VIA Inside Higher Ed: The Bitter Reality of MOOConomics (Carlo Salerno)

Once again, in the continuing debate over whether MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) represent a genuine opening towards the future of higher education, economist Carlo Salerno analyzes the business model of these well-publicized courses (an issue we’ve discussed in our workshops and on the blog).  He writes:

Born at two of the nation’s most elite colleges, MOOCs have received an unbelievable amount of news coverage for offering the potential to solve one of the sector’s most nagging problems: how to provide world-class education for practically no consumer cost. The courses provided via MITx and by a handful of Stanford professors have generated considerable publicity, though it’s the recent announcement that Coursera (another Stanford spin-off) has lined up around a dozen elite institutions that will use their platform to offer similarly styled educational offerings that really has folks thinking MOOCs may very well be the answer to our system’s perceived ills.

Read more:
Inside Higher Ed
What I find fascinating about Salerno’s take is that he recognizes the same problem with MOOCs as earlier commentators: that even if universities can afford to hand out instructional materials for free (or as free as contingent faculty can make them), they cannot afford to lose selectivity over admissions or control over credentialing, if they are to maintain their institutional prestige and reputation.  These are the precise issues that caused the conflicts at UVA over Pres. Sullivan‘s firing, and they will bedevil any attempt to equate the instruction provided by MOOCs with courses in a degree program.  But the temptation to define higher education down will remain so long as institutions are faced with rising personnel costs and declining state support. We have not heard the end of this.

High Impact Practices: how to incorporate them into hybrid as well as face to face classes?

After our discussion, I received the following question from Rex Koontz,

My big question regarding high impact practices is this: as we move to a more hybrid/blended system of course delivery, how can we build high impact practices into every level of hybridization?

This, I think, is a really good question. If we are moving to more hybrid or non-synchronous forms of course delivery, how do we make sure these practices are incorporated into those courses as fully as in face to face instruction?

This was my response to Rex, which I hope those of you who have taught hybrid or distance courses will comment upon.

In terms of the increasing hybridity of instruction, I’m not sure if this trend is advancing, or advancing in the right ways if we want to satisfy the equally compelling demands for better learning, improved graduation rates, post-grad success and so forth.  We would probably need better forms of assessment, for both hybrid and face to face courses, if we wanted more definite answers about this question.

All my courses, for example, use WordPress courseblogs, which is my favored delivery system. In all my courses, whether for undergraduates or graduate students, I use the course blog as a discussion forum, as a repository for required readings, as a portal for their online library resources, and as a space for their ongoing research results to be shared and reviewed.  There is no reason why this approach could not be emulated in BlackBoard, as many already do, or with other platforms.

These online interactions do not substitute for face to face interactions, but supplement them. My rule of thumb, which I have taken from the economist and NYT columnist Ed Glaeser, is that online interactions do not substitute for interactions, but supplement them, in more or less-powerful ways. This is a view that seems to be getting corroborated in at least some of the research that I have seen. (See, for example, this 2003 study by some sociologists at Berkeley).

In my view, if we are going to move towards greater hybridity, then we need to configure the online resources for optimal access, reliability and interactivity, and follow the same principles of pedagogy that we should have been using all along for face to face classes, but translated to this specific medium: these include active learning, independent research, authentic problem solving, group work, swift and detailed feedback, plenty of opportunities for practice, and so forth.

There are ways to do this with the online components of instruction, but they require development time and resources (and professional development for faculty), monitoring of what works and what doesn’t, and attentive revision and tweaking of course presentation over several iterations of the course. (and don’t forget IT support/course design infrastructures and possible additional personnel to provide high quality feedback and grading for large sections).

So building and sustaining the HIPs in the classroom necessarily entails careful planning and support at the front end, in the course design stage, and sometimes additional support during the semester itself, and then careful revision and updating at the back end, as courses are prepared for the next cycle.

At the very least, assignments have to be designed with these demands in mind, group work assignments and online forums for asynchronous coursework need to be set up beforehand.

Once the course is live and work is handed in, their work should receive some degree of peer review and instructor feedback. This feedback should prepare students to advance to the next level of difficulty with the material. And faculty need to have ways to communicate continually with students about their comprehension of the material, their concerns, and what questions they are developing.

