The Florida Senate passed a measure Wednesday designed to allow outside groups, including the providers of massive open online courses, to offer credit-bearing courses to Florida public college students. The measure has been amended significantly since it was first introduced by a Republican senator as a way to take on the accreditation system. The new version of the bill, which the Senate inserted into a digital education bill the House had sent the Senate earlier, substitutes the phrase “Florida Approved Courses” for the old phrase “Florida-accredited” courses and adds requirements that outside course providers must meet to qualify their courses for the new pool, including limitations on the subject areas that MOOCs can be used for.
Virtually everywhere you turn, somebody is promoting the idea that technology is a – if not the -- solution to educational completion. Panelists at conferences, politicians, foundation officials and journalists/bloggers promote the view. It is also being supported loudly by the checkbooks of the venture capitalist community. College completion is, without a doubt, a serious problem. In fact, for the first time, the current generation of Americans entering the work force is less educated than the generation that is now retiring.
I run an educational technology company, and I read the articles, sit on the panels, and see the venture money flowing. But I have to admit, my first thought is: “Might technology be the problem rather than the solution?”
College retention and completion is a growing and serious problem in the U.S. However, understanding how technology helps in education, particularly higher education, can be very difficult to identify and measure. When searching for technology solutions, we should consider the concept of appropriate technology -- using the right amount of technology to solve a core problem.
Does it address the core problem?
Is it scalable?
Is it maintainable?
Is it affordable?
We already know several non-technology solutions that are working. Most administrators will agree that good teachers, engaging instruction, individual mentoring and personal advising can directly affect retention and student performance. The problem with these known solutions is cost, time and measurability. Faculty and staff are often burdened with administrative and mundane tasks that infringe upon effective student engagement.
This presents a real opportunity for technology. However, it must be put to work in the right way.
Rather than looking for technology to replace or augment the teacher/student relationship, we can look for ways technology can eliminate everything that is NOT the teacher/student relationship – reducing time spent on administrative tasks and increasing the information available about the individual students and their needs. I call this the "other ed tech."
If technology can free up time for teachers by helping to find open educational resources, streamlining grading, simplifying student/parent communication, and eliminating HR tasks, it will create more time for student interaction. If technology can automate student advising communication and help to identify students at risk it will create more targeted opportunities for effective intervention. If technology can eliminate administrative and institutional overhead it will help to create more effective time and funds for student-facing services. (Disclosure: My company, IData, Inc., helps colleges with some of these things.)
To understand my reaction to the push for technology as a panacea in education, I reflect nearly 20 years ago to when I volunteered as a teacher at St. Cecilia Mautuma Secondary, a small, rural school in the highlands of Kenya. It was a new, four-room, secondary boarding school for girls. This school had almost nothing in terms of technology – a handful of textbooks shared between classes of 25 students, chalkboards that never seemed to have chalk and an hour of electricity from a car battery to run lights so students could study at night. A number of my friends in the U.S. suggested computers or software to help the girls of Mautuma. The reality was that they needed more textbooks, more teachers and possibly … more chalk.
My time in Kenya introduced me to many Peace Corps volunteers. The Peace Corps operates under the principle of appropriate technology – loosely defined as technology that is locally affordable with locally made/maintained tools that greatly reduce labor requirements and provide new opportunities for productivity.
In essence, if I had dropped a laptop in the middle of Kenya in 1993, it would not have solved anything for those students. There was no electricity, no Internet, no way to fix it and no way to share the resource. Internet technology would not have helped learning in rural Kenya in 1993 because it was not scalable, it was not locally maintainable, it was too expensive and it did not solve the core problems of not enough teachers, not enough books, not enough light to study at night and not enough parents that could afford the modest annual school fees.
Twenty years later, is there a correlation between my experience in Kenya and the current trends in educational technology? Clearly, 21st-century U.S. higher education is different, but we should still consider scalability, maintainability, affordability and whether the solution is solving the core problem.
As education technology remains a hot topic with conversations surrounding MOOCs, big data, mobile apps and open educational resources, we should ask ourselves the following questions:
Are we throwing the right solutions at the problems of higher education?
Do we even understand the problems?
Is there a plan?
Does it help to fulfill the goals of the strategic plan?
As schools look for a technology plan, they should focus on the goals outlined in their strategic plan and look for innovation on processes that free up resources that we can use for things we know work.
