Archives For MOOCs

This is the third post about my experience taking a MOOC (massive open online course). In part 1, I discussed the basics of the class and shared my early thoughts about the Coursera experience. In part 2, I expressed my frustration with the course assignments and humbly admitted to failing the second assignment.

The Introduction to Finance course is now into its seventh week, and I have fallen behind. In part this is because I made the common-sense decision to skip the assignments from here on out. It was clear from the second assignment, which I failed, that I was not going to be able to pass future assignments given the time I was willing to commit and given the lack of course support for struggling students like myself. Interestingly, I posted a note on the class discussion forum about my blog series, and several fellow students responded there (as they did in comments to this blog) to admit that they were having the same problems that I was: they found the assignments poorly designed and highly frustrating to work through, with no resolution at the end. When you don’t know why you missed a question, or how badly, it’s pretty difficult to learn anything from the experience.

In any event, having tossed the assignments overboard like so much excess baggage, I have continued to watch the video lectures, which I find informative and interesting. That said, without the need to keep up with the assignments, there is no longer a deadline on my video watching. I have thus fallen behind the weekly schedule, but this doesn’t concern me too much, since I’m doing the whole exercise for my general edification anyway.

MOOCs and Textbooks

In all of the fevered discussion about MOOCs that is taking place in higher-ed circles, one consistent theme is that MOOCs may replace traditional textbooks. Given my experience with my finance MOOC, I could see this happening. However, it depends on the subject area in question and on how we define a “textbook.”

In the case of the finance MOOC, the professor has suggested several “optional” textbooks, including one that is available for free online. They are optional, however, because they mainly cover the same ground as the professor does in his lectures, albeit with perhaps more depth. In other words, finance (at least this particular course, taught this particular way) is one of those disciplines where the typical lecture involves a basic introduction and explanation of fundamental tenets and concepts. Since those are the very things covered in a traditional textbook, I could certainly see how MOOC lectures could begin to supplant the textbooks in many areas.

Even in history courses, for all I know there are still professors whose lecture style involves a methodical transmission of the basic facts/events/themes in question—the very things covered in traditional history textbooks. However, my guess is that it’s more common for history classrooms to feature discussion based on readings that students have been asked to do prior to class, whether those readings consist of a textbook, primary sources, journal articles, or monographs.

Whatever the case, a MOOC cannot consist of class discussion, at least not as presently designed. It can really only involve the more traditional form of lecturing, with the professor expounding on main facts/events/themes. So here again, where we see history MOOCs being developed, I could imagine that they could proceed without any textbook.

Next-Generation Textbooks

However, at least in the area of history—and I suspect many other disciplines—traditional textbooks are beginning to morph into hybrid digital tools that blend a “textbook” with so-called courseware: assessments, primary documents, and so forth. Witness Cengage’s MindTap or Pearson’s MyHistoryLab or our own Milestone Documents. Unless I’m mistaken, the first two are still grounded on specific existing textbooks. (Milestone Documents is not.) Nevertheless, will MOOCs replace these?

My guess is, hardly likely. Certainly one could picture a MOOC being developed that creates not only the video lectures but also ALL supporting tools and elements from scratch. But this is an extremely expensive proposition, and I can’t see institutions going to this level with their MOOCs.

Instead, schools may well partner with the big education providers to incorporate their already existing digital courseware bundles into specific MOOCs. But in this scenario, the “textbook”—if we can still call it that—survives. It should be to no one’s surprise that the textbook giants have maneuvered themselves into a position of power. MOOCs replacing Pearson? Don’t make me laugh.

In my opinion, the whole discussion about MOOCs and textbooks is incidental to the much bigger issues of faculty retention/replacement, student benefits (or lack thereof), cost, and the general defunding of public education, at least in the United States. I’ll add my two cents to some of those issues in my next post.

This is the second post about my experience taking a MOOC (massive open online course). In part 1, I discussed the basics of the class and shared my early thoughts about the Coursera experience.

As I write today, we are about 4 weeks into the 15-week course “Introduction to Finance.” The class is structured in 3-week increments: 2 weeks of video lectures and 1 week of assignments. The first 2 weeks of video lectures proceeded smoothly. The lectures were simple to the point of simplistic. Guatam Kaul, our professor, is an appealing and engaging lecturer, and he explained the various concepts quite well. In most of the lectures, the explanations and minor exercises he asked us to perform were very easy, even to someone like me whose grounding in mathematics and accounting is quite shaky.

