Tag Archives: online

A Cautious Word about MOOCs

By J.M. Anderson


MOOCs are all the rage. Not a day goes by without someone extolling how they will transform and rescue higher education: they will democratize it; they will revolutionize it; they will make it more affordable. In an essay here yesterday, Richard Vedder outlined their promise of positive impact.

At the same time, critics question their effectiveness and fear that they will harm American higher education. For instance, Lester Lefton, president of Kent State University, goes so far as to claim that they will devalue what colleges and universities have been especially good at creating–“a real diversity of thought.”  Whether colleges and universities promote genuine diversity of thought is questionable, as readers of this site well know, but the current debate about the quality, cost-effectiveness, and viability of MOOCs is misguided. It’s simply too soon to say.

What we can say is that MOOCs–whether you love ’em or hate ’em–undermine what has traditionally constituted education at the college level through the Massive Online Outsourcing of Courses.

Continue reading A Cautious Word about MOOCs

Does Online Education Actually Work?


Conventional wisdom states that the future of higher education lies online. However, few studies tell us whether this is necessarily a good thing. Indeed, both the detractors and supporters of online education tend to rely on anecdotes rather than data. So a recent report by William Bowen, Matthew Chingos, Kelly Lack, and Thomas Nygren of Ithaka S+R, a non-profit organization devoted to furthering online education, is a welcome addition to the discussion.

The report, “Interactive Learning Online at Public Universities: Evidence from Randomized Trials,” summarizes the results of an experiment the team conducted to rigorously compare Interactive Learning Online (ILO), with traditional classroom-based learning (CBL). Bowen et. al. randomly assigned students wanting to take introductory statistics into two groups. The first enrolled in a traditional classroom-based course, while the second took a prototype ILO course developed at Carnegie Mellon University and met face-to-face once a week. Both groups were subsequently tested for their mastery of the material.  

The study found that there was no statistically significant difference in outcomes for students in their sample overall, and none for any particular subgroup (by gender, ethnicity, language spoken at home, year in college, or income level). It appears that students learned just as well from ILO as from CBL. When you consider how inexpensive ILO is (or is likely to be in the future) compared to CBL, this is a major finding. If confirmed, it means that ILO is likely to be far more productive.

Continue reading Does Online Education Actually Work?

We Must Embrace Higher Ed Reform

History Channel’s
popular series “The Men Who Built America”
portrays an incredibly wealthy – yet worried – John D. Rockefeller. Rockefeller,
who earned much of his vast fortune by producing and refining kerosene, was
facing competition not from rival magnates – the Carnegies or Vanderbilts – but
from the likes of Thomas Edison and Nikolas Tesla, who sought to harness electric
light to affordably power the homes of millions of Americans. 

Rockefeller quickly realized he had to find another
market for his kerosene, or risk losing his wealth, standing, and influence. Rather
than trying to stop it, Rockefeller had the entrepreneurial skill to recognize
that his industry had to change when confronted with a fundamentally new and
transformative form of competition.  It’s evident that many of today’s
colleges are trying to block inevitable change, through barriers such as accreditation,
while others realize they have to redefine their industry.

America’s colleges and universities stand on the same precipice.
A disruption of the higher education market through online learning and more
specifically, through Massively Open Online Courses or MOOCs, is underway,
precipitated by untenable college costs. And unless Traditional U rethinks its business model, and for that matter, its
raison d’être, it will face an uphill
battle to stay competitive in a rapidly changing higher ed market. As Stuart
Butler and I write in a recent paper we published:

“Traditional higher
education, however, may no longer be able to ignore the revolution at its
doorstep. Dramatic changes are on the horizon as entrepreneurial educators
experiment with radically different business models and approaches to

Students, parents, and taxpayers will be the
beneficiaries of those dramatic changes. Innovative start-ups such as Coursera, edX, and Straighterline offer courses for a fraction of what they cost at
traditional universities, or, offer courses that are altogether free. Given
this new environment of open access to high quality content, one can imagine a
day when students pursue a menu approach to higher education, piecing together
their degree from a variety of sources instead of spending four years and
thousands of dollars obtaining a bachelor’s degree at a single institution.

