Innovation in 2014: Welcome to the Evolution

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

January 13, 2014

Last month a few hundred academics gathered at the University of Texas at Arlington for the first-ever conference on research about massive open online courses.

The organizer of the conference, George Siemens, was present at the birth of the massive online course, in 2008. That's when he and another professor teaching a class on learning theory to 25 students at the University of Manitoba decided to invite the rest of the world to join them online. The class ended up attracting 2,300 people, and with it a new term was coined: MOOC. (See a profile of George Siemens.)

It would be three more years before a group of Stanford professors popularized MOOCs by attracting hundreds of thousands of students to sign up for their classes. You know the rest of the story: Within a few months, a handful of elite universities and venture-capital funds poured millions of dollars into start-ups like Coursera and edX, to offer classes from the dozens of colleges and universities that clamored to join the party. The frenzy prompted The New York Times to declare 2012 "the year of the MOOC."

Then, last year, all the curiosity and hype that surrounded the 2012 version of MOOCs turned to condemnation and remorse. High-profile campus experiments using the courses proved disappointing. Faculty members at traditional universities fought off efforts to allow the courses to replace face-to-face teaching. As 2013 came to a close, another proclamation about MOOCs arrived in this front-page Times headline: "After Setbacks, Online Courses Are Rethought."

Critics of massive online courses seized on this latest article, along with a recent profile in Fast Company magazine of one of the biggest proponents of MOOCs, Sebastian Thrun of Udacity—where he called the courses "a lousy product"—as evidence that 2014 will be the year when higher education returns to reality and all this talk of disruption finally ends.

Lost in the debate and hype over MOOCs and other innovative ideas to finance and deliver a college degree, however, is that we are living in an important evolutionary moment, not a revolutionary moment, for the future of higher education. When any sector of the economy undergoes sweeping change—just as colleges and universities are now—every new development feels like a major turning point. But in hindsight, what we think of as big moments at the time often turn out to be just blips in the life cycle of an industry. Change, by its nature, is incremental. Big advances in a given year are few and far between.

What makes any large leap even more difficult to accomplish in higher education is that academics tend to be too isolated in their disciplines or institutions, and colleges work within rigid, regulatory structures that tend to stifle collaboration.

That structured approach to solving problems in isolation has hampered the rapid adoption of innovative ideas in higher education, too. MOOCs, adaptive learning, hybrid courses, and competency-based degrees are all seen as individual solutions to the vexing problems of access, cost, and the quality of college. Each idea has its advocates who believe they have found the silver-bullet solution as well as naysayers who see the change as a threat to their profession.

To transform higher education for the next generation, we need to better blend game-changing innovations with one another, and with traditional methods. Imagine an approach, for example, that allows traditional undergraduates to mix and match a competency-based degree program with a traditional time-based credit system. The students would move seamlessly through courses in which they knew the material and would focus their time on the ones in which they didn't.

Instead of 2014 being the year when talk of disruption in higher education ends, why not make it the year when pioneering ideas converge? Take a pilot project by a group of liberal-arts colleges in the West. Led by Dominican University of California, the institutions—including Whitman, Mills, and Whittier Colleges, and the University of Puget Sound—want to merge MOOC-based instruction with so-called high-impact practices like service learning, research with faculty members, and capstone projects that are a cornerstone of residential learning and have been shown to improve student learning.

None of those practices are incorporated into MOOCs right now, which is one reason the leaders of these liberal-arts colleges believe completion rates in the massive online courses are so low (about 10 percent). Backed by a grant from the Teagle Foundation, the consortium of colleges plans to build a model this spring of what a blended MOOC-residential program might look like and how its effects on online completion rates might be measured.

By next fall, the institutions plan to form a partnership with a MOOC provider to allow students enrolled in an online course to live on a campus and possibly obtain academic credits. Such a model is a potential win-win: The MOOC provider is able to offer credit, and the residential colleges get needed revenue and maybe a new pipeline of students.

Unlike many other college presidents, Dominican's leader, Mary B. Marcy, doesn't see the debate over MOOCs as a zero-sum game where institutions like hers lose out to online education. "This is about taking what we do well and the things that work well for students and continuing to evolve them for contemporary students," she said.

If the experiment succeeds, it might also provide clues to how to scale the benefits of residential campuses without expanding their physical footprint. Delivering affordable, high-quality college education to more people is a pressing domestic problem. Critics of MOOCs frequently bemoan the loss of face-to-face instruction but often ignore the fact that most campuses doing it well are not getting any bigger because their business model is enormously expensive.

Another example of how two ground-breaking technologies might blend together in 2014 came last month from the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. The council suggested that adaptive-learning software, which responds to the needs of individual students, could be added to MOOCs to personalize the experience.

"One possible trajectory for the MOOC technology," the council wrote in a letter to President Obama, "would be to reduce the cost of education simply by economizing on the use of teachers, using computerized feedback to support a course rather than online or offline personal guidance by a faculty member or a teaching assistant." The future they described sounds much like Carnegie Mellon University's Open Learning Initiative, which has already designed two dozen introductory-level courses using the latest research on how people learn instead of relying solely on the intuition of professors.

The concept behind the first MOOCs was to connect large groups of people in an online open forum rather than have a set of recorded lectures simply broadcast to the masses. At the research conference on MOOCs last month in Arlington, many of the MOOC pioneers noted that the next frontier will be the combination of that initial vision with the scale of teaching hundreds of thousands of students at once.

The evolution of MOOCs provides a road map of how the larger debate over innovation in higher education might play out in 2014. In just five years, massive online courses evolved from those early experiments to the offerings from Coursera and edX to who knows what is ahead. This much, though, is certain: Many more front-page proclamations about the future of higher education may be proved wrong in the coming year, but without these early experiments, we can't ever evolve to what comes next.

Jeffrey Selingo is a contributing editor at The Chronicle and a professor of practice at Arizona State University.