In 2012, during a rare moment of clarity, I wondered aloud about the possible impact on institutional reputation of academics choosing to post their instructional materials online, including lecture videos, for all the world to see. While the efforts by MIT (starting in 2001) and others in the “Open Movement” served as strong social statements about the importance of access to education, they also put the university on display in new ways and to an unprecedented degree. University brass were not typically aware of the practice, despite its potential significance.
Soon after, MOOCs (a la Coursera and Udacity) arrived and took the potential impact of freely distributed instructional content on reputation to a whole new level, quickly establishing these online courses as a new and very public platform for inter-institutional competition. As expected, the level of financial investments in MOOCs climbed quickly; early efforts costing 50k were replaced by some that reached 400k. Production value lept; lighting and sound quality improved and lectures were more tightly scripted.
Increased Production Value: A Trend?
We can interpret the rise in production value of MOOCs as a sign of what’s to come for all of online higher education, or as merely an aberration, a by-product of the one-upmanship that characterized the response by elite institutions to the onset of MOOC-mania. I would argue that it’s the former – for two reasons.
First, higher production value and, more generally, a thoughtful, deliberate, and rigorous approach to course design, remains an untapped opportunity in higher education. Most institutions continue to approach online course design as they have classroom education: the responsibility for course design and development falls largely on the shoulders of lone instructors with limited time, insufficient resources and incentives. Budgets are laughably small. Consequently, most institutions have been unable to begin to truly leverage the possibilities of the medium. Too many courses still rely on repurposed static classroom materials and an incoherent pastiche of free content pulled from a variety of sources.
But this won’t likely last. Enough institutions recognize the limitations of what now constitutes the “traditional online course” and are beginning to take course design seriously – improved production value is part and parcel of this change. Better course designs that incorporate real-time feedback, learning analytics, instructional games and other techniques will generate better student outcomes, improve retention and from a purely market-perspective, enable the to create a meaningful difference in increasingly competitive, but homogeneous market of learning opportunities.
The inevitability of higher production value also stems from sweeping, long term changes in access to instructional materials and information, generally.
The ability of individuals to learn when and how they want independently of our educational institutions continues to expand. Resources for learning outside of universities are better quality, easier to find and curate. In light of this broad trend, the institution of higher education will need to place greater emphasis on the design of learning experiences – and migrate away from its emphasis on creating new knowledge. It’s historical emphasis on serving as knowledge creators will need to be complemented by an equal commitment toward providing the highest and most productive form of learning, as well.
The trend has been unfolding since the first printing press, but the growth of the Internet has sent it into overdrive. And the impact of changing access to information is not restricted to education. Family physicians, for instance, have grown accustomed during the past decade to patients arriving for their appointments with medical reports in-hand, detailing possible medical interventions – all pulled freely from the Internet. The discussion currently making the rounds in North America - “is college worth it” – may be an early symptom of this trend; we’ll know better in retrospect.
Son of MOOC. Or Lynda.com Meets People Magazine
Masterclass is a VC-backed start-up in (surprise) San Francisco that offers short online courses on popular topics like acting, photography, and creative writing. (I must admit I was not aware that there’s a shortage of qualified actors, photographers and creative writers.) Each course costs $90 USD and includes video, interactive assignments and social learning opportunities – both online and face-to-face.
While Masterclass seems far removed from the concerns of higher education, its’ similarities to MOOCs offers us a unique vantage point for thinking through changes in production value and how learning resources are evaluated.
The first and most simple similarity is the emphasis on production value, which Masterclass takes to a whole new level. The current crop of Masterclass courses are directed by professional film-makers: Jay Roach (Austin Powers and Meet the Parents) and two-time Academy Award winning documentarian, Bill Guttentag. They’re predictably beautiful.
The second and less obvious similarity is the way in which both MOOCs and Masterclass rely on the status of the source of instruction to generate the perception of instructional value.
The affiliation with elite institutions is fundamental to the appeal and newsworthiness of MOOCs, as was the choice to present these courses as more or less equivalent to the “real courses” taught within the institution (minus tuition). News services and pundits took notice because MOOCs appeared to offer a desirable, expensive, and scare resource for free – it’s a “man bites dog” news item. (c.f. “Elite Education for the Masses“, Washington Post, 2012) Had these MOOCs come from, for example, a consortium of community colleges in South Dakota, or not been understood as consistent with the actual courses taught at these institutions, they would have gained little attention.
Likewise, Masterclass leverages the brand name recognition and status of its instructors – in this case, celebrities from the world of film, sports, and the arts. The first crop of Masterclass courses are taught by Dustin Hoffman (actor), Serena Williams (tennis pro), James Patterson (fiction author), and Annie Liebowitz (photographer). (It’s highly unlikely of course that these celebrities had anything to do with the design of the instruction, but this is how the courses are marketed.)
In both MOOCs and Masterclass, then, the value of the courses is based to a considerable degree on the source of the instruction. And in presenting themselves in this fashion, they inadvertently underline the rather unsophisticated ways in which instructional quality is evaluated in and outside of higher education. MOOCs were received well because of the status of the institutions with which they were affiliated. But the status enjoyed by these institutions is primarily a by-product of exclusivity (admissions and tuition levels) and the research productivity of the faculty, not of instructional sophistication. These institutions enrol the most academically gifted students and, as Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen has noted, his home institution spends far less on improving instruction each year than does the University of Phoenix.
Likewise, the status of celebrities leading the Masterclass courses is not the result of their success as educators or coaches. They are practitioners and each one studies under leading coaches, trainers and educators.
In each case, then, consumers are investing in instruction on the basis of qualities only indirectly related to instructional quality. This isn’t because people are daft. It’s because in the absence of easy access to relevant information about instructional value, we turn to proxies to make our decisions. Lloyd Armstrong, Provost Emeritus at USC refers to tuition, exclusivity, research productivity and other markers as “surrogates of quality“.
Consumers need to become more adept at identifying instructional value. But institutions must play a leading role. We need, first, to take steps to track the impact on learning outcomes of different instructional strategies. And then use this information to inform both students and ourselves about what’s working and what isn’t. Yes, educational quality is harder to measure than most, but not impossible – particularly in the online environment. Intelligently designed learning analytics – based on field-tested theories of learning – can now provide us with accurate and relevant information we need to enable better assessments of true quality in learning.