A Giant Exercise in Frustration

The assignments, however, were another story. There were 2 assignments to be completed in week 3, each tied to the concepts in one of the first 2 weeks. Each assignment had 10 questions and no time limit, and students were allowed 2 attempts to pass the assignment.

For the week 1 assignment, I sailed through the first 8 questions in about 5 minutes. The final 2 questions took me more than 2 hours, and I was able to answer them only by seeking help in the class’s discussion forum. Here, students are allowed to ask and answer general questions about the assignments as long as no exact answers are given. Even then, I answered one of those final questions incorrectly. But in the end,  I managed a score of 95 out of 100.

In the week 2 assignment, it got worse. I could answer the first handful of questions pretty easily, but the last several again proved impossible for me to answer without resorting to the discussion forum. To make matters worse, this time the aid provided by the discussion forum was less helpful than for the first assignment. Nearly 3 hours in, exasperated beyond measure, I called it quits and submitted my answers. My score: 55. Also known as an “F,” my first such grade in four decades of schooling. I did make another attempt, but a further 1.5 hours in, still struggling with the questions and the concepts that seemed so simple when described by Guatam, I gave up.

Why the disconnect between the lectures and the assignments? First, clearly, I have had difficulty grasping concepts presented thus far, even though that difficulty didn’t reveal itself until assignment time. Also, even though Guatam described the (free) online textbook as entirely optional, a resource that mainly covers the same ground as his lectures, I made little use of it. So I probably have only myself to blame. Still, I have to cast some blame on the design of the assignments, in which many of the questions seem to have been written as obtusely as possible in a clear attempt to make them more challenging. This is a common practice, as everyone will recognize from their own days in school. Without such manipulation, the questions would no doubt be too easy for too many students. But as for me, I had trouble figuring out what information some questions were asking for. In some cases, even when I got the right answer, I wasn’t sure why my answer was correct.

I Need Help from My Professor

I, however, am not one of the brightest and the best when it comes to the material covered in this class. As I was banging my head against the wall trying to make my way through the assignments, and as it became clear that the explanations of my fellow students in the discussion forum were not helping, it dawned on me: I needed access to the professor, the one person who has spent decades honing his ability to describe and explain these concepts to struggling students. That, along with his years of schooling as evidenced by his PhD, is in part why he is on the faculty of a prestigious business school like Michigan.

However, in the MOOC environment, such access is not possible. Instead, I was stuck with my fellow students—nice and smart people, no doubt, but not able to help me grasp the issues. What’s worse is that after failing my second assignment, I still don’t know why I failed. Students are not allowed to receive the assignment answers even after the quiz is over, lest they post them online for others to see.

A Daunting Task Ahead

Where does that leave me heading into week 4? It seems likely that my chances of receiving a certificate for successful completion of the course—given to those who pass most of the assignments and score a 70 on the final exam—are very low. After all, if I couldn’t even pass the 2nd assignment, and I don’t know why I couldn’t pass it, how am I going to keep up as the concepts (and assignments) grow more difficult?

Now, since I’m taking this class for my own edification and amusement, the certificate hardly matters to me. Still, my struggles aside, I consider myself far more prepared to succeed in an online environment than the vast majority of college students. It would seem that most students need more face-to-face time with professors and smaller class sizes. But universities around the world are rushing headlong in the opposite direction with this MOOC mania, which would seem to argue that better serving their students is perhaps not their chief goal.

For now, however, I will leave aside the thorny issues of MOOC efficacy, purpose, and suitability for courses in the humanities and social sciences. Instead, I will continue on with the video lectures and will see what value I can extract from the course, even if I end up failing it.

After seeing massive open online courses (MOOCs) suck up all the oxygen in the higher-education room for the past year, I decided it was time to try out one of these things for myself. So I have jumped into the deep end of the pool: not just a MOOC, but a MOOC on finance. Yikes. I may own a business, but let’s just say my strengths are on the content and creative sides. No one will ever confuse me with the great corporate finance geniuses of this or any other age. This will represent my first schooling experience since graduating from college back in the ‘80s and attending the University of Denver Publishing Institute.

At the insistence of my friend Jonathan Rees, who blogged about his own MOOC experience last fall, I am going to share some of my thoughts about this MOOC as I proceed through the class. Today, in part 1, I share the basics about the class and focus on the Coursera experience.

