Monday, April 29, 2013

Making the Most of MOOCs

The idea of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) continues to attract attention in the education press and popular media.  As the idea evolves, we gradually are getting a better idea of where MOOCs might fit into the broader online learning environment and, indeed, what role they might play in the transformation of higher education as we adapt to the realities of life in a global information society.   In December, I posted some thoughts on where MOOCs might fit into the Land Grant mission.  Today, I want to look at them from a slightly different perspective.

There is one area where I want to be very clear:  The idea that a single MOOC should replace general education course taught at almost every college/university in the U.S. is misguided, at best.  This has been part of the MOOC discussion since the earliest courses came out.  It is an idea that has been around technology-based education since at least the 1980s, when PBS moved to satellite distribution and Walter Annenberg gave funds to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to create nationally distributed tele-courses, creating the idea that one great course with fantastic video lectures could ensure that every student got a good education in that topic.  But that's not how our educational system works.   We have more than 3,000 institution of higher education in the United States.  While many of them may use the same text to teach "Introduction to Sociology" or "Introduction to World History" or whatever, the strength of the system is that each institution has its own faculty members who teach the course using their own syllabus, each drawing on their own research and experience, and each responding to the individual needs and interests of their students, whether they be on campus or online.  This creates a kind of butterfly effect as students move into different classes and different majors, taking with them the nuances of their own experiences in these courses.   The resulting diversity is one of the strengths of the system.  We don't need--and, indeed, should avoid the homogenization of the curriculum by relying on MOOCs.

So, then, what do we need?   I see three areas where investment in MOOCs might have the greatest payoff for not just for the institutions that offer them, but for society in general.

The first of these I mentioned in my December 2012 posting on MOOCs:  MOOCs provide a powerful new tool for creating learning communities around research and technology transfer.  Over the years, I've seen the importance of academic conferences in disseminating the results of research and creating new discussions among researchers and between researchers and those who benefit from the results of their work.  Two great examples from Penn State's conferencing work in Outreach are (1) a series of conferences that brought together astronomers and statisticians and that eventually resulted in the creation of a new discipline, Astro-Statistics, and (2) the annual autism conference, which brings together a huge community of researchers, practitioners, and autistic children and their families.  MOOCs have great potential to more quickly and more broadly disseminate research findings and to create communities among diverse populations that have an interest in applying research.  It is a potentially powerful tool for academic outreach and engagement.

A second potential role is to build new pathways between higher education and schooling.  Currently in the U.S., about 39 percent of high school graduates go on to college.  The U.S. Department of Education has set a goal of increasing that to 60 percent by 2020--what they estimate the country will need to thrive in the information economy.  To get there, we will need to dramatically increase the percentage of high school students who are prepared to go to college.  MOOCs can help by providing a means by which higher education institutions can share content with high school teachers.  Imagine, for instance, a MOOC on high school chemistry.  Science Education faculty in our universities could develop video and computer-based instructional materials on critical science concepts at all K-12 levels.  These would be made available to teachers via a MOOC that would also contain sample lesson plans and other resources that the teachers would need.  Then, it would also serve as a meeting place where teachers could share their experiences in using the materials, get advice from both higher education faculty and peer teachers, and share materials that they have developed locally to contextualize the materials available via the MOOC.  The result:  a teaching community that would help even small, poor districts ensure that their students have access to high-quality learning.

We did this sort of thing back in the 1970s and 1980s through public television.  Penn State's public TV station worked with Dr. Paul Welliver in the University's College of Education to create "Science for the Seventies," a video series that captured key science concepts for elementary school students.  Dr. Welliver and his colleagues also tried to create a community of teachers who could share lesson plans, etc., but the lack of a medium for exchange made that difficult.  MOOCs offer a very fresh way to create this kind of teaching/sharing community to address important educational needs.

A third potential use of MOOCs relates to the new demographics of our world.  Today, Americans are living well into their 70s and 80s, but still retiring at 65 or earlier.  In his landmark book, The End of Work, Jeremy Rifkin noted that now need to prepare older adults for life after work--ideally, a third act of life where experienced adults can apply their talents and experiences in the social sector,  helping improve life in their communities.   In this arena MOOCs offer an interesting opportunity to bring older adults together with social sector organizations and university faculty to help prepare them for productive after-retirement contributions.  As with the other applications, a key element is not just the transfer of knowledge, but the creation of communities.

I hope these three examples illustrate the true potential of MOOCs as tools for community-building and engagement around research, technology transfer, and cross-sector partnerships.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

I Won't Give Up

Jason Mraz is one of my very favorite singer-songwriters these days.  It started with "I'm Yours," but his most recent album, Love Is a Four-Letter Word, has some great songs that capture a spirit that I haven't heard in popular music for a long time.

Right now, my favorite is "I Won't Give Up."     I was listening to it this morning--the day after the Boston Marathon bombing--and realized that it pretty much captures how I feel about our country these days.  Our country has become fascinated with violence, greed, and, ultimately, the stubborn ignorance of radical ideology.  These have been with us for many decades, but, today, they have clouded the great light of caring and community that is American democracy at its best.  Still, in the face of this ugliness, as Mraz says, "I won't give up."   

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Finding Courage

Our country's inability to better manage guns is appalling.  A few short months after 20 young people and 6 teachers were killed--and with many gun murders since then, including, most recently, a Texas prosecutor and his wife--our government seems not to have the courage to act.  It is the ultimate failure of a democratic government not to protect the lives of its citizens.

In our society, one must be licensed to drive a car.  One must pass a test to get that license and must renew the license annually in most states.  In addition, all cars must be registered and insured.   Some states also require that each car be inspected regularly to ensure that it is safe to use.  This is done to minimize highway deaths and property destruction caused by cars. 

We should take at least as much care with the public distribution and use of firearms as we do with automobiles:

1.  All gun users should pass a test that demonstrates their ability to use a gun safely and that they are of sound mental condition.  Only then should they be granted a license to use a gun.

2.  That license should be reviewed and renewed periodically, perhaps every two years.

3.  Purchase of a gun should include a background check to be sure that the person has a license and, thus, has the legal right to carry and use a gun.

4.  Guns themselves should be registered and that registration should be renewed every two years.

5.  Sale of a gun should be handled in the same way that the sale of a car is handled:  there is a title to the gun and that title transfers with appropriate review.

The active resistance to any form of government oversight of firearms by the National Rifle Association and gun manufacturers is but one example of how corporations and financial interests are undermining democracy today.  The logical result, if left unchecked, will be a new and destructive kind of autocracy.  It is important that we respond not only by advocating for national and state laws to control weapons, but by grassroots changes to the culture of violence in the U.S.  We need to make violence unpopular, the way we made smoking and anti-Semitism racism unpopular.   Let's start by rejecting violence in the media and computer games and by making it clear, as citizens, that assault weapons are not welcome in our homes and neighborhoods.  Let's strengthen sentences for crimes that involve deadly weapons.   Let's not make stars out of criminals and advocates of violence.

Mother Theresa once said that she pitied Americans because, despite all our riches, we are, in her words "poor in spirit."  The strength of American democracy is the balance between the spirit of independence and the spirit of community.  We need to strengthen the bond between the two.  We are not Americans unless we honor the individual in the context of community.