Thursday, November 21, 2013

2:00 PM in UMC 245


John Cohen and Helen Macfarlane, both from the School of Medicine, will present a provocative and controversial lecture on "The End of the Universities" on Thursday, Nov. 21, at 2PM in UMC 245. Their brief bios and an abstract follow.

Helen Macfarlane is the Director of Education Technology for the School of Medicine MD Program. That means that Helen gets to see up close all technologies in education that we rely on to make things better and easier...fall short. This keeps her up at night pondering and plotting what it would look like if everything was better. Helen has a Masters in Medical & Biological Illustration from Johns Hopkins, which surprisingly, is completely relevant to her current position. In addition to being the co-organizer of the Café Sci at the Wynkoop, she directs the development of the CU Mini Med School. She and JJ Cohen are now working feverishly on preparing an online version of the Mini Med School

J. John Cohen is Professor of Immunology at the CU School of Medicine. He has 5 degrees from McGill University in Montreal (oddly, that's precisely the average winter temperature) including an honorary DSc in 2011 for his work in public outreach education. His research involves the role of apoptosis, or programmed cell death, in the immune system; his group showed that the famous killer T cell actually convinces its victims to commit suicide. Lately he's most interested in teaching and in studying how people learn and use what they've learned.

The End of the Universities?

In the US, as state funding for public universities declines to near-zero, students are asked to make up the shortfall. To many, this model is unsustainable: students and their families won't be able to afford the costs, and some will calculate that they are unlikely to ever earn back those costs.

Against this background, enter the MOOC (Massive Online Open Course).

Just over a year ago, Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig at Stanford decided to put their CS221 artificial intelligence course on a platform that anyone in the world could join. It was extensively hyped, and eventually 160,000 people signed up for it. Now, it's true that only 23,000 were still in it after the first few sessions, and only 6,000 finished the final test; but that must be compared to the 200 or so who take the course on campus. Successful students received a "certificate of completion" but no course credit.

Shortly after the course ended, Thrun left Stanford to join two others in founding Udacity, a for-profit MOOC-delivery organization. The courses are of reasonable quality, and all so far are in physics and computer science. Udacity has millions in venture capital, which allows them to make online presences with high production values, but it's not yet clear how the VCs think they will make back their investment; so far, all courses are free.

About free: free for a MOOC means as in "free beer;" free in Denver Free University means as in "free speech."

So here's what we've been thinking about: "Free beer" is not a business model.   Unless:

A. It's a loss leader: lure students in and get them hooked on your courses, then convince them that if they pay, they'll profit; this is The Old Dope Peddler method.

B. It's a predatory move: break and destroy the poorer competitors (as Amazon did to Borders; Wal-Mart did to Middle America; China may do to the world). Once your competition is gone, you make the rules and set the prices. Sebastian Thrun of Udacity has said "in 50 years there will be no more than 10 higher education institutions." Is this his plan?

Universities will need to fight back by pushing the narrative that the on-campus experience can't be matched by impersonal online courses. This will be a difficult task, as they'll have to prove that it's not only better, but (let us say) four, or ten, times better, depending on what MOOCs eventually cost. Universities lose money charging $10,000 a year in tuition, but an online school can charge far less and profit. The classroom will always be a boutique, but online can scale.

This brief overview only scratches the surface of the discussion of what MOOCs will do to education. One thing is sure: All bets are off, and everything is on the table; there are no longer any established truths in higher education.

Seating in UMC 245 is limited. If you plan to attend please RSVP to Significant others are welcome to attend.