Community colleges and universities are offering online college classes developed by textbook companies, writes Gabriel Kahn on Slate. Faculty members can modify the courses, but usually don’t.
This summer, Chad Mason signed up for online general psychology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. This spring, Jonathan Serrano took intro to psychology online at Essex County College in Newark, New Jersey.
Though the two undergraduates were separated by more than 600 miles, enrolled in different institutions, and paying different tuitions, they were taking what amounts to the same course. That’s because the course wasn’t produced by either school. Instead, it was a sophisticated package devised by publishing giant Pearson PLC and delivered through a powerful online platform called MyPsychLab.
Both students worked their way through the same online textbook, watched the same series of videos, and took automatically graded quizzes pulled from the same question bank. All the teaching that might have taken place in a classroom was handled by the MyPsychLab software.
Jamie Wingo, a student at Odessa College in Texas, took Pearson’s online algebra class based on its MyMathLab. If she was stuck on a problem, she could click on a video of someone working out the equation. “The videos would actually show you how to do the examples from the book,” she says.
“MyMathLab took care of the whole course, from illustrating thorny concepts to correcting online quizzes, even spitting out their grades at the end,” writes Kahn.
At Arizona’s Rio Salado College, more than half the students take classes online. Despite its team of online course designers, Rio Salado can’t keep up. “We’re very much a Pearson school,” says Jennifer McGrath, the vice president for academic affairs. Student retention and completion rates are high, she says.
The level of faculty involvement can vary considerably, even with prefab courses. Chad Mason, the UNC–Charlotte student who took general psychology, said he had only glancing contact with his instructor. Even his essay was automatically graded, giving him machine-generated feedback on voice, sentence structure, and the depth of his ideas.
But Jonathan Serrano, who took the similar course at Essex County College, said . . . that his professor acted as a guide and at times cheerleader for those in the class. Serrano also received personal feedback on his essays and interacted with classmates through an online discussion session, which the professor monitored closely. He says he felt he grew as a writer during the semester.
The professor, Thomas Page, also holds two conference calls each semester with all his online students. “I think it’s really important to guide them through the process,” he says.
Page had “created his own online class, making videos of his lectures and uploading his slides and other materials.” But he decided Pearson’s MyPsychLab was better.
Publishers started with introductory courses often taught in a lecture hall to hundreds of students at a time, writes Kahn. But they keep expanding.
McGraw Hill’s SmartBook technology—which allows an entire course to be created online—is now available in more than 400 titles in 68 different course areas, including organizational behavior and organic chemistry.
Pearson’s MyLab series now has products in criminal justice and Jewish thought and culture. The MyPsychLab line offers six different topics in psychology, including abnormal psychology and clinical psychology. Its Mastering series for science topics has courses in the geography of climate change and microbiology.
If college faculty don’t design courses, teach them or evaluate students . . . What’s left? Publishers stress the courses can be customized, but “just about 99 percent . . . take it right out of the box,” Christine Higgins, a former Pearson account manager, tells Kahn. “I worked with the largest universities in the country, and that’s what they do.”
Starbucks workers will be able to study for a free online bachelor’s degree via Arizona State University, reports the New York Times. Employees anywhere in the U.S. are eligible if they work at least 20 hours a week.
Starbucks will pay ASU Online’s full tuition for a barista with at least two years of college credit. Those in their first two years of college will get a partial scholarship and need-based financial aid for two years of full-time study. Employees will not be obliged to stay with the company after completing a degree.
“Starbucks is going where no other major corporation has gone,” said Jamie P. Merisotis, president and chief executive of the Lumina Foundation. “For many of these Starbucks employees, an online university education is the only reasonable way they’re going to get a bachelor’s degree.
Arizona State’s online program is one of the largest in the U.S. with 11,000 students and 40 undergraduate majors. Tuition typically costs $500 per credit with 120 credits needed for a bachelor’s degree.
Seventy percent of Starbucks employees do not have a degree but want to earn one, the company reports. (The other 30 percent earned degrees in film studies . . . No, that’s unkind.)
“My dad lost his job during the recession, in my first year of college, and my parents were really struggling for money,” said Tammie R. Lopez, 22, who would also be the first in her family to finish college. “They were on the verge of losing their home, so I stopped going to school so I could get a second job and help them.”
