Thursday, May 23, 2013

More Bang for the Buck

The onset of highly visible, massive open online courses (MOOCs) has had much to do with re-energizing my teaching, something I posted about as a guest on the ProfHacker blog of the Chronicle of Higher Education ( My interests so far have been much more about using online educational material to improve the quality (along many dimensions) of on-campus education for students through online education, than it has been about decreasing costs of higher education, though I am very concerned with that as well. In the inaugural post of Cloud and Campus, I reprint much of a letter to the editor of the Vanderbilt student newspaper (, suggesting to Vanderbilt's current students that even if they won't benefit (directly, immediately) from reduced costs, they can benefit from increased quality.

The following is extracted from

I expect that most students know about the boom in online education, particularly massively open online courses (MOOCs). An informal survey of students attending the McGill Hour ( I recently led suggests that quite a few have actually taken or “audited” some of these courses. I opened the McGill Hour with a story of a graduating Vanderbilt senior, in a non-computer science field, who was wandering the halls of the computer science offices looking at bulletin boards the week before last May’s graduation. The long hallway was completely empty except for him and me, and he was clearly looking for something; I asked if I could help. As best as he could articulate, he was looking for some opportunity to learn computer programming in the very near future. I hesitated a little and then suggested that he take one of the excellent and free computer programming courses that were springing up online, offered by other universities. I wanted to tell him, a soon-to-be alum, that such a course was being offered by Vanderbilt, and moreover, that as an alum he could have access to Vanderbilt-produced material throughout his lifetime, perhaps with affordances that others taking Vanderbilt-produced content would not have.

There is much talk of how MOOCs and their descendants will lower the cost of higher education, and that is vitally important, but I am not expecting to see that change in the near future. Nonetheless, there are other ways of increasing “bang-for-the-buck” rather than lowering the buck — and that is by increasing the bang.

I sincerely hope that increasing the “bang” will include the establishment of online, lifelong learning opportunities for our alums, changing the very nature of what it is to be an alum. When I hear from my alma mater, it is with news of their latest and greatest, accompanied by a request for money, which is relatively easy for me to swallow because I paid a few hundred dollars a year for a first-rate education. But if my alma mater doesn’t start approaching me soon with low-cost learning opportunities, I’ll be surprised and disappointed. Moreover, a great treat as a faculty member is hearing from my former students regarding what they are doing professionally, as well as hearing about their families — and I happily reciprocate. However, I would absolutely love to engage in lifelong learning with “former” students, and not just in my offering online courses to them. I recently turned to a former Vanderbilt undergraduate student and current doctoral student at CMU with whom I was sharing a stage and told her and the audience that in five years I wanted to take a MOOC from her!

There are other ways of increasing “bang” that I can provide, even at my station. For example, I can tell a student, “Yes, I will allow you to take the graduate course in artificial intelligence, even without the undergrad course, because you did well in that free online artificial intelligence course over the summer.” In general, I feel comfortable allowing some of these online courses to stand in place of selected prerequisites of courses that I teach, even if I have no power to grant formal university credit for such courses (that latter decision is certainly above my pay grade) but the question of satisfaction of prerequisites is often at my discretion.

Another opportunity for increasing bang is about to begin, as Vanderbilt’s course offerings come online through Coursera. Courses by Douglas Schmidt and David Owens start March 4, with others to follow. Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching hopes to facilitate local learning communities around these online offerings, to include Vanderbilt students, staff and faculty. While I’ll see my colleagues on the big screen, I will be in the audience, learning new material side by side with students. Most faculty members are learning new things all the time of course, most obviously through their research and through teaching courses for the first time, but I am excited about being embedded in the learning community, modeling lifelong learning — or so I hope. Online learning may bring a sea change to on-campus education culture, again increasing bang for the buck.

I think much creativity stems from dealing with discomfort, and higher education costs must be contributing to the substantial discomfort of many students and families, in spite of some commendable efforts made in good faith by Vanderbilt to ease financial burdens. Still, I hope that students, alums and their families are all active in ideating on what Vanderbilt can do in the way of increasing the educational bang for the buck, both by leveraging online learning and in other ways.

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