In my first post for this assignment, I talked mostly about ClassDojo and Clever.  I classified them (though I could certainly be wrong) as basically sustaining innovations, designed to help existing educational institutions do their current jobs better.  I also talked about Degreed and Dreambox and CodeAcademy and Goalbook and Knewton as disruptive innovations that are creating new approaches to teaching and learning (or, in Goalbook’s case, making it possible for a specialized and expensive approach, the personal learning plan, to be used much more cheaply, easily, and widely).

I can see that Buck Harrison has a slightly different way of classifying the companies, and I’m glad.  I’d be worried if everybody saw things exactly the same way I do!

Remember, there’s nothing inherently better or worse about either type of innovation.  Both are necessary; they’re just different.  And it’s important to be clear about which type of innovation you’re seeking and about the life cycle of your target market.  An inventor with a brilliant sustaining idea for mass-market buggy whips in 1880 has a timeline of decades; same inventor, similar idea, in 1920 … not such a rosy picture.

That’s why I want to look in more detail at two other startups: Coursera and Instructure.  I find them both really intriguing, and I’m not sure if they can be cleanly classified as purely disruptive or purely sustaining.  That may be a good thing, too, as long as they’re aware of their more complex relationship to existing institutions.  I have some personal experience with Instructure, so I’ll save them for another post because I have some serious concerns about Coursera.

I had high hopes for Coursera when they launched earlier this year.  Take world-class instructors, videotape their lectures, involve the instructors to some degree in asynchronous discussion with participants, and have participants write for each other and peer-assess each other’s work.  It sounds like everything I used to love about The Teaching Company, but with the addition of a virtual community and crowd-sourced feedback and the removal of the fee per course.  It sounds like a disruptive innovation and a “blue ocean.”

And I should add that  I think MOOCs (both constructivist/connectivist ones like ours and more conventional or “conservative” ones like the Coursera, Udacity, and edX offerings) can and will be a significant disruption in higher education.  I’m especially interested to see if they can decouple teaching and learning from assessment and credentialing, and that may be starting to happenwith the recent announcement that Colorado State will be granting credit for a Udacity course.

So I really, really want to like Coursera, and I really want to see them as a disruptive force opening up “elite” undergraduate education to anyone with some time and an Internet connection.  But based on reports from folks I trust who have taken one of their early humanities courses, I have some serious concerns – not just about the widely reported plagiarism, but about the features of “traditional” universities that Coursera has retained.

In my face-to-face teaching world, when students cheat, it’s usually because they’re (1) focused on the grade and (2) convinced they can’t get the grade on their own … and the “Harvard cheating scandal” seems to reflect a similar set of issues at work in the kinds of institutions where many Coursera faculty teach. But why would anyone feel led to cheat in a non-credit course?

The only reason that comes to mind is this: because the course feels like the kind of course where someone would want or “need” to cheat: a 20th-century course where the focus is on the grades rather than the learning, and where it’s not at all clear how you, as a student, can get the grades you want or need.  Coursera’s peer grading approach must have been intended to prevent such problems, and it surely was intended to disrupt the 20th-century model of grading and evaluation.  But at least in my friends’ experience it seems to have had an opposite result, and apparently Coursera has been completely uninterested in feedback from them.  In that way, too, Coursera sustains and “improves on” the ways that a large university can ignore students’ concerns or complaints.

So, is peer grading a disruptive or a sustaining innovation?  It may depend on your perspective.  It’s obviously disruptive to the 20th-century role of student: all of a sudden, participants in the course are being asked to evaluate each other’s work.  But  my friends’ anecdotal evidence suggests that the peer grading approach for writing is actually a sustaining innovation for 20th-century course design: when you make participants into evaluators, but don’t provide them with much training or oversight, you can build a bigger, cheaper version of a 20th-century course.  And if that’s true, what it’s sustaining is the worst features of the 20th-century university model: large, impersonal courses; minimal interaction; no personalization; minimal feedback on assignments; and (it seems) a great deal of plagiarism.  I don’t think those elements of the university need to be scaled!  And that makes me sad because I really, really wanted to like Coursera.

Of course, my friends’ experiences may well be atypical.  I hear great things about other Coursera courses.  And I like what Kevin Carey says here about how Coursera and Udacity are disruptive to higher education … keeping in mind that disruptive models never are as “good,” to begin with, on the old metrics, as the “old thing” was.  So I don’t want to rule out Coursera, but I don’t want to classify it neatly as a purely disruptive or a purely sustaining innovation.  I hope they’ll decide what they want to be, what they want to disrupt, and what they want to sustain … and I hope they figure it out soon.

This post is getting long, so I’ll save Instructure for a post of its own.  But I’d really love some feedback, especially if any of y’all have had positive first-hand experiences with Coursera courses that involve writing and peer grading.