Is online learning for steerage passengers, while only the elite actually meet their professors? Peter Sacks worries about stratifying and standardizing higher education on Minding the Campus.
Online learning will reduce higher education costs without harming student learning outcomes, argues former Princeton president William G. Bowen in Higher Education in the Digital Age. Bowen estimates teaching labor costs could be cut by 36 percent to 57 percent and cites a study by ITHACA, a non-profit organization, which found online students earn similar scores to students in traditional courses. Furthermore, access to online courses “could reduce the average time it takes to complete a degree, making colleges more productive, affordable and efficient.”
However, cutting teacher labor costs means cutting “interpersonal interactions that are an essential part of an authentic education,” Sacks writes.
. . . we should let fast and cheap educational programs provide students with basic skills and have the universities provide the real education. Faculty will then take on a new role: Instead of lecturing large classes, they will become expert consultants who guide learners in the application of information for solving, creating and inventing. David Brooks recently cited one professor’s prediction that universities will eventually tell students to take certain college courses online, “and then, when you’re done, you will come to campus and that’s when our job will begin.”
Currently, online learning is primarily for lower-income, lower-achieving students, writes Sacks, citing federal data. In 2007-08, the most recent data available, 18 percent of college students were enrolled exclusively in online programs. These students were more likely to attend an open-admissions college and to be the first in their families to attend college. Online programs provide access — to not-so-higher education, concludes Sacks.
Well-off students will attend the few colleges and universities that are wealthy enough to eschew standardization and automation. They alone will have real relationships with great faculty. A second, less wealthy group of students will use online courses for their general education and attend “authentic” institutions for a short while. For poorer students, online learning could well become the main course. They will attend institutions that, strictly speaking, grant post-high school credentials to the coach class.
At San Jose State, which is experimenting with online courses to reduce costs, philosophy professors criticized an edX course on justice taught by Michael Sandel, a Harvard professor and an academic star.
In an open letter, philosophy professors said online courses from elite universities “would compromise the quality of education, stifle diverse viewpoints and lead to the dismantling of public universities,” reports the New York Times. “The thought of the exact same social justice course being taught in various philosophy depts. across the country is downright scary,” the letter said.
Provost Ellen Junn said nobody had told the philosophy department to use the Sandel course, however several professors said they felt pressured to offer it. Peter J. Hadreas, who chairs the department, “said that administrators had now arranged to offer it through the English department, reinforcing his concerns that it would be taught by professors who are not trained in philosophy and would be especially reliant on the edX materials.”
Sandel responded, writing, “I strongly believe that online courses are no substitute for the personal engagement of teachers with students, especially in the humanities.”
The completion gap between online and traditional courses is narrowing, reports a Instructional Technology Council survey on Trends in eLearning at community colleges. Nearly half of colleges surveyed said online students are as successful as students in face-to-face courses, reports Fred Lokken, dean of the WebCollege at Truckee Meadows Community College.
Distance education enrollments at community colleges continue to grow, with a move to “blended” or “hybrid” courses. However, the rate of growth has slowed, concludes the survey, which was released at the annual meeting of the American Association of Community Colleges in San Francisco.
While community colleges are “exploring ways to use massive open online courses and open educational resources in their curriculums,” many distance education administrators remain “skeptical,” reports Scott Jaschik on Inside Higher Ed.
Both MOOCs and OERs have been promoted as ways to help cash-strapped community colleges educate more students, many of whom themselves are cash-strapped.
On MOOCs, the survey found that only 1 percent of community colleges are offering course credits or certificates for MOOC completion. While another 44 are “beginning to explore options” that might incorporate MOOC content into programs, 42 percent reported that they had no plans to do so.
“As would be expected with something so new, campuses are cautious in their approach. Many community colleges are skeptical that a large-enrollment solution is appropriate for campuses that believe in smaller, more personalized instruction,” says a report on the survey.
Only 36 percent believed open educational resources would have a “significant impact” at community colleges. Two-thirds of respondents said faculty members weren’t aware of OERs and lacked the time to locate and evaluate them. Many also worried about the credibility of some resources.
