What the Researchers Got Wrong About Their ‘Sesame Street’ Education Study

Last week, Melissa Kearney of the University of Maryland & Phil Levine of Wellesley College received a great deal of media attention for their in-process paper Early Childhood Education by MOOC:  Lessons from Sesame Street.  Asserting that research on Sesame Street & educational efficacy is lacking and has failed to engage beyond the immediate or short-term results, Kearney & Levine designed an apparatus in an attempt to find a correlation between exposure to Sesame Street and longitudinal outcomes such as high school graduation or post-school labor gains.  While their instrument did show statistically significant outcomes in the immediate and short-term for those with better access to Sesame Street, the instrument failed to note any significance beyond (the researchers note this as inconclusive, though the only inconclusive aspect is whether the failure was on the part of the instrument or if the findings are in fact insignificant).

What does this have to do with MOOCs?  Not a whole lot as per the research.  But the invocation of MOOCs is indicative of an ahistoricism that permeates this work-under-review. Saying Sesame Street is ostensibly the first MOOC shows a fundamental flaw in Kearney & Levine’s historical literature review on the subject, a flaw Audrey Watters notes and critiques in an excellent response to the paper and subsequent media furor.   Continue reading

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Meet the New Hype, Same as the Old Hype

Quick note on Coursera founder Daphne Koller’s quote from Friday’s Wall Street Journal:

If you put an instructor to sleep 300 years ago and woke him up in a classroom today, he’ll say, ‘Oh, I know exactly where I am’

This sort of ahistoric bluster is nothing new.  My favorite example is from edX CEO Anant Agarwal from 2014, which came from a keynote at Campus Technology’s 2014 conference.  Agarwal had a photo of a 1950s MIT classroom as a slide, and accompanied it with this quote:

old_class_448

What is interesting about this photo is that nothing has changed…[Other industries have been transformed, and learners have changed, but education hasn’t changed]…It is pathetic that the education system has not changed in hundreds of years.

In the interest of full disclosure, this was not the picture from Dr. Agarwal’s presentation.  I know this because a 1950s picture of a MIT lecture hall would not have nearly that many female students.  In 1955, the Ad Hoc Committee on the Place of Women at MIT believed women were not successful undergraduates, a position contrary to the attitude of Chancellor Julius Stratton but evidenced by the low enrollment of female students.  It would taken 10 more years for attitudes to change at MIT, and nearly a generation after that before levels of gender equity would fall more in line with similar universities.

This is not Dr. Agarwal’s first ahstoric bemoaning of  the lack of change in education; just two years ago he was painted by Inside Higher Ed to be gobsmacked by education-related research from 1972.

Education changed 300 years ago, and 200 years ago, and 100 years ago, and 70 years ago and 60 years ago and 50 years ago and so forth.  Even in the past 3.5 years, since the MOOC monolith, education has changed…what has not changed is the ahistoric narrative sold by MOOC developers.

For more examples of how education has changed, and just from a lens of equity, there is a great Hack Education piece from 2012 on the very subject.

 

the Golden Age of Education that never was

Republished from edutechnicalities

The history of edutainment, a mid-20th Century portmanteau used to describe the mix of broadcast contents with an educational context, is a fascinating field, and Audrey Watters’ Story of The Learning Channel is an important addition to a critical reader on the relationship of broadcast media, ownership rights and the education superstructure.  Noting how the current state of The Learning Channel TLC evokes responses of, “Remember when it was called The Learning Channel,” Audrey presents the history of the infrastructure which created what was a public-public partnership between government agencies to provide satellite-based educational television (conceptualized in the 1960s, partnered with more public agencies and enacted in the early 1970s), and how public-public became public-private became private became a host of barrel-scraping reality TV fare.  It is an excellent read.

The article ends with questions to consider when engaging broadcast television, education, edutainment and the other terms and subfields that inhabit this realm:

  • Who owns the “pipes”? Who owns the means by which content is transmitted? Who owns the satellites? Who owns the spectrum? Who owns the cables? Who owns the network?
  • What do we mean by “educational content”? In particular, how has our definition of “documentary” changed over the last few decades? How does this shape what media – in form and in content – enters the classroom?
  • How have regional educational agencies and distance education providers – particularly those offering for-credit classes – been affected by the commercialization of content and delivery?
  • How has education become increasingly commercialized? How might education on the Internet and via various computer technologies be following down that very path taken by education on cable TV?

This topic intersects with my emerging research; I am thankful to Audrey for this discussion and the energy behind it.   I would like to join the conversation as part of an emergent discussion.

In 2014, Coursera announced a partnership with Curiosity.com, a start-up launched from within Discovery Communications, whom Coursera heralded as the parent company of Discovery and Animal Planet. (Note:  in November Curiosity.com spun off and away from the Discovery Communications paternity) At the time, I blogged about the partnership, briefly touching on the histories of Discovery and The Learning Channel, as well as the media conglomerate that would form from their 1990s merger/acquisition and growth. I framed this in the context of edutainment, which took me down a whirlwind of Disney history, resulting in scholarship on the relationship between the learning objects/resources of the OER movement, edutainment, and the ‘free-as-in-beer’ resources one finds in Coursera/edX/curiosity.com.  The expansion of this research continues; at the present I am adopting a postmodern lens to look at the history of broadcast contents within education, in their utilitarian existence as well as their social/political/cultural/philosophical/power contexts too.

