Revolution in Higher Education: chapter 2

Revolution in Higher Education, coverContinuing with our reading of Richard DeMillo’s Revolution in Higher Education: How a Small Band of Innovators Will Make College Accessible and Affordable (2015) (publisher; Amazon): this week we’re discussing chapter 2, “Shifting Landscape.”

Here DeMillo carries on his account of the MOOC story which he launched in chapter 1.  This chapter takes us from 2012 through 2013, following the expansion of MOOCs across American research-1 institutions and the breakout of Coursera, edX, and Udacity.  The launch of Georgia Tech’s MOOC-based computer science master’s degree is central here.

DeMillo carries on with several themes.  We see more of institutions working with MOOCs (especially Penn, University of Texas, and Georgia Tech), and less of campuses opposing them.  Economic sustainability continues to be a problem, unsolved at this point (and now), although we see corporations start to show interest. “There was a chorus of critics demanding to know who would pay for ‘free’ MOOCs”(1244).

Most important in this chapter is the goal of using technology to broaden access to higher education, by lowering costs and expanding the number of students who can engage with university materials (lectures only in this chapter).  DeMillo sees MOOCs as unbundling academic content, specifically extracting lectures and the possibility of assessment from the rest of university functions.

It’s not entirely a rosy account.  We see opposition appear:

Problems with individual courses, dissenting voices, and a deafening lack of enthusiasm from university presidents becomes as newsworthy as another batch of university partners for Coursera or edX. (Kindle location 1093)


Charges that MOOC providers were out to decimate the ranks of traditional faculty members or that students would be shunted to impersonal, ineffective videos versus high-quality classrooms were common.  Alumni were worried that large pools of enrolled online students would dilute brands that had been carefully built over a hundred years.(1202)

And “[t]he poor quality of many MOOCs did not strengthen the hand of early enthusiasts” (1210).

Problems appear in trying to practically accomplish unbundling, including determining costs (1295; 1109 etc.). After portraying criticism and aspiration alike, DeMillo synthesizes things thusly: “this was a high-risk bet that higher education was going to change radically” (1100).  He sees some criticisms as missing the point, when, for example, critics spot bad quality in classes, but don’t notice their rapid correction (1218), a point Clay Shirky made back in late 2012.

Miscellaneous notes:

  • DeMillo sees for-pay assessment as solving the MOOC dropout problem (1253).
  • We reach further back in history here, following the track of DeMillo’s previous book  Abelard To Apple. DeMillo traces a struggle in American universities between practical learning and liberal education, starting with the Morrill Act (1862) and Columbia University’s reinvention of the undergraduate curriculum (1126 et al).  We also get a reference to the history of digital innovations grabbing markets and depressing prices, starting with Craigslist and newspaper classified ads (1303).
  • There’s a fascinating, inconclusive discussion of determining and pricing faculty productivity (1312 et seq).  DeMillo explores the possibility that external grants, federal and private, somehow distort the ways universities charge for classes, but doesn’t really end up with a clear argument.
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  • Michael Crow appears, but before his more famous run as Arizona State University’s president.  DeMillo links Crow to good old and doomed (1152).  This doesn’t add pessimism to the chapter, however.
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  • Another online learning antecedent/alternative appears: Columbia Video Network (1186)
  • DeMillo sees MOOC developers using mastery learning techniques (1218), at least in terms of designing classes.

Overall, chapter two continues Revolution’s historical and aspirational drives. It’s more balanced that the introduction and chapter 1.

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What do you make of it?

Next week, starting November 16th, is chapter 3: Levity, Brevity, and Repetition.

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.

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), 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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10 Responses to Revolution in Higher Education: chapter 2

  1. Interviewed Sebastian Thrun for article about Udacity’s “nanodegrees” – cost under $1,000 and takes under 12 months to complete -for upcoming story in Fast Company, slated for publication on 11-9. They have 10,000 students and just recently awarded 1,000 nanodegrees in subjects like web development, app development, tech entrepreneur (eight total nanodegrees right now) – with lots more coming on the near horizon. They partner with Silicon Valley companies and others to develop these programs, which seem like great alternatives to paying the high cost of earning a master’s degree, at least in some of these IT fields. They have a career assistance service that is part of the program that looks interesting as well. Their website has student testimonials all over the place that seem honest. Thrun seemed totally committed to making this work. They have an outsource model for hiring project reviewers and course developers from around the world – these are independent contractors who get payed about $50 per hour. He says the outsource model enables Udacity to offer these degrees at such as low cost as well as to sustain everything as enrollments keep increasing and programs are added. .

  2. jennycolvin says:

    I appreciated the link he made between iTunesU and MOOCs because I still feel the same trajectory in MOOC adoption as I did with iTunesU (and my institution finally pulled from that platform, which was never a successful one for us.)

    One fact I took note of but don’t know what to make of is this “99 percent of students who paid the Signature Track fee completed the course…. nearly 25 percent higher than the full-tuition paying Georgia Tech students who took the same course on campus.” I don’t know or understand why this is. I don’t know if it’s anecdotal in a sense. (I also don’t know why anyone would pay for this Signature Track to begin with when it is otherwise free; what kind of student chooses this course, and would that kind of student be in the percentage of course-completing GT students as well?)

    I’m not sure what to make of the faculty research-teaching time analysis. It feels like an occasion where I’m having a bunch of statistics thrown in my face so I will accept what you are saying. On my campus and other similar liberal arts institutions, research is supplemental to teaching, a summer project, even when grant funded. Time on research is not time spent away from teaching, if anything, the researchers spend more time with students who are also brought into the labs. So it doesn’t compute, in fact we have in the past used undergraduate research as a major selling point.

    And let’s talk about selling points, shall we? I understand this concept of more students in a class = more time. That would be a great selling point to a trustee increasing course size but not to anyone else! Everyone knows that smaller classes means better teaching (don’t we? If that is being questioned can we have that evidence please?) Where I work we are SELLING small classes and individualized high-touch education. How else could we get people to pay the sticker price? Nobody wants to pay for the opportunity to be one of ten thousand students in a class. I wouldn’t even do that for free, once I tried it.

    • Good thoughts, Jenny.

      Class size: I don’t think the liberal arts sector has appeared in this book. He seems to be focused on R1s and, by implication, state schools.
      I’m seeing zero forces pushing to decrease student to teacher ratio in the US.

      Signature Track: good point. That is an odd story, except as an anecdote justifying DeMillo’s faith in the power of online learning done right.

  3. Udacity has been breaking up their students into cohorts – not sure of the exact size of each cohort, but they move students in and out/ up and down of various cohorts based on their progress or lack thereof in the online courses. Students that I have talked to said they have gotten lots of support in the online forums 24/7 and almost instantly. The project reviewers/graders also get back with students on their projects in record time as well, including coding reviews. Project reviewers/graders are also rated by students – when they get more than one complaint/low rating, they are let go. There is a back log of people who want to become project reviewers as well.

    • That’s extremely ambitious, George. A reorganized form of tertiary education.

      • I’m trying to get a better handle on all this to see if it truly is a bona-fide alternative to traditional tertiary ed, especially at the graduate level. I am leaning toward the notion that it is but only in certain fields, like app development, which is obviously a growing field where decent jobs are available to people who complete these kinds of programs – or at least that is how it looks from the periphery of things as an outsider of sorts. Need to do much more research and interview more students to dig out the truth.

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