Ms. Lopez, who lives in the San Fernando Valley, got a full-time job at Starbucks and goes to a community college at night. “I could never see myself finishing school because it’s taken me so long to get where I am,” Ms. Lopez said. She is studying to be a sign language interpreter, but is also weighing other possibilities, such as a business degree.
What Starbucks has planned, she said, completely changed her outlook. “I could be done with school in a couple of years — I can see it, that financial burden would be lifted,” she said.
Michael Bojorquez Echevarria, 23, another barista in the San Fernando Valley, is working toward an associate degree in sociology while working 60 hours a week at two Starbucks locations.
“My ultimate vision, what I’m striving for, is to work with children who have gone through physical or emotional abuse,” he said. “Imagine just waking up one day and knowing that your whole degree would be paid for, and the only thing you have to do is enroll and study and be a good student,” he said. “It would change my lifestyle, the whole dynamic of what I do every day.”
Limiting tuition aid to a single online university is “incredibly problematic,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a University of Wisconsin professor. While Arizona State is a public university, “ASU Online is a profit venture,” she said.
In addition to limiting student choices, online-only courses don’t work well for low-income students, said Goldrick-Rab, citing recent studies.
California community college students are taking more courses online, but they’re less likely to complete and pass an online course than a traditional course, according to a report by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).
Online course offerings are increasing rapidly, the report notes. So is enrollment. Nearly 20 percent of non-remedial students took at least one online course in 2012. Online participation is much lower for Latinos and higher for African Americans.
In 2012, the pass rate was 60.4 percent in online courses, 70.6 percent in traditional courses. After controlling for differences among students and other factors, researchers estimated students in online courses are 11 to 14 percentage points less likely to complete the course with a passing grade.
Achievement gaps widen in online courses: African Americans, Latinos, males, part-time students, and those under age 25 or with lower levels of academic skill are “likely to do markedly worse in online courses than in traditional ones,” the study found.
However, online learning appears to benefit stronger students.
Students are more likely to earn an associate’s degree, a vocational certificate, or transfer to a four-year college if they take at least some online courses. This is an indication that for some students—generally those who earn the most units—online learning offers the availability and flexibility to help them achieve their goals.
“Students overall are less successful in online courses than in traditional ones, but online learning is still an important tool that some are successfully using to achieve their college and career goals,” said Hans Johnson, co-author and PPIC Bren fellow. “It will be important to broaden that success to encompass the diverse population of community college students.”
PPIC recommends improving strategic planning and coordination so “online courses could be used to satisfy unmet demand for traditional ones, particularly prerequisites and other classes that act as gatekeepers to success.” In addition, online credits should be “portable” to any community college in the state.
Other recommendations include: using a standardized learning management system to provide data on student engagement and gathering cost information.
Distance Education is the New Normal according to a special report by Community College Week. “As the new kid on the educational block, distance educators face heightened scrutiny from state and federal regulators, all while proving that online education produces the same — or better — academic outcomes than traditional face-to-face classes.”
Accrediting courses, instead of colleges, would let students customize their higher education and lower costs, argues Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation.
Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., has introduced a proposal to let states allow any entity to credential courses. The Higher Education Reform and Opportunity Act—or HERO Act — resembles a proposal by Sen. Mike Lee, a Utah Republican.
Currently, accreditation is a de facto federal enterprise, with federally sanctioned regional and national accrediting agencies now the sole purveyors of accreditation.
The result has been a system that has created barriers to entry for innovative start-ups—insulating traditional brick-and-mortar schools from market forces that could reduce costs—yet has made it difficult for students to customize their higher education experience to fully reach their earnings and career potential. And because entire institutions are accredited instead of individual courses, accreditation is a poor measure of course quality and a poor indicator of the skills acquired by students.
Sen. Lee explained the HERO Act in speech at Heritage last winter.
“Imagine having access to credit and student aid and for a program in computer science accredited by Apple or in music accredited by the New York Philharmonic; college-level history classes on site at Mount Vernon or Gettysburg; medical-technician training developed by the Mayo Clinic; taking massive open online courses offered by the best teachers in the world from your living room or the public library…
“This reform could allow a student to completely customize her transcript—and college experience—while allowing federal aid to follow her through all of these different options. Students could mix and match courses, programs, tests, on-line and on-campus credits à la carte, pursuing their degree or certification at their own pace while bringing down costs to themselves, their families and the taxpayers.”
