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.
“A higher education is the single best investment you can make in your future,” President Obama told University of Buffalo students. But, “the soaring cost of higher education” has “become a barrier and a burden for too many American families.” The president announced a plan to rate colleges “on who’s offering the best value so students and taxpayers get a bigger bang for their buck.”
The rankings would start as a consumer tool showing tuition, student loan debt, graduation rates and graduates’ earnings. Eventually, “Congress will be asked to change the federal financial-aid program so as to reward higher-performing colleges by giving students at those institutions larger Pell grants and lower-cost loans,” writes Jon Marcus on the Hechinger Report. However, it’s not a sure thing. “A previous similar proposal, to punish universities with the highest annual increases in tuition, hit snags and has been stalled.”
The president also proposes to raise the maximum Pell grant, the principal federal financial-aid program, by more than $900, to $6,450 per year, and expand tax credits for families paying tuition, ideas that face challenging legislative prospects in an era of austerity.
Students who take out loans to pay for their higher educations would be allowed to cap their repayments at an amount equal to no more than 10 percent of their income, an option now available to only a small number of borrowers.
Obama also will ask for $1 billion for grants to public universities and colleges that meet performance goals and for additional money to reward colleges and universities that graduate the largest numbers of low-income students.
The president pledged to cut off federal aid to students who don’t make “satisfactory academic progress.” (It’s already the law, but it’s loosely enforced.) Pell Grant money — now disbursed in a lump sum at the start of the semester — would be doled out in small increments to discourage students from enrolling, collecting the money and dropping out. The plan also includes Pell eligibility for low-income high school students taking college courses.
Encouraging colleges to innovate will cut costs, the president said.
The plan mentions so-called competency-based degrees, in which college credits are based not on the hours students spend in classrooms, but on how much they can show they know.
Another approach mentioned in the plan is online education through what have become known as “massive open online courses,” or MOOCs, which are mostly free. Mr. Obama also urged consideration of three-year degree programs and dual enrollment programs in which high school students can begin to earn college credits.
So far, though, the administration “has failed to persuade Congress to pay for Race to the Top competition for higher education, under which grants would go to those colleges with promising approaches,” notes the New York Times.
The president promised regulatory waivers to innovative colleges.
The American Association of Community College Trustees praised the president’s “plan to align federal aid disbursement based on academic progress and persistence,” but warned “there may be complexities in implementing this system based on the currently available information.” In other words, community colleges have very low graduation rates if transfers and certificate earners aren’t counted.
Nearly all colleges that admit large percentages of low-income, minority and first-generation students have very low graduation rates. In addition to community colleges, linking student aid to success rates could hurt the historically black colleges. Expect lots of pushback.
Obama’s plan gets an F from Jennifer Rubin, a Washington Post columnist. She quotes Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, who warns, ‘This is extraordinarily complicated stuff, and it’s not clear we have the complete data or accurate data.”
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.”
“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.
Higher education is due for some creative destruction, predicts John Backus,managing partner at New Atlantic Ventures, in a Washington Post commentary. In the next few years:
At least 10 states will require their state universities to accept MOOCs for placement and for credit, helping taxpayers save money on education.
Many of the most talented professors will make more money teaching online than they do as a tenured professor.
Colleges and professors will begin to segregate into online content creators and online content consumers. The creators will be few. The consumers will be many.
Faculty will feel threatened, and will work to pass protectionist legislation to outlaw MOOCs for courses that can by taught in-person by tenured faculty. They may delay, but they will not stop the inevitable.
Community colleges will become a mainstream beginning of a smart and economical path for ambitious students to get a degree. Virginia community colleges are leading the way here.
In the long term, top colleges will offer more online courses supported by “active, high-touch teaching assistants,” Backus predicts.
Vocational training will be branded: Students will choose the Procter & Gamble marketing track, the Goldman Sachs finance series or, perhaps, the Apple user experience course package.
Employers will not care about which university issued a job applicants’ degree, unless it’s one of the 50 most elite colleges. Instead, they’ll examine the coursework. “Online vs. in-person courses will be a distinction without a difference to employers.”
College is going online whether we like it or not, writes Zachary Karabell in The Atlantic. Online education is the solution to rapidly rising student debt, he argues. All expenses — except for the cost of the professor’s time and experience — will be stripped away. And it will be massively disruptive.
The elite schools can expand the power of their brand through online courses, Karabell writes. Non-elite colleges may replace their professors with cheap adjuncts and Harvard professors lecturing online.
Yes, we are a few years away from online courses providing degrees and credentials that will be seen by the marketplace as adequate. For now, taking courses online may enrich your life, but it will not provide the entrée into jobs requiring a degree, whether associate’s or bachelor’s. Many fields of graduate study will be untouched, but many others — law, accounting and others — are ripe for online credentializing.
Soon, online education will lower the cost of credentials and create “vocational programs aligned with the skills employers need,” Karabell writes. We’ll need fewer bricks-and-mortar colleges, but more people will be able to earn degrees — without heavy debt.
San Jose State professors are pushing back against online courses, despite — or because of — the success of an online engineering course, reports the San Jose Mercury News.
“Let’s not kid ourselves; administrators at the CSU are beginning a process of replacing faculty with cheap online education,” the philosophy faculty wrote in a letter to Harvard professor Michael Sandel, whose Social Justice class is available through edX.