Structure leads to success

Community colleges are improving pass rates and persistence by integrating “high-impact practices” into coherent academic and career pathways reports the Center for Community College Student Engagement. A Matter of Degrees: Practices to Pathways links a clear class attendance policy, participation in a student success course and on-time registration to completion of remedial and gatekeeper courses and persistence.

Guttman Community College students working  in the Information Commons.

Guttman Community College students use Mediascape technology to collaborate in the Information Commons.

Structured group learning experiences — orientation, accelerated or fast-track developmental education, first-year experience, student success course and learning community — increased the odds of success significantly.

“Attending college should not be a series of disconnected classes and experiences, but instead, it should be a complete-and completed-educational journey,” says Kay McClenney, center director emeritus.

Among the colleges placing students in structured pathways are: Alamo Colleges (Texas), Miami Dade College, Guttman Community College (New York City) and Long Beach City College (California).

Klamath Community College (Oregon) has designed career pathways leading to certificates.

Lake Washington Institute of Technology (Washington) has increased success rates by integrating basic skills instruction with vocational instruction through the states I-BEST approach.

Online students want more guidance

Online students expect a lot of support from instructors. Online teachers think students should be independent. The misaligned expectations lead to “frustration, confusion, and tension,” concludes a Community College Research Center study by Rachel Hare Bork and Zawadi Rucks-Ahidiana. They interviewed students and instructors at two Virginia community colleges.

. . . most instructors felt that students should be solely responsible for being motivated, identifying the most important material, prioritizing course-related tasks, reviewing assignments in advance, and asking any questions of the instructor several days before assignments are due.

While students agreed that students should manage their time well and perform course tasks and assignments on schedule, they expected instructors to work more actively to make key tasks, material, priorities, and assignments clear; to motivate student learning by ensuring that materials were engaging; to inject their own presence into the course; and to support student learning by being proactive in providing substantive feedback.

Students expected written feedback on assignments. Instructors typically provided only a grade, expecting students to ask questions if they needed more information.

Students were disappointed when instructors didn’t comment on their discussion board posts. One student complained:

She’ll give us questions and in those questions it might ask you “Discuss such-and-such, being in depth with this, be specific with that” and you can put your opinion in there. But the thing is … you don’t get any feedback. And so it feels like “Why am I telling you anything if you don’t really [read it]? I mean like you are not responding to me in any kind of way.”

While students liked YouTube or PBS audiovisual clips, but they strongly preferred multimedia presentations created by the instructor. Hearing and seeing the instructor “provided a personal touch . . .  giving students the sense that the instructor was actively teaching them.”

Students wanted teachers to “have a strong and frequent presence” online to guide them through the learning process.

Another student suggested that online instructors were implicitly telling students that they had to learn course content independently. “I think the problem with online teaching is that the teachers kind of tell you ‘Okay, here’s the book, you know, study pages 12 through 23 and know this for a test in a few days.’” The student continued that this approach did not work for him because “I can’t teach myself math.”

Many instructors saw themselves as course designers and managers rather than teachers.

Colleges should prepare students for the demands of studying online, the researchers suggest. Distance-learning orientation — offered before and during registration — could help students decide if they should take the course online or in a face-to-face classroom.

Readiness activities should provide practice in skills and knowledge needed for online learning, they add. They recommend “mandatory modules on time‐management, self-directed learning and computer literacy.”

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.

Can online courses make teaching more human?

Can online courses make teaching more human? asks Anya Kamenetz on Hechinger’s Digital/Edu blog. “Data-driven pedagogy . . . conjures a robotic, dull future,” but “computer-powered analytics could expand humans’ ability to focus on the most human aspects of teaching and learning,” she writes.

reported earlier this year on a small experiment the video website Khan Academy ran to this end.

While browsing the web site, some Khan users saw a simple slogan added to the page next to, say, a math problem: “The more you learn today, the smarter you’ll be tomorrow.” The line linked to a further explanation of the concept of “mindset,” the famous body of research by Harvard psychologist Carol Dweck on growth, achievement and motivation.