Such a menu approach would allow students to home in on
the courses they need to be marketable and to succeed in the workplace. Their
course selection could be guided by independent third parties- businesses or
non-profits for example – who lend their “seal of approval” to a given course.
Such an approach could radically reduce costs, improve access, and provide
valuable information to employers.

But there is a significant barrier to the much-needed
transformation of higher education: accreditation. Accreditation has become a
poor gauge of college quality. Schools rarely lose accreditation once it is
granted, despite widespread recognition that the quality of higher education
has been on the decline for decades.

At the same time, colleges and universities must toil
through the bureaucratic and time-consuming accreditation process in order for
students to be eligible for federal loans. Such a system hinders innovation,
creates an inflexible college experience for students, and results in accredited
courses of questionable academic value.

The first step toward reforming higher education is
reconfiguring accreditation and unleashing a new higher education business
model. To do that, federal policymakers should end government sanctioning of
accrediting agencies, making accreditation voluntary; reputations dependant on
market forces, not government approval. At the same time, federal financing
should be unbundled from accreditation.

Traditional universities face a dilemma: Americans are
coming to the realization that too often a bachelor’s degree just isn’t worth
the average $25,000 in student loan debt it costs. Employers realize that that
pricey piece of paper is a poor indication of the skills and knowledge of a
prospective employee.

Rockefeller ultimately lost the battle to light America’s
homes, but he remained a powerful player in American industry. He shifted his
focus to oil, using what was once a byproduct – gasoline – to fuel the
“horseless carriages” mass produced by Henry Ford. Colleges need to likewise
shift their focus and recognize that in a time when the acquisition of basic
knowledge is cheaper than ever, degrees cannot remain historically expensive.

By embracing the budding online revolution, they can do
just that. Federal policymakers can aid that transformation by removing
barriers such as the current government-driven accreditation system, and
allowing the market to determine quality.


M. Burke is the Will Skillman Fellow in Education at The Heritage Foundation

The Online Ban in Minnesota

The State of Minnesota has cracked down on free on-line courses offered by Coursera, founded by Stanford computer science professors. A spokesman for the state’s office of Higher Education said that Minnesota is simply “enforcing a longstanding state law requiring colleges to get the government’s permission to offer instruction within its borders.”

How this state law can be enforced is unclear since the ban is meaningless in cyberspace unless, of course, Minnesota authorities decide to act like Chinese politburo officials. Moreover, Coursera isn’t offering degrees – only classes.

Presumably you can exchange ideas on Facebook or Twitter, but should you decide to review Coursera material on macroeconomics, for example, the strong arm of authorities will take hold. This is mind-numbing. It may make sense for higher education authorities to monitor degree granting programs, but Coursera courses do not have degree implications.

In some respects this absurd state response is comparable to horse-owners opposing the first tractors. Whether Minnesota likes it or not, on-line education is here to stay, calling into question the traditional delivery of education and the competence standards associated with a degree. If one relies on Richard Arum and Josipa Ruksa’s conclusion in Academically Adrift, most college students don’t learn much during four years on campus. At the same time, the cost of tuition has reached a break point for most middle-class families.  

Clearly the market is demanding an alternative. On-line education is filling an obvious need. It is inexpensive and in theory can be at least as rigorous as traditional education purports to be. 

Here’s How the Scholar Disappears

Political scientists Gary King (Harvard University) and Maya Sen (University of Rochester) recently produced a working paper titled, “The Troubled Future of Colleges and Universities.” Everyone interested in higher education should read it. The paper is instructive for those who want to understand how little most academics understand the crisis universities face. The problems with the paper are numerous, but I will just focus on one–their ambivalence about learning, or what they call “education.”

King and Sen uncritically assume that “education” is a unit of computer data. They define the purpose of the “modern university” as the “creation, preservation, and distribution of knowledge,” like how computers produce and distribute data to consumers. University research generates knowledge, and professors then distribution that knowledge in university classes which, until recently, were “the most sought way to get educated.”

However, the university is experiencing competition from the Internet and for-profit schools, and it may lose its ability to provide knowledge, especially considering how the University of Phoenix has apps (apps!) that put that knowledge on smartphones. Imagine the efficiency of getting educated in between rounds of Food Ninja.

