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ASU / edX GFA Partnership

Guest Post: Josh Kim, Director of Digital Learning Initiatives at the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning (DCAL)

This post originally appeared on the Inside Higher Ed Technology and Learning blog on April 26, 2015.

Comments on the IHE stories about the ASU/edX partnership appear to be running strongly to the critical. I’d like to make a start at enumerating our IHE community’s concerns, and to then offer some counterarguments.

Concern – A Devaluation of Postsecondary Credit:

The main concern here is that by providing a mechanism to receive college credit through a course offered at scale, that the overall value of college credit will be devalued. While the costs of a college credit vary widely by institutional type (private vs. public, community college vs. comprehensive institution, not-for-profit vs. for-profit etc.), credit bearing courses have never been associated with those offered at scale. Student-to-faculty ratios may vary significantly in credit bearing courses, but they will never go beyond a few hundred per instructor. Offering a course for credit where instructor / student interaction is not part of the educational design will fundamentally change how we think about the value of a credit.

Counter-argument – The Value of an On-Ramp to a 4 Year Degree:

The counterargument is that what is really valuable is the degree, the credential, and not the credit. What the ASU / edX Global Freshman Academy (GFA) is trying to do is get more students fully integrated into a resilient pathway to a 4 year degree. The hypothesis is that if the barriers to making it successfully part way through college can be lowered, then the path to successfully finishing that degree will be smoother. It is the barriers to matriculating into a 4 year degree program, barriers related to both costs and preparation, that most inhibit postsecondary enrollment and success. The ASU / edX partnership offers an alternative method to access college, one that is lower risk (as you only pay if you succeed), has lower barriers (as enrollment is easy and open), and is more flexible (as courses are online).

Concern – The Deskilling of Faculty:

There is no way that ASU faculty will be able to play the traditional mentoring role in an edX course as faculty play in traditional courses. It is simplistic and wrongheaded to view the faculty role as solely about information transmission, or solely about assessment and evaluation. Rather, the role of an educator encompasses a spectrum of activities – activities that do not lend themselves to operation at scale. Break down a system of postsecondary education built around faculty / student relationships and you risk hollowing out the main value proposition of our higher ed system.

Counter-argument – The Faculty Role Is Becoming More Valuable Than Ever:

The counter-argument is here is two-fold. First, at many postsecondary institutions (and perhaps at ASU) there is already little faculty / student interaction in the larger enrollment first-year introductory courses. The second argument is that, ASU giving credit for introductory open online courses through edX, will actually make courses (and schools) that offer first-year courses at a small (human) scale all the more valuable. What the ASU / edX initiative is replacing is something that nobody thinks makes much sense anyway – the vast and impersonal introductory course built on lectures and high stakes (often computer graded) assessments. What is valuable are classes that encourage and enable a relationship between the educator and the learner, the faculty and the student, and the ASU / edX move to lower the cost of introductory courses recognizes this reality.

Concern – Authentic Learning in Massive Open Online Courses is Not Feasible:

Authentic learning in a MOOC is not really feasible, as learning is not about content consumption and assessment. Rather, authentic learning best occurs in an environment, and at a scale, that enables a skilled and experienced educator to tailor the learning environment to the learner. Learning takes place through dialogue, discussion, and debate. The current state of MOOC courses does not replicate this sort of educator / learning interaction. Online forums with thousands of students may offer interesting opportunities for peer interaction, but they do not duplicate what a professor does in a classroom.

Counter-argument – The Global Freshman Academy (GFA) Replaces Large Impersonal Lecture Classes, Not Classes Built on Faculty / Student Interaction:

The ASU / edX Global Freshman Academy (GFA) is not trying to replace courses built around faculty / student interaction. Rather, GFA is trying to get more students into a firm pipeline to have the opportunity to experience just these sorts of classes. What the ASU / edX partnership is doing is, in effect, compressing the time (and the costs) that a student can spend obtaining a traditional undergraduate degree. That time in college should be spent in courses that are characterized by more intense faculty / student interaction.

Concern – Encouragement of Public Higher Ed Disinvestment:

The ASU / edX could disincentivize public higher ed investment in at least two ways: by devaluing higher education and by offering non-publicly funded alternatives to postsecondary credit. States are looking for any excuse to reduce public higher ed funding. If given a model of MOOCs as substituting for traditional courses and programs, state legislators and executives will seize on these programs as evidence for the viability of cutting funding. Public funding can also be reduced if the burden for paying for credits is firmly established by the ASU / edX initiative as falling solely on the student. Since there is no way to apply for financial aid or student loans for the GFA credits (at least as far I know), the ASU / edX program sets up a new and completely student funded model of postsecondary financing.

Counter-argument: Public Higher Ed Disinvestment is Already a Reality:

The counter-argument is that public disinvestment in higher ed is already a reality. Costs have already been shifted to students, and this trend will continue. If public institutions are to survive they will need to come up with alternative funding mechanisms. Further, the costs for finishing freshman year through GFA are low enough that students and their families may be able to swing the costs without the need for loans or grants. Combining a part-time job with online edX studies is also more feasible than working while enrolled in a fixed class schedule program.