Self-paced online courses backed by data analytics could help community colleges get students up to speed, said Khan Academy founder Salman Khan at the San Francisco convention of the American Association of Community Colleges. “About six million people around the world watch Khan’s free online tutorials each month, writes Paul Fain on Inside Higher Ed.
Khan thinks his nonprofit website can help community colleges, which he said are in the academy’s “sweet spot.” And he views community colleges as potential allies rather than competition.
“We’d love to work with any of you,” said Khan, apparently broaching the suggestion for the first time.
Free online courseware could help remedial students advance at their own pace, Khan said.
AACC leaders talked with Khan about collaborations, said Walter G. Bumphus, the association’s president. “It’s going to be good for community colleges and good for AACC,” Bumphus said.
Many conference sessions focused on using online courses — massive and otherwise — to serve more students, Fain writes. Some community colleges are creating their own online tutorials, often geared to remedial students.
In Louisiana, Bossier Parish Community College offers free, online study guides that teach grammar, skill by skill. Students can prepare for placement tests or brush up on the basics while taking college-level courses.
North Carolina’s Wake Tech Community College is using a Gates Foundation grant to create a massive open online course (MOOC) in remedial math. College instructors create the tutorials; Udacity provides the platform.
Community colleges are worried about staying relevant “if massive open online courses (MOOCs) and other forms of online learning begin to offer students a high-quality, convenient, and low-cost pathway to a college degree,” writes Thomas Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers’ College, Columbia, in CCRC Currents.
So far, however, community college students find it difficult to learn online, according to CCRC studies.
We found that in the majority of online courses, students had little meaningful interaction with their instructors. While the courses frequently required interaction with peers in online discussion boards or chat rooms, most students did not value this peer-to-peer interaction and said it felt both artificial and of little educational value.
Students told us that if they expected to struggle in a subject or really “wanted to learn something,” they preferred a face-to-face classroom where they had more contact with the professor. In online courses, they reported, they were more or less on their own.
Online instructors expected students to be independent learners “able to manage their time, take initiative, and generate their own
approach to mastering course material.”
In What We Know About Online Course Outcomes, the CCRC summarizes its research on community college students’ success in all-online courses, looks at how online courses can be improved and discusses how online instructors “might create a more robust presence in their courses in order to improve student engagement and retention.”
California’s plan to substitute MOOCs for entry-level community college classes is a “massively bad idea,” argues Rob Jenkins, an English professor at Georgia Perimeter College in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Under a bill in the Legislature, students shut out of entry-level, high-demand classes could take approved online courses — including MOOCs, or massive open online courses – offered by private providers.
Many community college students are poorly prepared for college work, writes Jenkins. Graduation rates are low. Those who enroll in online courses have lower completion rates than similar students in face-to-face courses, according to studies in Washington state and Virginia by the Community College Research Center at Columbia.
. . . listen to the sobering conclusion of the Virginia study: “Regardless of their initial level of preparation … students were more likely to fail or withdraw from online courses than from face-to-face courses. In addition, students who took online coursework in early semesters were slightly less likely to return to school in subsequent semesters, and students who took a higher proportion of credits online were slightly less likely to attain an educational award or transfer to a four-year institution.”
“Succeeding in online classes requires an extraordinary degree of organization, self-discipline, motivation, and time-management skill,” writes Jenkins. In particular, MOOCs work best for students with a record of success in traditional learning environments. ”In other words, not community-college students.”
Furthermore, the most successful MOOCs have been high-level math and computation classes, not entry-level courses.
. . . California’s plan (or to be fair, one senator’s plan) is basically to dump hundreds of thousands of the state’s least-prepared and least-motivated students into a learning environment that requires the greatest amount of preparation and motivation, where they will take courses that may or may not be effective in that format.
“Students will fail and drop out at astronomical rates,” predicts Jenkins.
Not surprisingly, faculty leaders in all three tiers of California’s higher education system strongly oppose outsourcing courses to online providers.