The metaphor completely misrepresents how learning works; it is not a piling up of data until amount equals the common measure for “educated.” What King and Sen do reveal is their ambivalence about education itself. They say nothing of how the financial troubles of universities might deprive generations of a liberal education, as Joseph Epstein fears. Their ambivalence explains the relatively low esteem with which Harvard holds teaching, as Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus detail. Harvard faculty place greater emphasis on research, largely for professional and institutional reasons. As a result, we should not be surprised that teaching suffered, since it amounts to an obstacle to research. Unsurprisingly, King and Sen recommend that traditional universities compete with Internet-based alternatives by putting undergraduates to work in faculty research projects, which is something University of Phoenix Online and Udacity cannot offer.

The solution is strange. It is hard to imagine luring students into college with promises of data coding, regression analysis, and grant-writing; worse, this solution is simply admitting defeat–universities are no longer places of learning but training facilities in quantitative methods. As Martin Heidegger prophesied in “The Age of the World View”:

The decisive development of the modern business character of science, therefore, forms people of a different stamp. The scholar disappears. He is replaced by the individual engaged in research projects. This, rather than the pursuit of scholarship, gives his work its keen atmosphere. The research man no longer needs a library at home. Besides, he is always moving about. He does business at meetings and gets information at congresses. He contracts to work for commissions from publishers, who now help to determine what books must be written.”

On a final note, the recommendation that undergraduates simply start apprenticing as research assistants comes at an unusual time for those like King and Sen, who advocate quantitative social science research. NassimTaleb, Jim Manzi, and Emanuel Derman are part of growing movement of former “quants” skeptical of the attempts to quantify human behavior and afraid of the dangers that come from living and governing as if such quantification were possible. Increasingly, the moment seems right for a heartfelt defense of the university as a place of learning, tradition, and contemplation. There is no app for that.

Student VoicesWhy I Dropped Out of a MOOC

Early in the summer, a friend and I enrolled in Introduction to Sociology, the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) recently discussed by Princeton Professor Mitchell Duneier. Prof. Duneier taught 40,000 online students via six weeks of free reading assignments, lectures, and discussions, interspersed with weekly quizzes and two exams.

I quit three weeks into the course. The videos were distracting. I felt disconnected from the professor, as if the face I saw on-screen was a detached third party serving up neatly packaged bits of information for massive consumption. It felt sterile.

Prof. Duneier ‘s article praises the way technology can overcome the barriers of time and distance: thanks to video discussions and online forums, “my audience became as visible to me as the students in a traditional lecture hall.” But that’s the problem: audience, not students. Seated in front of a camera, the professor has no choice but to talk at his far-flung class, instead of talking to or with them. MOOCs are by nature impersonal: they’re massive. Despite his best efforts, a professor can’t possibly know 40,000 students, or even a fraction of them. They’re faceless, nameless, anonymous, blurring together into one conglomerate blob of class-takers. He can’t interact with them. He can’t gauge their needs and adjust his method and content accordingly. He doesn’t know them.

Likewise, students, aware of their anonymity, cannot possibly get to know their professor. There is no opportunity for trust- and relationship-building. My MOOC included a discussion group, but participation was limited to a handful of students; the other 39,990 of us simply watched. Prof. Duneier responded faithfully to student questions, but he was only able to answer those questions that generated the most online interest. He guesses that these were probably the “most meaningful” questions to his students, but without some authority present to guide the discussion, what’s to say those questions were most relevant, incisive, or important?

MOOCs will never rival brick-and-mortar classrooms in quality of education. With that said, Prof. Duneier’s article does highlight two real benefits of MOOCS. These courses provide opportunities for students who otherwise would have no such educational access. MOOCs also give professors a unique opportunity to test new methods, collect large numbers of student reviews, and investigate a wider range of student ideas and opinions. For these reasons we shouldn’t discount MOOCs entirely. But we shouldn’t mistake a MOOC for a classroom.

Big Troubles Ahead for Online Learning


recently wrote here about the unwarranted optimism that the dawn of distance
learning brought to higher education in the 1990s. That trip down memory lane
might–and probably should–throw cold water on the enthusiasm about online
education today. Arguably, the troubles with online education now are no
different from those of the old distance learning approach, beginning with the
fact that virtual instruction is still a far more costly proposition than most
people suppose.

