Will Higher Education Repeat The History Of Theaters? [Updated]

Four years ago, I wrote a blog post on this subject when massive open online
courses (MOOCs) were beginning to be the hot item of discussion. Not
surprisingly, some disillusionment followed the hype as people realized there
was a low completion rate for these courses and services, like Udemy, felt it
was necessary to do some course correction.

image

Some of the disillusionment came
from the expectation that this form of education would be just an electronic
version of what has gone on in traditional classrooms for hundreds of years.

I call that “horseless carriage”
thinking – when people don’t realize that there’s a new thing, a car, which is
like what was in the past, but is sufficiently different that it’s not just a
carriage powered by something other than a horse. If you thought “horseless
carriage”, you wouldn’t have anticipated the growth of suburbia and all the
other changes wrought by automobile ownership.

Anyway, despite the disappearance of
MOOCs from the hype-o-sphere of the general news media, the number of MOOCs
continues to grow.

image

It’s not just that the number of
courses has increased, but MOOC enrollment surpassed 35 million in 2015.

As for the course completion issues,
Harvard Business Review put this in context by
pointing out that:

“The critics are right that most
people who start a MOOC don’t finish: just 4% of Coursera users who watch at
least one course lecture go on to complete the course and receive a credential.
However, given the large number of users involved, the absolute reach of MOOCs
is still significant. For instance, more than one million people have completed
a Coursera course since its inception in 2012, with over 2.1 million course
completions as of April 2015.”

It is also interesting that
educators are disproportionately the users of these courses. Daniel Thomas
Seaton and colleagues reported:

“Surveys of 11 MITx courses on edX
in spring 2014 found that one in four (28.0 percent) respondents identified as
past or present teachers. … Although they represent only 4.5 percent of the
nearly 250,000 enrollees, responding teachers generated 22.4 percent of all
discussion forum comments.”

As I wrote last time, one reasonable
analogy to the problems facing higher education is to compare it to the
challenge faced by theaters in the 19th century. During that period, every city
of any consequence had one or more theaters that were the venue for actors,
singers and other live performers.

image

Then along came recorded music,
later the movies and ultimately television. Those technological innovations
made it possible to deliver performances from the best actors and singers
without requiring them to be physically present. In addition, the revenue that
this form of recorded entertainment could generate was much greater than that
of any local live theater. Movie and record companies used that extra revenue
to provide “production values” and elaborate staging that wasn’t
possible in the local live theater.

The result: most of those live stage
theaters disappeared or became movie theaters (or car parks, like this one in
Seattle).

image

Now, technology makes it possible to
deliver on a large scale at least that part of a college education that
consists of watching a professor deliver lectures in front of a classroom.
Again, it is unlikely that the local university or college will be able to
match this global delivery or the “production values” that could
enhance these online courses.

Of course, we still have Broadway
plus a few successful regional theaters. So too there will be Harvard, MIT,
Princeton, Stanford and the like. But most colleges may find it increasingly
difficult to justify their continued existence using the current approach.

We’re already seeing the pattern set
by theaters replicated in higher education among the providers of MOOCs. Online
Course Reports described the pattern this way:

“Twenty percent of massive open
online courses offered by U.S. News and World Report’s Top 100 National
Universities are offered by the Top 5 universities on that list. Over half
(i.e., 56%) of MOOCs offered by those National Universities are offered by
schools in the Top 20. Almost 90 percent (i.e., 87.6%) of all MOOCs available
are offered by schools within the Top 50.”

“Course offerings per institution
drop off exponentially at a rate of -700% after those Top 50: that’s an average
of 21 MOOCs per university in the Top 50 decaying to an average of 3 MOOCs per
university in the bottom 50. Comparing these averages, we see a massively
unequal distribution of massive open online courses toward some of the most
expensive, highly valued, and heftily-endowed universities in the world.”

Although the market for MOOCs is not
quite the same as the market for traditional higher education, it is hard to
imagine that enrollment in less “highly valued” institutions will not be
affected by the alternatives now open to others. This is especially likely to
occur as those institutions provide credentials that used to be available only
by paying high fees to attend college on campus.

As in my post of four years ago, I’d
note that one of the major obstacles to these changes being more widespread is
the fact that that colleges have had the combined role of both delivering an
education to their students and certifying that their students mastered that
education (i.e., they provide college degrees as credentials).

But things are changing even on that
front. As Class Central has reported

“One of the big trends last year
[2015] was MOOC providers creating their own credentials: Udacity’s Nanodegrees,
Coursera’s Specializations and edX’s Xseries.
For Coursera and Udacity, these credentials have become a main source of
revenue”

Similarly, Georgia
Tech
has online Master’s degrees in fields like computer science, aerospace engineering and operations research.  As an example, the
online computer science website proclaims:

“With [the online degree in] CS, you
can join computing professionals from more than 80 countries who are earning
their M.S. on their own time, in their own homes, and for a total cost of about
$7,000.”

