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U.S. To Release More FAFSA Data, May Open Form To Web Developers

The U.S. Education Department plans to provide guidance counselors and state agencies with more information about students who are filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA, Obama administration officials said Wednesday at the department's so-called "Datapalooza" event.

The goal is to boost the rate at which students, especially those from low-income backgrounds, complete the FAFSA.

The department will “responsibly” share data with high school guidance counselors on which of their students have begun the FAFSA so they can work with those students on actually completing the forms, according to a department fact sheet. Department officials will also share that information with state student aid agencies “early” this year, the White House announced separately on Thursday.  

The department is also eyeing the development of a FAFSA Application Program Interface, a set of web protocols that would allow developers to build third-party services and applications that work with the complicated form, which is currently available only through the government’s website, FAFSA.gov.

Officials will soon issue a formal request for information and feedback on how the department might develop feeds (known as application programming interfaces, or APIs) of “key education data, programs and frequently used forms,” including the FAFSA, the department said.

James H. Shelton, the department’s assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement, told attendees that a FAFSA API would be useful in expanding the way students, families and others use the form. For instance, he said, the department has talked with KIPP charter schools about how they might be able to submit all of their students’ FAFSA forms at once.

The announcement came at a symposium Wednesday where Obama administration officials highlighted companies, nonprofit and academic groups that have used government data to build products and services aimed at helping students prepare for, apply to, and select a college. The Datapalooza event on Wednesday attracted more than 500 entrepreneurs, software developers and education technology experts.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan told attendees that his goal was to reduce the amount of time it takes to obtain degree and promote competency-based education. The administration is currently soliciting ideas on how it should waive federal student aid rules to certain colleges who want to experiment with innovations that will reduce the cost of higher education. 

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Why one adjunct gave up on college teaching and created his own business

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One longtime philosophy adjunct comes to terms with academic job market -- on his own terms.

SUNY Outlines First Degrees in Its New Online Initiative

Open SUNY -- through which the State University of New York plans to take existing online programs in the 64-campus system and to build on them, making them available for students throughout the system -- has its first degree programs. In her annual address on the state of the university, Chancellor Nancy Zimpher announced the first degree programs and the campuses that are producing them. The offerings include associate, bachelor's and master's degrees. Two SUNY institutions -- Empire State College and SUNY Oswego -- are each offering two programs. The others are being offered by Broome Community College, Finger Lakes Community College, SUNY Delhi and SUNY Stony Brook.

 

Blackboard acquires college planning company MyEdu

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Blackboard buys MyEdu, signaling it will get serious about the "consumerization" of higher education.

Essay looks at how early warning systems can better boost retention

The news that Purdue University likely overstated the impact of its early warning system, Course Signals, has cast doubt about the efficacy of a host of technology products intended to improve student retention and completion. In a commentary published in Inside Higher Ed, Mark Milliron responded by arguing that “next-generation” early warning systems use more robust analytics and will be likely to get better results.

We contend that even with extremely robust and appropriate analytics, programs like Course Signals may still fall short if their adoption ignores the most pressing piece of electronic advising systems — their use on the front end, by advisers, faculty and students. Until more attention is paid to the messy, human side of educational technology, Course Signals — and other programs like it — will continue to show anemic impacts on student retention and graduation.

Over the past year, we have worked with colleges in the process of implementing Integrated Planning and Advising Systems (which include early warning systems like Course Signals). The adoption of early warning systems requires advisers, faculty and students to approach college success differently and should, in theory, refocus attention on how they engage with advising and support services. In practice, however, we have found that colleges consistently underestimate the challenge of ensuring that such systems are adopted effectively by end-users.

The concept of an early alert is far from new. In interviews, instructors and advisers have consistently reminded us that for years, students have received “early alert” feedback in the form of grades and midterm reports. Early warning systems may streamline this process, and provide the reports in a new format (a red light instead of a warning note, for example), but the warning itself isn’t terribly different.

