There has been much discussion in educational circles over the last couple of months about Massively Open Online Courses, or MOOCs. It is believed that the ugly disruption at the University of Virginia in June involving the firing and subsequent rehiring of the President was partly due to a perceived reluctance to get UVA involved in offering MOOCs. (I have addressed this in a previous blog post). Today’s New York Times Magazine has an extensive cover story about these events, and notes that soon after the President’s rehiring, UVA announced that it was joining one of the MOOC consortiums (Coursera).
It seems that MOOCs have become the media darling of the moment in the education sphere. Unfortunately, there is much misunderstanding and misinformation surrounding MOOCs. And for the purposes of this blog there remains the question of whether MOOCs have any applicability to legal education, and if so, what that might be.
As a starting point it is probably important to explain the terms that make up the acronym. Massive refers to a large number of enrollees. Open refers to the fact that these courses are typically offered to anyone in the world. Online indicates that they are fully online courses, with no face-to-face contact. Courses seems obvious, but is not; since enrollees can come and go, complete as much or as little as they want, and do not necessarily receive a grade or any transferrable credit, it stretches the term.
In practice, MOOCs are not new – they have been around for a half-dozen years or so. MIT and Stanford have offered several technical courses in the form of MOOCs for several years. One particularly popular one offers instruction in iPhone programming. Some of these courses have enrolled over 100,000 students. No money - or University credit - changes hands.
MOOCs offer something terrific and new in education. But the development and popularity of such courses is not a panacea for financial problems, and they are not as threatening to the enterprise as many seem to think. MOOCs are being touted as both a financial savior and the end of education as we know it. They are neither.
The Massive and Open aspects offer educational resources around the globe, for people to whom the possibility of taking a course of any kind at MIT was beyond remote. Technology has made that miracle happen. And the Open-ness, from a pedagogical point of view, is a great thing, because it brings potentially disparate experiences and backgrounds into a virtual space that otherwise would be impossible on the ground. If you believe that students in any course in any format learn a lot from each other, then you will probably view the Open aspect of MOOCs as creating educational opportunities that once did not exist.
There is a tendency in the press (including the Chronicle of Higher Education) with new technology to rush to two conclusions: 1) it will make a lot of money, and 2) it will change the world. We do this, I think, because both have happened in the last 20 years. A lot of money has been made, and things have changed. But we forget that a lot of money has been invested in losing technologies, and while technology has changed how we do things, and sped things up, we still fundamentally interact with each other in the ways we always have.
In my view, MOOCs are primarily a University marketing scheme on the one hand, and a public service on the other. MIT and Stanford and Harvard and UVA (etc.) all want their “brand” to extend as far as possible around the world. Offering a few courses by their best professors is a good way to do that. And our most elite institutions should be offering a public service of this kind to the world. I am glad they are.
But I am skeptical that these courses will ever make much money or replace higher education as we know it.
While these courses might one day become monetized with advertisements or “tuition” payments, it seems unlikely that they will make enough money to be a significant source of income for a large University. This is because as soon as students are paying for credits, they need and expect professors who are involved in teaching the course, and teaching 100,000 students is not possible, no matter the technology in play. Higher education discovered some time ago that there are financial reasons to have a high student to teacher ratio, but it more recently discovered that there are rarely good pedagogical reasons to do so. And there are other concerns about MOOCs. Many are of the poorest pedagogical design: "lecture capture" and quizzes and questions posted to a forum in the hopes another student might be able to answer. In part because of this, they have very high non-completion rates, and there are many opportunities to cheat.
The stark reality is that all of us in higher education are struggling with this uncontrovertible fact:
The educational system we have today was designed at a time when information was scarce. Information is no longer scarce.
This means that the one-to-many model breaks down in the new order. If anyone can get the information that used to be held by the few, then the few (the professors) have to retool and offer something different and better than (mostly) information transfer and summative assessment.
MOOCs are good at information transfer. (They are also an example of how information is no longer scarce). As professors retool to offer “higher order” teaching and learning on a smaller scale higher education gets better and more appropriate for the 21st Century, but not necessarily less costly. MOOCs offer an unqualified good in that they allow for experimentation with online technologies, many of which can be used throughout traditional Universities - much more prevalently than they are now - to provide a better “product” without higher cost.
And it is here that I take issue with some of the fear about MOOCs. In an opinion piece in the NYTimes, entitled The Trouble with Online Education, a professor at UVA said this:
Online education is a one-size-fits-all endeavor. It tends to be a monologue and not a dialog.
This is complete bunk, written by someone who obviously has no experience teaching online. It is the worst sort of generalization that comes from ignorance of the subject, and it is not the sort of research and thoughtfulness you would expect (and hope for) from a UVA Professor.
As someone who has taught many online courses, I can say that - properly designed and developed - they can be better than “ground” courses in some ways, and often are. But, they are not a financial panacea because the best online courses are no larger than 15 students. It is not the technology that gets in the way of good teaching, but rather class size and careful pedagogical design. I wrote about this extensively in Law School 2.0 (at pp. 110-120). Here is one excerpt from that section:
As a substantive pedagogical matter, when I have conducted these “live” classes [where everyone is online together at the same time] I have found them to take the point of difference between an online class and a “ground” class very near to the vanishing point.
It is interesting that the President of the University of Southern California (USC) recently issued a letter stating unequivocally that: “USC will not offer online degrees in the undergraduate level.” (Emphasis in original). The argument there is that so much of the ideal undergraduate experience is broader than what is just learned in the classroom, and if they did offer such a degree, much of that would be lost. The letter goes on to extoll the benefits - and successful experience USC has had - offering online learning at the graduate level, across many of its schools. So perhaps there is an appropriate distinction between college and graduate school. But even at the college level, some online teaching can be effective, and improve what has gone before. Note that the President of USC said they will not offer online degrees.
In legal education, we have the ABA limitations that apply to online instruction. The ABA allows a law school graduate to have taken no more than 12 credits in online courses, and none of those during the first year. I suspect when we as legal educators become facile with teaching online, and use best practices in online pedagogical design, that restraint will be relaxed.
Even with that limitation, law professors seem to be reacting with fear rather than curiosity. But curiosity would serve them better. The “flipped” classroom is an example of something we could all be doing more of today. The basic information that might be captured in a lecture: that information can be easily put online. This could free up at least some of the “classroom” time for more workshop-based learning, with higher quality one-on-one time with the professor. This is not hard, it just takes retooling. And it's probably more fun. Importantly, it is not a MOOC. It’s not massive and it’s not open. And it is not fully online either - it is a hybrid pedagogical design.
Perhaps Harvard Law School will offer a MOOC in American Law Systems (or similar). That would be a great thing, an international marketing coup and a public service. But it will not be the new model for legal education. Instead of fearing MOOCs, we should strive to learn from them, and incorporate the best they have to offer in our schools. We will improve the product, without increasing cost. Given all the criticism of legal education - of it being an overpriced product not sufficiently tuned to the needs of practice - both developments would help.