Are Massive Open Online Courses the Future in Academia?

The idea of taking a class with 50,000 other students would sound like something out of a science fiction novel a few decades ago, but today that idea is almost seen as inevitable. Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, are what make this classroom size possible, but it isn’t just the class size that is worth mentioning, but rather the idea that many students are able to get quality teaching instead of just the few who can fit inside of a lecture hall.

In principle, this idea that MOOCs can provide high-quality teaching to the masses is wonderful. Providing education to the masses (and not just the masses with money) around the world is a beautiful idea that I believe shouldn’t be thought of as a dream, but rather should be the norm. Examples of a single mother with two children as well as a 15-year-old prodigy from Mongolia completing and passing an electric-circuits MOOC in 2012 show the good side of MOOCs and offer promise to an exciting shift in future education. On the other end though, we see the partnership between San Jose State University and Udacity (a for-profit MOOC company) in 2013 that resulted in such terrible passing rates that the program was ultimately discontinued. Couple this negative result in the MOOC movement with dropout rates around 96% and the picture for MOOCs is not very pretty.

The argument for MOOCs in the classroom, though, is that these results have only been in the past five years, which is a very small amount of time to make a final decision on something as large as education. Also, while MOOCs may have started out with the intention of providing high-quality education (i.e. Stanford education) to those who would have never been accepted to Stanford, there is still promise for people who are not planning on attending a university at all, but rather are just looking to learn about a particular subject from a knowledgeable source. Whether or not they have to pay for it remains to be cleared up, but profit or non-profit, there seems to be enough interest still in MOOCs to keep pushing forward.

As for how online education is fairing in general, a 2014 report has shown that people taking at least one distance education course has increased 3.7% from 2013 to 2014, which is larger than the overall increase in higher education in the US. That being said, from the same survey, only 28% of academic leaders said that their faculty think online education is valuable and legitimate form of education. And while MOOCs have been on the tips of tongues for the past few years, only 8% of higher education institutions offer a MOOC as well as only 5.6% reporting that they intend on incorporating MOOCs in the future. And to top this off, the proportion of academic leaders who believe MOOCs offer value for education has dropped 16.3% in the past year.

While some of these numbers may seem daunting for the MOOC movement, it should be remembered that numbers aren’t permanent and perceptions can be changed. Obviously as younger generations, who are more used to using current technology, step into faculty positions this perception may change, but at the moment it appears as though the push back is strong. I, for one, think MOOCs can offer great alternatives for people looking to obtain information, but how they fit into higher education in the current climate remains to be seen, if at all. They may not replace higher education entirely, but there must be a way to fit them in somewhere.

Open Access Vs. Closed Access

It is hard to picture a world without it, but I imagine those who lived their entire lives without knowing the internet still got along just fine. That being said, I would bet those same people would be jealous of the access to information we have available through the internet. And to me it is as simple as that. Every person who has access to the internet (that isn’t censored) has such an unbelievable amount of information available to them that to not utilize it is an insult to those in the past who strived for knowledge, but could not obtain it.

But this isn’t enough. While we truly do have access to an amazing amount of information it is important to remember that knowledge isn’t static. The current knowledge that we are reading about in textbooks or from published research may be irrelevant in the future. Just look to Copernicus, Robert Hooke, Dmitri Mendeleev, and many others who proved that what was previously considered knowledge was in fact incorrect. What these three, along with anyone else who has discovered something new, had was access to information. Albeit some of the information they were working with was incorrect, but they were able to sift through all of the information available to them and work out the correct hypotheses. Imagine if they had only been granted access to some of that information. There is a chance that they maybe would have followed the same path that someone previous had already tried only to come up with the incorrect answer again. I am sure this type of scenario has played out multiple times in history (and probably still does today), but seeing as how we have a tool as powerful as the internet it is almost unbelievable that this may still be an issue.

In this discussion of access to information it is important to recognize that the internet is what is allowing this seamlessly fluid movement of knowledge, and more importantly it is the idea of open-access that is trying to push the envelope even further. Open-access supports the idea that knowledge is not meant for those who can pay for it, but rather for everyone. If the issue were as simple as just allowing everyone access for free, though, then this would not be such a highly polarizing subject. Some of the main issues with journals switching over to open-access include a decrease in quality of peer-review, an increase in misunderstanding of topics (due to a decrease in amount of editing), a dilution of worthwhile scientific literature, and the notion that open-access has abandoned its original intent and is now just focused on decreasing costs (the previous three points are found here). The decrease in quality of peer-review was a “study” done by someone to assess how easily a fake study could be published in an open-access journal. As brought up here it is almost silly to note that the “sting operation” was published in Science, even though there were no paid-subscription journals that were sent the fake study, which means there was no control to compare these results with and overall questions the validity of any conclusion drawn from their results. As for the other points against open-access there is little to no data supporting these claims and are just opinions. Opinions that are fair to have, but also the same can be said for the opposite opinion as well, which in this case is for open-access.

