Dev Ed MOOCs & the Elephant in the Room

elephant-in-the-roomThe state of Florida, in all of its (or lack thereof) wisdom, has decided to revamp the way it handles developmental education. Developmental education, or Dev Ed, is the name given to entry-level remedial skills courses meant to help students prepare for the rigor of regular college level courses. In 2010-2011, 176,286 students in Florida were enrolled in at least one Dev Ed course. There’s no denying the fact that there are problems with students lingering semester after semester in Dev Ed courses. The state’s solution to the problem was simply to make Dev Ed optional – recent high school graduates will be exempt from placement tests as will active duty military personnel, older students will still have to take the placement tests and may be counseled to enroll in Dev Ed courses, but the decision to enroll in Dev Ed, or not, is entirely up to students. Students may enroll in regular courses with co-requisite courses meant to give students extra help. Putting students with remedial needs into regular courses is surely setting many of them up for failure, as much a problem as having them repeat Dev Ed courses over multiple semesters.

As if all of this wasn’t a deep enough stab to the heart of Dev Ed in Florida, the Department of Education has decided that MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Course, are the best way to deliver Dev Ed content. In reading the RFP, it is clear that the DOE has little understanding of what a MOOC is, how they’ve been delivered, and the issues surrounding them. For just $300,00, in seven months, the DOE wants this:

The intended purpose of the grant is to fund a MOOC(s) developed by strong faculty members and validated by their corresponding institutions, i.e. meet the learning standards set by the relevant academic department with the intent of significantly increasing the number of underrepresented students who enter and remain in postsecondary education. High school and entering college students will complete these courses and the data that underlies the courses will be captured by the course platform to enable academic research on how different students learn. The MOOC(s) will improve secondary school students’ preparedness for postsecondary entrance examinations and facilitate an increase students’ ability to successfully complete the coursework required for a postsecondary degree. Ultimately, MOOCs may provide institutions, through either individual or packaged modules, a way to blend MOOC content into formal courses with more intensive faculty, advising, and peer support and provide students an alternative and direct path to credit and credentials.  

MOOCs are likely to provide value to a broader range of learners than is currently served by existing traditional developmental education courses and the availability of MOOC developmental education courses would help at least three types of students:
1)    Learners who are already studying the subject matter and enroll in the MOOC as a study aid for the placement test or developmental education course;
2)    Learners who enroll in a MOOC and wish to complete required math, reading, and/or writing developmental education course(s) in support of their pursuit of a certificate or credential; and
3)    Institutions that integrate the MOOC module content and functionality with classroom courses in order to increase quality and blend the student learning experience.

In addition, the new MOOCs may ultimately save on the cost of instructional materials for high schools and colleges who chose to utilize the coursework.  

This is a prime example of a buzz phrase gone out of control. Where MOOCs have been successful has been with highly motivated, independent learners with an interest in the topic and some foundational knowledge to build on, in other words, the complete opposite of most Dev Ed students. Instead of a MOOC as a course, as a platform for education, as described by MOOC pioneer Stephen Downes, what they’re really looking for are packaged content modules for math, reading, and writing that could be delivered by high schools, community and state colleges, placed online for free, or used as a supplemental resources to traditional courses. I have had the opportunity to participate in some statewide meetings to discuss the changes in the law and the RFP itself. What everyone could agree on is that no one could agree on a definition of MOOC or what should be created, or if it would be better if purchased, how the modules or courses would be delivered, if they would be free or fee-based, facilitated or not. The one thing that everyone could agree on is that it is questionable to experiment on this vulnerable population, who may no longer linger in Dev Ed because they will simply drop out. There’s a big fat elephant in the room – the question of whether Dev Ed can be delivered effectively in this format and if we’re sacrificing these students at the altar of budget cutting and buzz words. It remains to be seen.

Update: Broward College has been awarded the grant. We shall see what they make of it when the “Dev Ed MOOC” is deployed in August, 2014.

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So close, yet so far

Isaac Asimov“Once we have computer outlets in every home, each of them hooked up to enormous libraries where anyone can ask any question and be given answers, be given reference materials, be something you’re interested in knowing, from an early age, however silly it might seem to someone else… that’s what YOU are interested in, and you can ask, and you can find out, and you can do it in your own home, at your own speed, in your own direction, in your own time… Then, everyone would enjoy learning. Nowadays, what people call learning is forced on you, and everyone is forced to learn the same thing on the same day at the same speed in class, and everyone is different.” ~ Isaac Asimov, 1988

The ever-wise Isaac Asimov put these words forward in a 1988 interview with Bill Moyers. I have a computer outlet in my home that hooks up to enormous libraries which I use to educate myself at my own pace about whatever grabs my attention at the moment. I’m not alone. According to a U.S. government report, approximately 80% of American homes have at least one Internet user, 68% of homes use broadband access, and 77% of households had a computer. We have the tools for everyone to learn what they want, when they want, at their own pace. So why are schools still forcing everyone to learn the same thing on the same day at the same speed? The number of online courses has exploded since the mid 1990s, but the majority of them are pretty much structured to run like a traditional course. The 2000s saw the development of wholly-online degree programs from reputable brick-and-mortar schools and universities. And the last couple of years have seen the advent of MOOCs, seemingly the kind of learning opportunity Asimov described. The traditional universities are jumping on the free and open learning bandwagon to appear competitive in the education marketplace, but only by tokens and these courses aren’t generally viewed as “serious” or “real”.

So here we are, nearly 25 years later. The majority of schools (and courses) today don’t look so different from those of 1988. We dangle the carrot of personalized learning only allowing little tastes, pulling the string further away. So close, yet so far.