The March 14 issue of The Economist also had an article about "the log-on degree", or the fact that "digital cures" seek to mitigate the high university tuition costs in America. It was most interesting when it touched on SPOCs, or Small Private Online Courses, which are emerging as a compelling alternative to MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). They target on-campus university students, in particular to support blended learning and the "flipped classroom", where students watch lectures online out of class and use class times to do exercises and discuss the material.
The article does some particularly good PR for ASU (especially its programs such as the eAdvisor system) and "Designing the New American University", the recent book by ASU President Michael Crow but also mentions Harvard Kennedy School and pure online courses, which have the potential to "fre[e] universities from their geographical constraints" and thus "increase choice for students and create new revenue streams for the universities with the best digital offerings".
The part of the article on SPOCs is more convincing than its end on digital courses because SPOCs are better aligned with the high-level goals of universities, which are to train and graduate students who will become highly accomplished members of the workforce for life. SPOCs also ensure a certain homogeneity in the students' level of preparedness, which makes the course better suited for their needs and avoids having well-intentioned but ill-prepared students waste their time.
At the same time, it seems that every professor who has ever wanted to has been able to assign readings in his class and he could have tested students before the beginning of each lecture to make sure they had done the readings. It's a bit rich to pretend that video has enabled a whole new way of teaching - in many cases, this is simply not true. I don't assign readings but I've always made my lectures (especially for my undergraduate elective in operations research) highly interactive with students working on problems with me during class time. So professors had similar tools before, albeit less technology-intensive. If everyone is so enthusiastic about SPOCs now, why were they not teaching that way before?
Additional readings on SPOCs:
- Forget MOOCs, a September 2013 article in Slate. Tagline: "Free online classes shouldn't replace teachers and classrooms. They should make them better." By far the best article on SPOCs and blended learning, with early results from a San Jose State pilot program and Bunker Hill Community College near Boston.
- A June 2013 article in The Harvard Crimson, "HarvardX's new fall offerings to include two SPOCs." Excerpt: "[T]wo of the new HarvardX offerings are “small, private, online courses” called SPOCs. One of the offerings, GSD1.1x: “The Architectural Imaginary,” is open only to incoming Design School students but may be opened up to the broader public at a later date [...] HarvardX’s first SPOC, a Law School course titled HLS1x: “Copyright,” debuted in January. [There were 4,100 applicants worldwide for 500 spots. ...] Other new HarvardX courses include HKS211.1x, “Central Challenges of American National Security, Strategy, and the Press: An Introduction,” a Kennedy School module SPOC that will have limited enrollment for certain features, such as discussion boards." The Harvard Kennedy School SPOC is also mentioned in the Economist article and is the focus of a Harvard Kennedy School magazine article in its Winter 2014 issue.
- Blog post on the edX site by Brian White about a biology SPOC he created for UMass Boston. He distinguishes between the MOOC time unit of a week and the SPOC time unit of a day. I am not sure how common this is (some MOOC teachers use the traditional lecture as their time unit and thus have two time units a week, while it is maybe a bit optimistic to think that SPOC students will work on a course every single day, since they also have other courses to study for) but it is food for thought nonetheless.
- "From MOOCs to SPOCS" in Communications of the ACM, December 2013.