Higher education groups are considering new accreditors to review online course providers, reports Inside Higher Ed. “Some details are emerging on two bids for new accrediting bodies for non-college providers of higher education, such as online course creators or issuers of digital badges.”
The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) is considering providing “quality review” for entities such as StraighterLine, which offers low-cost online courses but not credentials.
Another approach, called Modern States, would review individual online courses, rather than institutions.
Online enrollment grew by 5.2 percent at community colleges from fall 2012 to fall 2013, even as traditional enrollment declined, reports the Instructional Technology Council’s 2013 Distance Education Survey. Twenty-six percent of community college students enrolled in at least one online course in fall 2012, according to IPEDS data.
“The retention gap” between online and traditional students “has narrowed dramatically” in the past nine years, ITC reports. Colleges are shifting their focus from adding online offerings to improving the quality of online courses.
MOOCs have not caught on.
Most community college distance education administrators and faculty remain skeptical of massive open online courses (MOOCs) due to their low student retention rates, low teacher-to-student interaction, inability to authenticate students, and lack of financial sustainability. A few community colleges have received grant funding from private foundations to develop MOOCs that offer self-paced online orientations and remedial help, but few community colleges have created a financially-sustainable model for creating MOOCs for their students.
Only half of the community colleges surveyed are able to meet the growing student demand for distance education courses.
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.
High-tech start-ups are retooling college instruction, writes venture capitalist Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, in The New Republic. We need to “make certification faster, cheaper and more effective too,” he writes.
. . . a diploma is essentially a communications device that signals a person’s readiness for certain jobs.
But unfortunately it’s a dumb, static communication device with roots in the 12th century.
We need to . . . turn it into a richer, updateable, more connected record of a person’s skills, expertise, and experience. And then we need to take that record and make it part of a fully networked certification platform.
There’s a lot more to college than earning a diploma, responds Michael Gibson, who works for the anti-college Thief Foundation, in Forbes. To lower the debt to party ratio, we need to consider “all the friendships formed at school, the esprit de campus, all the networks.” What about beer pong?
College consists of: the clock tower, the stadium, the frat/sorority house and the admissions office, Gibson writes.
Taken together this is like an awful cable TV package. To get HBO, you also need to pay high prices for all those unwatchable stations like the Hallmark Channel. The future of higher education will involve unbundling this package and offering cheaper, higher quality substitutes.
The clock tower represents the amount of time spent studying a subject.
Classes are measured in hours per week; exams are given in hour length chunks; and students need some requisite number of hours in any subject to signal mastery. It is remarkable that we still use the hour as a substitute measure for learning to this day.
. . . we are on the cusp of having the technology to unbundle and decentralize this piece of the college puzzle. Coursera, Udacity, and other massively open online courses are only getting started in their effort to demolish the clock tower and provide the customized certification Reid Hoffman describes. What the fireplace, another medieval invention, is to the cold, the clock tower is to learning: proximity used to matter. And now it doesn’t. Central heating is better.
The stadium represents the tribal experience, which is very important to alumni. The frat house represents the friendships that lead to future networking. The admissions office confers status. These will be harder to replace than the clock tower, writes Gibson.
In the near future, the residential college experience will become a luxury item, I predict. Most people will decide it makes more sense to hang out with their friends, play beer pong, root for a professional football team and earn a low-cost career credential.
Many community college students remain skeptical about the value of online learning, according to Not Yet Sold, a new Public Agenda report. Forty-two percent said they’d learned less from online courses than from traditional courses. Thirty-eight percent think online classes are harder to pass than in-person ones. Only 18 percent say they’re easier.
Employers also are skeptical: 56 percent prefer to hire people with traditional college degrees.
Community colleges are adding online courses rapidly. Nearly half of students surveyed are taking at least one online course. However, students have mixed feelings, said Carolin Hagelskamp, the lead researcher.
“What stuck out to me was this feeling around community college students, there was almost a little bit of frustration around these courses,” Hagelskamp said. She said many students believe online courses require more discipline and quite a few said they’re harder to pass. Nearly half said they’re not learning as much as they would in a traditional setting.