Introducing Guatam

The course I am taking is “Introduction to Finance,” taught by Guatam Kaul from the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. It is a 15-week course with an expected workload of 6-8 hours per week. The fundamental elements of the course experience are twofold:

  1. Video lectures by Guatam: 2 hours’ worth of lectures each week, broken up into 10- to 20-minute chunks.
  2. Exercises and assessments: There are exercises built in to each of the video lectures and then formal assignments to complete every 3 weeks. Plus a final exam at the end.

There is no formal textbook for the class, but Guatam does suggest a couple of optional ones, including one that is available for free online. I chose this one, as I’m sure nearly all students do.

To date I have watched only the introductory videos from Guatam, in which he carefully and methodically lays out the structure of the course, how it will operate, and how best to approach it. Judging from these early videos, I would bet that Guatam is extremely popular with his “real” students at the University of Michigan. He comes across as warm, congenial, funny, and highly approachable. You never have to wait long for a smile from him. He earnestly admonishes us to focus on the learning experience, not grades or the final certificate, and he begs us to approach the course with an open mind, curiosity, and a love of learning. He states that he decided to teach the MOOC because he strongly believes that education—even an experience from a globally renowned institution like Michigan—should be accessible to everyone. His videos are shot in intimate close-ups, which is perfect for an instructor like him. I think the videos will fly by because he is so good in this format and so fun to watch.

The Coursera Experience

This course is offered through Coursera, which has probably gotten more ink than any other MOOC provider. My initial thoughts about Coursera are from a web design and UX (user experience) perspective, something that I think about a great deal with our Milestone Documents service. No doubt Coursera had access to the best design and UX talent that venture capital can buy, and it shows. The interface is clean, uncluttered, and very easy to navigate. This is no small thing: presenting a complex design in a simple way is exceedingly hard. In addition, the videos are crystal-clear. There is surprisingly little in the way of student analytics, but I would expect to see a greater use of these from Coursera as their service matures.

Next up for me in this class, now that I have made my way through the introductory material, are the first lectures and exercises from the meat of the course: dauntingly titled sections like “Time Value of Money” and “Simple Future Value.” I will discuss my initial experience with the class material in my next post.

I was recently interviewed by an industry analyst for Outsell about the higher education textbook industry. One of the things we discussed was where the textbook is going. Here are some of the elements I identified in that discussion, at least as they relate to history textbooks:

  • It will be native digital.
  • It will be Web-based. It’s too expensive to create special “editions” for different mobile devices like an iPad, so companies instead will create a Web platform that works across devices.
  • It will be a service, not a book: flexible, expandable, and constantly evolving. I’m not talking about new editions every 1-2 years, either, but a service that changes frequently throughout the semester with new content and features.
  • It will have primary sources as an essential component, if not the leading one.
  • It will be customizable by the instructor, who will assign only the parts that he or she wants to assign.
  • It will be interactive for both students and instructors, especially in the area of assessments.
  • There may not be a single authorial “voice,” but the content will still be authoritative and peer-reviewed.
  • It will make heavy use of analytics to deliver a more personalized, dynamic experience for students, and to provide faculty with new insight about how their students are learning.

What about Price? What about “Open”?

In the past few years, there has been a lot of time and money spent on the creation of free, open textbooks (or OER, for “open educational resources”) from companies like Flat World Knowledge and nonprofits like OpenStax. The movement is understandable, given the high cost of traditional textbooks. I have long wondered whether these “free” resources are sustainable. Flat World has just just come to the conclusion that they are not, but of course it’s a for-profit entity, so that was perhaps always to be expected. On the other hand, many faculty are passionate about OER, and so it does seem likely that some free textbooks will continue to be created. These may well be good resources—peer reviewed, well written—and will surely find an audience.

However, I feel that experimental digital textbook services of the future are more likely to come from for-profit entities, given the investment needed and the longer-term commitment required to improve and enhance the services over time. Thus, in my opinion, the textbook of the future (to continue with the ivory-tower theme that there will be only a single such entity) will be far more affordable than traditional textbooks, but it will not be free.

When Will the Future Arrive?

