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Essay on ways MOOCs helped and hurt debates about future of higher education

As the hype around MOOCs has subsided, a frequently asked question in university circles today is: Who have massive open online courses helped or hurt?

Providing free and open access to content from revered institutions is laudable. But enrollments at elite colleges’ MOOCs do not translate into revenue at the vast majority of colleges and universities, many of them already cash-strapped. And learning that fails to deliver credit that leads to a credential may not yield much for students, even if they enjoy the courses. MOOCs may have been more faddish than altruistic.

For MOOCs to be important long term, they must be more than a curiosity.  A 2014 study from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education found that only 4 percent of those who had registered for a MOOC actually completed it. The curious are obviously much less likely to see a course through to completion than are serious students seeking a credential to help them advance in their lives.

Studies like the one out of Penn suggest that MOOCs may have little long-term utility for students. And for institutions, the risks of issuing credit for MOOCs could have a serious impact on their operating income. Most of those who have created MOOCs have invested a lot of sweat equity in return for relatively little, and no meaningful income for provider universities that contributed their brand and reputation to support the concept.

Higher education needs to be affordable, but it cannot be free. As aptly observed by Michael Cusumano of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the software, music, video, book publishing, newspaper, and magazine industries are “still struggling to recover from the impact of free,” and many companies within those industries never did. In fact, two-thirds of the public software product companies operating in 1998 had shuttered by 2006. While a variety of factors may have contributed to their demise, the proliferation of free products was chief among them, points out Cusumano, a fact that should be kept in mind as we evaluate the impact of MOOCs on higher education.

At a time when many colleges and universities are struggling to justify their value proposition and find financial sustainability, marking their core product to zero seems to be misguided, an observation that is gaining currency among higher educators worldwide. This practice also raises a question whether free implies little value.

Giving away education can make sense in some cases. For instance, the country of Colombia, which has offered MOOC-like courses through SENA, its agency focused on providing practical and technical educational courses to increase employment, and India, which is considering putting high-demand courses online for workforce training may prove that free and open courses online can be effective in up-skilling societies. It is important to keep in mind, however, that these initiatives are seen as a public good and, as such, are fully funded by the government and not by institutions that need to find their way to self-sufficiency.

Using technology to deliver relevant, affordable, and credential-bearing education from top universities to help more citizens progress in their lives is within the incredible potential of the Internet and can be done inexpensively and at scale, as MOOCs have demonstrated.    

While the participation of top universities in the delivery of MOOCs has helped further legitimize online learning and infuse higher education with much needed innovation, it has not proven to be the anticipated game changer for either students or universities. History has shown us that giveaways are a gambler’s game and not a strategy for a sustainable future.  

Randy Best is the chairman and CEO of Academic Partnerships.

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New study finds men more likely to doubt evidence of gender bias in science fields

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New study on online comments suggests big gap in the way men and women perceive evidence of gender bias in sciences. What does that mean for efforts to diversify STEM?

Florida State Sued Over Alleged Rape by Football Star

The woman who says that Jameis Winston raped her is suing Florida State University, The Tallahassee Democrat reported. Winston, a star quarterback who on Wednesday announced plans to enter the National Football League draft, has denied raping her. Numerous journalistic investigations have raised questions about whether Florida State or local authorities took the charges seriously. The suit charges that the university largely refused to investigate and didn't fill the woman in on her various legal options. The university again on Wednesday denied wrongdoing in the case.

 

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U. of Minnesota at Duluth says departure of women's hockey coach 'financially driven'

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Is it fair for a university to tell a championship-winning women's coach that she won't be renewed in part because of her salary? When the coach of the equivalent men's team earns more?

NCAA to Pay for Family Travel to Final Four

The National Collegiate Athletic Association will help cover the expenses of basketball players' family members who travel to the men's and women's Final Four games this spring, the association announced Tuesday. The NCAA also granted a waiver that allows the College Football Playoff to help cover the expenses of families traveling to the national championship football game next week.

Under a new pilot program, the NCAA will pay up to $3,000 in travel, hotel and meal expenses for family members of each athlete who competes in the Final Four. The association will pay as much as $4,000 for families of athletes playing in the championship games. The NCAA will allow the College Football Playoff to provide $3,000 in assistance to families of football players participating in the national championship. Member institutions can now also begin providing family travel expenses for other championships on a permanent basis, the NCAA said. The current, 14-year deal between CBS and the NCAA to broadcast the men's basketball tournament is worth $11 billion.