California college students could bypass wait lists and earn credits online under a bill introduced by State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, reports the Oakland Tribune. “This is not technology for technology’s sake. It addresses a real challenge.”
State colleges and universities would be required to accept credits from faculty-approved online courses for about 50 high-demand, lower-level classes with long wait lists. The access problem is especially acute at community colleges: More than three-quarters are putting students on wait lists.
“For a long time students have really suffered from a lack of access to the courses they needed to succeed,” said Rich Copenhagen, president of the Student Senate for California Community Colleges.
The bill would help the many students who end up taking frivolous courses just to keep their full-time status and financial aid, backers say.
Still the move will ease pressure to provide more funding to hire instructors and add classes.
Faculty would decide which online courses would provide credit, notes Inside Higher Ed.
Likely participants include Udacity and Coursera, two major massive open online course providers, sources said. Another option might be StraighterLine, a low-cost, self-paced online course company.
Those online providers are not accredited and cannot directly issue credit. But the American Council on Education (ACE) offers credit recommendations for successfully completed StraighterLine courses and is currently reviewing MOOCs for credit recommendations, with five from Coursera already gaining approval. Potentially credit-bearing MOOCs will likely include efforts to verify students’ identities and proctored exams.
“A source familiar with the bill said it would require online providers to charge no more than the tuition rates of the colleges students attend,” reports Inside Higher Ed. At California community colleges, that would be $140 per three-credit course, though many students qualify for fee waivers.
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.
Cost-conscious college students can earn very low-cost credits by taking a free online course and passing a challenge exam, reports Paul Fain at Inside Higher Ed.
. . . students can use free course content from providers like the Saylor Foundation and Education Portal to study for “challenge exams,” which may be the fastest and most inexpensive way to earn credits.
The examinations, like those offered by Excelsior College and the College Board’s College Level Examination Program (CLEP), are designed to test whether students grasp the concepts that would be taught in a conventional classroom version of general education courses. In that sense, they combine elements of both competency-based education and prior-learning assessment.
. . . Many, if not most, American colleges and universities accept that the tests are academically rigorous, and have accepted some Excelsior and CLEP exam credits, most of which cost less than $100. Another popular exam package is the U.S. Department of Defense’s DSST, formerly known as the Dantes Subject Standardized Tests, which can earn credit recommendations from the American Council on Education (ACE). And colleges, particularly those that cater to adult students, also develop and offer their own challenge exams for prior-learning credit.
University of Wisconsin-Green Bay sophomore Alex Stenner earned three credits in Psychology 101 during his two week winter vacation. Total cost: $90. Educational Portal’s self-paced course — short video lectures and quizzes — was free. He paid to take the CLEP test. His university’s Psych 101 course is taught in a large lecture hall with little chance to make personal connections with professors or fellow students, he says. Why spend the time and money?
“Massive open online courses could also be used by students to prepare for challenge exams,” writes Fain. The California community college system may partner with MOOC providers to help students pass credit-bearing exams, cutting wait lists and easing pressure to squeeze more students into traditional courses.
Online learning will replace residential campuses predicts Nathan Harden in The End of the University as We Know It in The American Interest. Only the elite universities will have bricks, mortar and ivy.
The future looks like this: Access to college-level education will be free for everyone; the residential college campus will become largely obsolete; tens of thousands of professors will lose their jobs; the bachelor’s degree will become increasingly irrelevant; and ten years from now Harvard will enroll ten million students.
MOOCs or other forms of mass education can’t provide the workforce development and training sought by many community college students.
Most technical training is by nature hands-on, requiring extensive facilities and on-site instructors. (Honestly, would you want to have your hair cut by someone who learned how to do it by watching the equivalent of YouTube videos?) Many companies do not have their own training facilities and count on local community colleges to provide skilled workers. That is unlikely to change anytime soon.
It’s also unlikely that students who need remediation will succeed in a MOOC, Jenkins writes. These students need instructors.
Community colleges could outsource many of their courses to elite universities via MOOCs, writes Harden. They could serve more students with fewer faculty, lowering costs.
