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Georgia Tech, Udacity and AT&T: A Claim Too Far? Why ePortfolios Are Necessary to Big Learning

Posted By Administration, Monday, May 20, 2013
Updated: Friday, October 18, 2013

May 20th, 2013

| Trent Batson

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 fields.”

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 careers.

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 Announcement Mean?

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 big business.

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 the course.

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 behind MOOCs?

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.

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