Is Curiosity Enough?

From an opinion piece in the Chronicle, Doug Guthrie, Dean of the Gearge Washington University business school writes,

In our haste to join the academic alphas, many of us are forgoing the reflection necessary to enter this new medium. Our resolve to act swiftly belies the serious nature of this next phase of higher education’s evolution. There are critical pedagogical issues at stake in the online market, and MOOC’s have not done nearly enough to deal with those concerns.

I’ll start by saying that I agree. But this wouldn’t be a post without something more. While I know that Coursera (and the others) aren’t living up to the standards set forth in our on campus online learning programs, they are breaking new ground that will transform the way we deliver, consume, accredit, design, and accept learning. My colleague, friend, and fellow co-director in the Penn State Center for Online Innovation in Learning, Kyle Peck told me, there is something important about embracing our natural sense of curiosity. He heard that while visiting Duke and listening to one of their executives talk about one of the reasons for participating in the MOOC run — that Duke itself embraces and promotes a culture of innovation and curiosity. I love that … and here is a real reason why — I know we do very innovative things here at Penn State, but I am not sure if we take risks based on natural curiosity that can push us beyond where we’ve been. Where have we been? We’ve built some of the best publishing tools in higher education, we’ve constructed some of the most interesting physical spaces in higher education, and we do it at a scale that is hard to ignore.

But with that said we don’t think about spaces that let us reach 100,000 …

Why should we be impressed that an online course can reach 100,000 students at once? By celebrating massification, advocates of Coursera elevate volume as the chief objective of online learning. Is that truly our goal in academe?

Why am I impressed? As an educational technologist I am impressed because Coursera and the others give me a chance to learn — not by taking one of their courses, but by having a sense of how they deliver to that many. Our course management system is getting pounded this week as students flock to it to take finals. As I write this, there are close to 85,000 students here at Penn State with at least one course in that system. It operates at scale, but could I add a single section of 50,000? No way. I am extremely curious about how that gets done.

I am also curious about how we can take what we know about designing learning for our online audiences and scale that. Without Coursera I couldn’t get a group of 20 highly placed people to gather around a table and engage in conversations that we all laughed about no more than six months ago. These environments can be real opportunities to engage ourselves in new conversations — to engage our creative spirits to really make a difference. If we can challenge the traditional delivery space of our institutions instead of propping it up we can fundamentally change the ways higher education is delivered, assessed, and viewed. My thought is if we aren’t joining these conversations we are in for a very bumpy future.

No doubt MOOC’s will lead to innovations in the online delivery of education, just as the Internet brought about innovations in delivering news content. Yet already institutions have started down the path of the print industry by not broadly envisioning how best to deliver and customize the material and leverage the power of real-time data.

And that is what is so damn exciting about where we are with this. We are being called on to lead a conversation on our campuses like never before! I’ve watched industries be disrupted by the Internet and technology — music, movies, news — and they all laughed at the movements even as they were being steamrolled. Is this our Napster moment? Perhaps. If it is I am going to act on my curiosity to figure out where the future is headed and build on the momentum Coursera and the others are providing.

6 thoughts on “Is Curiosity Enough?

  1. This is exactly the moment that is upon us. Like the 90’s, financial decision makers are interested in that ‘shiny new toy’ and are willing to unleash resources toward ‘doing something’ with it. This is where the folks who are in the thick of it get a unique opportunity to pursue innovation within that vague ‘do something’ directive given by those decision makers. Especially when it’s too early to determine the winners vs. the losers because when that starts to happen, the window begins to close. If the past is prologue with this opportunity, then we should expect the unexpected, expand our thinking and prepare for the bar to be raised in areas we previously thought un-raisable.

  2. I agree and appreciate your balanced view to take this disruption as a positive opportunity, but I cannot just sit and let idle numbers pass by.

    That touching of 100,000 students. Out of 160,000 who signed up for the A1 course, 23,000 finished. The Machine Learning couse? 104,000 signed up, 13,000 finished, etc. Now I know finishing is not the ultimate metric, since people may get something else out of a course by dropping in, but you cannot take that 100,000 either as a metric. It’s akin to measuring the value of a web site by counting front page hits. It’s a number, it has some meaning, but not a lot.

    Beyond this, people taking these course largely have the skills or aptitude in the content. I am waiting for a 100,000 person class in basic skills.

    Still, I know what you are saying, there is a potential in this technology to teach at a scale comparable to or beyond what you do now. I am counting on you then to sort out what the tradeoffs are for scaling to this level.

    I also do not buy the parallel of an mp3 and an education.

    I do not discount the potential and opportunity. I just get tired of the wrong numbers being bantered about.


    • Alan, lets not get too wrapped up in the numbers. Lets look at the opportunity to explore what is happening around us as something important. If we want to talk about retention rates in higher education in general, I don’t think MOOCs are too far off the national numbers of non-degree completed individuals.

      The mp3 is not the parallel of education — the disaggregation of education as an enterprise could be considered analogous to the sweeping disruption that occurred in the music industry however. A day doesn’t go by when I am not hit in the face with another request for an outside company to come in and do a small slice of our total operations. If we scoff at this, our futures will be negatively impacted … and I say that as a true believer in education.

      This is a real chance to have substantive and complicated conversations at the highest levels of our institutions about what it is that we do. What is our present and future value proposition? Are we researchers? Are we content provides? Is our job to assess competency? Who are our students going forward? Who is our audience? These are all crazy questions that deserve to be answered … And now that VC funding is flowing into the Ed tech world I am guessing companies like Coursera will be working very hard to answer them. I would hope we do the same!

      I like comments. A lot. Keep them coming. I’ve missed this!

      • I’m not wrapped up in numbers at all, I tire of the ones being bantered around. 160,000! 160,000! That needs to be answered.

        Still, I not comfortable with the casting of education as a business proposition. It’s a service and social good too. The implications and paybacks for what happens in a learning context is not always an immediate exchange.

        But yadda yadda. You know I respect and love ya, right? Comments never went out of style.

  3. Of course I know that! And that is a bilateral respect, my friend. I’m not sure I am wanting to cast education as a business proposition, but I am afraid that our state legislatures, parents, and companies (who hire grads) are more than willing to go there. They are demanding accountability like never before — and we better figure that out. The funny thing about higher education is that it has so many layers … two year schools, online only, research ones, and so on … all trying to stay viable in the face of rapidly rising costs and a terrifying student debt crisis. All of it is pushing against what education institutions are and how they are attempting to position themselves for the future. It is an amazing time to be part of the conversation!

  4. I feel there is a bit of a false dichotomy at play with a lot of the discussions around MOOCs. MOOCs and more traditional education (online and off) will co-exist. They each have their strengths and weaknesses. The movies didn’t kill theater. Perhaps MOOCs belong in a world that is as removed from traditional education as film is from live theatre.

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