Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Evolution of Higher Education

Those who don't work in higher education -- and, unfortunately, many who do -- will not have heard of MOOCs (pronounced "mook").  It's a funny name for one of the biggest threats to academia in recent times.  MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course, often reaching tens of thousands at a time, and usually constructed by deep-pocketed high-powered institutions like Harvard and Stanford.  And here's the worst part: they're free.

Think of what happened to the music industry in the last ten years, or to publishing, or to newspapers and the phone company.   This is what is coming to colleges and universities everywhere, except for those like Harvard, Yale, Stanford.  They have brand recognition, an elite clientele, and anyway they are the ones who are writing the MOOCs.  It's little institutions like mine, lesser known and with just 11,000 students, which must take notice.

There may be a silver lining to the dark cloud, however.  Higher education might actually benefit from a little shaking up.  The academy is, to some extent, locked to some older models of learning which don't work as well today.  For example, departments have what is called a "silo mentality" and often deliver their disciplines as if they were not connected to one another.  In adjacent offices there may be a biologist and a psychologist, or a sociologist and an economist, or a physicist and a graphic artist.  And they don't speak.  A few disciplines are different, at least in theory.  Historians must address major events as they come along through time -- some are sociological, some political, economic, meterological, and so on.  A geographer looks at all manner of things too, in the context of location and place.  But most disciplines (and even these, sometimes) see themselves as so unique they are almost like different species. 

But actually the opposite is true.  The biological definition for species is groups which don't produce fertile offspring in a natural setting.  Some species could have productive offspring but they don't mate for behavioral reasons -- domestic dogs and coyotes, for example.  But the real world is exactly where the disciplines do cross-pollinate.  Nature is interdisciplinary.  Silos -- the species which don't have fertile offspring -- only appear in captivity.  That is, in the academy. 

Another problem in the academy is the polarization -- often antagonism --- between faculty and administration.  I've written about this earlier in Reframing Organizations but it basically comes from highly trained specialists being told what to do by a structured organizationists.  The frustrated herder may come to hate the cats, and the cats to hate the herder.  Neither side understands the challenges and pressures the other one faces.  But while this is going on, MOOCs present a common enemy.  There's nothing like an attack by aliens to make nations get along.

And it's also true that competition can be a force for change.  It's an evolutionary fact: survival of the fittest.  It's a process of variation (technology borne MOOCs) ... and elimination.  I only hope it's elimination of less effective ways of teaching, and not of the institution itself.     

I'm going to describe my experience with MOOCs in detail in my next blog, as I'm just midway through two of them now.  I'm taking Genetics and Evolution from a professor at Duke University, and Game Theory from three at Stanford.  I'd say they're giving me a run for the money, a nice challenge,  but I can't because there is no money involved.  I'll share more later but I'll just say that more than 20,000 are enrolled in one, and 15,000 in the other, and the discussion boards are full of highly educated chatter.

So what is the appropriate response to MOOCs in higher education?  There are several interesting trends I'm aware of, one of which is called the "inverted curriculum."   Normally, a course is designed to provide students with the building blocks first -- simple concepts, background, history, definitions, and so on, then the more complicated ideas to culminate if they're lucky, in an application of the new knowledge to a real situation. With an inverted curriculum the opposite happens -- you start with a "nasty," problem, for example, the threat of  Asian Carp to the Great Lakes.   Study the problem first, look at its various dimensions, understand its implications, and basically presente students with messy problems like those in the real world.  Then dig down into the discipline -- or disciplines -- to understand the issues better or move toward a solution.

At a recent conference that discussed this approach (SENCER) I saw this in action. A group of us were told about the Rhesus monkeys which had been attacking people in New Delhi. We saw a short video of monkey thugs terrorizing park-goers, and watched a news report describe people being thrown from the roofs, chased, bitten, robbed, and attacked in alleys.  Monkeys break into homes to raid refrigerators.  At the same time, an important Hindu sect worships the monkey god Hanuman, and actually feed and protect the animals.  

We were all impressed by the challenge and broke briefly into small groups. Then the chemist talked a bit about discrete sterilization, maybe with darts. A psychologist had studied Rhesus behavior and suggested ways they might be conditioned.   I and another geographer thought of tracking their travel patterns with small GPS devices, mapping incidents, and comparing these to the distribution of Hanuman temples. A biologist mentioned disease vectors and growth rates, and it went on this way around the room.  There are so many ways to sink one's teeth in the problem, so to speak, and it was clear to me that this approach would appeal to students.

Hey so here's the nasty problem of the day: MOOCs.

But it's complicated; there is a lot to recommend them, just as some worshipers and naturalists certainly appreciate the monkeys.  After all, higher education is sinfully expensive today, and also ... MOOCs are not at all bad for learning!  So another trend within higher education -- one that takes direct advantage advantage of the new technologies -- is  the "flipped" classroom.  This approach doesn't lose sight of the value of face time, but it makes use of it differently.  In one way it's like a hybrid course -- half online, and half in house.  But in the flipped classroom lecture is listened to outside of class, with podcasts.  And what was homework is moved to class time.  That is, students go to class for discussion, peer work, debate, projects, studying, application, field trips, experiments, and to give each other feedback on writing, and so on -- the kinds of things they used to do on their own time.  Although the approach is new and the science is young, I've read that from a learning perspective this is best -- better than classroom lecture, better than "traditional" online, better than hybrid, and -- thankfully -- better than a MOOC.

A third trend capitalizes on something MOOCs simply can not do, at all.  That is to increase civic engagement and community outreach.  This meshes well with the "nasty problem" approach, as many community organizations wrestle with just that sort of thing.  Students learn well by doing, and the communication skills they will acquire in a real setting are great for personal growth and employment prospects.  This is similar to what is often done by internship, but with a whole classroom at once, which allows for peer interaction.  And they give back to the community, at the same time.  Everybody wins.

So it seems that there may be hope for the regular universities, even in the face of Massive Open Online Courses.  But only if we are serious about it, and if we are quick.  OK then; we'll know, soon enough.