Displaying that one line led to a 5% increase in problems attempted, proficiencies earned, and return visits to the site, compared to otherwise similar learners who did not see the line.

Udacity is analyzing MOOC data to understand students’ motivation and engagement, blogs intern Andrew Liu.

Confused? Your computer may sense it

Computers can monitor students’ facial expressions and evaluate their engagement or frustration, according to North Carolina State researchers. That could help teachers track students’ understanding in real time, notes MIT Technology Review.

Perhaps it could even help massively open online courses (or MOOCs), which can involve many thousands of students working remotely, to be more attuned to students’ needs.

It also hints at what could prove to be a broader revolution in the application of emotion-sensing technology. Computers and other devices that identify and respond to emotion—a field of research known as “affective computing”—are starting to emerge from academia. They sense emotion in various ways; some measure skin conductance, while others assess voice tone or facial expressions.

The NC State experiment involved college students who were using JavaTutor software to learn to write code. The monitoring software’s conclusions about students’ state of mind matched their self reports closely.

“Udacity and Coursera have on the order of a million students, and I imagine some fraction of them could be persuaded to turn their webcams on,” says Jacob Whitehill, who works at Emotient, a startup exploring commercial uses of affective computing. “I think you would learn a lot about what parts of a lecture are working and what parts are not, and where students are getting confused.”

It’s the learning, stupid

The community college Completion Agenda aims to double the number of students who complete a one-year certificate or an associate degree or who transfer to complete a credential, writes Terry O’Banion in Community College Times. College leaders have focused on orientation, advising, placement, financial aid — everything but teaching and learning.

Key leaders involved in the Completion Agenda recognize the need to focus more attention on teaching and learning and classroom instruction. Jamie Merisotis, president of Lumina Foundation has noted: “Oddly enough, the concept of learning—a subject that seems critical to every discussion about higher education—is often overlooked in the modern era. For us, learning doesn’t just matter. It matters most of all. It’s the learning, stupid.”

. . . Kay McClenney and her colleagues at the Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE) also weigh in on this conversation: “Student success matters. College completion matters. And teaching and learning—the heart of student success—matter.”

When students are “actively engaged,” they’re more likely to learn, persist and reach their goals, according to CCCSE research.

Improving classroom success in the first year is critical, especially for low-income students, says Vincent Tinto.

E-books will report on students’ reading

When students read e-textbooks, e-books will be reading students, reports The Chronicle of Higher Education. CourseSmart, which sells digital textbooks, will provide “a new tool to help professors and others measure students’ engagement with electronic course materials.”

Say a student uses an introductory psychology e-textbook. The book will be integrated into the college’s course-management system. It will track students’ behavior: how much time they spend reading, how many pages they view, and how many notes and highlights they make. That data will get crunched into an engagement score for each student.

The idea is that faculty members can reach out to students showing low engagement, says Sean Devine, chief executive of CourseSmart. And colleges can evaluate the return they are getting on investments in digital materials.

Students will be able to opt out if they don’t want Big Teacher monitoring their reading habits, Devine said at the Educause conference. “We do understand the Big Brother aspects of it.”

The real trouble with online ed

The Real Trouble With Online Education is that its critics won’t give it a chance, writes Geoff Cain, director of distance education at College of the Redwoods (California), in Brainstorm. He takes down Mark Edmundson’s The Trouble with Online Education in the New York Times, which charges online courses aren’t “education of the very best sort.”

Edmundson describes face-to-face classes as places where there is engagement, dialogue and the inadvertent creation of academic community . . .  I have taken face-to-face classes at colleges (U.C. Berkeley, for instance) where the professor had no time for undergrads, directed all questions to the tutors, and did nothing to foster community. Conversely, I took an online course in 2008 from the University of Manitoba (George Siemens and Stephen Downes MOOC “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge”) and I am still in touch with students I met there — in fact, we are basically continuing what we learned in online communities.