Concern – A Distraction Away From the Real Educational Needs of Poorly Prepared and Disadvantaged Students:

The argument is that the first year students that GFA targets, particularly disadvantaged and poorly prepared students, need more hands-on assistance – not less. If we want students to actually make it through their first year and stay in college, then we need to provide robust and tutoring, mentoring, support, and personalized learning. Historically, MOOCs have been most successful amongst the most educated. There is no greater adaptive learning platform than a caring, experienced and skilled educator. To think that placing students in a MOOC will improve rather than harm postsecondary retention seems to go against all the evidence of what supports postsecondary persistence and success, not to mention the widely noted reality of how few people actually finish the MOOCs that they start.

Counter-argument – More Prepared Students Will Enter Traditional Studies After GFA:

The goal of GFA is not really giving credits, but getting students to a degree. By offering an alternative path to more advanced courses, students will be able to start their traditional postsecondary studies at a higher level and therefore within smaller courses. Further, after completing GFA the students will have gained valuable experience in self-motivation and organization. This does not mean that GFA is right for every type of student. But by enabling those students that do have the ability to self-direct their studies, more space and energy will be freed up for those students that need more hands-on assistance.

Concern – An Unfair Competitive Advantage for ASU:

If ASU is able to offer credit for a MOOC they will be able to undercut other institutions that are paying the high costs of providing traditional courses for credit. ASU’s and edX’s marketing budget and reach will also push students into the GFA program. Community colleges and other lower cost public institutions will not be able to compete with the easy enrollment options and slick online platform offered by GFA. ASU is acting for its own interests, rather than that of higher education as a whole, as in offering a lower priced option for course credit they are undercutting everyone else in the industry.

Counter-argument – Higher Ed Is Not a Zero Sum Game:

The counterargument to the claim that ASU is acting as predator, and hurting the rest of higher ed while helping themselves, is that postsecondary enrollment is not a zero sum game. The U.S. higher ed system has a long way to go in getting students from enrollment to graduation. Our six-year graduation rates are atrocious. So are our enrollment numbers for lower-income high school graduates. If GFA can provide an alternative path to get more students into college, and into their sophomore year, then this program is well aligned with the nation’s postsecondary needs. Even with very large enrollments the ASU program will not make a dent in the meeting the demand for postsecondary education. What GFA can do is provide an alternative model to shorten the length of a traditional residential education to 3 years, one that other institutions are free to adopt.

Concern – The Unintended Consequences of Diminishing Enthusiasm for MOOCs:

One unintended consequence of edX’s deal with ASU as it could have a chilling effect on other MOOC experiments. The entire reason that most institutions, particularly elite institutions, got into the MOOC world is to experiment, learn, and improve residential education. There is zero appetite amongst the MOOC provider community, or at least within the edX Consortium, to offer for-credit courses. Indeed, clearly and forcefully stating that MOOC courses would never be offered for credit was the only way that the faculty at these institutions agreed to support MOOC involvement. For institutions not interested in moving to a 3 year undergraduate system, or in every giving academic credit for their MOOCs, this ASU / edX deal could significantly complicate their existing MOOC efforts.

Counter-argument – The ASU / edX Partnership Is an Experiment:

The MOOC community is fairly tolerant of experimentation. This ASU / edX deal is an experiment. The fact that it will be transparent, that we can all enroll in the courses, should help. EdX also has an excellent reputation for research, and the assumption will be that edX will be open and transparent in sharing how well this initiative is succeeding on its objectives. There is also support in the MOOC community for the discovery of sustainable business models. Finding a way to give credit for MOOCs may be the only way that open online learning stays financially viable into the future. Finally, there is a real appetite in the MOOC community to address fundamental challenges of costs and access. The U.S. postsecondary status quo needs to change. This ASU / edX partnership is at least a bold attempt to tackle challenges of costs and access head on.

Concern – Cheating Will Be Rampant, Quality Control Will Be Difficult:

How can ASU guarantee the integrity of the student work? What are the controls against cheating? How will ASU be able to tell if the person submitting the work is really the person getting credit for the course?

Counter-argument – Cheating Is Not Limited to Open Online Courses:

The people who will sign up for GFA are self-motivated learners. They will be less likely to cheat as they are taking active steps to take a nontraditional route to 4 year degree. Besides, cheating is not confined to open online classes. Cheating has everything to do with how a class is designed, and the investment of the instructor teaching the class. There is no reason to believe that cheating will be worse in an edX ASU class than in a traditional ASU course.

Concern – Transcripts Will Not Reflect Any Distinction Between EdX and Regular Courses:

By making the edX and regular courses equivalent on the transcript, ASU is devaluing the traditional course credit. Employers and graduate schools will have no way to know if the ASU course credit was from a MOOC or a regular course. This lack of information will weaken the validity of the transcript, as it will no longer reflect any common understanding of effort or rigor.

Counter-argument – The Value of Transcripts Is Already Marginal, What Matters Is the Credential:

The idea that the individual course on a transcript holds much importance is largely a fiction. Graduate schools look at majors and GPA. Employers look for credentials. Everyone looks at the quality of the school, not the graduates performance on individual courses. Besides, transcripts already mask variation in quality and rigor. There is no way to tell from a transcript how difficult or how easy one course is from another. What really matters, and what GFA is trying to address, is getting the student through college and to a degree.