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Assessing the MOOC landscape: two perspectives on today's most talked about education format.

Massive, Open, Online--and Personalized

James C. Barrood

It's one of modern cinema's most familiar and resonant moments: the scene in Good Will Hunting where Matt Damon's character humiliates a Harvard student, contending that the Ivy Leaguer blew $150,000 to learn less than Will could learn with a library card.

Will Hunting might have been thrilled with the massive, internet-driven disruption that's coming to higher education, trailing the carnage it has left in industries like music and print publishing. With hundreds of MOOCs taught by top professors from great universities, the price of content and theory is plummeting towards "free." Not even a library card is needed.

In my own academic field of entrepreneurship, dynamic experiential opportunities offered by accelerators, incubators, maker/ coworking spaces, and community meet-ups may enable students to bypass a degree--saving a fortune and getting a multiple-year head start on building their companies.

If you're the next "Will Hunting," what could be better? With the proliferation of high-quality, for-credit MOOCs, why not "home college"? Why not take at least your first- and second-year courses online, and then (if you desire) transfer into a four-year school?

There's a catch, of course. Not everyone is Will Hunting. Nor is everyone prepared. Or focused. Or resilient.

Can these technologies be made to work for the full spectrum of students who actually exist? Including millions already at risk of failure due to insufficient support?

Perhaps. But colleges will need to create far more customized paths for each student, course, and program. They'll have to experiment rapidly and extensively--and learn quickly from their experiments. Most of all, they'll have to double-down on the issues of motivation and remediation they're already struggling with.

There isn't much time--especially for weaker institutions. Even community colleges, which have seen increased enrollment from budget-conscious freshmen who'll eventually transfer to four-year schools, will face "bottom-up" disruption from online alternatives.

Many students may find themselves in the middle, desiring a looser (and less costly) relationship with an academic institution, but a richer experience than today's MOOCs offer. One can envision online courses supplemented by community and experiential activities to more closely resemble a campus environment.

Making Stronger Connections

Imagine supplemental video chats, virtual book clubs/discussions, and especially meet-ups at local campuses, libraries, or community centers--crucial to overcome the isolation and "digital cocooning" that are major risks of the online education revolution.

Stronger connections can also be embedded into online platforms and syllabi. Tools might gently and creatively nudge students from the very outset, so they're less likely to fall behind. In-lecture checks (such as Coursera has) can improve retention by checking knowledge after every small chunk of content; grades might be partly based on timely completion of these brief, ongoing quizzes.

Teaching at large-scale, committed instructors in many fields can gain a deeper understanding of which explanations work best, and may be able to evolve classes that are demonstrably more effective.

On the human side, institutions can integrate elements of advising, concierge, and social work to keep students on task, and ensure access to the right resources. New e-tools could help advisors deliver more and timelier individualized guidance. Such tools might draw on technologies like those now used by Narrative Science and Automated Insights to generate automated newspaper articles.

Some potential problems of online education may prove easy to solve. For example, if the best lecturers develop audiences of millions, they might crowd out other voices. But institutions can use readings and sections to provide critical counterpoints.

Ultimately, students, parents, and colleges must work together more closely to take advantage of the best online and offline resources. At times, students will certainly need to turn off digital devices, to build personal skills and community engagement. But if new and old tools are used together flexibly--not dogmatically-we can have smarter graduates, a stronger and more adaptable workforce, and millions of new lifelong learners.

James C. Barrood is executive director of the Rothman Institute of Entrepreneurship at Fairleigh Dickinson University's Silberman College of Business (N.J.).

Legal and Regulatory Aspects of MOOC Mania

By Michael Goldstein and Greg Ferenbach

Massive open online courses are all the rage. By allowing anyone to take an online course--in the original form and without receiving a recognized credential from an institution--MOOCs appear to skirt the edges of the complex, multilevel regulatory framework governing American higher education. By different names, these courses have actually been around for years, but the promotion of MOOCs by prestigious American institutions has created a tsunami of interest. In the age of the MOOC are fascinating possibilities for advancing access to quality higher education. Yet it is not a field without land mines and tiger traps. Already, as the business model for MOOCs has evolved, regulators are taking note.

Currently, there are several directions the MOOC business model appears likely to take, each potentially raising its own regulatory issues. There is the online course provider; the provider of identity-verified competency testing; and the credentialing entity, which could grant conventional academic credit and a degree, or provide non-traditional "badges" or certificates of completion that might be aggregated into a conventional degree.

Although most regulation of higher education is still based on the historic model of on-site, bricks-and-mortar campuses, legal and regulatory rules that evolved in response to distance education business models may potentially also apply to MOOCs.

What Would Trigger Scrutiny

Consider the three legs of the so-called regulatory "triad"--the U.S. Department of Education, the states, and the accreditors. Each has gradually developed a framework for overseeing distance education.

At the federal level, MOOCs would, at first glance, seem to be outside the regulatory purview of the DOE for the simple reason that such students aren't able to receive federal student grants and loans, nor do they need them. While that makes sense from a student perspective, bear in mind that many of the federal student financial aid regulations apply to the institution, not to specific programs. These include various rules pertaining to third-party contracts, student privacy, and misrepresentation. Of particular concern is the "incentive compensation rule" that, among other things, generally prohibits revenue-sharing with entities involved in any recruiting or admissions-related activity.

But it is also important to recall that under our federal system, many aspects of educational institution regulation are largely left to individual states, which are chiefly responsible for the protection of students as consumers. States vary widely in approach, and while a majority don't seek to regulate "pure" distance ed, a minority take the view that offering any program or even course to residents of that state--even without any "physical presence" on the part of the institution--requires the school to be licensed to operate.

State laws represent a particularly serious challenge for a MOOC delivered entirely independently of an accredited institution.

This issue arose last year when Minnesota sought to prevent Coursera from offering its courses to residents in that state. The trigger for Minnesota's action was the offering of the course to residents of the state by an institution that was not licensed by Minnesota--not necessarily the offering of a degree, or even a course leading to a degree. Minnesota adopted a "wait and see" approach to regulatory authority, but the issue seems likely to re-emerge.

And what of the various accrediting bodies, which in recent years have been pressed hard by the DOE to tighten their oversight of online programs? Institutional accreditors, both regional and national, are supposed to oversee all a university does and assure everything an institution offers is provided with "integrity."

Agreeing to ascribe academic credits for successful completion of a MOOC raises a host of questions for accreditors, most notably assessing this: How do college leaders know that learning has occurred? As competency-based assessment develops, accreditors are looking with increasing interest into the manner through which schools are awarding credits.

In addition to the regulatory issues that are presented by MOOCs, there are many legal issues common to distance education programs, such as: faculty intellectual property rights; "fair use" of copyrighted materials; ownership of online course materials, syllabi and courseware; and updating of course materials that are exacerbated by the "massive" nature of MOOCs.

Officials at schools that become a part of the MOOC movement must therefore be aware of the emerging legal issues, do their "due diligence," and pay close attention to how the various models--and the world around them--evolve.

Michael Goldstein and Greg Ferenbach are partners in the firm Daw Lohnes PLLC,
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Author:Barrod, James C.; Goldstein, Michael; Ferenbach, Greg
Publication:University Business
Date:Apr 1, 2013
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