To be sure, employing the Internet as a
transmission medium eliminates a bevy of costs associated with 1990s-style
distance education, but these were just the tip of the iceberg. Still required
are expensive and dedicated broadcast facilities, trained technicians, and
camera operators. To the former costs, we must add those of programming,
maintaining, and securing a school’s online presence at a level comparable to a
leading e-commerce site. Worse, today’s “customers” are the product of an
entertainment media explosion that has heightened their expectations of
hypermedia quality. Most universities do not possess the needed expertise – and
it doesn’t come cheap. 

Continue reading Big Troubles Ahead for Online Learning

Higher Ed’s Non-Revolution of the 90s


Think back. What was the revolutionary technological advance of the 1990s that we thought pointed the way to the future of higher education?  It was “interactive television,” of course!

Interactive television was at the center of the revolution in education called “distance learning.”  It would connect classrooms within a city, state, or even (with some delay) across the continent.  Employing satellite technology, it had the potential to change utterly the way students learn. With more students learning at once, one could hire fewer teachers, thus reducing costs. Naturally, schools would have to make substantial technology investments to make distance learning possible, but after the initial cost increases, the savings would kick in.

Continue reading Higher Ed’s Non-Revolution of the 90s

What’s Wrong with Accreditation–A Textbook Case


The world of higher education is abuzz with the news that a
for-profit university, Ashford University, whose Iowa campus holds accreditation from the
North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, has been denied
accreditation by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) for its
online headquarters. Denial of accreditation for schools that already have it
is pretty unusual and gives us a rare glimpse into accreditation and a detailed
example of what’s wrong with the existing system.

Continue reading What’s Wrong with Accreditation–A Textbook Case

Should College Credit Be Awarded for Experience?

Credentialing informal learning and experience is the next big push in higher education, with initiatives like Open Badges, Skills.to, Degreed, or LearningJar granting students credentials for skills and knowledge gained outside of school. Even traditional colleges are being pressured to
accept credit by exam, portfolio, work experience, and other informal
education, rather than reserving credit for classroom time and course
completion. Just last month in a high-profile move, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker called for
a flexible degree program that, among other changes, allows Wisconsin
students to prove their competency in an area and then gain credit for

Continue reading Should College Credit Be Awarded for Experience?

Why Many Conservatives Got It Wrong on UVa

uva.jpgBy any ordinary standard, Teresa Sullivan is the kind of
university president conservatives love to hate. In 2010, after the Board of Visitors
unanimously elected her the first female president of the University of
Virginia, one of her first acts was to endorse and publish the UVA Diversity
Council’s statement expressing commitment in–what else?–diversity. Sullivan had co-authored two books on middle-class
debt with none other than Elizabeth Warren, who famously exploited informal
racial quotas at prestigious academic institutions by falsely claiming Native
American ancestry on the sole basis of her high cheekbones. In short, Sullivan
appeared as a diversity hire interested only in campus diversity at UVA and who
has worked with another diversity hire to produce diversity scholarship. It is as if Sullivan was not born but rather fashioned out of the politically correct

The Hidden Cost of University 2.0

university 2.0.jpgWe have entered a new digital era that appears to have made the traditional trappings of higher education–e.g., fixed curricula, going to lectures, even physically attending a college or university–about as necessary to getting a college degree as the telegraph is for sending messages. Out with hierarchy, structure, and the top-down approach to higher education. In with collaboration, more student input, and above all else, greater interactivity.

Let’s call this disruption University 2.0, which promises to be every bit as revolutionary to higher education as Web 2.0 has been to the Internet.

In the old days (Web 1.0), the Internet was largely a passive medium through which users viewed web sites created by others and had little or no input on content or design. In the new era of Web 2.0, users interact, share information, add or modify content, and collaborate in communities, such as social networking sites, blogs, Twitter, and wikis.

Continue reading The Hidden Cost of University 2.0

A Major Expansion of Online Courses

MIT and Harvard.jpgHarvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced yesterday that they will partner in a collaborative new higher-education venture, to be called EdX, that will offer a range of online courses to potentially tens of thousands of student worldwide, most of whom will not be enrolled at either Harvard or MIT. The EdX courses, funded with a $60 million joint contribution from the universities, scheduled to begin this fall and using a platform developed at MIT, will include “video lesson segments, embedded quizzes, online laboratories and immediate feedback,” according to a report in the Boston Herald. A nonprofit entity will oversee the operation of EdX and issue certificates of mastery to those who demonstrate that they have learned the course materials.

