MOOCs are hot, but do students learn?

MOOCs (massive open online courses) are red hot in higher education, reports Time. A third of college administrators think residential campuses will become obsolete. State legislators are pushing for-credit MOOCs to cut college costs. But, how much are MOOC students learning?

“At this point, there’s just no way to really know whether they’re effective or not,” said Shanna Jaggars, assistant director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, which has produced some of the most recent scholarship about online education.

Enrollment in online college courses of all kinds increased by 29 percent from 2010 through 2012, according to the Babson Survey Research Group. However, completion rates are low. Only about 10 percent of people who sign up for a MOOC complete the course.

Advocates say that’s because there are no admissions requirements and the courses are free; they compare it to borrowing a book from the library and browsing it casually or returning it unread.

In addition, completers don’t earn college credits. In a survey by Qualtrics and Instructure, two-thirds of MOOC students said they’d be more likely to complete a MOOC if they could get college credit or a certificate of completion.  That still not widely available, notes Time.

Until it is, said Jaggars, it will be hard to measure the effectiveness of MOOCs—a Catch-22, since without knowing their effectiveness, it’s unlikely colleges will give academic credit for them.

To study what happens when students get credit for online courses, Teachers College looked at online courses at community colleges in Virginia and Washington State that were not MOOCs—since tuition was charged and credit given—but were like them in other ways. The results were not encouraging. Thirty-two percent of the students in online courses in Virginia quit before finishing, compared with 19 percent of classmates in conventional classrooms. The equivalent numbers in Washington State were 18 percent versus 10 percent. Online students were also less likely to get at least a C, less likely to return for the subsequent semester, and ultimately less likely to graduate.

San Jose State’s experiment with for-credit MOOCs was suspended in response to very low pass rates.  Pass rates improved significantly in the summer semester, but “a closer look showed that more than half of the summer students already had at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to none of the students who took online courses in the spring.” Even then, more summer registrants dropped out than in traditional classes.

“In general, students don’t do as well in online courses as they do in conventional courses,” said Jaggars. “A lot of that has to do with the engagement. There’s just less of it in online courses.”

Despite all this, 77 percent of academic leaders think online education is as good as face-to-face classes or better, Babson found. Four in 10 said their schools plan to offer MOOCs within three years, according to a survey by the IT company Enterasys.

In a new Gallup poll, 13 percent said employers see an online degree as better than a traditional degree, while 49 percent said the online degree has less value for employers. Online education gives students more options and provides good value for the money, but is less rigorous, most respondents said.

MOOC mania may be slowing

“As scores of colleges rush to offer free online classes, the mania over massive open online courses may be slowing down,” reports Ry Rivard on Inside Higher Ed.

Even MOOC boosters, such as Dan Greenstein, head of postsecondary success at the Gates Foundation, wonders if MOOCs are a “viable thing or are just a passing fad.”

The American Council on Education has recommended credit for eight MOOCs, four by Coursera and four by Udacity. But ACE President Molly Corbett Broad said, “Now is the time for us to step back and do what all of us at universities are the best at doing: criticizing or evaluating or recommending changes or improvements – or some will choose to walk away from this strategy altogether.”

Not a single MOOC passer has applied for credit at Colorado State University-Global Campus, the first college to offer college credit, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education.  MOOC students could earn credit for $89, the cost of the required proctored exam, instead of paying $1,050 for a comparable three-credit CSU course.

The offer, made nearly a year ago, applied only to a single MOOC, in computer science. Students may have decided the credits would be useful only if they intended to finish their degrees at Global Campus.

However, the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning‘s Learning Counts, which uses prior-learning assessment to help adults turn off-campus learning into college credit, also is waiting for its first MOOC student.

MOOC providers say many who register for free online courses already have earned college degrees.

Lawmakers in California and Florida drafted bills aimed at making state universities give credit to students who pass certain MOOCs, notes the Chronicle.

But it remains to be seen how common it will be for college students in those states to get credit for MOOCs. Florida last week enacted a milder version of the original bill proposed there; the new law calls for “rules that enable students to earn academic credit for online courses, including massive open online courses, prior to initial enrollment at a postsecondary institution.”

The California bill has undergone a number of revisions, including language that would give university faculty members greater oversight of which MOOCs might be worthy of credit. That bill remains in committee.