What is potentially different about products like Course Signals is their ability to connect these course-level warnings to the broader student support services offered by the college. If early warning signals are shared across college personnel, and if those warnings serve to trigger new behaviors on their part, then we are likely to see changed student behavior and success. In other words, sending up a red light isn’t likely to influence retention. But if that red light leads to advisers or tutors reaching out to students and providing targeted support, we might see bigger impacts on student outcomes.

Milliron says, for example, that with predictive analytics, “student[s] might be advised away from a combination of courses that could be toxic for him or her.” But such advising doesn’t happen spontaneously: it requires advisers to be more proactive in preparing for and conducting each advising session. They must examine a student’s early warning profile, program plan and case file prior to the session; they must reframe how they present course choices to students; and they have to rethink what the best course combinations are for students with varying educational and career goals, as well as learning styles and abilities. Finally, they may have to link students to additional resources on campus — such as tutoring— and colleges need to ensure these services exist and are of high quality.

For this process to occur, advisers need to be well-versed in how to use the analytics, and be encouraged to move past registering students for the most common set of courses to courses that make sense for the individual. But because most colleges remain uncertain about the process changes that should occur when they adopt early warning systems, they are unable to provide the training that would help faculty and advisers make potentially transformative adjustments in their practice.

Even if colleges do adequately prepare faculty and advisers for this transition, there is much we still don’t know about how students will perceive and use the data and messages they receive from early warning systems. These unknowns may influence the extent to which the systems impact student outcomes.

For example, if students perceive early warnings as a reprimand rather than an opportunity to get help, they may ignore the signals or avoid efforts of college personnel to contact them. To anticipate and mitigate these kinds of potentially negative responses, it is important to understand how all students, not just those who use and enjoy early alert systems, experience and react to such signals. As Milliron notes, we need to figure how to send the right message to the right people in the right way.

Early warning systems are only tools, and colleges will have to pay closer attention to changing end-user culture in order to maximize their effectiveness. Currently, colleges are skipping this step. At the end of the day, even the best system and the best data depend on people to translate them into actions and behaviors that can influence student retention and completion.

Melinda Mechur Karp is a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College. Also contributing to the essay were Jeff Fletcher, a senior research assistant, Hoori Santikian Kalamkarian, a research associate, and Serena Klempin, a research associate.

Cengage Teams With Knewton for Adaptive Learning Technology

Cengage Learning, the second-largest higher education publisher in the U.S., on Tuesday announced it has formed a partnership with Knewton to provide adaptive learning technology in a handful of its products. Cengage will use Knewton technology in the company's MindTap platform, an interactive textbook reader. The technology will first appear in the management and sociology disciplines, a Knewton spokesman said.

The partnership is the latest in a series for Knewton, which provides its technology to publishers such as Cambridge University Press and Pearson. Cengage is in the midst of restructuring after the company filed for bankruptcy protection in July.

The Pulse podcast features popular iTunes U. chemistry course

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This month's edition of our monthly technology podcast features an interview with Ohio State University's Matthew W. Stoltzfus, whose chemistry course enrolled 100,000 on iTunes U.

Essay criticizes new Kansas policy on use of social media by university employees

For decades, the Supreme Court has kept vigil over the campuses of state universities as, in the words of one memorable 1995 ruling, "peculiarly the marketplace for ideas." No opinion, the Supreme Court has emphasized, is too challenging or unsettling that it can be banned from the college classroom.

Forget the classroom – professors today are fortunate if they can be safe from punishment for an unkind word posted from a home computer on a personal, off-campus blog.

The Kansas Board of Regents triggered academic-freedom alarm bells across America last month with a hastily adopted revision to university personnel policies that makes “improper use of social media” grounds for discipline up to and including termination. (While the board this week ordered a review of the policy, it remains in place.)

While described as a restriction on “social” media, the policy is nothing of the sort. By its own terms, the policy is an assertion of college authority over “any facility for online publication and commentary.” (Kansans, think twice before pushing “send” in the comments section of this article.)

