May 20th, 2013
Georgia Tech, Udacity and AT&T: A Claim Too Far? Why
ePortfolios Are Necessary to Big Learning
Inside Higher Education published an article
last week, "Massive, Not Open,” that adds another layer, another model, and
another business partnership to the already multi-layered MOOC phenomenon, or
"Big Learning,” a more encompassing term for what’s happening in and beyond
education. Here are some excerpts from that article:
- "The Georgia Institute of Technology plans to offer a
$7,000 online master’s degree to 10,000 new students over the next three
years without hiring much more than a handful of new instructors.”
- " . . . University officials said the new degrees would
be entirely comparable to the existing master’s degree in computer
science from Georgia Tech, which costs about $40,000 a year for
non-Georgia residents. [italics added]
- "Georgia Tech expects to hire only eight or so new
instructors even as it takes its master's program from 300 students to as
many as 10,000 within three years, said Zvi Galil, the dean of computing
at Georgia Tech.”
- "At the moment, we’re just doing this in computer
science,” said Provost Rafael Bras. "We’ll wait and see. I believe this is
quite appropriate for professional master’s degrees but I also believe it
is less appropriate for non-master’s degrees and certainly for other
And, Udacity will hire mentors itself to offer
more individual attention to the 10,000 online students. In addition,
Georgia Tech will be seeking the kinds of prospective students, such as those
already in a career or in the military, who would be motivated to advance their
The course, in addition
to inviting enrolled students, will also be "open” to any learner as a regular
MOOC – free to those students but with only a certificate of completion in
recognition of visiting the course.
What Does this
This course represents
what Georgia Tech calls "MOOC” 2.0. But, if it is not "open” as MOOCs
have been up to now, why call it a "MOOC”? As MOOCs evolve rapidly, they
seem to represent a new phase in education that I call "Big Learning.”
Big Learning is aimed not just at the traditional undergraduate learners, but
at all those affected by the knowledge economy – in other words, Big Learning
is for the Big Market – that is, all of us. And not just all of us in the
U.S., but all of us in the world who can get access to the Web.
"Education” is becoming "learning,” a simple enough change in wording but, in
reality, a profound change in everything.
The word "education,” as
we have known it, is associated with stable knowledge: knowledge as a
commodity, as a thing, parceled out by the credit hour. When knowledge is
stable, it makes sense to teach and to create something called "education.”
When knowledge is rapidly changing, it makes sense to learn and create learning
organizations. There is no doubt knowledge is rapidly changing, and the
MOOC movement, or "Big Learning” as the umbrella term, is simply an adaptation
to a new reality. It may or may not be an appropriate adaptation.
MOOCs have been around for 5 years, but only in the past two have they become
Already, we see bumps and
hiccups in Big Learning. Will Big Learning find a viable set of
models? Will Big Learning find a way to incorporate the values of
traditional liberal arts education? Will Big Learning find a way to
incorporate eportfolio values of learner-centered learning, documenting
authentic (real life) learning, of longitudinal reflection and integrative thinking,
or of creating an online deep identity for career success? Or will it fall into
the "trough of disappointment” (Gartner) and need a second try?
This statement by Zvi
Galil, the Dean of Computing at Georgia Tech, suggests an answer:
"’You know there is a revolution going on, right?’ Galil said in a telephone
interview. ‘And we have been a part of this revolution, but I thought we could
be leaders in this revolution by taking it to the next level, by doing the
revolutionary step.’ That step, he said, is using technology to radically
increase the scale of a for-credit offering while sharply reducing the price.”
If current institutions that are still called "educational institutions” can
indeed scale up, reduce cost, and help learners advance in life (at least through
this masters-degree offering), then Big Learning is here to stay. After
all, addressing the cost issue in higher education is very compelling.
How Will This Course Be Comparable to an On-Campus Course?