On the flip side, you have support for open-access, with a major selling point being the cost for researchers to publish their work. In 2011 it was estimated that publishing in paid-subscription journal cost around $3,500-4,000 on average, which was a bit higher in comparison to the average for publishing in open-access at $660. This cost to publish is only what is seen on the front end, but really what this whole debate is about is having open-access (aka free access) to peer-reviewed journals. As for who is covering the cost of journal subscriptions it typically comes down to the libraries at academic institutions, which are running out of money to pay for access to these journals. A solution to this money problem is obviously paying less for subscriptions, which is where open-access journals come into play. You would think that the cost to publish along with the cost of subscription is absolutely offering a much higher quality product when compared to open-access journals, but that is not necessarily true. It can be assumed that may be the case, and at the moment seeing as how people’s first choice may still be paid-subscription journals, but that is changing as more people are looking for other options. And looking for these other options may not only be dictated by cost of publication, but also acceptance rate as well as the fundamental idea of wanting their research to be available to anyone and everyone who wants to read it.

I personally believe that open-access is not just an interesting idea, but is honestly what we need to do as a global society. Knowledge should not be for those who can afford it. There is the argument that public funding of research should mean public knowledge of said research, but I think it should go farther than that. In the past it may have been argued that we could not disseminate knowledge even if we would have liked to, but that is not the case anymore. With the invention of the internet there is no excuse that everyone should not have access to every new bit of information that is discovered/thought of. This viewpoint is idealistic at best, and most likely not shared by many, but I would like to think that we should not force everyone to share their knowledge, but rather it should be viewed as commonplace and a privilege to share their knowledge with everyone.

Scholarly Integrity and its Role in Graduate Education

Scholarly integrity and ethics are of the utmost importance to many areas that constitute our role as members of our university. Anything from interacting with students to global travel for faculty is covered by some sort of policy that helps to ensure a certain set of university standards are upheld. More specifically, being a scientist who uses animals for research puts even more weight on scholarly integrity and ethics. Taking into consideration the use of a living thing that feels pain and discomfort makes a lot of research a difficult task, but utilizing animals in an ethical manner while simultaneously performing reliable, sound research is a major part of our job that is expected of us by our community and those outside of our discipline.

Here at Virginia Tech there are many different policies that cover a wide range of expectations for members of the university, but one relevant to myself is the Virginia Tech Animal Research Policy. The document states “It is the intent of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University to encourage, safeguard, and ensure the humane treatment of all animals (any nonhuman vertebrate animal) used in research, instruction, and testing and to comply with all applicable governmental laws, principles, and standards governing such uses.”

I can say from firsthand experience that this is always on our mind when trying to conduct animal research trials and while these ideas may sound obvious they most definitely haven’t always been this way. It wasn’t until 1966 when Congress passed the Animal Welfare Act, which put regulations on the treatment of animals in research, exhibition, transport, and dealers. The American Association for Laboratory Animal Science (AALAS) is the panel that oversees animal welfare in these settings, and it is the specific Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) that is responsible for reviewing the handling of animals at specific institutions. As an outsider it may seem daunting that there is this much oversight on scientists who use animals for research, but as we have learned more about animals we recognize that it is our responsibility to treat them humanely and to take as much precaution as needed to prevent any pain or suffering from occurring on our behalf.

As for the other side of our occupation as graduate students, which includes the laboratory work, interpretation of results, writing summaries, and submitting journals for publication there is just as much ethical integrity that needs to be upheld. Here at Virginia Tech there is a Graduate Honor System that has a constitution with specified beliefs and codes we are to uphold as graduate students (that is surely relevant with whatever we pursue post-graduate school). In this Honor Code it is stated “The fundamental beliefs underlying and reflected in the Graduate Honor Code are that 1) to trust in a person is a positive force making a person worthy of trust, 2) to study, perform research, and teach in an environment that is free from the inconveniences and injustices caused by any form of intellectual dishonesty is a right of every graduate student, and 3) to live by an Honor System, which places positive emphasis on honesty as a means of protecting this right, is consistent with, and a contribution to, the University’s quest for truth.”