The breathtaking sweep of the regulation – it seemingly would confer jurisdiction over every online appearance, from an interview with Slate magazine to an academic article in a science journal – evidences an eagerness to control the off-the-clock lives of employees that is itself cause for suspicion.

The policy purports to create two categories of online speech. Speech made “pursuant to” or “in furtherance of” official duties is subject to essentially complete regulation, and penalties up to firing may be imposed for any speech deemed “contrary to the best interest” of the institution.

All other online speech is punishable if it adversely affects the workplace, but only after a “balancing analysis” that considers the institution’s interests in “efficiency” against the employee’s interest in addressing matters of public concern.

These categories roughly track the Supreme Court’s employee-speech jurisprudence. But the Kansas regulation dangerously oversimplifies the law of employee First Amendment rights in ways that invite abuse.

The Court’s 1968 ruling in Pickering v. Board of Education marks the headwaters of public employee First Amendment protection. There, in the case of an Illinois teacher fired for a letter to the editor about a school bond issue, the court coined its “Pickering balancing test” to determine whether employee speech may lawfully be punished.

The test requires weighing “the interests of the teacher, as a citizen, in commenting upon matters of public concern” against “the interest of the state, as an employer, in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees.”

Pickering was curtailed in the 2006 ruling, Garcetti v. Ceballos, involving a California prosecutor fired over an internal memo critical of the way the police department handled evidence. The Garcetti case essentially recognized that, when a dispute involves speech contained in an official work assignment, that is the government’s speech and not the individual’s. Accordingly, the individual cannot claim a First Amendment violation if the speech displeases a supervisor, and no balancing of interests is even necessary.

Although some lower courts have expansively applied Garcetti in dubiously supportable ways, it’s essential to recognize just how narrow the Garcetti decision really is.

Properly understood, Garcetti applies only where the speech itself is a work assignment – not where the speech is about work responsibilities. Prosecutor Richard Ceballos lost his First Amendment case because his speech came in a memo he was assigned to write. The same message in an interview with The Los Angeles Times – or on Facebook – might well have been protected.

Indeed, the Supreme Court painstakingly made the distinction in Garcetti between speech that “concerned the subject matter” of an employee’s work (which remains highly protected) versus speech “pursuant to” official duties, which Garcetti left unprotected.

Importing the Garcetti standard into the employment policies of Kansas universities raises two principal legal concerns.

The first is why Garcetti language belongs in a policy about off-hours social media activity at all. Few positions at a university require creating social media as part of official job duties. For the few that do, the Kansas policy is unnecessary. If you are the employee in charge of managing the university’s Facebook page, doing that job badly has always been grounds for removal.

Enactment of a new regulation suggests something more – a desire to extend authority over social media activity that is not a part of the employee’s job. The portentous descriptive – that the college may freely regulate speech “in furtherance of” official duties – is especially ominous for employees (read, faculty) for whom speaking and publishing is an expected credential-builder.

A researcher at Hawaii Pacific University recently created the “Faculty Media Impact Project” (call it “Klout for Kollege”), which attempts to measure individual professors’ influence by online references to their work, including mentions on social media. (Evidencing the blurry line between professors’ online visibility and their institutions, Southern Methodist University recently issued a news release boasting of its #2 national ranking – far outdistancing #17 Harvard – in the inaugural “impact” scores.)

No university employee, particularly not a teaching employee, can be secure of the boundaries where speech “in furtherance of” official duties ends and personal speech begins. That’s a problem.

Restrictions on the content of speech must be so clear and so specific that a speaker can be certain he is protected. Otherwise, speakers will censor themselves for fear of crossing indistinct boundaries.

The second and more legally intriguing concern is whether Garcetti can legitimately be applied to teaching faculty without running afoul of academic freedom.

Two of the 12 federal geographic circuits have recently said no. In September, the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in Demers v. Austin, involving disciplinary action against a Washington State University professor, that “Garcetti does not — indeed, consistent with the First Amendment, cannot — apply to teaching and academic writing.” The ruling echoes a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, Adams v. Trustees of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

Decisions from three other federal circuits – the Third, Sixth and Seventh – suggest to the contrary that professors receive no special forgiveness from Garcetti.