As active participants in the education world, we should always be looking for ways to appropriately apply technology. There are real problems, and a good start would be to focus on saving time and money. Budget is one of the biggest barriers to giving teachers and staff the one-on-one time needed to keep students on track. There are a large number of tasks that are done by individual schools that could benefit from cost-sharing with peer institutions. Projects like the Predictive Analytics in Retention (PAR) Framework are a great example of multiple schools collaborating together to build a single (and better) retention analytics platform.
Ed tech projects can be time and money losers for a school. The guiding principal should be to look carefully at every dollar or hour spent NOT focused on working with students or advancing your strategic plan. If any of those hours or dollars can be eliminated with technology, that seemsappropriate.
Brian S. Parish is owner and president of IData, Inc., which helps colleges manage administrative data.
Coursera, the Silicon Valley-based provider of massive open online courses, is entering the teacher education market. The company is partnering with teachers colleges and other educational institutions to provide online professional development courses for K-12 teachers and parents. The company described the new effort as its first foray into early childhood and K-12 and its first partnerships with non-degree-bearing institutions, including art museums.
With this, the company may be eyeing a professional development market that includes about 3.7 million teachers in American plus millions more across the world. “We want to help K-12 students by helping their teachers,” Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng said in a statement announcing the new program. “Many schools just don’t have the resources to provide teachers and parents the training and support they need. By providing free online courses on how to teach, we hope to improve this.”
A revenue plan was not immediately clear. The company has been committed to offering its courses for free but is charging some users who want bona fide certificates of completion. A company spokeswoman said in an e-mail that Coursera will be working with school districts to see how the courses could be used for required professional development training and she said teachers are also encouraged to talk to their administrators to seek approval.
Gordon Brown, the United Nations special envoy for global education said in the company statement that Coursera’s plan is “an important and crucial innovation” to meet the “global challenge of training and supporting over 2 million more teachers” by the end of 2015.
Coursera's partners in the venture are University of Washington's college of education; University of Virginia's school of education; Johns Hopkins University's school of education; Match Education’s Sposato Graduate School of Education; Peabody College of education and human development, Vanderbilt University; Relay Graduate School of Education; University of California at Irvine Extension; the American Museum of Natural History; The Commonwealth Education Trust; Exploratorium; The Museum of Modern Art; and New Teacher Center.
Pearson VUE, which operates a worldwide network of testing centers for various exams, has been experiencing significant technical problems this week. The company's Facebook page features numerous comments from people unable to take their scheduled exams or to get information about when they will be able to do so. Some people are posting stories of how hours-long delays likely affected their performance on exams that are crucial to their careers. On the Facebook page, Pearson indicates that it is aware of the problems and is trying to fix them.
"We are continuing our efforts to restore normal service as quickly as possible. We are in the midst of implementing recommendations by our internal and external technology experts, but it is too soon to know how quickly this will improve system performance. Please note that there will likely be additional variations in system performance as we implement these changes," says a statement posted Thursday evening. "We fully appreciate that many of you have been significantly impacted by the circumstances over the past several days, and we will increase testing capacity and operational support to accommodate scheduling and/or rescheduling of those affected as quickly as possible once normal system performance is restored."
California's Senate education committee is expected to vote next week on a newly amended plan to allow online courses from unaccredited providers to count for credit at the state's three college and university systems.
The committee on Wednesday heard an hour of discussion about the bill, SB 520. The bill's sponsor, Democratic State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg -- who is the leader of the Senate -- showed up to defend the bill against a parade of opposition by faculty representatives from unions and the state's academic senates. Student support for the idea, which is meant to expand access to over-enrolled lower division classes and lower costs for students, also appeared mixed.
Steinberg offered three new amendments to his bill, which he also amended last week. He said the new amendments will prevent public money from going to private companies and make it possible that colleges can develop their own classes without being forced to turn to outside providers, although seeking aid from private sector technology companies remains a key impetus for the legislation.
“What are you afraid of?" Steinberg said to faculty who attended the hearing to oppose the bill. "What are you afraid of?”
Faculty representatives expressed concern that unproven private sector companies would be put in charge of students' education. They argued that the solution to access problems in California is more funding for the public higher education systems.