Continue reading A Major Expansion of Online Courses

What “Western Governors” Does Well

asking questions.jpgOn most any college campus, first-year courses with more than a few dozen students have a high proportion of bored, disaffected, and/or uncertain students. Sometimes they feel that way because course materials just don’t excite them, or because they don’t seem relevant to their backgrounds and futures. But another reason is that neither the pace of the course nor the style of the instructor fits their capacities. Some students need the course to move more quickly, others more slowly, and some can’t communicate with the teacher while others communicate too much, asking irrelevant questions and interrupting the presentation.

The solution begins with this: instead of asking 35 students to
squeeze into the schedule of the semester and jibe with the manner of
teachers who are often harried and unhappy, customize instruction to
each enrollee. Therein lies the great advantage of digital tools in
higher education, and it’s being implemented best by Western Governors
University, the nonprofit online school founded by the governors of 19
U.S. states. WGU has enjoyed tremendous success in recent years (as
detailed in this profile by John Gravois in Washington Monthly
a few months ago). At WGU, students are able to enroll and work on
their own schedule, one that accords with other demands (family, work,
etc.) and adapts to the skills and knowledge they bring to the courses.

Continue reading What “Western Governors” Does Well

Has the Higher-Ed Revolution Begun?

Sebastian Thrun.pngIt’s happening, almost overnight: what could be the collapse of the near-monopoly that traditional brick-and-mortar colleges and universities currently enjoy as respected credentialing institutions whose degrees and grades mean something to employers.

The most dramatic development, just a few days ago, was the decision of robotics-expert Sebastian Thrun to resign from his position as a tenured professor of computer science at Stanford in order to start an online university he calls Udacity that he hopes will reach hundreds of thousands of students who either can’t afford Stanford’s $40,000-a-year tuition or who can’t travel thousands of miles to one of the bricks-and-mortar classes he used to teach.

This past fall Thrun and Peter Norvig, research director at Google (where Thrun also works, designing cars that drive themselves), teamed up to teach online and free of charge one of their regular Stanford courses, Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, not just to Stanford students but to anyone who wanted to take them. Not only would the online students sit through Thrun and Norvig’s lectures, but the two instructors would test them via quizzes and written assignments, grade their work, and assign them a class ranking. Only Stanford students would be eligible to receive Stanford credit for the course, but non-Stanfordians would receive a “statement of achievement” that, together with their grades and class rankings, could be used to demonstrate that they had mastered the Stanford-level material in the course.

He Can’t Teach at Stanford Again

Thrun and Norvig’s bricks-and-mortar course, designed for graduate students and advanced-level undergraduates, had always been one of Stanford’s largest and most popular, with nearly 200 students from a range of disciplines signing up every time the two instructors offered the course. But the enrollment in last fall’s online version was exponential: 160,000 students from 190 countries registered, with about 20,000 of them completing the coursework and receiving grades that were generally on a par with those of the 175 Stanford students who took the bricks-and-mortars version.

In addition the University of Freiburg sponsored the course for 54 students at several German universities, proctoring the exams and offering its own credits. What was essentially happening–and it was a revolutionary development–was that Thrun himself, not Stanford, was certifying tens of thousands of students’ mastery of an elite-university-level body of scientific material that could serve as a gateway to even more sophisticated AI courses or a good job.

Although he will remain in Stanford’s computer-science department as a non-tenured research professor, Thrun has declared that he “can’t teach at Stanford again.” Hence, Udacity. Its premier course, titled “Building a Search Engine,” to be taught by  David Evans, a computer-science professor at the University of Virginia and also free of charge, is expected to have enrolled 200,000 students by the time it opens in late February. The course promises to teach the basics of computer programming to novices in just seven weeks. Thrun himself will teach a more advanced course, “Programming a Robotic Car” (Thrun invented a self-driving car for Google).

The Thrun-Norvig course of last fall represented just one of a growing number of efforts by top universities to open their students’ learning experiences to the general public. Stanford, for example, offered two other free online courses in computer science this past fall and has added eight more starting in January. Indeed several elite private institutions, including Harvard and Yale, have been offering free online courses to non-students for the past several years (although the courses lack the grading and other feedback that the Thrun-Norvig course featured).

