Sunday, April 13, 2014

Doctoral Dissertation Defense

Some friends and colleagues have followed along in blog posts and social media as I pursued an Ed.D. (a doctorate in education) at the University of Pennsylvania over the course of the last two years. I've now completed the journey, successfully defending last week, and I've decided to use two blog posts to share what the defense experience was like. In this first installment, I'll post my opening remarks. 

Introductory remarks by Deke Kassabian on Wednesday April 9th, 2014, 
at the defense of his dissertation entitled 

Thanks to all in attendance today. It’s early in the morning and I appreciate the support and the effort it took. Most of all, thanks to the members of my committee for their guidance, helping me to arrive at this moment.
My story starts not in 2008 at the birth of Massive Open Online Courses, but in 2011, as MOOCs burst onto the higher education scene. When Stanford University opened two of their Artificial Intelligence courses to the public, over the Internet and at no charge, more than 100,000 people showed up for each course. Leaders across higher ed took notice.
During 2012, which was called “the year of the MOOC” by the New York Times, Massive Open Online Courses went from being virtually unknown to among the hottest topics in higher education. 2012 was the year when higher education insiders formed three major MOOC platform and distribution companies, Udacity, Coursera and edX. Soon after, MOOCs began to appear from some of the top universities in the country. Since first coming to public attention, more than 800 open online courses have been made available through the three largest MOOC providers, featuring the faculty and course content from more than 200 of the most well known universities in the world. Many millions of students have by now taken these courses. The numbers of courses, universities, and students all continue to grow.
MOOCs quickly became the subject of hyperbolic claims ranging from how they would “save” higher education through improvements in student throughput and cost efficiency, to how they would “doom” higher education through the casualization of the faculty labor force or even lead to the closing of universities crushed under disruption and unbundling effects previously experienced in a range of industries when the Internet profoundly affected their business models.
Through those early days, MOOCs appeared as feature stories in the higher education and popular press almost daily, while only slowly becoming the topic of research papers in scholarly journals.
Some of the early MOOC evangelists described the potential for MOOCs to help with higher education biggest challenges. MOOCs clearly make education more available to more people. Whether MOOCs also help with cost control by scaling up some classes, or completion by leveraging MOOCs for advanced placement or other credit, is a matter that continues to be debated. Interestingly those latter challenges do not appear to be the focus of the early adopter universities. As I will describe shortly, they have other goals.
If enthusiasm for MOOCs in the early days was high, MOOC skepticism is growing just as rapidly. Past large scale online education efforts have failed, so it is reasonable to wonder whether MOOCs will turn out to be merely a higher education fad that will fade away.
Certainly recent reports of low completion rates have shifted the MOOC narrative. In the parlance of the Gartner “Hype Cycle,” 2011 and 12 may have been the “peak of inflated expectations,” and 2013 and 14 may be the “trough of disillusionment” in which MOOCs don’t turn out to be the silver bullet that neatly solve higher education’s problems. A worthy question is whether MOOCs then follow the classic hype cycle and rise through a “slope of enlightenment” toward a “plateau of productivity.”
The research that this dissertation describes is not a study of the MOOC phenomenon generally. It is not a study of students or learning outcomes, and it is not a study of higher education disruption. Those are all interesting topics, and all of them influence and intersect with this research. But this research had a specific focus. This research is about the goals, progress, and the value proposition of the elite early adopter universities.
Since 2012, many elite universities have developed MOOCs, but their motivations have not been entirely clear. What do they hope to achieve and learn through their early efforts? How will they assess success? Do they plan for MOOCs to play a long-term role in their education mission, and if so what is that role? For those early-adopter universities that plan ongoing MOOC programs, what is the value proposition that they seek? The purpose of this case study research was to explore these questions in some depth.
Qualitative, case study methods were used for this research. For study sites, I looked to elite U.S. universities that have offered multiple MOOCs through major MOOC providers. My selected study sites were Columbia, Duke, and Harvard.
For each site studied, I requested interviews with those involved in strategy development and decision-making regarding MOOCs. I also requested interviews with faculty members involved in planning or teaching in the MOOC format as well as faculty members who were willing to share concerns and skepticism about MOOCs.
41 people in all were interviewed across the 3 study sites. All of those interviewed reviewed and signed a consent form in which the intent of the study was described. The consent form also made it clear that I reserved the right to directly attribute quotes, and I used this ability throughout the dissertation.
Triangulation was pursued through a combination of documents, observations and multiple interviews per site. Documents available to the public were collected, and relevant internal documents were requested during site visits. 
At two of the three studied sites, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to directly observe relevant activities. At Columbia, I was invited to attend an early “flipped classroom”, while at Harvard I observed a group meeting on research approaches to MOOC data. These observations contributed to my understanding of the evolving university culture around MOOCs. In each case, I listened for elements of discussion that suggested short and long term goals from decision-makers, and also used what I heard to adjust the questions I later asked during interviews.
Access to top decision makers was challenging at each of the studied sites. Fortunately, many were generous with their time. Where interviews were not granted, I sought their comments in public documents.
At one of the study sites, a key faculty leadership voice declined to comment on the record. This faculty member spoke with me off the record and had very relevant things to say, which helped to shape my thinking. The faculty member’s direct comments, however, could not appear in this study.
Here is some of what I learned. The sites in this research study do not expect either of the dramatic outcomes mentioned earlier. They don’t speak of MOOCs saving or disrupting higher education. Instead they are interested in the more modest and reasonable potential that MOOCs have to contribute to their mission plans in the areas of education and outreach, and to study the ways in which higher education may evolve in the Internet age. 
A key finding of this research was that the goals of the elite, early adopter universities studied do not fully align with the public narrative found in the press. The studied universities are interested in expanded access to education, but may be even more interested in teaching innovation and benefits to on-campus education. Other goals include providing more visibility for some of their educational programs and faculty, and enabling more evidence-based education research, toward a better understanding of how students engage with online course material and how they learn. Improvements to completion or cost control were not goals.
Officials at all 3 sites admitted that it was still challenging to measure progress toward their goals, saying that it was still too soon to know exactly how to do so. They say that they will continue their involvement in MOOCs for at least another few years in order to pursue their goals and to develop maturity in their ability to measure progress toward meeting those goals. Along the way, these universities demonstrate higher education leadership through a new educational form at a time when higher education may be facing pressures to change.
While MOOCs may not yet – and may not ever – be the “game changers” for higher education that some predicted, neither are they disappearing. Instead, they appear to be poised to play an important role in the higher education picture for at least the next few years, and perhaps beyond, with a strong value proposition for elite early adopter universities.
This study concludes that the value proposition for these early adopter universities is the ability to simultaneously pursue the goal of improving on-campus teaching and learning while also promoting the university and its faculty and connecting through educational outreach with the public – all while showing leadership in an emerging higher education learning technology.

I’ll close there and turn things back to my chair for the question and discussion portion of the hour.

Later this month in part 2, I'll post a portion of the Q&A with my committee. As always, thanks for reading! -Deke