Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) promise to democratize higher education, but it’s not clear that promise can be kept for underserved and underprepared students, writes Shanna Smith Jaggars, assistant director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University.
According to large-scale studies of online learning conducted in two different community college systems, students who enroll in at least one online course are quite different from those who opt for an entirely face-to-face schedule. As one might expect, students in online courses are older, more likely to have dependents, and more likely to be employed full-time. Yet they are also more advantaged: they are less likely to be ethnic minorities, less likely to be low-income, and less likely to be academically underprepared at college entry.
Most community college students who take online courses take only one or two per semester, writes Jaggars. Many say it’s harder to learn online; few say it’s easier. In a survey of Virginia community college students, online learners said “they received less instructor guidance, support, and encouragement in their online courses; as a result, they did not learn the material as well.”
For highly confident, highly motivated, and high-achieving students, this relative lack of interpersonal connection and support may not be particularly problematic. However, low-income, ethnic minority, or first-generation students—that is, most community college students—are often anxious about their ability to succeed academically, and this anxiety can manifest in counterproductive strategies such as procrastinating, not turning in assignments, or not reaching out to professors for help. . . . online courses need to incorporate stronger interpersonal connections and instructor guidance than most currently do.
Skeptical about the “massive” nature of MOOCs, some community college leaders are experimenting with using online content within a “flipped” classroom model, writes Jaggars. Students study the material online on their own, then review and apply the material in a small, face-to-face, instructor-led class.
MOOCs may “improve access to college-level learning among technology-savvy working adults who hope to upgrade their skills,” concludes Jaggars. But there’s no evidence that online courses can “improve both access and success” for community college students.
The rise of MOOCS lead Ed Central’s Top Ten Higher Ed Stories of 2013. “The massive open online courses have huge potential to bring learning to more people, and to do it cheaper.”
Also on the list is U.S. Department of Education approval for Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America, “the first school to award federal aid based on direct assessment of students’ learning.”
President Obama sent higher education stakeholders into a tizzy with his August announcement that the administration would implement a wide-ranging plan to get college costs under control. The centerpiece of the plan would rate colleges on a variety of metrics, and with Congressional approval, tie the ratings to financial aid eligibility.
Congress lowered interest rates on federal student loans and tied the rates to the market.
“Merit aid madness” benefits the wealthiest students.
(Colleges) “increasingly using their institutional financial aid as a competitive tool to reel in the top students, as well as the most affluent, to help them climb up the U.S. News & World Report rankings and maximize their revenue.
Other top stories are questions about the fairness of income-baseded repayment, policy changes for Parent PLUS loans, the rewrite of gainful employment regulations, data transparency and a OECD report “identifying one in six Americans as lacking basic skills necessary for the workforce.”
Ed Central proposes a college scoreboard design.
In a few years, MOOCs went from fad to destroyer of higher ed to flop, but MOOCs have a future, writes Rachelle DeJong on Minding the Campus. It lies “somewhere between adapting to a niche clientele and rebounding to capture” hundreds of thousands of students.
She envisions three possibilites.
First, MOOCs could become “advanced technical schools and outsourced employee training,” as predicted by Walter Russell Mead.
Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun is is moving in this direction after giving up on competing with brick-and-mortar BA programs.
The new MOOC-ish master’s degree program at Georgia Tech is an example: AT&T is a major funder of the Georgia Tech initiative, planning to send its employees through the program and to hire additional high-performing program graduates. Forbes reports that a growing number of businesses are authorizing MOOC versions of their training courses.
MOOCs could be “usefully middlebrow,” a sort of Readers Digest version of college courses, suggests University of Michigan professor Jonathan Freedman. It might be college lite, “but it’s not comic books, either,” writes DeJong.
It’s also possible no-cost MOOCs will “encourage renewed interest in the humanities,” DeJong writes. When college costs are high, students are drawn to what they see as practical STEM courses.
MOOC completion rates aren’t all that low, writes Kevin Carey on EdCentral.
That’s misleading, Carey counters. That four percent appears to be the percent of “registrants” who finished the course; it includes people who never logged on and those who logged on and immediately dropped out.
For example, Penn’s “Mythology” MOOC attracted about 15,000 registrants who never started, 20,000 starters who immediately stopped and 25,000 active users. “Nearly 60 percent of the people the study reported as not finishing the course never tried to finish,” writes Carey.
Of 25,000 active users, only 1,350 completed the course. That’s not much, Carey concedes. But it’s very close to the percentage of Penn applicants who complete a degree.
Anyone can sign up for a Coursera course, just as anyone can apply to Penn.