Harvard had earlier tried to sell online courses but discovered that few people wanted to pay for learning experiences that offered no college credits. MIT’s OpenCourseWare program, in which the university puts all the teaching materials for its undergraduate and graduate courses online, has been in existence since 2001 and has attracted more than 100,000 users. In December MIT announced plans to expand OpenCourseWare by launching a project to be called MITx, that would also offer free online courses.

Stanford.jpgWhat made last fall’s Thrun-Norvig course different–and revolutionary–was its certification component. The two instructors were effectively warranting independently of Stanford that the online students who passed the course had learned as much about artificial intelligence and had been held to the same standards as the Stanford students who took the bricks-and-mortar version. Indeed, Stanford refused to have any official connection to the Thrun-Norvig course (in contrast to the other two online courses, which involved no professorial certification). Thrun and Norvig used a non-Stanford server to host their website (although it did display the Stanford engineering school seal), and posted teaching videos made outside of their Stanford classroom.

Udacity, which will similarly certify its students’ completion and mastery of material, is clearly the next logical step in developing courses exclusively for Udacity and outside the control of any university or its accrediting agency. Thrun has talked about having the certification process carried out by a third-party auditor with the hope that colleges will accept Udacity’s courses for transfer credits.

Bypassing official university structures to demonstrate academic competency is not a new phenomenon. In early January the Chronicle of Higher Education reported about the growing use of Boy Scout-style digital “badges” that certify the recipient’s specific educational skills. A free online education provider, Khan Academy, issues dozens of badges, some of them attesting to relatively simple achievements as watching a series of educational videos, and others requiring the recipient to demonstrate high levels of math competency or fine-grained technical skills such as video-editing. MIT intends for its MITx program to follow the Khan Academy’s lead–and also that of Udacity–in allowing takers of MITx courses to qualify for certificates for a modest fee, although the certificates would be issued by an independent entity to be created, not MIT itself.

According to Chronicle reporter Jeffrey Young, hundreds of education providers traditional and non-traditional hope to partake in a $2 million grant partly sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation that would fund experiments with online badge certification. Young wrote: “Employers might prefer a world of badges to the current system. After all, traditional college diplomas look elegant when hung on the wall, but they contain very little detail about what the recipient learned.”

Besides threatening to up-end universities’ traditional control of educational credentials, Thrun may also drastically change the shape of for-profit education. Udacity is being operated by Know Labs, a Thrun-founded for-profit enterprise funded by the venture-capital firm Charles River Ventures. Know Labs’ ultimate aim, according to Thrun, is to offer high-quality online courses that will be either free or cheap (the company is in the process of developing a business model).

Thrun has estimated, for example, that if he and Norvig had charged only $1 apiece to all 160,000 enrollees in their artificial-intelligence course last fall, they could have easily recouped their costs. By contrast, the majority of existing for-profit colleges charge relatively high tuition that has made those institutions highly dependent upon their students’ federal grants and loans. It’s unlikely that anyone would have to borrow in order to take an Udacity course.

Critics may argue that substituting a jerry-built edifice of badges and technical certificates for brick-and-mortar learning deprives young people of the liberal-arts schooling that has traditional developed such hard-to-quantify skills as analyzing problems and thinking critically. But the opposite may be equally true: that acquiring vocational skills such as computer programming via such outfits as Udacity may free up students to use their time in traditional colleges to focus on the liberal arts. And in any event, one non-traditional entity, StraighterLine, which specializes in $99 online courses that can be transferred to its partner colleges for credit, is already developing a course it plans to call “Critical Thinking.”

The Many Problems of Online Education

Gates Foundation.jpgOne thing we learn from the new Babson report is that the number of students enrolling in online courses continues to grow, and apparently there’s no end in sight. In fact, “the number of students taking at least one online course has increased at a rate far in excess of the growth for the overall higher-education student body,” according to the report, which is based on responses from over 2500 colleges and universities. Another thing we learn is that most chief academic officers have “a more favorable opinion of the learning outcomes for online education” and rate the learning outcomes for online instruction “as good as or better” than face-to-face instruction–67%, to be precise, up from 57% when this study was first conducted in 2003.