Employers who used to shy away from
candidates with online degrees from for-profit organizations, like Phoenix,
might look differently on an online degree from a Georgia Tech or a Coursera
credential from a course provided by Princeton.

Overall, the way that MOOCs and
other innovations in higher education are growing and changing is a rising
threat to many not-so-prestigious, yet expensive, private institutions.  

And it is only a matter of time
before uninformed (or even well-informed) public officials begin to question
the traditional model of higher education. Public institutions in states where
the government has dampened its enthusiasm for higher education spending, like Arizona
State
, have in response taken the lead in online offerings even for
undergraduates – offering an online bachelors for about $12,000 a year. Of
course, many public colleges have not yet reacted this way.

Community colleges, which also
receive public funding but serve student populations that may not yet have the
talents and temperaments for online learning, may escape immediate impact of
these changes. But again, the question is “for how long?”

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights
Reserved

http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/151401475437/will-higher-education-repeat-the-history-of

Community Colleges & The Deep Changes That Challenge Them

Colleges have long established the roles of those with superior,
perhaps absolute, knowledge (the teachers) and those who have much less
knowledge (the students).

But as a trustee of a community
college, I realize how often the leaders of these institutions – the
boards, the staff and faculty – are, or ought to be, learners as well.  
Especially these days, we do not have certain and broad wisdom about
what we can do well.

This was, at least, my frame of mind going
into a recent board “retreat” focusing on the college’s strategy.  
Because of my other work, I was asked to provide the lunch keynote
presentation about the changes that are happening and will happen around
us that can affect the future of colleges.

The trends are out
there to be seen, but the implications for traditional institutions are
still open to question.  Although I’ve spent much of my career in
technology, unlike various Silicon Valley folks who seem to think they
have the answers too, I really have more questions, which is ultimately
what I wanted my fellow board members to think about.  In any case,
there’s no way to get the leaders of those institutions to make changes
by lecturing to them.

image

Here are the trends I described and the questions they provoked.

Virtual Presence Everywhere

With
large numbers of people face down looking at their screens, some people
mistake texting, email and social media for real dialogue.  But
scientific research indicates otherwise – text communication is
limited.  As the saying “seeing is believing” indicates, the non-textual
part of our conversations is critical and that’s not yet part of most
everyday Internet communications.

The digital world is now at a
stage equivalent to where the telephone system was in 1920.  This is one
reason I think that online courses are still limited, since many of
them are essentially just broadcast TV (on the web) combined with text
communications.  It’s not really a virtual classroom.

But the
visual aspect is growing substantially, with FaceTime, Skype and other
ways beyond even videoconferencing to create a virtual presence
anywhere.  We’re even seeing demonstrations of conversations held using
mixed reality technology.

Google and Skype, among others, have
also made good progress in enabling us to communicate in different
languages – adding yet another dimension to being able to be a virtual
presence anywhere.

This oncoming capability to have visual
dialogues will intensify all the other the trends — although we are
still only in the early stages of its use.

So the first question I asked is:

How can we use these virtual presence technologies?  

As
an example, many of our students are on very tight budgets and often
are working jobs to survive, in addition to going to college.  Yet we
ask them to travel miles from where they live, often by slow public
transportation, to get to some main campus where their classes take
place.

But many community colleges have locations aside from their
main campus which could become nodes in a virtual classroom.  And
that’s not even including those students who could find other quiet, but
well connected, locations.  Then the student could appear virtually in
the classroom, be seen and heard and participate.  And the time and
money spent on travel could be devoted to study.

Ubiquitous Technology

Many
college leaders think of screens and keyboards when we talk of
technology.  I showed the many ways that technology and the net are now
everywhere and in many things.  Now any surface can be a keyboard, a
mouse or an interactive display.  Walls, floors, clothing, armbands,
fingernails, earrings, shoes, your eyes are all means of interacting
with the net.

Moreover, people interacting with technology is only
part of the story in a world where already more devices are connected
to the Internet than people – the “Internet of things”.

The natural question for colleges in response to this trend is to ask:

When
the Internet is everywhere accessible in many ways, will our college be
everywhere accessible in our region or even the world?

Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Analytics & Big Data

I
combined these topics because as they all develop they are often
intertwined and as a combined trend they will have an impact on how
obtain and use knowledge.

The best of these efforts are invisible
to their users.  For example, speech recognition (like Siri) is an
example of machine intelligence.  There are personal translators,
software that makes art, writes stories, acts as a legal assistant, etc.

