Passing of William G. Bowen: Walk Deliberately, Don’t Run, Toward Online Education
William G. Bowen of Princeton and of the Mellon Foundation recently died at the age of 83. His article about MOOCs in 2013 is still relevant today.
In particular is his note about “few of those studies are relevant to the teaching of undergraduates.” As I look at the OMS CS results and the empirical evidence about MOOC completers (which matches results of other MOOC experiments of which I’m aware at Georgia Tech), I see that MOOCs are leading to learning and serving a population, but that tends to be the most privileged population. Higher education is critiqued for furthering inequity and not doing enough to serve underprivileged students. MOOCs don’t help with that. It reminds me of Annie Murphy Paul’s article on lecture — they best serve the privileged students that campuses already serve well. That’s a subtle distinction: MOOCs help, but not the students who most need help.
What needs to be done in order to translate could into will? The principal barriers are the lack of hard evidence about both learning outcomes and potential cost savings; the lack of shared but customizable teaching and learning platforms (or tool kits); and the need for both new mind-sets and fresh thinking about models of decision making.
How effective has online learning been in improving (or at least maintaining) learning outcomes achieved by various populations of students in various settings? Unfortunately, no one really knows the answer to either that question or the important follow-up query about cost savings. Thousands of studies of online learning have been conducted, and my colleague Kelly Lack has continued to catalog them and summarize their findings.
It has proved to be a daunting task—and a discouraging one. Few of those studies are relevant to the teaching of undergraduates, and the few that are relevant almost always suffer from serious methodological deficiencies. The most common problems are small sample size; inability to control for ubiquitous selection effects; and, on the cost side, the lack of good estimates of likely cost savings.