Colleges and universities may be willing to integrate MOOCs into traditional, tuition-based courses, but resist “granting credit to students who take a free-floating MOOC,” concludes the Chronicle.

Dual enrollment’s dark side

Students who’ve earned college credits in high school may not be prepared for college work, writes Ken Smith, a math professor at Sam Houston State, in The Dark Side of Dual Enrollment in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

One of his students needs to pass calculus for her science major, but she’s failed precalculus twice. She earned two years of community college credit in 11th and 12th grade by guessing the answers on multiple-choice tests. She never learned to solve math problems. (Her math SAT score was 380.)

 These “college classes” were not college level. The student received a failing grade in one math class, but then, after her mother complained to the teacher, the student was allowed to rework some problems and pull her grade up to passing. This teacher continued to let her rework problems and pull up her failing grades in later classes. This apparently explains how she achieved a C in “College Algebra” in her high-school math class in her senior year.

Her math SAT score was in the 11th percentile nationally, far below college requirements. But here at Sam Houston, she was advised out of our developmental math classes and into precalculus because her high-school-senior math class (“College Algebra”) transferred in as our freshman College Algebra class.

In Texas, community colleges certify high school teachers as college instructors, Smith writes. “College is now high school.”

His student entered Sam Houston State as a junior at the age of 18. But how far will she get?

Dual enrollment is growing very rapidly. But if students are getting college credit for high school work (or less), they won’t succeed in college. Do we need a way to certify that these are real credits? Advanced Placement students need to pass a tough exam to get college credit — and not all colleges will grant it.

Uncounted credits cost time, money

Credits that don’t count cost transfer students time, money — and often the opportunity to complete a degree, according to the Hechinger Report. 

“One of the most common complaints a legislator gets from a constituent about higher education is, ‘My credits don’t transfer,’” says Davis Jenkins, senior researcher at Teachers College, Columbia University, who has studied the issue.

“This is so common, but it’s heart-rending,” Jenkins says. “And it also pisses me off as a taxpayer.”

A third of students transfer at least once, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center says. Most lose credits along the way. Full-time students average 3.8 years to earn a two-year degree and 4.7 years to get a four-year degree, according to  Complete College America. An associate degree requires 60 credits, but the average graduate has earned 80, the advocacy group estimates. Bachelor’s degree graduates average 136.5 credits for a degree that requires 120.

Part of the problem is that public universities are largely funded based on their enrollment, not on whether students actually graduate. So while an institution has a financial incentive to take transfer students to fill seats left vacant when other students drop out, it may not have a financial incentive to help them successfully finish college and move on.

Karen Hernandez started at St. John’s University in New York and transferred after a year and a half to Nassau Community College, with 27 of the 36 credits she’d earned and paid for.  After another year and a half, she received an associate’s degree. Then she transferred to Columbia University with 55 of her 63 credits. After three years in college, she faces another three years to complete a bachelor’s degree in art history and human rights. (And, if she graduates, she’ll have a hard time finding a job and paying off her college loans with an art history and human rights degree.)

University faculty often question the quality of courses taught at other institutions.

“Everybody feels that the way they do it is the right way,” says Janet L. Marling, director of the National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students at the University of North Georgia. “To admit that somebody else does it equally well can chip away at their foothold.”

Sometimes students are told their credits will transfer, but don’t realize they won’t count toward their major. They end up with too many electives credits that don’t help them complete a degree. Others don’t learn if their credits transfer for a semester or more.

Some states have passed laws to guarantee associate degree graduates can transfer all their credits to a state university. But it’s a slow process.

It took Florida 10 years to bring its universities and colleges into line on transfer credits, for example. An analysis by a technical college in North Carolina found that only one of its English courses was accepted for core credit by all 16 of that state’s public universities. And some legislative efforts to make universities fix the transfer process have slammed up against the culture of competition.

Almost three years after California legislators demanded that anyone who earns an associate’s degrees at a community college be guaranteed transfer into the California State University system, for instance, students in two-thirds of all majors still don’t qualify, college and university officials there concede.

As more students take online courses, getting credits counted will become even more important. I predict that learning assessment will boom in the coming years as universities come under heavy political pressure to raise graduation rates by crediting what students have learned at other institutions, online, on the job, in the military or whatever.

Carnegie: Statway triples math success rate

Success rates in developmental math tripled — in half the time — at community colleges using Statway, the Carnegie Foundation’s new statistics-based program, an analysis has concluded. In an intensive yearlong program, students learn basic math skills and take college statistics for credit.