That sounds good, but are chief academic officers–presidents, chancellors and other high-level administrators of colleges and universities–in the best position to know that learning outcomes are “as good as or better” than face-to-face instruction?

Continue reading The Many Problems of Online Education

Three Cheers for Useless Education

classroom full of students.jpg

Several years ago Harper’s Magazine ran two articles on “The Uses of Liberal Education.” One article, subtitled “As a weapon in the hands of the restless poor,” was written by Earl Shorris, and describes how poor and underprivileged members of our society were eager to study the great books and benefited from them. He devised a course of study in the humanities for people aged 18-35 from the lower east side of New York City. His goal was to prove–both to the students and to himself–that the great books of the Western tradition belong to everyone, not simply to a few rich people in selective colleges and universities.

The other essay, subtitled “As lite entertainment for bored college students,” was written by Mark Edmundson of the University of Virginia, and pretty much speaks for itself. Edmundson describes privileged students who have access to a first-rate education at a top-notch university. “What my students are, at their best, is decent. They are potent believers in equality. They help out at the soup kitchen and volunteer to tutor poor kids to get stripes on their resumes.” More than anything, Edmundson adds, is that they “seem desperate to blend in, to look right, not to make a spectacle of themselves.” In one instance he writes about students who would come to his office to tell him how embarrassed or intimidated they felt when he corrected them in front of other students in class. When he asked one of them if he should let a major factual error go by so as to save the student discomfort, the student said that it was a tough question and he’d have to think about it.

Continue reading Three Cheers for Useless Education

What Happens to the Old Universities?

The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out, by Clayton M. Christensen and Henry J. Eyring, $32.95, Jossey-Bass, 475 pages.

The Innovative University.JPGOnline college courses are a “disruptive technology” destined to drive profound changes in higher education in the United States and around the world. This is not an especially new idea. Management guru Peter Drucker, for example, declared in 1997, in an interview with Forbes: “Thirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics. […] The college won’t survive as a residential institution.” And a great many others–some enthusiastic, others mournful–have since made similar pronouncements.

The term “disruptive technology,” however, is a bit of a novelty. It comes from the co-author of The Innovative University, Clayton M. Christensen, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, best known for his 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail. That book might best be thought of as elaborating Joseph Schumpeter’s idea of the “creative destruction” characteristic of capitalist economies. (Schumpeter, in turn, was appropriating and revising an idea framed by Karl Marx.) For Schumpeter, writing in the 1940s, “creative destruction” was mainly a matter of new technologies pushing aside old ones: an essential characteristic of free markets. Christensen added up-to-date examples and some vivid characterizations of how disruption unfolds.

The Innovative University can be read at one level as an attempt by Christensen and his co-author Henry Eyring to fit higher education to Christensen’s template of technological change. The book, however, doesn’t stop there. It is a sprawling army of topics and themes and metaphors. Besides the idea that online learning is the disruptive technology that will transform higher education, Christensen and Eyring are intent on (1) reprising the whole history of Harvard University, (2) narrating the rise of Brigham Young University Idaho from its extremely humble beginning in 1888 as a Mormon elementary school and later as the two-year Ricks College; and (3) detailing the administrative challenges in turning Ricks College into a hybrid residential-online powerhouse, (4) explaining and decrying the 1967 Carnegie Classification of colleges and universities, which fed the appetite of many institutions to move from modest teaching missions to become research-oriented, doctoral degree-granting universities.

Continue reading What Happens to the Old Universities?

A For-Profit University You Can Root For

capella.gifI’ve argued that there’s a way for-profit colleges to increase their credibility as genuine educational institutions rather than dropout factories running on federal student aid: they could focus their efforts and investment dollars on creating high-quality courses and courseware that the non-profit world might respect. And now, one for-profit institution, Capella University, seems to be doing exactly that.
Over the past couple of weeks, Inside Higher Education, the higher-ed Web magazine, has featured blog posts by Joshua Kim, director of learning and technology for Dartmouth’s mostly online Master of Health care Delivery Science Program, jointly administered by Dartmouth’s business school and its Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice. Kim, who holds a doctorate in sociology from Brown, interviewed two Capella vice presidents, Mike Buttry (corporate communications) and Keith Koch (Next Generation Learning) and came away liking a lot of what he heard. He noted for example, in a Feb. 1 post, that Capella, which is 100 percent online, uses the same technology platforms (namely, versions of Blackboard) as nonprofit universities, which it supplements “with large numbers of custom-produced rich media educational learning objects and simulations” to develop more than 1,400 separate online courses. In addition, Kim wrote, Capella seemed to be highly interested “in engaging with the rest of the higher ed community to differentiate itself from other for-profit institutions.”