Then
there is the increased development and use of robots, leading to
concerns about massive future unemployment.  While it seems to me there
will still be much to do after the robots have mastered the kind of work
we’ve done in the past, there is no doubt that we should be asking
ourselves:

How can we use these technologies?  What is it that
our students need to learn in a future world of, at least, artificially
augmented human intelligence?

Changes In The Way People Will Make A Living

I
noted the dramatic shift in the last hundred years or more in the
nature of employment from most Americans earning a living by making
products or food to most Americans providing services and intangible
products.  Along with this has been a disaggregation of the way that
corporations work, since they too take advantage of technologies that
enable remote collaboration.  The latter trend is also associated with
an increase in freelance employment, now said to involve one-third of
the labor force and growing.

Most colleges still think about
preparing their students for traditional jobs in large companies –
especially community colleges which are concerned about the prospects
for their continuing education adult students and even degree students
who will not go on to four year colleges.  Yet a 9 to 5 job in the same
big company, from age 25 to 65, is being replaced by earning income from
several sources in a freelance economy.

The questions this raises for colleges are:

Will
our students be able to flourish in this new economy?  Are we preparing
them, indeed all of the residents of the areas we serve, for this new
work life?

The Need For Lifelong Learning

Lifelong
learning has been a popular catchphrase among public officials and
educators alike, although they have mostly implemented the idea in very
limited ways.

But the people outside of our institutions of
higher education realize that they need keep learning in order to make a
living in an economy based on knowledge.  This is not a matter of
taking a refresher course once every five years.  It’s a continuous
need.

image

That’s part of the reason for the popularity of the many
ways that the Internet offers people knowledge – college-like websites
(like Coursera and edX) and the many other websites that teach (from
Khan Academy to Lynda.com to YouTube to thousands of others).  The
development of citizen science sites, like Zooniverse and Geazle even offer people the opportunity to both gain and help create knowledge.

While
much of college, even community college, is focused on the segment of
the population younger than 23, all the people older than that need to
continue to learn.  These “older” people are finding the best and most
cost-effective means of lifelong learning because the traditional school
system is not geared to them.  Should that be the case?

Do/can community colleges offer something to these adults that meets their continuing needs?

As
I said at the end of my presentation, I only scratched the surface of
the trends that are coming our way.  For example, I didn’t even discuss
the development in bio-engineering.

The overall lesson for college
leaders is clear: in addition to our everyday work of keeping the
institution going, we need to start answering these questions.  We need
to develop our strategies to figure out what this all means for
colleges.

And, as part of a community of learners, community
colleges need to do research, to experiment and to analyze what works
and doesn’t work in a changing world.

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/147697356006/community-colleges-the-deep-changes-that]

Are MOOCs Failing?

There have been recent articles featuring primarily Sebastian Thrun, the earlier leader of massive open online courses (MOOCs) and founder of the company, Udacity, which specializes in developing and delivering MOOCs.

The first was a piece in Fast Company about how Thrun has been disappointed by the experience of MOOCs.  This was followed by a more positive piece in the New York Times about changes in MOOCs that are being considered in order to address their failures.  The failures turn out to be the small percentage of people who actually attend the full course and the fact that most of them already have degrees.

However, the discussion might be misleading.  It not so much whether online courses are good or bad, but how it is very difficult to succeed with a new innovation by casting it as a minor modification of something that already exists.  In this case, the idea that online learning should be very much like a typical college course, but just online, may not have been an innovative enough idea.  For example, the Khan Academy, which packages learning into ten minute videos that anyone can access, is a much greater change from convention and has also been much more successful.

Indeed, the fact that many in the MOOCs already have degrees maybe should make MOOC developers reconsider their target.  Perhaps MOOCs will be much more appealing as a cost-effective means of lifelong learning for those who cannot afford the time or additional money to attend college than for those who would be college students.

In a knowledge age, the biggest challenge is how to provide learning opportunities for all adults – all of whom need to continue to learn.

(Disclosure: While this blog has had previous posts on higher education, it is now more relevant since I was recently appointed to the board of the Westchester Community College.  Of course, my views do not represent those of the College now, or as it may turn out, even in the future 😉

© 2014 Norman Jacknis

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/72768461219/are-moocs-failing]

Community Colleges And Workforce Development: What’s Missing?

I had the opportunity this week to participate in a summit run by the Chancellor of the State University of New York on Community Colleges and the Future of New York’s Workforce.  

The participants came from both the community colleges and industry.   As a group, they represented some of the smartest and most dedicated folks trying to improve the workforce.