The change is among several the NCAA is making in response to pressure it's under to provide more support for athletes. At the NCAA convention next week, the newly autonomous "power five" conferences are expected to vote on several reforms, including providing better medical, financial, and academic support to athletes. "From multiyear scholarships to opportunities to return to school and complete their degree on scholarship, we have been dedicated to further improving the student-athlete experience since our presidential retreat in August 2011,” Mark Emmert, NCAA president said. “Providing travel expenses for student-athletes’ families is another example of this progress.”

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Former Georgia Tech Professor Indicted on Racketeering Charges

Joy Laskar, a a former tenured professor of electrical engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology, has been indicted on two counts of racketeering, based on allegations that he poured some $1 million of university funds into his own tech company, Fox6 WBRC reported. In an interview with the station, Laskar denied the charges, saying that he used university funds to make legitimate purchases of computer chips that benefited his students and research work. Laskar’s university office was raided by investigators in 2010, and he was later suspended and fired. In 2011, the university settled with him for more than $181,000, after he sued, saying he'd been wrongfully suspended without pay. A criminal investigation continued, however, and the indictments were handed down as the statute of limitations for the case neared. Craig Frankel, one of Laskar’s attorneys, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A university spokesman confirmed that Laskar’s employment there ended officially in August 2011, but he declined further comment on the pending litigation.

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U. of Virginia Lifts Greek Ban, Adopts New Safety Agreement

The University of Virginia has lifted the ban on Greek social activities that was imposed last semester after an article in Rolling Stone detailed an alleged gang rape at a campus fraternity. The article's accuracy has since been questioned, but the university chose to keep the ban in place while it worked with Greek leadership councils to create new safety policies. The university adopted a new fraternal organization agreement on Tuesday, authorizing safety practices submitted by the Greek councils. Reflecting the concerns of the university's Board of Visitors, the precautions largely focus on alcohol consumption.

A minimum of three fraternity brothers must be "sober and lucid" at each social function, with at least one member present wherever alcohol is being distributed and at stairways leading to bedrooms. Fraternities must provide one additional sober member for every 30 members of the chapter. The new agreement allows for beer to be served unopened in its original can, but wine must be poured by one of the sober monitors. At parties where the number of guests exceeds the number of members present (what are called "Tier I events"), hard liquor cannot be served unless the fraternity hires a licensed bartender. Bottled water and food must be provided. Sororities, too, enacted new safety practices, including adopting an "Inter-Sorority Council Women On Call" program, where chapter leaders sign up in shifts to be the lead contact person for members in "unsafe situations."

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Essay about how a college president decided to discuss her struggle against breast cancer

On September 9, a breast cancer diagnosis shattered my plans for the new academic year. At the moment I heard the words spoken by the radiologist, my vision of the future simply dissolved. Later in the day, as my surgeon described the treatment plan, I was thinking about how it would affect me, my family, and my work at Simmons College. With barely any time to consider it, I made the instinctive decision to live my new future publicly, sharing my experience with the Simmons students, professors and staff in a real-time fashion. I am convinced this was the right decision for me.

Why I arrived at that conclusion so quickly is, I think, self-evident: I am president of a university that has an all-women's undergraduate college, graduate schools serving women and men, and a culture that emphasizes gender equality and celebrates diversity and inclusion. In this environment, how could I imagine maintaining a leadership role while combating a challenging disease in secret? Further, how could I not share my new and evolving learning about an affliction that affects 12 percent of the women in the United States? I could not. I would live this battle publicly.  

Each week, I write to the Simmons community about things that are on my mind; it has become the natural way to share my breast cancer journey, and I have found the response to be overwhelmingly supportive. If I had a moment's hesitation over my decision to go public, it faded quickly once I recognized the opportunity to reassure my community that it is possible to contend with a challenging diagnosis and to continue meaningful work, as have many before me. I hope that by writing candidly, I can help make a difference for those who may be experiencing similar challenges.

As the semester moved along, I tried to keep the same robust schedule I’ve always maintained with a few modifications for my treatment. For example, many people are shocked to find themselves scheduled in a meeting with me the day after chemo. It’s two to four days after these treatments that become challenging for me because the steroids in my system are wearing off. Through the generosity of the college’s trustees, I am now driven to work and to my daily professional appointments. It was difficult for me to accept such support given how much I value self-reliance, but not having to personally drive has made a huge difference in my ability to maintain my working schedule.

One aspect of my treatment that I find particularly difficult is the requirement that I avoid large groups because of my weakened immune system. For a college president who regularly meets with students, faculty, alumni, staff, community members, and donors, this was a tough change. However, there is really no way to get around this important requirement. I have had to make adjustments such as canceling my annual fall community meeting and missing the annual faculty and staff holiday party.