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Dealing with the For-Profits

For-profit colleges are having a tough time these days, thanks to the Obama Education Department’s looming new “gainful employment” rules that threaten federal aid cutoffs to an industry that derives 87 percent of its revenue from government loans and grants to its students—along with steep declines in new enrollments (due partly to new federal caps on commissions to recruiters, and partly to the colleges’ own efforts to select students more carefully in order to secure lower default rates) and just plain bad publicity, which seems to have trickled down to potential applicants.
Just this past week four of the largest publicly traded players in the for-profit arena—Apollo Group Inc. (parent company of the 400,000-student University of Phoenix), Education Management Corp., the second-largest for-profit chain, DeVry Inc., and Strayer Education Inc.—reported continuing steep declines in their share prices—as much so that Standard & Poors’ Education Services Index, which reached a high last year of $105.37 in April (according to a Reuters report), closed on Jan. 11 at $81.04. The 20 percent drop just about matched the 20 percent average fall-off in new enrollments that for-profit colleges at the beginning of the year.
For-profit colleges may be in trouble, and their current and former students may be in even bigger trouble (Education Department statistics indicate that 46 percent of outstanding loans to students enrolled at for-profits will ultimately go into default, in contrast to 16 percent of student loans overall), but there is one entity that does not appear to be in trouble at all: the U.S. government, which not only guarantees the troubled loans but, thanks to an Obama-pushed change in the law last year, now originates all of them. A fascinating analysis of White House budget figures recently published the the Wall Street Journal indicates that the Education Department expects to recover “85% of defaulted federal loan dollars based on current value,” as Journal reporter Melissa Korn wrote. That recovery percentage is outstanding, compared with the percentage for other kinds of consumer credit. Banks, for example, as Korn reported, get back less than ten cents on the dollar on overdue credit cards. Indeed , according to White House figures for fiscal 2011, “the federal government expects gross recovery of between $1.10 and $1.22” for every dollar of loan principal extended, Korn wrote. (About $49.9 billion of federally guaranteed loans and loans directly from the government were in default as of Sept. 30, 2010, out of a total outstanding federal loan balance of $713.4 billion).

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Government Meddling and For-Profit Colleges

The Education Department’s boom has finally fallen on for-profit colleges, much-criticized for their high rates of default on their students’ education loans, loans that U.S. taxpayayers have to repay when graduates of proprietary schools can’t find jobs either because the jobs don’t exist or because the training for which the students have paid doesn’t strike prospective employers as adequate.
If a set of proposed rules issued last week by Education Secretary Arne Duncan goes into binding effect; a majority of programs at for-profit colleges would be subject to restrictions on availability of federal loan funds, and about 5 percent of those schools programs would lose access to federal loan dollars altogether. Since for-profit colleges typically derive close to 90 percent of their income from government- guaranteed loans to their students, the Education Department’s rules threaten to curtail their operations and even put some investor-owned schools out of business altogether.
Administrators of for-profit schools and their allies are crying foul. They argue that the government should also crack down on loan funding for programs at non-profit colleges, many of which also depend heavily on student-loan proceeds for income and many of whose graduates–say, art-history or women’s-studies majors–find themselves unemployed and perhaps unemployable after graduation. The current proposed rules, for-profit advocates contend, discriminate against low-income students who choose career colleges instead of the liberal-arts schools that middle-class young people tend to select. The advocates may have a point–but isn’t there a larger point? Should the government be in the business of providing money to everyone who wants to go to college in the first place? And if so, to what extent? If a $100,000 bachelor’s degree in English literature from a liberal-arts college and a $14,000 career-college certificate as a medical assistant–training that many medical assistants obtain for free on the job–don’t do much to improve their recipients’ employment prospects, why are taxpayers underwriting the cost of supplying either? What public good is served?

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