This is the question of the day. If higher education has found the
answer to scale up at cost to meet the pressing need for learning today, then
we are in a new era. However, if higher education has merely found a new
way to degrade the value of a college degree, then Big Learning is a self-defeating
movement. Will the course at Georgia Tech provide the same learning value
as a traditional master’s level course in computer science? Will a degree
from Georgia Tech earned entirely through Big Learning, as opposed to online or
on campus, be as readily accepted?
How derivative can a course be and still retain the prestige of the
University brand? Will students be as driven and as engaged when they are
separated from the instructor by one more layer of bureaucracy? Will the
involvement of for-profit entities (Udacity and AT&T) compromise valid
assessment of the success of this program? After all, "non-disclosure”
and "for-profit” go hand in hand.
As these Big Learning graduate students view videos, take tests, do
readings, engage in the forums, interact with peers in the course, complete
assignments, and enjoy their limited time with mentors, how can they pull
together the various parts of this experience? How can they maximize
their mentor time?
Big Learning may be meeting the challenge of the Big Demand for learning
that will only grow in our current time of shortening cycles of fundamental
change, but it is not meeting the challenge of integrating learning.
In the MOOC course I took earlier this year, all my comments in the forum
were in Coursera digital space and all my quiz results remain their
record. It feels as though I was not "there.” I never got to know
anyone. Was the course a dream? Was I really there? I did not
finish the course, as most open enrollees do not, so I don’t even have a
certificate of completion. I don’t remember even one name of an
instructor or fellow student even though I did participate to almost the end of
Now, what if I had been keeping an eportfolio record of my learning
experiences, had used my eportfolio space to capture elements of the course or
as a potential collaboration space with other students? What if the
eportfolio was a required part of the course and, had there been mentors in my
course, I could then have communicated with my mentor via the eportfolio and
maximized my one-on-one time with her? What if, in my eportfolio, I
included photos of work I did that was relevant to the course, or video, or
gifs or voice memos, etc., and catalogued my evidence for easy retrieval?
And, finally, what if I could produce a great website, using my eportfolio
application, with links to relevant stuff in my eportfolio repository?
In other words, what if Coursera had offered us a chance to augment the
course with our own work related to the course: work that might have been
required or might have just been at my own initiation? How could Coursera
have added the element of social constructivism that was the original idea
Big Learning Courses: Some Adult Assembly Required
Big Learning must face the issue of who is the active agent, who is at stake
in these courses or programs? Even more than in traditional online
learning the teacher’s role is diminished. If the Georgia Tech graduate
students in computer science taking the new MOOC program want their degree to
have lasting value in their career, they will need to extend their own
self-initiated learning activities related to the course and document those
activities. If Georgia Tech wants to support the prestige of the MOOC
degree and make it truly comparable to the regular degree, the institution must
look beyond what Udacity offers to see how higher order learning can reliably
occur at this scale and how the students can demonstrate the results of their
higher order learning. What does Georgia Tech need to do in addition to
what they have planned?
The onus for learning is unquestionably much more on the learner in this
planned new program. But this is the order of the day. The learner,
a label that can justifiably be applied to all of us, is at stake in everything
she or he does or is involved with, to stay up on the latest.
Is Big Learning not then in step with the times? By placing much more
responsibility for learning on the learner, isn’t Big Learning inviting, almost
requiring active, learner-centered learning?
Udacity and Georgia Tech should both recognize the need to add more validity
and substance to their Big Learning offerings. Adding such big numbers
while reducing costs must mean something is missing in this new program.
If the learner has more responsibility for learning, then the learner must have
guidance and support to add their own value to the courses. Students in
these courses need more opportunity for social connectivity, working groups,
documentation of their work, integration of their work that can be displayed on
Web pages with links to evidence, and therefore validation of the value of
their work for career success. Or, in other words, they need an eportfolio
arranged for by Udacity or Georgia Tech.
This blog post does not necessarily
represent AAEEBL policy or positions.