Are Upstart Online Providers Getting Better at Teaching Than Traditional Colleges?

A decade ago, large-scale online courses known as MOOCs were all the rage, touted as a possible alternative to traditional college and celebrated in the popular press. These days you don’t hear much about them, but they never went away—in fact they’ve boomed since the pandemic.

So much so that one professor thinks that higher ed should probably be nervous—or at least that colleges should try to learn something from these well-funded efforts.

He’s Robert Talbert, a math professor at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, and he’s someone who spent a lot of time thinking about how to improve college teaching. He’s even written a book about an approach called “Flipped Learning,” where professors ask students to watch lecture videos before they come to class so that class time can focus more on experiences and other forms of learning.

Talbert had taken MOOCs back when they first started and was unimpressed. But now that companies like Coursera have grown into edtech giants—the company went public in March and is valued at more than $3 billion—he was curious to see what their offerings are like these days.

So this summer, Talbert jumped in to take some relatively new Coursera courses—completing a six-course series to earn a certificate in project management that is jointly offered by Coursera and Google.

Talbert recently wrote about the experience on his blog, asking the question: “is traditional higher education in trouble from online course providers?”

The EdSurge Podcast talked with Talbert about what his experience was like and lessons he took away.

The conversation gets at how much can be automated about teaching, and what is it, exactly, about having a live instructor that matters?

Listen on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music, or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page.

EdSurge: It strikes me that you’re like a shop owner secretly walking into the other guy's store to kind of see how it compares.

Robert Talbert: It was absolutely a lot of that. Let’s face it, we do have competition in traditional higher education. We shy away from this. We don't want to be a corporation or a business, but the fact is we do compete with other people in a closed market space that has finite resources. And so it's just a smart thing to do to see what other people are doing. And it's also kind of fun to see how different people do things differently.

The question that you asked when you wrote this up for your blog is, 'Is traditional higher ed in trouble from online course providers.?' What did you expect the answer to be going in?

I wasn't entirely sure. But [I expected] that the feedback loop isn't there. That you can go into one of these courses and all you do is just click buttons and you don't interact with another human being. And the feedback loop is at the center of all human learning processes.

How was what you saw?

The content and the product was really, really polished. The vast majority of universities cannot touch the quality of the video, the programming, the selection of tools, the construction of the learning materials that Coursera has.

One thing that I did not expect to see was just the quality, the pedagogical quality of the learning materials. They had put some serious time and effort—with probably a small army of instructional designers putting this together—to design what we were studying, the sequencing of the activities that we did, and just everything has such attention to detail to it that it's very hard for a college professor, even with some support from their IT department, to do something of that quality. I was surprised that the pedagogy has gotten a lot better.

So you did you have engagement though with a professor or other students?

The answer to that is definitely no because there was no professor in the course. That can be good and that can be bad. Every course had sort of a guide—a Google employee who was a project manager and their job was to read off the script, and occasionally get some perspective on here's what it's like [as a Google project manager.]

[The grading was peer graded.] And there wasn't a lot of work put into a lot of the grading that happened. There was no sort of quality control on this and there was definitely no training on how to use the rubrics.

One of my peer graders, one time, gave me 2 out of 10 because they said you don't have a greeting, you don't have this, you don't have this. But it was right there in [what I submitted.] So I thought,] I can speak to a manager and have this reinstated? But there was no email. There was nothing you could do. And so I posted to the discussion board and nobody responded. So I just turned around and just resubmitted the exact same work with no changes and got a 10 out of 10 from somebody else. So not exactly the highest level of quality control.

So back to your question—is traditional higher ed in trouble from online course providers—what is your final answer?

My final answer is yes, but actually no. The answer is not definitive.

But in traditional higher education, we had better start paying attention to these folks and stop writing them off. They're no longer a joke. They are catching up really, really fast. And like I said, they've got strength in numbers, incredible amounts of money and resources. And they're paying attention to what we do, so we need to pay attention to what they do, or else we're going to be completely overtaken by them.

Hear the complete conversation on the EdSurge Podcast episode.

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