By embracing without qualification the Garcetti level of authority over all employee speech, the Kansas Board of Regents inevitably has teed up a future case in its own Tenth Circuit, which has yet to speak to the issue.

Dissenting in the Garcetti case, Justice David Souter prophetically warned that employers would simply broaden employees’ job descriptions so that virtually any speech about the agency came within their official duties. This is no idle fear in the university setting.

To give one concrete example, it is the responsibility of nearly every university employee with a supervisory position – a dean, a coach, a club sponsor – to notify campus authorities upon learning that a student was sexually assaulted. Arguably, complaining in a blog that the college fails to diligently pursue and punish rapists might be speech pursuant to official duties, and consequently, grounds for termination at a supervisor’s complete discretion.

The context in which the Board of Regents enacted this hurry-up policy cannot be overlooked. It came in response to the suspension of  David W. Guth, a University of Kansas journalism professor, for an angry outburst on a personal Twitter account blaming the National Rifle Association for the fatal shooting of 12 employees at the Washington Navy Yard on Sept. 16.

Though harsh and tasteless, the posting addressed a disputed political issue – the type of speech to which courts have always afforded special First Amendment dignity, even outside the academic world – and no reasonable reader would have confused the post with an official statement of KU policy.

That the Board of Regents enacted a regulation unmistakably intended to ratify disciplinary action for speech like Guth’s is worrisome. It conveys the message that the proper official response to provocative speech that offends sensitive listeners is to punish the speaker – even on a college campus, where the Supreme Court has always said that extreme views must be given their chance to find an audience (or, as in Guth’s case, to be discredited).

At its heart, the Kansas policy exemplifies a larger problem afflicting all of government – the hair-trigger use of punitive authority whenever the agency’s public image is imperiled. At many, if not most, government agencies today, it is easier to get fired for making the agency look bad than for actually doing your job badly.

The media is filled with stories of police officers, firefighters and teachers who have lost their jobs for entirely legal activity on social media that their supervisors consider “unprofessional.”

The public would justifiably rebel against a “24/7 optimal conduct code” that made it a punishable offense for a teacher to wear a sexy Halloween costume to the shopping mall or enjoy a cocktail in a local restaurant. But let the teacher share a photo of that moment on Facebook, and the same harmless behavior that was publicly viewable to the community in the real world is pronounced to be “bad judgment” and grounds for termination.

Frank D. LoMonte is executive director of the Student Press Law Center, an advocate for the First Amendment rights of students and educators.

Survey of distance education provider shows important metrics missing -- or withheld

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A survey of distance education providers shows colleges and universities are failing to track -- or refusing to report -- course completion rates.

Have MOOCs hurt public perception of online education? (essay)

A little over 12 months ago, The New York Times famously dubbed 2012 “The Year of the MOOC.” What a difference 365 little days can make. Here at the back end of another calendar year, we wonder if 2013 might come to be thought of as “The Year of the Backlash” within the online higher education community.

Even Udacity's founder, Sebastian Thrun, one of the entrepreneurs whose businesses kicked off MOOC mania, seems to be getting into the backlash game.

According to Fast Company magazine, Thrun recently made the following observation regarding the evanescent hype surrounding MOOCs and his own company: "We were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don't educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product."

Of course, the hype around this category hasn’t wholly abated. Coursera has just announced another $20 million infusion of venture capital. And MIT has just released a report embracing the disaggregation of the higher education value chain fomented by platforms such as edX.

But maybe Thrun is right. Maybe MOOCs are a lousy product – at least as initially conceived. And even if MOOCs are meaningfully reimagined, the mark they have made on the public consciousness to date could have lasting repercussions for the broader field of online learning.

It seems like only last year (in fact it was) that some were crediting elite institutions with “legitimizing” online learning through their experimentation with MOOCs. But what if instead of legitimizing online learning, MOOCs actually delegitimized it?