A cancer diagnosis of any kind constitutes an unspeakable event for many people. There is no escaping the facts: cancer affects one in two American men and one in three American women, according to the American Cancer Society. Changing societal attitudes about cancer so that we talk about it in honest and authentic terms and arm ourselves with knowledge can only help us in dealing with the No. 2 cause of death in the United States.      

Fear of breast cancer plagues patients, survivors and women who do not have the disease. Even women who acknowledge knowing that heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States fear that they will most likely die from breast cancer. Such fear too often leads to avoidance of screening or even seeing a physician for self-identified symptoms, creating great risk of more serious disease.  

I have generally shared these fears, particularly as I visited the Avon Foundation Comprehensive Breast Evaluation Center at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) every year for several decades for my annual mammogram. Many who participate in this important test will say that the waiting room is a quiet and sober place. All of us know why: Most of us will leave with a clean bill of health, while others require further review. This year I was in the second group, and while the anticipation was terrifying, it prepared me for my important learning that putting my life before my fear was the best way for me to handle the fear. 

During diagnosis, surgery, and now chemotherapy, I have seen that my single greatest source of fear is lack of any sense of understanding or control over what will happen. My response has been to be as engaged a patient as I can be while soliciting as much information about my treatment from my care team as I can handle. Facing the fear head-on is empowering, oddly enough, and finding role models who have done so in any circumstance has been especially helpful. When I write about my experiences with breast cancer, I try to be as explicit as possible about how I am dealing with the fears associated both with the disease and the treatment. 

In addition to the fear factor, I have observed what I consider is the diabolical confusion in the marketplace about the efficacy of mammography screening. The American Cancer Society advises annual mammograms for all women age 40 and over, while the United States Preventative Task Force (USPTF) a government agency, recommends biennial mammography after age 50 until age 74. In addition to confusion, this government advice opens the door to changes in reimbursement for testing done outside guidelines, particularly worrisome as we consider the ongoing national concerns about health care affordability.

Daniel Kopans, a physician at MGH, has been a particularly committed advocate for mammography in the face of this confusion, and cites both the poor quality of the Canadian studies, which are the basis for the USPTF guidelines, and the lack of media attention to the new Canadian studies, which demonstrate results supporting the value of mammography. As a woman who clearly benefited from annual mammography, I think anything less is a disservice to all of us.

My primary care physician has steadfastly advised me to have annual mammograms over the course of our 20-year relationship, and I have never missed one. All previous tests revealed nothing abnormal, but in the fall, the test revealed a stage 1, grade 3 tumor. Stage 1 is an early finding of a tumor less than 2 centimeters in size, while a grade 3 tumor is the most aggressive kind of tumor. Had I delayed this mammogram, the progress of the disease was inevitable. My story is the classic scenario in support of annual mammograms. However, women in the United States face great confusion due to significant differences in the recommendations of key advisers. 

My battle with breast cancer is now fully engaged, and I am committed to all aspects of the fight – surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and long-term medication – and to doing everything in my power to defeat this disease. One of the unexpected gifts of this experience is that I see life with more clarity and in a more intense light than ever before and I feel a sense of urgency in everything that I do – for myself, for my family, for the college. We just need to get on with it – face our challenges squarely and make every minute count. There is no time to waste.   

I trust that by sharing my experiences with those in the Simmons College community, I can help them face the challenges in their lives, too, whatever those are, and inspire them to engage their own challenges with tenacity.

 

Helen Drinan is president of Simmons College.

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Adjuncts at Washington U. Vote to Form SEIU Union

Adjunct professors at Washington University in St. Louis voted to form a union affiliated with Service Employees International Union, they announced Monday. More than 400 adjuncts will be part of the new bargaining unit, which is the first in St. Louis affiliated with SEIU's Adjunct Action metro-wide organizing campaign. Some 62 percent of adjuncts turned out to vote; 138 voted yes and 111 voted no. Michael O’Bryan, an adjunct instructor of English, called the vote an "important step toward improving the labor conditions of university faculty and, consequently, the learning experience of the students taught by those faculty" in an announcement. The university said in a statement that it is "committed to working with the union on matters of mutual importance."

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New presidents or provosts: Antioch DeVry Florida IIT Ivy Tech Lake Forest Lehigh Montana United Tribes

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  • Jeffrey J. Anderson, associate dean for leadership development at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, in Illinois, has been named president and CEO of Lake Forest Graduate School of Management, also in Illinois.

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