The special focus was on STEM and especially advanced manufacturing, represented in New York by the photovoltaic, optics, and fab foundry industries, among others.

Some key takeaways:

  • While particular job training is useful, the community colleges should not go too far in the extreme and essentially become a vocational education vehicle.   The private sector executives noted that it is hard for businesses to predict the next big trend and community college officials are likely to do worse than business executives – so ensure that more general STEM skills and critical thinking are also taught.  Many business executives would also admit that their companies are subject to tremendous short-term pressures that should not necessarily overwhelm the long-term foundation that colleges need to provide.
  • (When I used to speak to college students about the software industry, I would tell them that the most important things they could learn were not any particular computer language, but how to think clearly and how to learn on their on own.)  
  • The economy is global, so the training of students has to include more than a local aspect.  Chancellor Zimpher, for example, highlighted the great value of coop working opportunities for students – more than 90% of coop students get jobs, a much higher rate than for others.  But she also noted that these coop opportunities could and should take place outside the US.
  • A good community college will encourage companies – both large and small – to expand nearby.  For example, one company with factories in New York and Georgia decided to expand dramatically in New York because of its better community college system. 
  • The jobs out there are more than what is traditionally thought of as STEM-based jobs.  There is a large need for welders and auto mechanics, both of which apparently are now computer-based jobs.

What I didn’t hear was also important:

  • How does this scale?  The employers are saying they have many job openings, but are not finding the people with the right skills.  The public officials and educators also say that workers will need lifelong learning, not just education when during their childhood or even a once in a lifetime retraining as middle aged adults.  In the knowledge economy of this century, learning is a continuing necessity.  So how can community colleges help provide this education in a cost-effective manner?  It’s worth noting that, while community colleges are less expensive than other kinds of higher education, as they currently operate, they may be too expensive to meet this demand.
  • What about innovation?  Many economists and public officials point out that the key to 21st century economic growth will be innovation.  Those people, places and companies that can innovate will be the ones that generate growth.  While there is lots of talk about training on specific existing skills, what about helping students to enhance their creative, their innovation skills?

Unless community colleges also fully address these two questions, their well-intentioned plans and diligent efforts will be undermined.

© 2013 Norman Jacknis

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/50517716137/community-colleges-and-workforce-development-whats]

Will Higher Education Repeat The History Of Theaters?

According to various reports,  universities are beginning to take serious notice of MOOCs – massive open online courses.  See, for example, the New York Times article “The Year of the MOOC” at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/04/education/edlife/massive-open-online-courses-are-multiplying-at-a-rapid-pace.html

Nearly every university administrator and many professors that I talk to realize there is a potential sea change occurring in higher education.  There is, of course, tremendous uncertainty as to where this is all leading – and a hope that, wherever it leads, these folks will retire before they have to go there.

One possible analogy to the problem facing higher education is to compare it to the challenge faced by theater in the 19th century.  During that period, every city of any consequence had one or more theaters that were the venue for actors, singers and other live performers.  

Then along came recorded music and the movies and ultimately television.  Those technological innovations made it possible to deliver performances from the best actors and singers without requiring them to be physically present in each city.  In addition, the revenue that this form of recorded entertainment could generate was much greater than that of any local live theater.  Movie and record companies used that extra revenue to provide “production values” and elaborate staging that isn’t possible in the local live theater.

The result: most of those live stage theaters disappeared or were converted into movie theaters.  Now, technology makes it possible to deliver on a large scale at least that part of a college education that consists of watching a professor deliver lectures in front of a classroom.  Again, it is unlikely that the local university or college will be able to match this global delivery or the “production values” that could enhance these online courses.

Of course, we still have Broadway (plus a few successful regional theaters).   So too there will be Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Stanford and the like.  But most colleges may find it increasingly difficult to justify their continued existence using the current approach.

One significant barrier that has been holding back this transformation is that colleges have had the combined responsibility of both delivering an education to their students and certifying that their students mastered that education (i.e., they provide college degrees).  If that connection starts to break and there can be an independent respected institution that would certify whether someone has mastered a topic, we will see lots more experimentation and rapid change in higher education.

Thus it is interesting that in today’s New York Times there appeared an article “Free Online Courses to Be Evaluated for Possible College Credit” at  http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/14/education/moocs-to-be-evaluated-for-possible-college-credit.html   The report notes that the the American Council on Education (higher education association) and Coursera (a MOOC consortium of thirty three universities, including Stanford and Princeton) will be evaluating whether to offer college credits for MOOC courses.  Another MOOC consortium, EdX, already provides a certificate of completion.

The change is starting to accelerate.

© 2012 Norman Jacknis

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/35703961387/will-higher-education-repeat-the-history-of-theaters]