Books, Articles, and Items of Academic Interest

Robert L. Jackson

The Rise of MOOCs

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are finding their way into regular course offerings. In the March 4 Chronicle of Higher Education Jeffrey R. Young worries that the new “‘Bandwidth Divide’ Could Bar Some People from Online Learning” because they can’t afford it. (According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, an estimated 44 percent of American adults do not have broadband at home.) Assuming access can somehow be gained—for example, at the local library—free online courses are beginning to yield college credit via “challenge exams.” These exams are similar to those of the College Board’s College Level Examination Program (CLEP), and they are accepted for credit by many U.S. colleges. Sometimes they can also receive recommendation for credit from the American Council on Education (ACE).

According to Paul Fain in the February 4 Inside Higher Ed, “Free Course, Inexpensive Exam,” last year Excelsior College provided 18,000 students with online credit-bearing exams, compared to the 76,000 (of 98,000 examinees) who received credit for CLEP exams. Two educational providers, the Saylor Foundation (nonprofit) and Education Portal (for-profit) seem to be eagerly adapting MOOCs to their own purposes: finding the brick-and-mortar institutions as well as the online courses that most reasonably fit their instruction-to-examination model. This works well with general education courses, which are constrained to a “standardized approach…helping students master content,” rather than emphasizing “professors’ individual teaching styles with the material.”

Meanwhile, in the February 14 Inside Higher Ed, Pamela Tate of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning worries in “The Right Path to MOOC Credit?” that a handful of Coursera MOOCs were recommended for credit by the ACE. For Tate, several questions remain: “[H]ow many MOOC courses will really be worth college credit, where will the credits be accepted, and for how long will college credits even be the primary measurement of learning?”

Tate suspects that prestigious institutions will not be immediately ready to accept the ACE credit recommendations, leaving the less well-known institutions to decide for themselves whether MOOC credits should be added to their students’ transcripts. She also foresees a bottleneck at ACE if a flood of courses suddenly seek credit-bearing status. (Currently, only five courses from Coursera receive the recommendation.)

To avoid the cumbersome, inefficient method of accreditation, Tate recommends the best way forward: “a portfolio assessment of student learning.” Tate leads an organization that advocates for “experiential learning,” e.g., portfolio assessment, so her enthusiasm for the approach isn’t wholly a surprise. The point, however, bears consideration: If higher education is in the midst of radical institutional changes, providers capable of accommodating the necessary logistics of such a change, including delivery platforms, accreditors, etc., are needed. It’s intriguing to wonder which of today’s supporting cottage industries may become tomorrow’s industry leaders (think of Bill Gates’s operating system contract with IBM).

The Shape of Online Education

Several projects have aimed at nailing down how online education affects traditional forms of instruction. Noteworthy among these projects is “Online Learning in Higher Education” (Education Next, Spring 2013), by William G. Bowen, Thomas I. Nygren, Kelly A. Lack, and Matthew M. Chingos, with its randomized trials comparing hybrid courses to traditional classes.

The classroom with a “hybrid format” simply provided computer-guided instruction in introductory statistics, which included one hour of in-person instruction weekly, as compared to the typical three to four hours of face-to-face instruction. The results show similar student achievement across various metrics, leading the authors to conclude that there is “the potential to reduce instructor compensation costs quite substantially.”

Despite promising results, the authors acknowledge that there is “no compelling evidence that online learning systems available today—not even highly interactive systems, which are very few in number—can deliver improved educational outcomes across the board, at scale, on campuses other than the one where the system was born, and on a sustainable basis.” Their real pitch is for a sizeable investment from a “major foundation, government, or [the] private sector” to initiate a “system-wide approach” to the development of online education. Otherwise, very few can afford to enter the cyberspace race.

Indeed, Bowen and colleagues call for rigorous testing of the best models of online education to determine cost-effectiveness and improved learning outcomes for all types of students—a standard they would never demand for traditional education. The authors also recognize a national loss of confidence in higher education, and they believe that implementing adaptive online systems may help to recover some of the public’s goodwill: “We are persuaded that well-designed interactive systems in higher education have the potential to achieve at least equivalent educational outcomes while opening up the possibility of freeing up significant resources that could be redeployed more productively.”