In any case, those are my thoughts about how to develop a culture of teaching at UH that incorporates HIPs into every level and every aspect of interactions with students, both online and face to face. Best, DM

Thanks to all who attended the Faculty Workshop on Getting the Most out of Blackboard: 4-21-11; UPDATED

[today’s attendees came from over 10 departments and 4 colleges, as well as the library]

[Prof. Holly Hutchins presenting]

[Prof. Lindsey Schwarz presenting]

[Dr. Simon Bott presenting]

In the Faculty Senate offices today, Dan Wells helped facilitate a faculty workshop on “Getting the Most Out of Blackboard.”  Our presenters were Holly Hutchins (who is also a member of the CTE board), Martha Dunkelberger (a UH teaching award winner this year), Lindsey Schwarz, and Simon Bott (also a teaching award winner this year).

Here are some of the highlights of the discussion; readers are invited to submit additions, corrections, or additional comments or information to this summary.

  • Holly Hutchins stressed the need for those teaching on Blackboard to remember that technology cuts two ways, amplifying the effects of either good or bad course design.  She also urged instructors to learn the mechanics of any platform they intended to use, so that they could design the course with better knowledge of the platform’s strengths and weaknesses, and so that they would be able to update or resolve any problems that came up without too great delays.
  • She showed certain modules, like a Welcome module, “Getting to know you” assignments, and a student-run “Graduate Cafe,” that were added for the sake of greater engagement.
  • She argued for the importance of addressing any questions students had about the format as early as possible, preferably before the semester even began, to allay anxiety.
  • She reminded the audience that the principles of adult learning (which was her course’s content, as well as its organizing principle) dictated that the adult students be given reasons for every stage of the assignment, so they could learn to follow directions and monitor their own performance.
  • Finally, immediacy and responsiveness from the instructor, along with the lead time necessary for good thoughtful course design, were crucial for the success of a Distance Education (DE) or hybrid-style course.

The next speaker was Martha Dunkelberger, who talked about how she taught writing in the context of Communication Disorders.  She stressed the use of asynchronous chats for their writing assignments, which gave her and her students additional opportunities to discuss assignments and whatever problems they were encountering.

The third speaker was Lindsey Schwarz, who presented her techniques of conducting classes using Wimba technology, which enables instructors to conduct classes using microphone headsets, a “whiteboard” that can be drawn on, private messaging, and pdfs and ppts with predesigned content.

The final speaker was Simon Bott, who talked about his experience teaching large Chemistry lectures using BB as a way to foster engagement.  One of the biggest issues for Bott is the problem of the bank of test questions, which need to be generated much more frequently than he initially expected.  Bott does not provide notes to his course, but he does conduct weekly review sessions that he makes available to students, while also selectively providing students with accommodations some support with additional teaching materials from his lectures.  He also encourages his tutors to come onto his forums to help ask and answer questions online during the weekend.

The meeting broke up around 2:30, with the promise that CTE would host additional workshops on topics of interest to those teaching using technology in the coming year.


UPDATE: Mr. Bruce Martin, our very capable assistant at the CTE, has investigated one of the questions that came up, and reports as follows:

A question was asked about automatic forwarding of Blackboard mail to personalized mail. This can be done by the student through his “My Settings” once logged into BB.

My Settings > My Tool Options > Mail > Mail Forwarding

The e-mail address is maintained under the student’s profile, which is located within the Roster. This means, then, that the Roster must be enabled and visible to students to use.

From within the course > Build > Designer Tools > Manage Course > Tools > Roster

UPDATE #2: Lindsey Schwarz has provided the pdfs for Wimba, one for instructors, the other for the students:



Thanks to all for attending our Distance Ed Brown Bag: Summary of 11/18/10 Discussion

CTE Brown Bag on Distance Education.

Summary of Discussion, November 18, 2010

Motto:  Let pedagogy lead the technology (cf. Ann Christensen)

This is a first pass at trying to represent the depth and breadth of our recent Brown Bag discussion on Distance Education.  I have tried to organize remarks by topics, so this does not reflect order in which ideas were expressed.  Comments, corrections, and additions are welcome.  Jim Garson

A. What do students need to be able to succeed at Distance Education (DE)?

1. Students need to know how the course is organized.

Problem: They do not read/remember the syllabus.

Suggested Remedies:

Given students a test on the syllabus.

Answer student questions individually by e-mail.

Use Twitter and/or e-mail to remind students of major events during

the course such as assignments, exams etc..

Require attendance at an organizational meeting in a hybrid format.

2.  Students need realistic expectations concerning how challenging the course will be.

Problem: Many students expect DE courses to be significantly easier than face-to -face classes.

Suggested Remedies:

Develop videos explaining the distance education experience, which can be made available before the class begins or even before they register.

Given and/or require training classes on how to do well in DE classes.