Last year, 31,218 students applied to Penn. Thirteen percent were admitted, and 63 percent of those students enrolled. In other words, Penn had (or will have) roughly: 27,200 Applicants who were not admitted 1,500 Admittants who did not enroll 330 Enrollees who did not graduate 2,200 Graduates Or, to put it another way, about seven percent of all students who “signed up” for the University of Pennsylvania by submitting an application end up graduating four years later, which is almost precisely the same as the percentage of Active Users who completed a MOOC in the study held up as evidence that MOOCs don’t work very well.
Penn doesn’t admit the less capable, less motivated applicants, writes Carey. Coursera lets everyone try.
Applying to Penn takes effort and money, while signing up for Coursera takes 30 seconds and is free.
An apples-to-apples comparison would probably include everyone who requested a Penn application, or logged onto registrar’s website, but didn’t complete an application. That number would be substantially larger than 31,218, and drive the graduation ratio down further still.
Nearly all Penn undergrads are full-time students who’ve invested a lot of money in their degree, so they’re highly motivated to finish. “Coursera students come in all ages and nationalities and many already have college degrees,” Carey writes. They’ve invested no money, so they can quit without penalty.
The Penn study concludes the 16 MOOCS have “few active users” and that “few” students persist to the end. But Mythology drew 25,000 active users, which is more than twice the number of Penn undergrads, Carey points out. The 1,350 who finished represent a huge increase in Mythology completers. ”The researchers could have taken exactly the same data and issued a report finding that ‘MOOCs achieve ten-fold increase in course completers for Ivy League class, at zero cost to students’.”
After suspending its MOOC trial for a semester, San Jose State will offer three online courses developed with Udacity in the spring. The online versions of Elementary Statistics, Introduction to Programming and General Psychology won’t be massive or open. Class size will be limited and only California State University students will be eligible.
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.
Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, 35, probably will discourage his kids from going to college when they’re old enough, he said in a discussion sponsored by the New America Foundation. “Recent college grads… come in with no skills that are usable to us, with the exception of programmers,” he said.
Buzzfeed president Jon Steinberg agreed that a college degree represents “a lot of debt and not necessarily a skill set.” He added, “I don’t want my children to go to college unless they … desperately [want to be] scholars… Otherwise, I’d much prefer them to do an internship.”
Anne-Marie Slaughter, president of the foundation, said her son, a junior in high school, has “learned more from the [free educational site] Khan Academy, in many ways, than he has in class.” Today’s teens think they “can learn what I need to learn online,” said Slaughter. “That sense that, ‘If I don’t go to college between 18 and 22, I won’t make it,’ is really changing.”
Online learning may work for the children of the elite, but ”first-generation college students want to learn face to face, writes Stacia L. Brown in The Atlantic. She teaches at an ethnically diverse community college in Baltimore. Each day, her students choose to sit at desks facing her rather than computer tables.
Their desire to sit shoulder-to-shoulder, facing me, is essential. It means, whether they realize it or not, that their concept of college is driven by human interaction. The Internet, which many of them access nonstop through smartphones, is a secondary resource in our classroom. I, the live person, smiling encouragingly as they expound on a thought, am the first.
Thirty percent of first-year college students are the first in their families to go to college, writes Brown.
First-gen college students find it difficult to adjust to most post-secondary learning without dedicated mentorship. Low-income first gens are four times more likely to leave college after the first year than their multi-generation peers. And a study by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board noted that the state’s first-gen drop-out rate for those in face-to-face, on-campus classes was 18 percent, as opposed to 25 percent for distance learners. Students like mine could not be tossed into the deep end of MOOC without having first spent whole semesters sitting at shared desks, raising their hands, and exchanging their writing among teachers, tutors, and peers.
Online instruction is “valuable and convenient” for some, but isn’t enough for first-generation students, concludes Brown.
Professors are skeptical about the quality of online courses, especially MOOCs, according to Inside Higher Ed‘s Survey of Faculty Attitudes on Technology.
Only one in five think “online courses can achieve learning outcomes equivalent to those of in-person courses.” However, professors who’ve taught online (30 percent of respondents) were much likelier to say online courses can be just as effective.
And while even professors who have taught online are about evenly divided on whether online courses generally can produce learning outcomes equivalent to face-to-face classes (33 percent agree, 30 percent are neutral, and 37 percent disagree), instructors with online experience are likelier than not to believe that online courses can deliver equivalent outcomes at their institutions (47 percent agree vs. 28 percent disagree), in their departments (50 percent vs. 30 percent), and in the classes they teach (56 percent vs. 29 percent).