Reflecting on Dworkin

One of the most influential philosophers of our age, Ronald Dworkin, passed away in London on February 14 at the age of eighty-one. In “Remembering Ronald Dworkin,” (Chronicle of Higher Education, February 19, 2013) former Dworkin student Jeremy Waldron, a professor of law at NYU, recalls the inspiration his Oxford mentor provided for his graduate disputations on the nature of law. Waldron learned “what it was like to argue seriously…what it meant to be responded to as someone worth arguing with. Everything I have written bears the improving mark of those rigorous sessions.”

The February 14 obituary by Adam Liptak in the New York Times recalls that Dworkin, a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books along with other mainstream periodicals, was a determined critic of legal positivism who sought to apply “moral intelligence to difficult problems” (Waldron’s words).

Dworkin’s moral prescriptions dovetailed with his politics. As University of Iowa law professor Robert Miller explains in “Thanatopsis for Ronald Dworkin” (First Things, February 18, 2013): “On virtually every issue that divides liberals and conservatives, whether momentous ones like abortion or ephemeral ones like recounting votes in Florida in 2000, Dworkin was an intellectual champion of the left.”

Take affirmative action. Arguing in “Affirmative Action: Is It Fair?” (Journal of Black Higher Education, Summer 2000) with citations from Bowen and Bok’s The Shape of the River (1998), Dworkin claimed that it would be “ironic [and] sad if the Court reverses its own long-standing ruling now, because dramatic evidence of the value of affirmative action in elite higher education has just become available.”

In 2000, Dworkin assumed that the benefits of affirmative action were easily demonstrable, but the work of Dartmouth psychologist Rogers Elliot and Duke economist Peter Arcidiacono shows otherwise. Clearly, the late philosopher’s devotion to a certain political vision compromised his ability to discern the reality of racial preferences in our society.

Furthermore, former ACLU director Aryeh Neier commented in “Remembering Ronald Dworkin” (The Nation, February 22, 2013): “Dworkin connected freedom of speech to the idea of democracy, not as a means to an end but as an intrinsic characteristic of a system in which all may take part in self-government”—which limits a democratic majority from imposing its will on those who have no voice in the deliberative decisions. But Dworkin remained oblivious to how the advance of affirmative action undercut the idea of an honest public square, one where the freedom of speech he championed would not be censored by the ideological commitments of an elite asserting its will over others.

Like a House of Cards

Some Academic Questions readers will be familiar with the new Netflix streaming television series House of Cards. For those who have yet to see this inside-the-beltway drama, the show follows a cast of cutthroats led by Machiavellian South Carolina congressman Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, and will entertain those who enjoy a political thriller. (The original storyline was penned by British politician turned novelist Michael Dobbs, whose 1989 novel by the same name spawned a BBC serial drama.)

In “3 Higher Ed Lessons from Netflix’s ‘House of Cards,’” a February 6 Inside Higher Ed essay, Joshua Kim argues that “streaming TV” may demonstrate some keen insights for adapting traditional post-secondary institutions to a changing educational marketplace. First, Kim believes that Netflix understands the importance of investing in talent—i.e., Kevin Spacey—for the long-term value: “The key is that I’m willing to pay for quality.” And, the quality of higher education must prove itself, or lose its competitive advantage. Second, he applauds Netflix’s experimentation with a new delivery model, offering all thirteen episodes at once, for those who enjoy “binge viewing.” Kims thinks such innovations appeal to the increasingly discriminating consumer, placing Netflix ahead of the next wave of digital entertainment. While a calculated risk, it’s a move, Kim suggests, that distinguishes the best from the rest—and the kind of risk-taking necessary to innovate higher education. Third, Kim explains that while the Netflix platform is well-established, that’s not enough. The company’s advantage is situated in an increasingly competitive environment, of which Kim warns America’s colleges and universities to take note: “[W]e cannot trade-off investments in our platforms (campuses, technology infrastructure, etc.) with investments in our talent.”

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