Community colleges have “figured out how to make online courses as personal as possible, which seems to be the key for the vast majority of students,” Jenkins writes.
. . . MOOCs and other such “innovations” . . . seem to appeal mostly to students who are already well educated.
Often those students are either professionals seeking to gain additional expertise in their fields or people looking to expand their intellectual horizons—like the engineer who takes an advanced poetry course just because she likes poetry and didn’t have an opportunity to pursue that interest in college.
In other words, these are highly motivated, extremely self-directed learners. But the vast majority of undergraduates who register for online classes are not either of those things—especially in required core courses they don’t really want to take. That’s why online faculty members at community colleges have worked so hard for years to make their courses as student-friendly as possible.
Most online students “will seek out the smaller ‘classrooms’ and more personalized online experience offered by community colleges, rather than the faceless crowds of MOOCs,” Jenkins predicts.
MOOCs let students take courses taught by famous professors from Stanford or MIT. But these famous professors aren’t necessarily great teachers, writes Jenkins. Great teachers “can be found disproportionately at community colleges.” And there won’t be 10,000 students in the class.
While many four-year colleges and universities require students to borrow heavily, community colleges are ”a great value,” Jenkins concludes.
In my state, tuition and fees for a full-time student at a two-year college are about a third of what students pay at one of the state’s large research institutions, and about half of what they pay at the smaller, regional universities. Many of our students also live at home, which reduces their expenses even more.
. . . As long as students are looking for inexpensive courses that transfer easily, with excellent teaching, a supportive environment, and a variety of options—both online and face-to-face—community colleges will continue to thrive.
I think Jenkins is right about the survival of community colleges — and Harden is right about the demise of non-elite residential colleges and universities.
If I were an entrepreneur, I’d develop “college experience” apartment complexes for 18- to 24-year-olds. There’d be keggers, pizza parties, frisbee contests and a designated football and basketball team to root for. There’d be T-shirts and sweatshirts with the complex’s name and tastefully designed logo. Residents who wanted a degree could study online; others could enjoy the experience without paying tuition.
For $150 per online course, California students will be able to earn college credit as part of a partnership between San Jose State University and Udacity, a Silicon Valley MOOC start-up, reports the New York Times. Remedial algebra, college algebra and introductory statistics will be the first courses offered.
The pilot won’t be massive: It will be limited to 300 students from San Jose State, local community colleges and nearby high schools. San Jose State professors will design the courses, which will include interactive quizzes. Udacity will provide the platform and the support services, such as online mentors.
Ellen N. Junn, provost and vice president for academic affairs at the university in San Jose, said the California State University System faces a crisis because more than 50 percent of entering students cannot meet basic requirements.
“They graduate from high school, but they cannot pass our elementary math and English placement tests,” she said.
California Gov. Jerry Brown kicked off the partnership with a phone call to Sebastian Thrun, one of Udacity’s founders. Brown hopes low-cost online courses will lower costs and speed graduation for thousands of California students who now have trouble getting into the classes they need.
EdX, a MIT-Harvard collaboration, will begin offering “blended” classes at two Massachusetts community colleges this month, reports the Times.
Recently edX completed a pilot offering of its difficult circuits and electronics course at San Jose State to stunning results: while 40 percent of the students in the traditional version of the class got a grade of C or lower, only 9 percent in the blended edX class got such a low grade.
Unlike the blended class, the Udacity pilot will require students to work entirely online.
If student success rates are high in the pilot courses, the $150 courses could be opened to high school and community collegestudents across the country by this summer, reports the San Jose Mercury News.
It’s not a sure thing, said Thrun at the press conference. ”There’s a big if here because we are very skeptical ourselves whether this actually works,” he said. “We set it up as an experiment of scale, but we don’t know if this is a viable path to education.”
“Failure is the precursor for success,” said Brown, vowing to learn from setbacks.
“I hope this will be such a game-changer,” said Mo Qayoumi, San Jose State’s president.
Online outreach has boosted retention rates for online courses offered by the University of Georgia’s eCore, reports Education Sector.