Statway began at 19 community colleges and two state universities in fall 2011. After one year, 51 percent successfully completed the math sequence with a C or better in college statistics. By contrast, only 15.1 percent of remedial math students at the same colleges earned math credits after two years if they started in conventional remedial courses. The one-year success rate was 5.9 percent. Even after four years, only 23.5 percent passed a college-level math class.

“These are the students that community colleges especially need to serve well,” Carnegie President Anthony S. Bryk said. “A disproportionate number are minority, from families whose primary language is not English, and typically where neither parent has a post-secondary degree.”

Students in Quantway, which stresses quantitative reasoning, also are showing signs of success, said Carnegie officials, but the program is too new to produce outcomes data.

Both Statway and Quantway stress what Carnegie calls “productive struggle” or “productive persistence.”

It’s not about guessing what the teacher wants to hear or about finding a particular answer. It is about the process of thinking, making sense, and persevering in the face of not knowing exactly how to proceed or whether a particular approach will work.

In addition, instructors connect facts, ideas, and procedures to help students understand what they’re doing and carefully sequence problems to provide “deliberate practice.”

Both Pathways use face-to-face and online learning.

Instructors make math relevant, said Carnegie officials at a press conference.

By applying math concepts to determine the braking distance of their cars, for instance, rather than simply plugging numbers into an equation and hoping for the right answer, students see the connection with their lives, Carnegie officials said.

“Students tell us they’re learning mathematics that matters to them instead of a series of disconnected math concepts,” said Karon Klipple, who directs the Statway program for Carnegie.

Sixty to 70 percent of new community college students are placed in remedial math, Carnegie estimates. More than 80 percent never qualify for a college-level math course.

ACE certifies five Coursera MOOCs

Some Coursera students may get college credit for massive online open courses, reports Information Week. The American Council on Education (ACE) has certified five MOOCs taught by university professors: Pre-Calculus and Algebra (University of California at Irvine), Introduction to Genetics and Evolution and Bioelectricity: A Quantitative Approach (Duke) and Calculus: A Single Variable (Penn). The algebra course is for developmental students; the rest merit college credit, ACE decided.

So far, even Duke, Penn and Irvine don’t plan to award credit for their own professors’ MOOCs, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Penn students who take the calculus MOOC and pass a department exam can move on to a higher-level course, but don’t receive credit.

Duke Provost Peter Lange said his school won’t award credit to its own students or to others who enroll in its Bioelectricity and Genetics classes online, two of the Coursera options that ACE has recommended for credit. Though the classes are led by Duke professors, he said, “they’re not taught the way we teach Duke courses” because they don’t have a set meeting time, nor do they involve face-to-face instruction.

While college administrators say it’s hard to verify what MOOC students have learned, elite universities “have a major financial incentive to limit academic credit only to registered, paying students—and not those following along free online,” notes the Journal. “Undergraduate tuition and required fees at Duke and Penn top $40,000 this school year, while out-of-state students pay nearly $37,000 at Irvine.”

At community colleges, where tuition is heavily subsidized, awarding credits to MOOC students could cut costs and open up classroom seats for students who prefer a face-to-face education.

MOOC-ing the college cartel

Online learning will revolutionize higher education and liberate students from ever-rising college costs, predicts Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy, in an interview with MIT Technology Review.

Here’s what I think it could look like in five years: the learning side will be free, but if and when you want to prove what you know, and get a credential, you would go to a proctoring center [for an exam]. And that would cost something. Let’s say it costs $100 to administer that exam. I could see charging $150 for it. And then you have a $50 margin that you can reinvest on the free-learning side.

 Khan has a book out called The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined,

What’s a credit worth? Moves to give credits to students for taking massive open online courses (MOOCS) or demonstrating competency are threatening the college cartel, writes Jeff Selingo on The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The American Council on Education will review some free online courses offered by elite universities through Coursera and may recommend that other colleges accept credit for them.

Right now, it is easy for most institutions to deny students who ask to transfer credits from their local community college or a for-profit provider, such as StraighterLine. They just say the quality is not up their standards.

But what happens when students arrive at the registrars’ office with credit-bearing courses from professors at Stanford, Penn, and Princeton? What will the excuse be then to reject the credits—that the courses were free? Such an excuse might finally expose the true reason many colleges refuse to accept transfer credits: They want students to pay them tuition for a class, not another institution.