Public universities have a long history of adapting to technological change, but they must speed up their embrace of online education -- and work together to do so -- to remain at the forefront of educating the citizens of their states and the country, argues a new report from two Washington research groups. "State U Online," from the New America Foundation and Education Sector, traces the history of public universities and of online education and suggests that major public universities have been slower than other sectors -- especially for-profit higher education -- to incorporate digital learning into their offerings. The author, Rachel Fishman of New America, argues that the institutions are best positioned to offer a high-quality, affordable digital education that is "grounded in public values," and offers a roadmap for doing so, including creating a clearinghouse where state institutions can "collaborate to provide an easy-to-search library of online courses and degrees," sharing contracts for digital platforms and online support services to meet multiple institutions' needs, and sharing credentialing beyond state borders.
The Minerva Project, the San Francisco-based "hybrid university" trying to appeal to top-tier students that plans to open in 2015, announced Monday that it has joined with a Nobel laureate to offer a $500,000 prize each year to a distinguished educator. Roger Kornberg, a Stanford University professor who won the 2006 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, is governor of the newly created Minerva Academy, which will award the prize. The prize is "designed to recognize extraordinary advancements in teaching excellence and impact" in higher education.
Sometime in the next few months the Digital Learning Lab that I manage at Howard University will survey the websites of the 105 officially designated historically black colleges and universities, just as it has done in previous years, in order to determine which HBCUs are offering online degrees that are based on credit courses that deliver at least 80 percent of their content via the Web.
The higher education media have interpreted our previous reports as showing that HBCUs "lag" non-HBCUs in their production of online programs -- which is true.
The media have then explicitly stated or strongly implied that this "slow" pace was "bad" and that HBCUs should produce more online degrees at a faster pace -- which, IMHO, is a highly counterproductive value judgment.
Contrary to the torrents of hype about how online programs will save higher education that have filled the media in the last year or so, especially in the wake of the MOOC tsunami, online courses -- i.e., courses that deliver more than 80 percent of their content over the Web -- and online degree programs aren't good enough for everyone... yet.
Please note the qualifiers "good enough" and "yet." Even the best-designed online courses still require students to have higher motivation, a greater capacity to study alone, better time management skills, stronger fundamental math and language skills, and stronger study skills -- e.g., organizing notes during reviews for homework and tests, extracting correct interpretations from reading texts, listening to audio, viewing video presentations, etc. -- than do face-to-face or blended courses.
These prerequisites for online success will surely fade in the coming years as adaptive e-learning technologies enable online courses to be tailored to the prior knowledge, aptitudes, and learning styles of individual students, and as social media and other support tools become as effective as office hours and face-to-face tutorials. But at the present time colleges and universities should actively discourage students who lack these prerequisites from taking online courses and actively encourage them to take blended or face-to-face courses.
Given their historic commitment to providing opportunities for higher education to black students who have been academically handicapped by circumstances beyond their control, HBCUs should deliberately "lag" non-HBCUs that have not made such commitments with regard to the percentage of HBCU courses and degrees that are offered in online formats. This is not to say that HBCUs should not produce online courses and degree programs, just that they should not be as quick to do so as non-HBCUs because they have deliberately enrolled a higher percentage of students for whom online formats are not good enough ... yet
HBCUs should invest a higher percentage of their limited resources to provide training and financial incentives for their faculty members to upgrade traditional face-to-face courses to blended/hybrid formats. Recent research confirms expectations from common sense that blended courses are more effective for a higher percentage of students than either traditional face-to-face courses or courses offered in online formats.
Online courses and programs are the most advanced segments of a broad array of rapidly evolving e-learning technologies that are generally characterized as "disruptive." The descriptor is apt, but misleading. Too often the term is used to describe profound innovations that organizations fail to adopt, rather than strategic opportunities that were seized. Existential threats are nothing new to HBCUs. Each generation of HBCU leaders has taken office with a clear understanding that their success or failure would determine whether their institutions would survive into the next generation.
So the current leaders understand that they have no choice but to act on the certain knowledge that their HBCUs must disrupt or die. More specifically, they must embrace the mix of new e-learning technologies that will work best for their HBCUs as fast as possible, but no faster -- regardless of what Harvard or Stanford or MIT is doing.
Roy L Beasley is a member of the senior staff of Howard University, but the views expressed here are his own.