Blog: The Educated Reporter

Moving Beyond MOOCs

EWA held its annual Higher Education Seminar recently at Boston’s Northeastern University. We invited some of the education journalists in attendance to contribute posts from the sessions. Today’s guest blogger is Carl Straumsheim of Inside Higher Ed.

Is it possible that two education company executives, a researcher and a reporter could spend an hour discussing technology in higher education without mentioning massive open online courses?

The answer, of course, is no, but during the hour-long panel titled “Making the Most of Online Education” at EWA’s conference, MOOCs were all but an afterthought. Less than a year after The New York Times declared 2012 the “Year of the MOOC,” who would have thought?

As Blackboard’s Jay Bhatt, Kaplan’s Bror Saxberg and the Community College Research Center’s Thomas Bailey answered moderator Steve Kolowich’s questions, they found themselves focusing on the limits of technology — not its promised potential. Perhaps the recent explosion of ed-tech startups has fostered a healthy sense of skepticism?

“We want to believe that the technology can solve all our problems and allow us to be more effective,” Bhatt said. “Technology is a facilitator. It needs to be applied appropriately. It does not replace the importance of the teacher and the teacher-student relationship, and the institution-student relationship. But it can enhance it, and it should enhance it.”

Said Bailey, “I really have a problem with the word technology, because … there’s a mystique about it.”

Added Saxberg, “Technology doesn’t actually solve the problems. The trick is to understand the learning problems you have … then use technology to then make a better learning solution.”

Saxberg also criticized the design of current-day MOOCs, describing them as “basically replications of what happens in classrooms” and poorly designed for learning. “The lack of an actual expert coach who needs to be paid is going to be a limiting factor of how far MOOCs can go,” he said.

Not that the weekend’s gathering was a conference of naysayers. MOOCs may have stolen the spotlight over the course of the last year, but one outcome of that development is that technology in general has become a common topic of discussion when debating the future of higher education.

“I think it’s a great situation, because it’s bringing attention to online,” said Bhatt, adding that he likes to focus on the first two letters of the acronym — “massive” and “open.” Students may not be using MOOCs to finish their degrees, but they are engaging with them to pick up skills and knowledge from specific modules within them.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t help the students who need it the most — for example, community college students and students who require remedial education, the speakers stressed. Online education has so far shown to be an awkward fit for students who need frequent one-on-one time with instructors, as seen in San Jose State University’s experiments with MOOC provider Udacity.

“I think the crucial question is: What happens to students … with low academic skills?” Bailey said. “Faculty often think the students know how to do the studying. Students often feel that they would like to have more scaffolding, more support, more instruction in doing what they’re doing.”

Saxberg warned that designing courses around the notion that these students are on the bleeding edge of technological innovations could hurt their learning outcomes. “Which kinds of students coming in with challenges from the home front and so forth are likely to have not had those experiences before?” he said. “I would argue many of students we worry deeply about.”

When Kolowich, a staff reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education, invited the audience to chime in, the first commenter questioned the elitism among the first universities to offer MOOCs. (Both Coursera and Udacity, for example, were created by researchers attached to Stanford University, while edX is a joint effort created by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.)

Bailey flipped the question on its head, saying the universities’ reputations have raised awareness about MOOCs. “The fact that MIT and Harvard and Stanford offer these courses is what’s attracted attention,” he said.

Yet for technology that aims to make higher education more accessible and affordable, MOOCs require significant investments, Saxberg pointed out. “Who can invest?” he said. “It may be why it’s come to those institutions to begin with.”

Answering the same question, Bailey spoke eight words that seem to summarize the debate about technology in higher education: “It’s not just about online; it’s about teaching.”

Have a question, comment or concern for the Educated Reporter? Email EWA public editor Emily Richmond at Follow her on Twitter: @EWAEmily.