Grazing - a personal blog from Steve Ehrmann

Steve Ehrmann is an author, speaker, and consultant.

Monday, February 18, 2013

GW Launches 2nd Gen Online Degree Programs

George Washington University has recently launched a second generation suite of online master's programs called the George Washington Digital Community.  I call them  'second generation online programs' because they take advantage of online media to be, in some significant ways, better than a campus-bound program could be.  Patty Dinneen and I wrote "Beyond Comparability" last year to describe a dozen ways in which online and hybrid programs could be qualitatively different from, and superior to, campus-bound programs.  (We didn't mean superior in all ways; simultaneously there will be ways in which those same campus-bound programs would be superior to the online programs.)  Even though the online program would have somewhat different goals and content from a campus-bound counterpart, it's possible to assess their quality, as we suggested.

The first 2Gen Online MBA program I noticed, years ago, was "OneMBA" - jointly designed and offered by five institutions on four continents, it's an Executive MBA in Global Management that teaches courses in which students work in international teams.  And twice a year, students and faculty meet at different spots around the globe to do research (never a spot where one of the campuses are, by the way).  So it's really a hybrid master's program - so much the better.

Now GW's Digital Community has been launched.  It will soon include masters degree programs in four areas: Masters of Business Administration, Masters of Science in Information Systems and Technology, Masters of Science in Project Management, and Masters of Tourism Administration. The new GW online MBA began teaching its first cohort of students last month.  It takes advantage of online and multimedia to transform how students learn, when compared either with on-campus or with the linear, text-based, asynchronous world of the 1Gen online program:
  • The spine of each course is organized around a sequence of high production value, brief videos; these videos seem to strike a great balance midway between the crude talking heads that characterize films of instructors talking to their classes and the expensive video that might be produced for television broadcast.  The camera is positioned to make the learner feel part of a small seminar discussion.  The resolution is crisp.  I know the faculty I saw, and the process really brought out their personalities. These were no wooden talking heads. 
  • At a variety of points within each brief video segment, students can branch off to other resources and tracks, from narrated slideshows and animations that go deeper into a topic, to readings, to other videos, to practice problems, and other web sites. This video clip, after some initial generalities, paints a pretty good picture of this articulate approach.
  • Students can also pop into an asynchronous discussion of an idea or question raised in the video, and then pop back and continue the video.
  • These online courses are paced by extensive use of scheduled real-time online discussions among students and instructor.
  • Videos of recent alumni are being filmed; the alumni explain why students should work hard to learn a particular idea or technique, based on experiences the alumni has had with using that since graduation.
  • The architecture of the system will enable faculty to gradually add more options and tracks to courses, if they wish, so that students with differing goals or needs can get just the instruction or assignments they need, within the same course.
  • The courses are set into a larger digital community that should help students make lasting friendships and intellectual relationships with one another, within and across courses.  Students can also participate in the Digital Community's co-curricular program, which includes (1) First Sundays, a variety-show monthly webinar, featuring guest speakers and reports from various student groups and organizations; (2) Digital Roundtables, periodic small-group facilitated discussions with business and policy leaders from around the world; and (3) 1+1 Mentor Program, matching students with GW alumni mentors with common professional interests and background.
If this works as planned, it may well have a long-term and perhaps unexpected benefit.  I suspect that building community in this way may also lead to deeper bonding among students, and with faculty and the institution.  The cohorts of students may feel a bit less like GW customers, and more like (generous) GW alumni.  Give us a decade or two, and we'll see.

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Wednesday, February 6, 2013

What does "MOOC" mean? No, really, what does it mean?

Did you ever get into a frustrating argument before realizing that you and your opponent were each using the same word but with unspoken, conflicting definitions?

Some years back, for example, an argument about the educational outcomes of lecturing came to an abrupt halt when my colleague and I realized we were each using a different definition of "lecture." I meant an unbroken stream of faculty talking, and students listening. My colleague meant 'everything that a faculty member does in a classroom.'

I've called these terms confusors. Some years ago, I developed a web site where I listed confusors that can derail discussions of higher education, words like "technology," "classroom,""assessment," and "teaching,"  each of which have widely-held, conflicting definitions.  Remember: confusor definitions are rarely right or wrong, even though different people may each deeply believe that their definition is the only correct one.  Confusors are like icebergs - the conflicting definitions are invisible and can rip the bottom out of a conversation.

The newest confusor in higher education dialogue is "MOOC." MOOC is an acronym for four words  - Massive Open Online Courses -- and all four words are confusors.

"Massive" can mean that hundreds, perhaps tens of thousands of learners are registered.  But "Massive" can also mean that the course has been designed to handle huge numbers of users (just as any book can potentially be a best seller).

  • Another confusor, hidden deeper, is "registered."  Some people sign up for 30-40 MOOCs at a time, but never visit any of them. Others may attempt a first lesson, realize that this isn't something they want to do, and depart. It's hard to consider either group as "dropouts" from the MOOC.  But, on the other hand, the cited number of registrations may vastly overestimate the actual usage of the MOOC.

In discussing MOOCS, most people define "Open" as "free." But for others, "open" means inexpensive: students may choose to pay a price for textbooks, assessment and coaching.  And for still other folks, "open" means that the materials are not only free but also can be freely used and adapted by anyone: open source.

"Online": for some people MOOCs are something new, a tiny and very specific type of online learning. Others use MOOC as a virtual synonym for "online learning."

"Course" for some people means that the MOOC's content is comparable to a campus course taught by the same instructor. But for others, the MOOC's length and content may be quite different from anything offered on campus, far shorter than a college course.

People also silently make dramatically different assumptions about learning in MOOCs. Some folks assume that MOOCs combine videos of all the lectures from a campus course with mostly the same instructional materials used on campus. These same folks may assume that drop out rates will be high, and learning relatively shallow. Meanwhile, other folks assume that MOOCs should become engaging and effective; they may assume a combination of online tutors that respond to differences in student needs and performance; a wide range of online source materials; illuminating videos that look like public television; self-grading quizzes on complex ideas; and carefully- designed procedures that give learners valid feedback on sophisticated tasks. These folks may expect high quality earning from MOOCs but also expect that considerable time and money will be required to achieve that goal.

Threading these conflicting assumptions together:

  • Some people are leaping into MOOC development because they silently assume that MOOCs are so much like campus practice that they will be inexpensive and noncontroversial. Tens of thousands of learners will use the materials because the MOOCs are online and free, they assume. These folks may also assume that copyright of published materials will be maintained.  Others, who see MOOCs in that same way, are deeply worried; they see MOOCs as a massive step backward in pedagogy, educationally ineffective for all but a handful of exceptionally talented and self-motivated learners and a potential blot on their institution's reputation. 
  • Other folks silently assume that MOOCs will quickly evolve to be quite different from traditional campus courses: shorter, fostering rich peer-peer collaborative learning, and providing sophisticated feedback from sources other than the instructor.  Such MOOCs may require extensive R&D, and will be expensive to develop. Some of these folks also see MOOCs feeding into an emerging, open source universe of interconnected interoperable instructional resources. Or they may see "MOOCs" becoming not free but still dramatically less expensive than conventional education.

Have you encountered other ways in which the word "MOOC" has become a confusor?