The HER News RoundUp is a weekly news-essay blog, written by members of HER’s
editorial staff. The essays seek
to explore topics au currant, while providing a bibliography of news article and
commentary links that allow readers to explore the topics more deeply.
by Jessica Bennett,
Associate Editor for Digital Content
It seems to me that Coursera is everywhere in higher
education news and opinion pieces recently (see the embedded links throughout the piece), so I thought I’d use
the inaugural post of the Higher Education in Review News RoundUp to provide a
primer on Coursera, its Mass Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and some of the
controversies and questions surrounding them..
Coursera, a self-labeled social entrepreneurial company,
seeks to provide course content from faculty at top universities to any and all
that are interested (see Coursera’s Vision). Additionally, its courses are designed around five pedagogical
foundations – the value of online learning, the role of homework to aid in knowledge retention and
learning, repeated opportunities to master content in assessments, the use of
peer evaluations in assessments to provide varied and quick feedback, and the
opportunity to actively engage material and each other online through multiple
formats (see Coursera’s Pedagogical Foundations). Coursera is free, and allows for varied levels of
engagement. Students who
participate fully in a course (completing all assignments and quizzes) may
receive documentation of participation from the faculty instructors.
All this sounds amazing. Take the best courses that elite institutions have to offer
and make them available to anyone, for free. Allow students to participate at
varying levels of intensity. Engage in asynchronous education that increases
flexibility for students. In fact, it sounds so amazing that as of early
August, Coursera reached a cumulative enrollment of over1 million students (see
The Atlantic’s Jordan Weissman hails Coursera as the most important experiment in
higher education. Weissman argues
that the embrace of Coursera by elite institutions means
that, via institutional isomorphic mechanisms, others will quickly be following
suit. Coursera’s real
promise, he argues, lies in its ability to revolutionize the delivery of
lectures, by offering a well-designed, sleek platform that allow institutions
to side-step the costly creation of course-delivery user interfaces.
Leaders seem to be agreeing. In a recent interview with Inside HigherEd, University of Virginia President Theresa
Sullivan highlighted the benefits that a collaboration with Coursera provides
to professors on-Grounds. She
suggests that the participating institutions have found that their residential
students have an improved experience in both individual courses as well as the
dividends provided to those who care about learning about how students
learn. Coursera, she argues, is an
invaluable resource to those seeking to better understand student learning in
an online context.
So what does Coursera have to offer residential
students? By freeing class time
that might usually be taken up with introducing basic content material,
university instructors are free to introduce more discussion, group work, and
other proven learning-enhancing active learning activities. The idea of “flipping” the classroom is
growing in both the K-12 and higher education sectors, with some educators arguing that using class time for homework, problem solving, and
discussion, and home time for basic content delivery, is a better use of
What about non-residential students, or the million people
who have signed up for Coursera classes without being affiliated with one of
its content providing universities?
These students are eligible for a letter of certification, which could
possibly be used in an employment setting or other area to prove familiarity
with given content matter. However,
Coursera students do not receive credit for their participation (except perhaps
at the University of Washington). For
students seeking to learn for the sake of learning, this arrangement is likely
sufficient. However, despite its
promise of open access, the question remains whether MOOCs and the Coursera
format really offer a viable alternative.
Some have suggested that third party universities be used to credential
students taking Coursera courses –
getting a Harvard education with a Small State College diploma.
Inside HigherEd’s Carlo Salerno doubts that Coursera
and its ilk can properly provide what institutions of higher education and
their potential consumers (students) are seeking. Highlighting the role that prestige plays in Coursera’s
current model, he argues that institutions
will not be motivated to offer credit to students in these courses because the
open access prevents quality control of students, while students will be loathe
to pay for credits at third-party institutions if they are not receiving
credentials from the top tier institutions with which they are taking classes.
In addition, others raise the question of whether content
delivered to several thousand students by a single prestigious university
professor is really the equivalent of taking the course with that professor in
residence. The founders of Coursera suggest that, in effect, the essence of a Harvard or Stanford
education lie in the on-campus experience of interaction with those students
and faculty. Additionally,
while Coursera has developed a mechanism to allow quick feedback to all
students via a peer-evaluation system, some question whether the
feedback is sufficiently substantive or helpful.
Finally, with all the attention focused on the MOOC format,
some are perhaps painting too wide a stroke in discussing online learning. Mark Edmundson, professor at the
University of Virginia and frequent commentator on issues of learning in higher
education, delivers a scathing attack on online education – but seems to only
be describing MOOCs. See a fine
response to Edmundson from Joshua Kim here.
All this raises several questions that I’ll leave our
readers to ponder: If institutions like Virginia hope to learn from their
experiences with MOOCs, what should those lessons be given that most online
course delivery that results in income generation requires a more focused
approach (see Kim’s response, and Penn State’s World Campus as a specific
example)? How do sites
like Coursera fit into the debate about college access for all? What do Coursera and its students have
to tell us about the credentialing function arguments about higher
education? With this version of
online, private education sidestepping many of the critiques that institutions
such as the University of Phoenix face, how should this change our discussion
about online education in our higher ed programs?
An interesting piece in the Huffington Post about the purpose of higher education. For Jackie Jenkins-Smith, President of Wheelock College, that purpose is educational opportunity. It seems that the topic of higher education's purpose is constantly debated, and perhaps that is a good thing. Unquestionably the issue of educational opportunity is a part of this debate and Jenkins-Smith nicely points out that, "While there are no quick, simple solutions, part of the answer lies in understanding how current -- and future -- generations of college bound students will acquire usable knowledge and skills." As tuition costs rise, educational opportunity decreases- how should those of us working in higher education address this issue?
from the New York Times (free) poses some interesting questions about whether top colleges are doing enough to recruit low-income students. I'd invite any thoughts or opinions on the piece or whether all colleges should be doing more to combat the over representation of affluent students on our campuses.