Perhaps this is why, currently, 56 percent of employers say they prefer an applicant with a traditional degree from an average college to one with an online degree from a top institution, according to a Public Agenda survey undertaken earlier this year.

We’ve been following online learning for a long time, and collectively share experiences in teaching online, earning credentials online, writing about online learning, analyzing the online learning market, and serving as administrators inside a research university with a significant stake in online and hybrid delivery models.

While some MOOC enthusiasts might like you to believe that online learning appeared out of nowhere, sui generis, in 2012, the reality is that we’ve been bringing courses and degree programs online for more than 20 years. Hardly born yesterday, online learning has evolved slowly and steadily, taking these two decades to reach the approximately one-third of all higher education students who have taken at least one online course, and serving as the preferred medium of delivery for roughly one-sixth of all students. The pace of adoption of online learning – among institutions, students, faculty, and employers – has been remarkably steady.

The advent of this so-called “lousy product” – the MOOC – may be triggering a change, however. Indeed, recent survey evidence suggests that the acceptance of online learning among certain constituencies may be plateauing. Is it possible that a backlash against MOOCs could even precipitate a decline in the broader acceptance of online learning?

The long-running Babson Survey Research Group/Sloan-C surveys show relatively little change in faculty acceptance of online instruction between 2002, when they first measured it, and the most recent survey data available, from 2011. The percentage of chief academic officers that indicated they agreed with the statement “faculty at my school accept the value and legitimacy of online education” only grew from 28 percent in 2002, to 31 percent in 2009, and 32 percent in 2011. According to a more recent Inside Higher Ed/Gallup survey, “only one in five [faculty agree] that online courses can achieve learning outcomes equivalent to those of in-person courses.”

We have to be careful making comparisons across surveys, audiences and time spans, of course. But there is a palpable sense here that something may have shifted for online learning in the last year or so, and that as a result of that shift, online learning may be in danger -- for the first time in some 20 years -- of losing momentum.

In recent months, we’ve witnessed faculty rebelling against online learning initiatives at institutions as diverse as Harvard, Duke, Rutgers, and San Jose State, to name a few. In the latter case, faculty rallied to resist the use of Udacity courses on campus, but other instances of resistance did not even pertain to MOOCs – such as Duke’s decision to withdraw from the 2U-sponsored Semester Online consortium, or the vote from Rutgers’ Graduate School faculty to block the university’s planned rollout of online degree programs through its partnership with Pearson.

Our hypothesis is that MOOCs are playing a role here – chiefly by confusing higher education stakeholders about what online learning really is. By and large, of course, online learning isn’t massive and it isn’t open. And by and large, it does actually involve real courses, genuine coursework and assessment, meaningful faculty interaction, and the awarding of credentials – namely, degrees.

In numerous focus groups and surveys we have conducted over the course of 2013, both prospective students and employers have raised concerns about online learning that we had not been hearing in years past – concerns that have been chiefly related to the level of faculty interaction with students, the relationship between quality and price, and the utility of courses that don’t lead to recognized credentials.

The net contribution of the MOOC phenomenon, for the moment at least, may be a backsliding in the general acceptance of online learning – not least among faculty, who may fear they have the most to lose from MOOC mania, especially in the wake of controversial legislative proposals in a variety of states mandating that MOOCs be deemed creditworthy, thereby threatening further public divestment in higher education.

For those of us that have nurtured the growth and strengthening of online learning over many years, this would be an unfortunate outcome of the MOOC moment.

If there is a backlash under way, and if that backlash is contributing to an erosion in the confidence in the quality of online learning generally, that is something that won’t be overcome in a single hype cycle – it will take time, just as the establishment of degree-bearing online learning programs took time to develop and bolster. Possibly even more than one year.

Peter Stokes is vice president of global strategy and business development at Northeastern University, and author of the Peripheral Vision column. Sean Gallagher is chief strategy officer at Northeastern University.

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