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…” (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.
- While DeMillo celebrates xMOOCs, he’s pretty critical of his cMOOC experience. “The Mother of All MOOCs that Siemens had imagined was fizzling badly… [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).