Forty-one percent said they would rather take fewer courses online, while 39 percent thought they were taking the right amount of online classes.
Most employers said they’d prefer a job applicant with a degree from an average brick-and-mortar college over someone from a more elite university where they took only online coursework. Forty-nine percent of employers thought online-only students learn less than traditional students; 45 percent thought they learned about the same.
“We’re going to encourage more colleges to innovate, try new things, do things that can provide a great education without breaking the bank,” President Obama told college students in Scranton, Pennsylvania. “For example, a number of colleges across the country are using online education to save time and money for their students.”
That same day, Altius Education, an innovator in online education, learned it is under federal investigation, reports Matthew Zeitlin on BuzzFeed. The Justice Department “did not respond to an inquiry about the details of the investigation.”
The notice was the culmination of a more than two-year battle between Altius and the Higher Learning Commission, one of two members of the 118-year-old North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, which controls accreditation — the vital credential that gives college degrees value — for over 1,000 colleges and universities in 19 states. The HLC’s university backers have an obvious interest in avoiding the sort of low-cost competition that reformers, and now the president, seek.
“It struck me as highly ironic and deeply frustrating that we were trying to do exactly what Obama describes what the market needs and yet we’re getting resistance from his administration,” said Paul Freedman, who started Altius in 2004.
Altius partnered with Tiffin University, a small private college in Ohio to create Ivy Bridge College, which offered Tiffin associate degrees to online students planning to transfer to four-year institutions. Tiffin controlled the academics, while Altius handled marketing, technology and student services such as “personal success coaches.”
Students paid just below $10,000 a year, on average, much of it covered by federal student loans. About two-thirds transferred to two- or four-year institutions, the program’s goal.
In 2012, Ivy Bridge won a Next Generations Learning Challenges funded by the Gates Foundation.
In a 2010 accreditation review, the HLC said Ivy Bridge furthered the university’s mission and was “an excellent strategic initiative” that “addresses an underserved population through a strong curriculum . . . and a very good online portal for program delivery.”
All that changed in late 2011. Tiffin told HLC that Ivy Bridge planned to apply for independent accreditation and become Altius University. The commission and its president, Sylvia Manning, saw “another for-profit university gaming the system,” writes Zeitlin.
Manning had launched a crusade against what she viewed as suspect partnerships between traditional universities and for-profit upstarts, and instituted new rules in 2010 to require further HLC approval of agreements between accredited schools and for-profit companies that substantially changed the nature of the school.
In a report obtained by BuzzFeed, the HLC took steps toward shutting down the experimental arrangement precisely because “student body, faculty and educational programs are not like the structures” on the campus of the brick-and-mortar university that was its partner. This difference was the entire point of Ivy Bridge, and is at the heart of Obama’s proposals.
HLC complained that Ivy Bridge had a one-year retention rate of 25 percent, “notably poor even for 2-year students.”
Ivy Bridge’s five-year graduation rate is 31 percent, compared to 18.3 percent for Ohio community colleges,according to Altius and Tiffin. The graduation-and-transfer rate — transfer is the goal for most students — is 64.1 percent, compared with 42.1 percent at community colleges.
Here’s the Ivy Bridge timeline of events.
Udacity’s online partnership with San Jose State was suspended because of low pass rates in for-credit classes in its first semester. Pass rates improved significantly over the summer, exceeding on-campus pass rates in statistics, algebra and programming, but falling short in psychology and entry-level math, writes Udacity CEO Sebastian Thrun.
Learning from what didn’t work in the spring, Udacity changed some of the course content, Thrun writes.
We added hints for challenging exercises, and we added more course support staff to assist with online discussions and communications. We also changed the pacing methodology, informing students earlier and as part of their course experience when they were falling behind.
Enrollment was opened to anyone who wanted to try. Only 11 percent were California State University students. Half of the summer students already held a college degree and only 15 percent were high school students. In the Spring Pilot, half the participants were high school students (mostly from low-income areas) and half were San Jose State students.
Earning college credit was not the leading motivation, students said.
“Few ideas work on the first try,” Thrun writes. Udacity will keep working to improve the courses, especially in remedial math, which had the weakest results.