Continuing 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.
- 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.
- Michael Crow appears, but before his more famous run as Arizona State University’s president. DeMillo links Crow to good old and doomed Fathom.com (1152). This doesn’t add pessimism to the chapter, however.
- 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.
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.), 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).