. . . In the “very best sort” of online classes, this community and engagement is deliberately built into the courses, and the research says that student engagement is the number one factor in the success of online courses.

Online education isn’t “a one-size-fits-all endeavor,” as Edmundson claims, writes Cain. Some courses include Skype sessions with teachers and tutors, others mix classroom and online learning, still others are self-directed.  Then there are MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), which some see as the “single most important experiment in higher education.”

Edmundson thinks online classes are “a monologue and not a real dialogue.”  That’s true only of filmed, canned classes, which are not the norm, responds Cain.

Most online classes include discussion forums and students now are using social media and networks such as Twitter and Facebook to engage with one another, with their instructors and experts in their field of study.

Online learning can work just as well as face-to-face learning, Cain argues, citing WCET’s No Significant Difference, which compiles years of research, and New Study: Online Classes Just as Good.

Michael Horn agrees that what matters is how a course is taught, not whether it’s in-person or online.

In my years of research on online learning, what I’ve found fascinating is that a vast majority of online learning teachers report that they get to know their students better than they did in their traditional face-to-face classes, and they say they can address students’ questions more effectively. Of course, just because a course is online does not mean it will be good, just as not every traditional lecture or classroom experience is good or bad.

Online education delivers “value that in-person instruction simply cannot (and succeeds marvelously and ever better),” writes Steven Spear.  For many people, the alternative to online education is no education at all, he adds.

Does engagement = learning?

“Nessie” — the National Survey of Student Engagement, not the Scottish monster — reports on college students’ interactions with professors and classmates and their classroom and out-of-class experiences.  But some scholar question whether  NSSE-defined engagement leads to retention and graduation, reports Inside Higher Ed.  Two critical studies were released at the American Educational Research Association meeting last week.

One study — by two Auburn University education professors, David DiRamio and David Shannon — found no relationship between total NSSE scores in the various subcategories of the survey and either grade-point averages or graduation rates. It did find positive outcomes in these areas associated with a few NSSE questions.

A second study — by Amy Korzekwa and Scott C. Marley of the University of New Mexico — examined the relationship between NSSE sub-scores and found them only “minimally predictive” of first-year grades and “not at all predictive” of third-semester retention.

Engagement in campus extracurriculars may “take away from the ‘time on task’ that a student would normally devote to coursework and studying,” the Auburn researchers suggest.

A 2009 study questioned whether students understand the survey questions well enough to provide meaningful answers. However, other studies, have found links between the qualities NSSE measures and academic success, Inside Higher Ed reports.

Academic rigor predicts student learning, argues the influential new book, Academically Adrift. Engagement does not.

Gates invests in social media to link students

Inigral‘s Schools App, which promises to create a virtual college community, received a $2 million investment from the Gates Foundation last week. It’s the first time the foundation has invested in a for-profit company.

Eleven colleges and universities use the app, including Maricopa Community Colleges in Arizona.

Can social media keep students in college? NPR asks. The Schools App, which uses the Facebook platform, helps new college students quickly build a network of friends with similar interests — and perhaps the same courses — says Michael Staton, the CEO of Inigral.

Only students can gain entry to these sites, and they’re invited in the moment they are accepted to a school. The feel is supposed to be small and intimate, unlike schools’ fan sites on Facebook, which are open to everyone and don’t inspire much networking.

Colleges pay a small fee to Inigral to build the site with hopes the app will engage students and reduce attrition rate.

“We have some indication that first-time freshmen who opted to participate in the application were highly more likely to be retained for the next semester,” says Kari Barlow, an online administrator who spearheaded Arizona State University’s experiment with Inigral’s Schools App.

Peer support and a sense of community help students persist in college, but it’s not clear that social media can make a difference. Students who reach out to classmates online may be those who reach out in person too. But if social media does help build community, that could be especially helpful at two-year colleges with few campus-wide activities to link students.