Online ed grows as retention gap narrows

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 are hot, but do students learn?

MOOCs (massive open online courses) are red hot in higher education, reports Time. A third of college administrators think residential campuses will become obsolete. State legislators are pushing for-credit MOOCs to cut college costs. But, how much are MOOC students learning?

“At this point, there’s just no way to really know whether they’re effective or not,” said Shanna Jaggars, assistant director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, which has produced some of the most recent scholarship about online education.

Enrollment in online college courses of all kinds increased by 29 percent from 2010 through 2012, according to the Babson Survey Research Group. However, completion rates are low. Only about 10 percent of people who sign up for a MOOC complete the course.

Advocates say that’s because there are no admissions requirements and the courses are free; they compare it to borrowing a book from the library and browsing it casually or returning it unread.

In addition, completers don’t earn college credits. In a survey by Qualtrics and Instructure, two-thirds of MOOC students said they’d be more likely to complete a MOOC if they could get college credit or a certificate of completion.  That still not widely available, notes Time.

Until it is, said Jaggars, it will be hard to measure the effectiveness of MOOCs—a Catch-22, since without knowing their effectiveness, it’s unlikely colleges will give academic credit for them.

To study what happens when students get credit for online courses, Teachers College looked at online courses at community colleges in Virginia and Washington State that were not MOOCs—since tuition was charged and credit given—but were like them in other ways. The results were not encouraging. Thirty-two percent of the students in online courses in Virginia quit before finishing, compared with 19 percent of classmates in conventional classrooms. The equivalent numbers in Washington State were 18 percent versus 10 percent. Online students were also less likely to get at least a C, less likely to return for the subsequent semester, and ultimately less likely to graduate.

San Jose State’s experiment with for-credit MOOCs was suspended in response to very low pass rates.  Pass rates improved significantly in the summer semester, but “a closer look showed that more than half of the summer students already had at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to none of the students who took online courses in the spring.” Even then, more summer registrants dropped out than in traditional classes.

“In general, students don’t do as well in online courses as they do in conventional courses,” said Jaggars. “A lot of that has to do with the engagement. There’s just less of it in online courses.”

Despite all this, 77 percent of academic leaders think online education is as good as face-to-face classes or better, Babson found. Four in 10 said their schools plan to offer MOOCs within three years, according to a survey by the IT company Enterasys.

In a new Gallup poll, 13 percent said employers see an online degree as better than a traditional degree, while 49 percent said the online degree has less value for employers. Online education gives students more options and provides good value for the money, but is less rigorous, most respondents said.

It’s time for a smarter (and cheaper) sheepskin

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.

‘Not Yet Sold’ on online ed

onlineMany 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.

Accreditor shuts down innovation

“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.

Under HLC orders to sever the partnership, Tiffin shut down Ivy Bridge College on Aug 1.  HLC’s statement primarily cited “bureaucratic concerns,” writes Zeitlin. So much for innovation.

Here’s the Ivy Bridge timeline of events.

Udacity: Online pass rates are up

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.

Faculty doubt quality of online courses

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.

Geoff Cain offers time-saving tips for teaching online at Brainstorm in Progress. He’s also got advice for online students.

Taking a test under fire — rocket fire

As rockets fell on the base in Afghanistan, Richard Bradbury grabbed his computer, ran to the bunker and finished the macroeconomics exam. “It was a timed test,” Bradbury told Community College Times. “It’s a 50-question test and I was seven or eight questions in when the alarm rang.”

The ability to do his work whenever and wherever he needed was the biggest benefit of earning his degree online through Wallace State Community College (WSCC) in Alabama. A contract worker, Bradbury spent 28 months on Afghan bases at Kandahar and Camp Leatherneck. During that time, he completed online all but one of classes to earn his associate in science degree in general studies from WSCC.

Wallace “was 25 percent of the cost of the big online colleges” all courses transfer to any Alabama university, said Bradbury. He will start online classes at Athens State University in the fall for his bachelor degree in business management.

WSCC professors were “willing to work with my unique situation,” he said. “I don’t see where I missed out anything except a very big bill,” he said.

CC online courses help 4-year students

Four-year college students are using online community college courses to finish their degrees, according to U.S. News.

In 2005, Stanley Hicks enrolled at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis to study electrical engineering while keeping his day job. After eight years, he’s finishing his four-year degree though online courses at Indiana’s Ivy Tech Community College. ”At IUPUI some classes, with fees, are 1,200 bucks,” says Hicks. “At Ivy Tech, the same class is $400.”

Online courses make it easier to juggle work and school, he says.

Hicks, who will end up taking six courses at Ivy Tech before he graduates, says his classes at the two institutions were more or less the same in terms of quality. For financially stressed students, he says taking online community college courses is a great option.

“There seems to be no ‘hidden’ fees at Ivy Tech,” says Hicks. “I also like the smaller class sizes and you seem to get better one-on-one assistance from the professors if needed.”

The number of four-year students taking online courses doubled in the last year at Ivy Tech.

Arizona’s Glendale Community College also is seeing more online students pursuing bachelor’s degrees, says Tressa Jumps, the school’s director of marketing.

  Jumps says many of the guest students at Glendale are taking courses covering subjects they have struggled with in the past or are taking a challenging course over the summer so they can devote more time to it. Taking an online community college course gives them the chance to be in a smaller class, and in the case of Glendale, benefit from free tutoring, she says.

However, students need to make sure that credits earned online through community colleges will be accepted by their four-year institution.

Best teacher may not be an ‘elite’ prof

Higher education will be transformed by online learning, argues Jeffrey Selingo in College (Un)Bound.

“These free courses developed by elite institutions that serve tens of thousands of students at a time will likely become the content provider for the core courses that every college offers. By using online materials to power these face-to-face courses, colleges can accommodate more students with the same number of instructors or spend their limited resources on top professors teaching the courses best presented in a physical classroom.”

“Elite” professors may not be the best teachers, especially for introductory courses taken by non-elite students, responds Matt Reed,  the “community college dean,” on Inside Higher Ed.

If we’re looking at “core courses,” on what basis should we assume that an institution that hires faculty on the basis of research, and that treats intro courses as a sort of dues-paying, would do a better job on, say, Intro to Psychology than would an institution that hires faculty based on teaching ability, and that defines teaching as the core of the job?  It’s possible that a research superstar is also a gifted teacher, of course, but it’s far from tautological.

The best College Algebra instructors aren’t likely to be teaching at elite institutions, where the lowest-level math class is usually Calculus I, argues Reed. “And what are the most effective ways of teaching that level of material to college students?  (Hint: they don’t involve watching videos.)”

The majority of community college students place into developmental English, where they “read, write, get feedback, discuss and write some more,” notes Reed. Nobody learns to write by watching an eminent professor talk about writing on screen.

College (Un)Bound assumes higher education’s changes will preserve the prestige of the current elites, writes Reed. “The Harvards and Williamses of the world can keep on doing what they’re doing; disruptive change is for the proles.”

In writing about the tuition cost spiral of the last decade, Selingo ignores the “flatlined budgets of community colleges,” Reed points out.