As the creator of Milestone Documents, a service that is built suspiciously close to the specs listed above (imagine that!), I would say that the future is now. Tongue only partly in cheek. In all seriousness, traditional textbooks still maintain a dominant position in the market, and I don’t see that changing terribly quickly. For one thing, the big publishers have a vested interest in slow change: they want the era of expensive textbooks (all published by them) to last as long as possible. For another, the market itself is notoriously slow-moving. At the recent American Historical Association annual meeting, the exhibit hall was still chock-a-block with books. Even many attendees insist on calling it a “book exhibit,” much to my chagrin. Our Milestone Documents booth was once again an odd duck here, with only a few fellow booths that were about something other than books: Alexander Street Press, Soomo, and BiblioBoard, to name a few. In the New York Times roundup of the meeting, Oxford University Press president Niko Pfund said that historians are “absolutely imprisoned in the format of the printed book.” I realize he was referring mainly to scholarly monographs and their role in tenure decisions, but the characterization doesn’t exactly fall apart when applied to textbooks.

Still, we are far from alone in working in this area. Many of the biggest publishers, from McGraw-Hill to Pearson to Cengage, are already investing huge sums to create next-generation learning services that include many of the features I listed above. Startups such as Knewton and Kno are also active on the scene, often working in concert with those big publishers. Here’s Jeff Young in a recent article in the Chronicle about these efforts:

“Major publishers have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the past few years buying up software companies and building new digital divisions, betting that the future will bring an expanded role for publishers in higher education.”

As Young points out, many publishers are maneuvering their digital services to be not just a new kind of textbook but in fact a “course in a box,” and many are speculating that such efforts will converge with MOOCs—the online learning systems that are attracting so much attention. In this scenario, the textbook is submerged into a larger service platform.

While such consolidation may indeed happen, individual faculty will still be looking for excellent content and a service solution that lets them teach their courses as they want. I think this bodes well for a future textbook solution that is not a mere cog in a giant MOOC platform but something that can stand alone on its own merits.

I saw recently that Malcolm Gladwell’s next book is going to be about underdogs. In this interview at the New Yorker’s website, he talks about some examples from his forthcoming work: a girls’ basketball team, a cancer researcher, the Impressionist painters. One of the points he makes is that underdogs can win only with the right combination of effort plus strategy. Effort alone won’t cut it.

In the business world, one of the key factors in any underdog’s success (or lack thereof) is the general state of the industry in question. There are plenty of industries where the barriers to entry are so high, and the market so mature, that it’s difficult for underdogs to compete. However, there are many others that are experiencing some measure of upheaval. Consider publishing, for example. In an interview at Digital Book World about book publishing and e-books in particular, Kobo executive Michael Tamblyn made this observation:

When industries are stable and things are ticking along steadily, industries tend to be dominated by insiders; you have to grow up in it and pay your dues. During times of upheaval is when outsiders get in, when start-ups get in, when innovators get their shot.

Disruption in Education

Or consider the higher education market, which is abuzz these days with talk about MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). Several entities have formed to offer new online courses in this area (Coursera, EdX, Udacity), and they include some of the most famous universities in the country. Despite the lack of any clear business model or any evidence that online learning is as good as (or superior to) traditional classroom learning, huge amounts of investment money are being poured into this marketplace. It’s like a modern-day gold rush, only no gold has been found. A good many people had a chuckle about this remark in a New York Times article about Coursera’s latest expansion announcement:

Coursera does not pay the universities, and the universities do not pay Coursera, but both incur substantial costs.

So in other words, it’s a win-win situation! Obviously, these new online players are making a bet that a revenue model will be found at some point. And maybe they are right. If they are, then MOOCs will indeed prove to be enormously disrupting to many organizations in the higher ed field. In this case, the disruption may lead to a consolidation of power at elite universities at the expense of the rest, a point made by Mills Kelly of George Mason University.

Looking for an Edge

Like every other company that services the higher ed market, we are watching these developments closely and wondering how they might affect us. And there is no doubt that for a small upstart like our Milestone Documents service, online education represents a significant opportunity. I say this even though personally I’m quite skeptical about online learning. We didn’t design Milestone Documents specifically for online learning (and most of our customers use us in a traditional classroom setting), but it happens to be perfectly suited to an online environment. At the same time, the competition will be fierce, from the established heavyweights at the top to other upstarts at the bottom. A market in the midst of change may open up spaces for small innovators, but the journey is still long and difficult.

What about your market? If you’re an underdog in your industry, how do you succeed? What’s your strategy for changing the rules of the game so that it tilts in your favor? These are the questions that a lot of us in the higher education industry—companies and institutions alike—will be working on in the next few years.