It is clearly stated in this honor code that intellectual dishonesty is something we should strive to dissociate with as graduate students (and possible future academicians, such as myself), but what were to happen if we did not distance ourselves from performing dishonest, counterfeit research? The US Department of Health & Human Services has case summaries of such instances of people performing scholarly misconduct and their subsequent punishments. One such instance involved a man named Jon Sudbo of the Norwegian Radium Hospital. It was discovered that scientific misconduct had occurred while submitting his grant application to the National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health, and the grant’s first-year progress report. Specifically, he fabricated results that were presented in the grant application, lied about the number of patients screened for admission to the study, and he falsified his experience in the research field. This lead to three publications being retracted due to fabricated data as well as twelve more of his publications being retracted due to the similar nature of the research and the inability to consider their results valid. As for further punishments, in summary, he can no longer be contracted or subcontracted for work by any agency of the US government, he is no longer eligible to be involved in nonprocurement programs of the US government, and he is permanently banned from serving in any capacity to the US Public Health Service (PHS) or any contracted or subcontracted work. On top of this I am certain that this man, along with anyone else who has committed scholarly misconduct also will have a hard time securing a job in the future with their potential employers knowing their history.

Seeing a case of someone who committed academic dishonesty and hearing about their punishment is strangely satisfying. While it isn’t something I wish anyone to do or anybody who gave them funding/help/support to have to go through, it is relieving to know that these matters are taken seriously and dealt with in a serious matter. When there are other researchers out there who take painstaking measures to ensure their research is done correctly and that their results are true, it is beyond upsetting to know other people would like to cheat their way through the same process and get away with it. Whether it comes to the research portion of our work or the animal handling side, it is up to us to treat each situation with respect and to make sure we are doing our best to complete honest work.

Same Vision, Different Lenses

All organizations are started with the purpose of providing a product or service that is wanted/needed by their community. As to what that “product” or “service” is and who their “community” includes is where differences between groups lie. Whether it is a for-profit company, a non-profit organization, or an institution of higher education they are all providing something for their community, but they serve different purposes and have differing goals. When I look at institutions of higher education I see many different types of universities, but typically when it comes to land-grant, research focused universities they are almost one and the same, just wearing different colors.

My experiences so far in higher education have been with The Ohio State University and Virginia Tech. I received my bachelor’s and master’s degrees from OSU and am currently working on my Ph.D at Virginia Tech. I will be the first to say that these two universities are different at face value, but when I step back and look at them in their entirety they become difficult to separate. If I were to be blindfolded and taken to either campus to hear lectures, learn about their research, listen to their sporting events, and engage in student activities among other things I would not be able to tell the difference between the two (as long as Buckeyes or Hokies was not mentioned).

Comparing the mission statements for OSU and Virginia Tech further showcases the similarity between these two universities:

Overhead view of the Oval at Ohio State
http://veterans.osu.edu/current-students/finding-your-way-around/

OSU’s mission statement: To advance the well-being of the people of Ohio and the global community through the creation and dissemination of knowledge through pursuing knowledge for its own sake, igniting in our students a lifelong love of learning, producing discoveries that make the world a better place, celebrating and learning from our diversity, and opening the world to our students.

Aerial view of Virginia Tech's campus
http://www.ivanmorozov.com/img/s1/v6/p732874289-3.jpg

Virginia Tech’s mission statement: Virginia Tech is a public land-grant university serving the Commonwealth of Virginia, the nation, and the world community. The discovery and dissemination of new knowledge are central to its mission. Through its focus on teaching and learning, research and discovery, and outreach and engagement, the university creates, conveys, and applies knowledge to expand personal growth and opportunity, advance social and community development, foster economic competitiveness, and improve the quality of life.

Obviously there are differences in the wording between these mission statements, but it is the core beliefs inside them that show how similar these institutions really are. Both OSU and Virginia Tech bring up the importance of promoting student learning, discovering through research, giving back to their community, improving our society as a whole, and most importantly the dissemination of knowledge. And I say most importantly here because this is where land-grant universities may have the largest difference from other organizations. Land-grant universities have the responsibility to give back and provide everyone, even those not involved with the university, with the information they have learned. And it is here where universities such as OSU and Virginia Tech are really not that different, but just serve different geographical locations.

OSU and Virginia Tech can be separated by looking at research funding in recent years, which OSU has received more. They can also be separated based on size of undergraduate enrollment, which OSU ranks in the top 10. Or they can be separated by their national ranking, which puts Virginia Tech and OSU at 117 and 155, respectively, out of the 650 universities ranked. They can be separated by their history, their famous alumni, the architecture of their buildings, or anything else you can directly see, but it is the vision of both universities that proves their similarity. And I for one am glad we have institutions such as OSU and Virginia Tech serving the communities across our country and I am proud to say that I have been able to be a part of both of them.