In addition, Southern New Hampshire University’s accreditor has approved its new competency-based associate degree, which is based on students’ knowledge rather than time in class. Students will pay no more than $2,500 a year. The university is working with local employers to design the curriculum.

Western Governors University pioneered the idea. Now, “Southern New Hampshire is about to show whether the idea can work within the walls of a traditional university,” Selingo writes. Northern Arizona University and the University of Wisconsin system also are developing competency-based degrees.

UW’s Flexible Option will let adult students “earn college credit by demonstrating knowledge they have acquired through coursework, military training, on-the-job training, and other learning experiences.”

Low-cost credit for free online courses

Students will be able to earn college credit for free online courses thanks to a partnership between the Saylor Foundation, which offers  free, self-paced college courses, and StraighterLine, which offers low-cost online courses.

Saylor students will be able to take a StraighterLine exam to earn credit backed by the American Council on Education, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education. Or students could enroll in a StraighterLine course but use Saylor’s free course materials to save money.

Alana Harrington, director of the Saylor Foundation, said her group’s repository of free online courses won’t go anywhere, and will still grant certificates of completion. But the partnership with StraighterLine will give students a way to get credit for low-cost online courses that’s more meaningful than a certificate.

“We understand the fact that to some students, the pure acquisition of knowledge or the certificate proving their competency isn’t enough,” she said. “Credit is a form of currency today.”

StraighterLine and Saylor will work with George Mason University and Northern Virginia Community College to help students transfer credits easily.

Adult students seek credit for experience

Some colleges are giving students credit for work and life experience, writes Jon Marcus for the Hechinger Report and McClatchy Newspapers. But, so far, few students are turning on-the-job experience into college credits and speedier degrees.

The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning is trying to change that by launching a campaign to enable adults to prepare online portfolios of their job experience that independent faculty will evaluate for academic credit.

One hundred institutions in 30 states are on board. Top higher-education associations back the coalition, and major foundations are bankrolling it. It hopes to reach tens of thousands of people within five years.

Professors often oppose giving credit for experience, said Pamela Tate, who heads the council. “They still believe that ‘If you weren’t in my class, you couldn’t possibly know it,’ ” she said.

Credit for work experience can have its downsides. The credits are difficult to transfer if you change universities, and substituting them for introductory requirements can cause problems for students later in their careers, when they can’t keep up with classmates in writing or other basic academic skills.

Forty percent of college students are 25 and older.

“All of our institutional frameworks have been created around 18-year-olds coming out of high schools without any experience. They’re the empty vessels into which we pour knowledge. But when you’re a working adult, you’re hardly an empty vessel,” said Lee Gorsuch, the president of CityU.

“You learn by doing,” Gorsuch added. “We’re not anti-intellectual, but can you balance a spreadsheet or can’t you?”

Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges, a consortium 0f 1,900 colleges and universities, helps veterans get credit for military training and experience. Some  45,892 vets earned 805,473 credits last year.

Navy veteran John McGowan was awarded enough credits for his electronics training and other military experience that he got a bachelor’s degree in half the usual time from Irvine, Calif.-based Brandman University, even while working full time. “I went from zero college to a bachelor’s degree in two years,” McGowan said.

In some cases, experienced students can earn credit by passing a test. But often students have to put together autobiographical portfolios for faculty review, paying as much as if they’d enrolled in the course.

California colleges end Kaplan tie

California’s community college system has canceled an agreement with Kaplan University, a for-profit educator, to recognize credits earned through Kaplan’s online programs. Because of increased demand and underfunding, many students can’t get into the classes they need at their local community college.

In an Aug. 17 letter calling off the November memorandum of understanding, Barry Russell, the vice chancellor of academic affairs, cited concerns that it could have a “negative effect” on students who transferred to a California State University or University of California campus and could not get credit for the Kaplan course.

Kaplan had agreed to give students a 42 percent discount on courses, lowering the cost to about $216 a credit.  That’s much more than the community college cost, $26 a credit. But students might have paid the Kaplan rates to avoid waiting a semester or two for space in a community college class.

Meanwhile, California community college students are in transfer limbo, reports the Los Angeles Times. The California State University system has opened applications for spring semester transfers, but isn’t promising to accept anyone. It all depends on the state budget, which is months overdue.