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What *We* Talk About When *We* Talk About MOOCs

Yesterday’s Chronicle announcement of the MOOC-related study Preparing for the Digital University (a comprehensive review of distance, blended and online learning funded in part by the Gates Foundation and investigated in part by Athabasca University) created somewhat of a tremor in the social media landscape for those who follow George Siemens (one of the researchers in the study, the point-person for the Chronicle write up, and one of the creators of CCK08, the course that spawned the MOOC acronym) and Stephen Downes (one of the more prevalent and accessible EdTech researchers today, as well as the other primary creator of CCK08, the course that spawned the MOOC acronym).  Downes addressed the research study at his website, Siemens and Downes discussed the differences of opinion on Twitter, Downes elucidated his point at his blog, and Siemens responded at his blog.

Every bit of the conversation between the two is worth reading (as well as the Twitter additions from other EdTech-minded individuals).  This conversation is a highlighted example of a more and more common conversation happening within this wing of the EdTech world — the *forgotten history* of distance education/online learning and what it means when *we* forget *our* history.  Downes points out inefficiencies in the MOOC research Siemens links to (based on the MOOC Research Initiative) due to a lack of familiarity with the richness of the field, and after calling for people to take education back from edtech vendors, Siemens also links to the importance of research and evidence.  From this perspective, the problem is ignorance or naivety and the solution is research, research seen here as both an awakening of the shoulders of giants as well as a tool of influence in greater conversations. Continue reading

What We Cannot Learn from the Udacity/GT Partnership

Today’s Chronicle of Higher Education features an article by Steve Kolowich about the potential impact of the Udacity/Georgia Tech/AT&T online master’s program on the future cost of higher education:

The program, which started last winter, pairs MOOC-like course videos and assessments with a support system of course assistants who work directly with students. The goal is to create a low-cost master’s degree that is nonetheless “just as rigorous” as the on-campus equivalent—producing graduates who are “just as good,” to quote one of the new program’s cheerleaders, President Obama. The price: less than $7,000 for the three-year program, a small fraction of the cost of the traditional program.

By understanding what kinds of students are drawn to the new program, Mr. Goodman and his fellow researchers think they can begin to understand what competitors it might threaten.

Bringing down the cost of a professional program is an admirable goal, and this specific success could mean a great deal for the target population of this and other professional, graduate programs.  However, the rhetoric surrounding initiatives such as the Udacity/Georgia Tech/AT&T partnership rarely distinguishes between the target population of a professional program and the population at the heart of the crisis in higher education.

One year ago, Udacity pivoted its approach to online learning away from democratizing education for underrepresented learners and toward professional programs (I wrote about the decision at the time).  This pivot was maligned within scholarly EdTech circles for good reason:  Udacity had set its organizational intention at solving the cost problem of higher education, but its product was unable to adequately serve the population it intended to assist.   Continue reading

The MOOC revolution did not take place.

The din of the MOOC world continues unabated, vacillating between the MOOC continuing its march toward Valhalla and the MOOC as a dying revolution in need of last rites.  The multiple personality disorder of MOOC coverage is most evident in last week’s tech-business articles about MOOC company Udaicty. Upstart Business Journal last week wondered aloud if the MOOC was dying, asking the question whether Sebastian Thrun could save the MOOC.  Here, we learn that Thrun recently left Google to focus full-time on Udacity (similar to the FastCompany report from 11/13 on him leaving Stanford to focus full-time on Udacity), as potentially a last-ditch effort to save the MOOC.  This is echoed in a TechCrunch blog from earlier in September entitled The MOOC Revolution that Wasn’t.  Yet on the same day Upstart ran their open question, both EdSurge and Venture Beat heralded a recent $35M investment in Udacity from venture capital firms such as tech-based Drive Capital.  The tenor of these articles, it should be said, lacks the same globalize and democratize education ballyhoo from articles in 2012 and 2013.  That said, none of these articles have given up on the MOOC as an instrument of educational change.

What about other MOOC providers?  edX’s Anant Agarwal was profiled in Wired Magazine the same week as the Udacity news:

The way [Agarwal] sees it, effective uses of the MOOC model are only beginning to take shape. Enrollment in edX courses has doubled over last year, and he believes we’re on the verge of an era he calls MOOC 2.0. “We’ve been growing as others are throwing in the towel,” he says of edX.

There is lot to take issue with in this quote, and the article in whole.  What MOOC providers are throwing in the towel?  Certainly not Udacity, Coursera, edX or Canvas.  Also, Agarwal’s use of MOOC 2.0 is symptomatic of the ahistorical nature of most EdTech Mavericks; it marks at least the sixth time someone has used MOOC 2.0 to talk about the future, and fails to note that Cathy Sandeen of the American Council on Education invoked MOOC 3.0…15 months ago. Continue reading

A creative writing MOOC to reclaim MOOCs

One of the earliest problems with the MOOC phenomenon was discord:  on one side there were distance/online education scholars devoted to digital learning as a transformative opportunity, on the other AI and Machine Learning mavens (whose models focused on the Tech side of EdTech) who were largely unaware of existing methods and progress and saw EdTech as a mechanism of convenience/ease/economy.  MOOC was a term borne of experimentation and cutting-edge theory, a background it lost once MOOC became synonymous with LMS-based content streams.

One year ago, focused on the disparity between the freedom of the original MOOC and the limitations of the Frankenstein’s Monster MOOC built of venture capital and buttressed institutions, I made a call for scholars to step back from fighting for the MOOC monicker.

Today, I am announcing a course I will lead in collaboration with Canvas network and a slew of writers, educators and scholars, scheduled to launch in January 2015.  It’s a course about establishing tangible and repeatable creative writing practices  (#cwmooc), built around the development and drafting of the written word.  It will look very little like the MOOCs of Udacity/Coursera/edX.  But it is a MOOC.  And I am not shying away from calling it such.

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