3.  Students need strong computer skills and or support to overcome problems with interacting on line.

Problem: Many students lack the right equipment or have poor understanding of the equipment.

Suggested Remedies:

Provide a better logistical support system for DE classes.

Provide better faculty support for maintenance as well as development of courseware.

4.  Students need strong motivation, good study habits and well-developed time-management skills.

Problem: Many students are not academically or emotionally prepared to handle a distance education class.

Suggested Remedy: Require students taking distance education class to have a GPA above 2.5

Problem: Many students have trouble keeping up with the class schedule.

Suggested Remedies:

Design the class around a large number of small (weekly) modules with corresponding assignments, and track student progress by requiring that assignments and tests be completed by target due dates.  Lock students out of submitting their assignments when they miss due dates.

Provide copious feedback by e-mail, Twitter, blogs etc. on the course schedule.

Require students to take and pass practice tests by due dates before they can take the tests that count.

5.  Students need frequent and quick feedback on their progress in the course.

Problem: Frequent testing needed in DE classes has put a strain on the computerized testing system.

Suggested Remedies:

Bring TAs and other support people to help at the testing center.

Expand the resources at testing centers.

Problem: It is easier for students to cheat in on-line classes

Suggested Remedies:

Generate a large bank of test questions so that each computer-generated exam is unique.

Require short timed responses for each question.

Webcam or ID systems may be used in the future to verify identity of students taking an exam.

6  Students need to be able to profit from rich interaction with the instructor and their fellow students.

Problem: Many students feel isolated and alienated from the course, and so tend to put off working on it.

Suggested Remedy: Require student interaction on blogs and/or chat rooms.  Students who get engaged in such discussions get excellent training in writing without even noticing it.

Problem: How can DE classes provide the direction needed to develop practice skills such as counseling?

Suggested Remedy: Video of sample counseling situations can be shared, and students may be asked to reflect on and criticize the quality of the interactions.

Problem: How can we develop online discussion systems for technical courses such as mathematics, where the topic would not seem to lend itself as well to discussion?

Suggested Remedy: Such discussion may not be as natural, but it can work if the topic is carefully focused (for example on a particular problem or technique).

B.  Faculty Concerns about DE

1. Budget cuts are coming., and we can expect less and less state support. What will this do to the ratio of Instructional to Tenure Track faculty?  In turn how will this affect the quantity and quality of DE offerings?

2.  The outside world (eg. the Board of Directors and the Coordinating Board) may think that DE is the cheap and effective way to deliver education.  We need to send a clear message that creating good DE takes a massive effort both in creation and maintenance.  It is not the cheap way out it may appear.

3.  Working on DE is a burden for faculty.  Grants should supply faculty time as well as equipment, software support, etc..

4.  How can faculty working on DE better share information?  How could the CTE help?


Post models of the best quality DE courses, including syllabi, courseware, and other resources in a Mock Blackboard website.

Post data on the effectiveness of DE classes broken down by various class formats (hybrid, all on-line, etc.).

Develop a DE blog on the CTE website.

Share existing listservs and create new ones.

5.  How can faculty better learn about available tools related to DE?


Provide short video tutorials on creating short video tutorials.

Schedule more training sessions on DE support tools, for example, on how to do voice over with Powerpoints.

Publicize support people for various tools (eg. TurnItIn).

6.  Saturday hybrid classes are regularly locked out of their rooms.

Suggestion:  Remind Physical Plant each week that the classroom must be open.

C.  The Need for Guidelines

Marshall Schott’s office is currently preparing guidelines for DE. Since the guidelines are there to help faculty in their DE efforts, it is important that they play an active role in developing them. What are the crucial topics that a good set of DE Guidelines should cover?  Faculty participation is strongly encourgaed. Share your ideas and/or volunteer to serve on the committee by contacting Dan Wells, at

D.  For further information

Try these two links by some of the pioneers in researching best practices in higher education:

“Implementing the Seven Principles: Technology as Lever” (Chickering, Ehrmann, 1996)

“Asking the Right Question: What Does Research Tell us About Technology and Higher Learning?” (Ehrmann, 1995)


Distance Education Round-up

Here are some recent items from the NYTimes and Inside Higher Ed concerning Distance Education:

  • According to this piece in the NYT, more and more residential schools are requiring DE or hybrid courses to boost enrollments and contend with budgetary shortfalls.
  • In another NYT piece, a University of Florida microeconomics teacher found some surprising differences between face-to-face and online learners in the same course.
  • In Inside Higher Ed, a piece about Internal Barriers to Online expansion.