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New study of low MOOC completion rates

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New study examines the low completion rates of MOOCs.

'The MOOC Moment': New Compilation of Articles Available

Inside Higher Ed is today releasing a free compilation of articles -- in print-on-demand format -- about massive open online courses, or MOOCs. The articles aren't today's breaking news, but reflect long-term trends and some of the forward-looking thinking of experts on how MOOCs may change higher education. The idea is to provide these materials (both news articles and opinion essays) in one easy-to-read place. Inside Higher Ed will be releasing more such compilations in the months ahead, on a range of topics.

You can find "The MOOC Moment," the debut in this series, here.

And we invite you to participate in a free webinar with Inside Higher Ed's editors to talk about the issues raised in the articles and the latest developments involving MOOCs on Thursday, May 30, at 2 p.m. Eastern. To register, please click here.

Essay suggests that MOOCs are losing their original worthy goals

The recent announcement from the California State University System regarding its embrace of edX massive open online courses (MOOCs) is interesting and depressing at the same time. As with many aspects of the MOOC phenomenon, it comes packaged with good and bad aspects bundled up together. Instructors will offer a "special 'flipped' version of an electrical engineering course ... where students watch online lectures from Harvard and MIT at home." So the good is the flipped part because it's more interactive and dynamic and there's less lecture-based didacticism in the classroom due to watching videos at home? Really? The 1970s just called: they want their Open University courses back.

This model perhaps moves the Cal State system forward as it offers more accessibility to content for working adults in a hybrid format. I wish they would just step away from the MOOC terminology, which is, let’s be honest, copying and lending out a videotape in another name. MOOCs have been so beaten up and stolen for self-serving means that the original premise has been lost. As Stephen Downes, one of the forefathers of original MOOCs, stated in a recent blog, "These arguments miss the point of the MOOC, and that point is, precisely, to make education available to people who cannot afford to pay the cost to travel to and attend these small in-person events. Having one instructor for 20-50 people is expensive, and most of the world cannot afford that cost."

The MOOC spirit has been eroded by institutions and individuals who see an easy way to sound (or just seem) tech-online savvy. MOOCs are being used by many institutions to avoid actually having to discuss issues like ownership of curriculum, scalability and strategic online growth. In a (MOOC) swoosh, difficult governance issues regarding intellectual property, scalability and ownership are gone. Corrupted MOOCs circumvent the need for anything other than talking (lecture-style) to a camera with the hope that the "nice young guys and gals at CoursEdXra" drop me into a backdrop of the Parthenon and/or animate the background with pen cast versions of napkin sketches. There’s no building of an online community, facilitation of discussion threads, not even grading of papers, just, "I’m done — here’s my MOOC!"

MOOCs were originally intended to educate the Masses (M): hundreds of thousands who “cannot afford to enroll or travel to classes.” They were all Open (O): Open Content provided or supported by Saylor.org, Creative Commons and others. Now Open no longer means open resources — it has been unofficially changed to mean "open to anyone." Don’t get me wrong. Being more available to more people isn’t in itself a bad thing, but it does move the focus away from the original intent, which was to provide free, quality educational materials. The second O stands for Online — unless it’s a hybrid offered in a flipped classroom in which students have watched a video before coming to class (sigh). C = Course. Well, I guess one out of four is not bad if 10 percent retention is acceptable.

Original MOOCs (oMOOCs) were free, or at least extremely affordable, fully online, well-crafted and contained a lot of interesting pedagogy and instructional design. The target demographic was the underserved, both nationally and internationally. Per Downes, they were "not designed to serve the missions of the elite colleges and universities...." but rather "designed to undermine them, and make those missions obsolete."

Hijacked MOOCs are flagship (institution)-led, starting to cost (increasingly), often hybrid, faculty headshot to camera, tech sophistication layered on, little-to-zero impact on faculty member revisiting / learning? pedagogy (in any format) and not very massive. They're mostly taken by education technologists, already-qualified individuals and Tom Friedman.

It’s the strategic analysis and "nuanced discussion" that I want us all back to. Proper MOOCs may work for some, others may just choose to use open online materials and some may even have a mission to support affordable education for underserved communities (my favorite). But let’s not kid ourselves. Co-opting a MOOC label does not make an offering edgy. Get strategy and rationale nailed first, worry about the acronym later.

Kevin Bell is the executive director for online curriculum development and deployment at Northeastern University's College of Professional Studies. This essay is adopted from a posting at the blog Aspire.

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San Jose State University Faculty Pushes Back Against EdX

The philosophy department at San Jose State University is pushing back against the university's pioneering projects to test new online learning ventures.

department-approved letter not only challenges hype around online learning but personally calls out a Harvard University professor who teaches a massive open online class for his alleged culpability in what the department calls perilous online learning efforts. The department's letter to Harvard's Michael Sandel follows a suggestion from San Jose State's administration that the department look at using Sandel's popular edX MOOC on justice.

"There is no pedagogical problem in our department that JusticeX solves," the letter to Sandel says, "nor do we have a shortage of faculty capable of teaching our equivalent course. We believe that long-term financial considerations motivate the call for massively open online courses (MOOCs) at public universities such as ours. Unfortunately, the move to MOOCs comes at great peril to our university. We regard such courses as a serious compromise of quality of education and, ironically for a social justice course, a case of social injustice."

San Jose State Provost Ellen Junn said the faculty had the option of using the online course to supplement their normal course material in the same way professors use textbooks. “Faculty have the complete control and responsibility for using or not using whatever material they want, whether it be a textbook or video,” she said.

San Jose State is using another edX course to "flip" one of its engineering courses and is so far seeing better pass rates, according to university faculty. Junn said the use of material from providers offering MOOCs does not mean the university classes are themselves MOOCs because they are not entirely online and they are not massive courses -- indeed, they have the same number of enrolled students as traditional un-flipped courses. 

Sandel released a statement saying he is only trying to make material available to the public and making clear that he does not believe online courses are a substitute for personal engagement.

"My goal is simply to make an educational resource freely available--a resource that faculty colleagues should be free to use in whole or in part, or not at all, as they see fit," he said. "The worry that the widespread use of online courses will damage departments in public universities facing budgetary pressures is a legitimate concern that deserves serious debate, at edX and throughout higher education. The last thing I want is for my online lectures to be used to undermine faculty colleagues at other institutions."

The San Jose State letter is the latest instance of professors looking at and rejecting attempts by officials at traditional universities to partner with a new batch of online course providers. Amherst College's faculty last month voted down a proposal to join edX. Last week, Duke University faculty members, frustrated with their administration and skeptical of the degrees to be awarded, forced the institution to back out of a deal with nine other universities and 2U to create a pool of for-credit online classes for undergraduates.

Florida Senate Advances Plan to Turn to Outside Course Providers

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.

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Technology innovation should focus on letting teachers teach (essay)

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 seems appropriate.  

Brian S. Parish is owner and president of IData, Inc., which helps colleges manage administrative data.

Coursera Enters Teacher Professional Development Market

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.

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Pearson VUE Test Centers Experience Major Problems

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 Senate Panel Mulls Course Outsource

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.

State Universities Should Move Online More Aggressively, Report Argues

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.

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