The New York Times reported some results from an AAUP survey, including increases in professor pay, the gap between public and private universities in professor pay, and the continuing increase of non-tenure-track faculty hires. The article is here
article from The New Yorker (full version available through subscription or iPad app) discusses a number of shortcomings with the US News and World Report rankings of colleges and Universities. Though this issue has received a great deal of attention within the field of Higher Education throughout the years, such a high profile article (written by the popular Malcolm Gladwell) is interesting and timely. One can only wonder if we are approaching a "Tipping Point" (gratuitous Gladwell reference) that will spur real reform in rankings systems.
On Friday, April 15, 2011, the annual Higher Education in Review
symposium will feature the work of more than a dozen students. The theme of this year's symposium is "Learning in Society." Friends of HER
and anyone interested in the practice and research of higher education are encouraged to attend. Unless otherwise noted, all events are in The Faculty Senate Room (Room 112) of the Kern Building.
|8:30 a.m.||Coffee & Breakfast |
|9 a.m. ||Welcome and Opening Remarks|
Peter Moran, Editor, Higher Education in Review
|Session 1: Learning and Individuals|
- Individual and Organizational Factors Influencing Active and Collaborative Learning Among First-Years
Kadian McIntosh, Penn State
- The Development of Measures of Holistic Student-Athlete Success for a Multi-Institution National Study
Dan Merson, Penn State
- Student Departure as a Learned Phenomenon
Jared Rodrigues & Zeke Kimball, Penn State
10:30 - 11:30 a.m.
|Session 2: Learning Within and Across Fields|
| 11:30 a.m. - 12:15 p.m.||Lunch provided|
| 12:15 - 1:15 p.m. ||Session 3: Learning Environments|
- Academic Socialization: A Comparative Study on the Experiences of U.S. and International Students in a Doctoral Program
Ghadah Al Morshedi & Kristen Lee, Penn State
- Learning by Embracing An Unknown Society: A Meta-Synthesis of Study Abroad Programs
Yu Meng, University of Minnesota
- The Era of Student Bureaucracy
Nate Sorber, Penn State
- Black Faculty Members' Experiences of Academic Climate
Jessica Bennett & Jessica Harris, Penn State
| 1:30 - 2:30 p.m.||Session 4: Learning in Society|
- Changes in Price Sensitivity in Higher Education Since World War II
Rodney Hughes, Penn State
- "It Takes a Village": School-Community Partnerships in Rural America
Andrew Koricich, Penn State
- Where to Go? An Analysis of Postsecondary Choices of High School Graduates
Juan Jara-Almonte & Kristen Lee, Penn State
- The Squid and The Whale: William James and Charles Eliot
Zeke Kimball, Penn State
| 3:00 p.m. ||Reception celebrating the publication of Higher Education in Review, |
4th Floor of Rackley Building
| 4:00 p.m. || Happy Hour|
Whiskers in the Nittany Lion Inn
William Cronon, the Frederick Jackson Turner and Vilas Research Professor of History, Geography, and Environmental Studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison, has found himself embroiled in the clash between Republican and Democratic politicians in Wisconsin. Conlon penned a couple pieces for his blog
and the NYTimes
, which offered historical context for the recent events in Wisconsin, and criticized Republican Governor Scott Walker's efforts to restrict the collective bargaining rights of public workers. With these efforts, Conlon claims that Republicans in Wisconsin are repudiating the progressive traditions of the state and their party. Two days after Conlon's blog post, the Republican Party formally requested all emails from his university account on matters related to the post under Wisconson's Open Records Law. The Chronicle and the NYTimes have covered the unfolding events that raise interesting academic freedom and legal issues. Furthermore, the American Historical Association has released a statement deploring the records request, claiming that it is part of an effort to silence the distinguished professor.
Stanley Fish’s November 8, 2010 opinion piece, “Woe-Is-Us
Books” articulates a feature that students and scholars of higher education
should be well familiar with – criticism of the “higher learning in America.”
He summarizes multiple critiques of postsecondary education in the U.S. and
observes that there is little consensus on what the actual problems are (let
alone what the solutions should be). Along with the summary, he makes two
points: 1) there is no shortage of criticism and panic about the trajectories
of our institutions; 2) no one is willing to build an institution from scratch
(except, seemingly, those who plan to start Ralston
College – which, by the way, seems to be a riff on St. John’s College with academic robes added).
Given that we know such criticism of colleges and universities
have existed for decades (think: Thorstein Veblen, The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum on the Conduct of
Universities by Business Men (1918),
Upton Sinclair, The
Goose-Step, a Study of American Education (1923); Robert Maynard Hutchins, The Higher Learning in
America (1936)), we can safely assume that criticism won’t stop, no
matter what steps administrators take to address problems. This is partly
because there is little consensus on what the industry as a whole is supposed
This point, that the goals of higher education are
kaleidoscopic in nature, is one that that Fish fails to make explicit. We
should expect and encourage ongoing debate about the purposes of higher
education, illuminate the multiple goals of higher education and their
corresponding niches, and finally, we should lighten the ‘crisis’ rhetoric. It’s
the same as it ever was.
The New York Times featured an article
describing the recent furor over research supporting the existence of ESP to be published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by renowned social psychologist and professor emertius at Cornell, Daryl J. Bem. The controversy is raising questions regarding the nature and quality of peer review, as well as the statistical assumptions embedded in much of social science research. While it is not suprising that research supporting the existence of ESP is being questioned, this instance is unusual because of who authored the paper, and the journal publishing it.