online courses needed to figure out how to add some value to the content in order to sustain its prices.” (Kindle location 678)

A larger theme, hit more forcefully in the book’s introduction, is broadening access to higher education. Emails from far-flung and variously challenged students happy with MOOCs appear.  DeMillo refers to the most academically and financially impressive institutions as the Elite, with capital E.  “Americans will eventually have to choose between preserving a system designed to serve the public good or becoming resigned to a new kind of system for just the privileged few…

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” (970) Demillo approvingly cites Chuck Vest’s public access reason for launching OCW.  His similarly approving account of Project Minerva seems to contradict this theme, however, as does his hypothesis about all players wanting to expand access to higher education.

I’m not sure what to make of open in this chapter.  DeMillo likes expanding access, but doesn’t probe open very far.

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Miscellaneous notes:

  • While DeMillo celebrates xMOOCs, he’s pretty critical of his cMOOC experience.  “The Mother of All MOOCs that Siemens had imagined was fizzling badly…
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    [S]tudents by and large expect to learning something, and this course… had failed to deliver” (Kindle Locations 883-890)  He also criticizes some xMOOC content for being too focused on things other than content (“nearly lost in a sea of irrelevant technical detail, administrative discussions, and digressions.  The Khan Academy video was by contrast a polished gem”, 890).

  • DeMillo turns from political to religious language at times.  In the introduction he writes of revolutionaries and martyrs.  In this chapter he offers a curious, pregnant passage: “This is not a mission to win converts; that battle is over.  Rather, it is a mission to minister.” (954)  The next sentences reference St. Ignatius.

Overall, this strikes me as a very fast chapter, covering a lot of ground at high speed.  “Map of the World” also pins itself carefully in time, ending before 2013 and American MOOC disillusionment.  It sounds some major themes, but I’m not sure if those exhaust the book’s ambition so far.

What do you make of it?

Next week, starting November 9th, is chapter 2: Shifting Landscape.

Would you like to follow along?  Simply snag a copy of the book from your library or MIT Press or the local bookshop or Amazon (etc.), and get reading.  I’ll post about each chapter at the start of each week, so you can add comments there.  I’ve set up a tag for all posts: demillorevolution.  Twitter’s also a fine place to chat (I’m @BryanAlexander).  If you’re into Goodreads, let us know so we can catch up (here’s me).

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15 Responses to Revolution in Higher Education: chapter 1

  1. jennycolvin says:

    I’m feeling like a skeptic! Have MOOCs really served as successful revolutionary groundwork for the future of education? I felt like the chapter detailed what happens with online and open education in 2011-12 but not really how effective it was. As someone who has participated in at least three MOOCs, I am not a believer. Like I’ve said in previous discussions, it isn’t the OOC part I struggle with but the M. I missed individual access to the expert terribly. Last fall I took a class here on campus, a creative non-fiction writing class with 12 students. It reminded me of what the best educational atmosphere is (to me) – small, one-on-one, creative, shared experiences, expert directed, mentored improvements and direct feedback. I didn’t get hardly any of that within a MOOC and it is terrifying to picture a world where that type of learning replaces what I feel is a better learning environment.

    I’m willing to keep going. Maybe this sets the stage for better solutions and ideas? Here’s to hoping.

    • Understood, Jenny.
      I was a bit surprised to see the book cheering on MOOCs so strongly in 2015, but think his chronological strategy might be at work.

      The flip side is: how to get that 12:1 seminar to the world?

  2. twscholl says:

    I plan on adding my response via Blog post this week. I will send out the link.

  3. rasebastian says:

    Thanks for leading this, Bryan. I just ordered the book but hope to join in once I get caught up.

  4. My initial take on this chapter is that DeMillo has strong opinions–some supported and others, perhaps the most important ones, just asserted with stronger language. I agree with some of his opinions, disagree with others, but where’s the evidence?

    Bryan mentions “Demillo sees online as being cheaper, ” Yes, but only at scale. That’s a critical point in his overall argument and needs to be remembered. I’m not concluding that’s good or back, but the question is how do we add value when we are teaching at scale?

    • Evidence isn’t piled high in this chapter. I’m looking ahead for more.

      Cheaper at scale: absolutely. Heading to web scale is critical here.

    • Emily says:

      Only certain forms of education can be cheaper online, at any scale. If you mean “delivering content,” then yes, by all means – but we’ve not yet found (that I’m aware of) a way to to deliver great expert/student interaction at MOOC scale, or cheaper than f2f.

  5. Paul McConaughy says:

    This is much more recent than DeMillo’s chapter, but it fits in:

    • jennycolvin says:

      This is good (did you notice that it says Bryan himself helped coin the word MOOC? Is this true?!) – I particularly liked this – “It seems urgent to properly assess these courses, looking for evidence of its benefits and if they truly educate people or not, so MOOCs gain credibility within academia and currency with employers.” I think this is what I’m still waiting for.

  6. Pingback: Revolution in Higher Education: chapter 2 | Bryan Alexander

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  8. David Allard says:

    I personally like MOOCs but as we can see the completion rate is really poor. I have finished most of the ones I have started but not all.

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