Asked to rate factors that contribute to quality in online education, whether an online program is offered by an accredited institution tops the list for faculty members (73 percent), and about 6 in 10 say that whether an online program is offered by an institution that also offers in-person instruction is a “very important” indicator of quality. Only 45 percent say it is very important that the online education is offered for credit, and about 3 in 10 say it is very important whether the offering institution is nonprofit.
Most professors want to make sure faculty members control decision-making about MOOCs and that accreditors review their quality.
Of professors who’ve never taught an online course, 30 percent say the main reason is because they’ve never been asked.
President Obama’s plan to link financial aid to college “value” could use a reality check, write Sandy Baum, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, and Michael McPherson, president of the Spencer Foundation, in a Chronicle of Higher Education commentary.
If his plan goes into effect — which isn’t likely, they believe — “student aid would become much more complicated” and less predictable, which is a barrier to lower-income students.
While the federal government provides about $136 billion in grants and loans to undergraduate students, “state governments are primarily responsible for establishing, supporting, and managing colleges and universities,” Baum and McPherson write. Federal dollars go primarily to students.
Providing simple and meaningful information to students is a good idea. But the reality is that it’s not easy to measure postsecondary outcomes. What students learn is not on the list, probably because of the measurement challenges. But surely it is at or near the top of the list of what we should care about. We want people to get good jobs when they finish school, but do we really want to suggest that maximizing earnings should be the primary goal? Should we value colleges that educate investment bankers more than we value colleges that educate teachers and social workers? Did the president waste his expensive Ivy League education when he went to work as a community organizer instead of heading to Wall Street?
Open-access colleges that enroll many low-income students won’t have the same graduation rates or debt levels as elite colleges with affluent students, they point out. Comparing “similar” institutions isn’t easy.
Furthermore, “the penalty for a college that charges its students too much is to take away some of those students’ Pell Grant dollars, making the unfortunate students who enroll there still worse off,” Baum and McPherson write.
Perhaps the idea behind the proposal is that students will vote with their feet. They will avoid colleges that charge too much or don’t have high enough graduation rates. In reality, students don’t have that much flexibility. If a low-income student lives in a state with a poorly run public system, she’s stuck, unable to afford out-of-state tuition or private alternatives. Cutting her Pell Grant just doesn’t help.
The president also wants to expand income-based repayment of student loans, which Baum and McPherson support, if loopholes are closed.
Federal subsidies for “cost-cutting innovation,” is fine in theory, they write, but we don’t know if MOOCs will “help students—particularly at-risk students—learn more while paying less.” It’s also not clear whether “competency-based degrees . . . will increase meaningful educational opportunities or just let us count more people as having college degrees.”
Four key ideas in President Obama’s proposal have been championed by major foundations and policy analysts, including the Gates Foundation, the Lumina Foundation and the New America Foundation, notes the Chronicle.
College costs will keep rising under the Obama plan, predicts economist Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.
“Colleges’ exploitation of young Americans through rapidly rising and increasingly exorbitant fees is a national scandal,” writes Vedder on Bloomberg News. After promising “tough love” for higher ed for the last two years, President Obama has a plan.
Some of what he proposes is good in principle; some is very bad.
He wants to expand access to information on colleges by having the Department of Education issue a ranking of institutions relating outcomes to costs. The government has the power, via the Internal Revenue Service, to get some interesting data on college graduates’ earnings, and providing that data to consumers would be useful.
. . . Tying federal funding after 2018 to the new federal ratings, which in turn incorporate performance measures such as graduation rates, may be a step toward giving colleges incentives to take cost reduction seriously. But the potential for unintended and damaging consequences is high: If the key to federal funding is raising graduation rates, colleges may lower already abysmally low standards.
Funding educational innovation sounds like a good idea, but previous efforts haven’t paid off, Vedder writes. A better approach would be to stop accrediting agencies from stalling the “cheap or free online courses” that are being created without federal involvement.
The president’s “very bad idea” is to link loan repayments to income, letting millions of students avoid repaying part of their obligation, writes Vedder.
So why not major in fields the economy values least — anthropology or drama instead of engineering or math — if you don’t have to worry about earning enough to pay off your student loans over a certain period?
The idea simply raises incentives for future students to borrow more money, if they know their obligation to pay it back is capped. That, in turn, allows colleges to keep raising costs.
Federal aid has soared from $56.8 billion in 2001-2002 to $173.8 billion a decade later, Vedder writes. That’s fueled tuition increases — without improving access for low-income students.