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A Twitter skeptic experiments and buys in (essay)

Jack Schneider didn't think Twitter could possibly improve his scholarly work. But a challenge from a colleague led him to experiment, and he explains why it's now part of his public engagement.

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Maker of Canvas Gets $30 Million, Eyes Competition in LMS Market

Instructure, the maker of the Canvas learning management system, raised $30 million in venture capital to help fuel its competition against Blackboard, Desire2Learn and other more established players, the company said this week. Bessemer Venture Partners put up $26 million and existing investors put in another $4 million.

“We plan to use it for growth. We still think there is a great opportunity in this market to take market share,” said Brian Whitmer, an Instructure co-founder. Right now, he said the five-year-old company has about 5 percent of the LMS market.

Whitmer said the company would hire sales, development and support staff. It may also buy other startups. “We may use some of it for acquisitions," he said.

Another goal, of course, is to eventually take the company public. Bessemer's Silicon Valley partner Byron Deeter will join the Instructure board.

Essay on two recent discussions of massive open online education

Two recent interventions in the ongoing conversation about massive open online courses (MOOCs) strike me as provocative, in very different ways – and also as curiously neglected, given the interest of what the authors have to say. Perhaps it is a sign of fatigue with the subject? Maybe, but the two articles in question, published a little over a month ago, take up the MOOC question in ways that haven’t previously come to the fore.

In calling them to readers’ attention, I don’t aim to influence anyone’s opinion of MOOCs. To attempt that, my own opinion would have to be settled, which it isn’t. There are compelling arguments for assessing them as the pedagogical wave of the future, bringing quality education to everyone, or as a passing fad, possibly in the nature of an economic bubble. I sometimes wonder whether MOOCs might not be the next step towards a dehumanized future in which we become the carbon-based batteries fueling our robot overlords, but have come, as yet, to no settled judgment. (Not that these are the only options, of course, but the topic does tend to elicit strong feelings.)

Wherever you fall in the spectrum of opinion, at least one of the two articles flagged here should be of some interest. They take perspectives not otherwise represented, to my knowledge, in the arguments of the past couple of years. That neither has raised any ruckus seems odd.

Visibility was certainly not the problem with “The Pedagogical Foundations of Massive Open Online Courses” by David George Glance, Martin Forsey, and Myles Riley. It ran in early May in First Monday, the peer-reviewed journal for research concerning the Internet. Hosted at the University of Chicago and now in its 18th year, First Monday is one of the more venerable open-access online publications.

Glance, Forsey, and Riley (the first two associate professors at the University of West Australia, the third a research assistant there) are in effect addressing the question posed in the title of John F. Ebersole’s article here at IHE, a couple of days ago: “Where’s the Evidence?” Their paper is a review of empirical studies of the components of MOOC instruction – short videos, frequent quizzes, peer- and self-assessment, and online forums where students discuss course material. The authors located and synthesized 138 relevant papers. Very little of the literature specifically focused on MOOCs themselves; they are still too recent a development for much research to have been done. But, the authors maintain, MOOCs share enough features with other forms of instruction (both online and face-to-face) to make studies of their common features pertinent.

“A common format for MOOCs,” the paper notes, “is the short video interspersed or associated with multiple-choice quizzes.” The combination “emulates one-on-one tutoring” and enables the student “to control the pace, pause, rewind, explore, and return to the content,” unlike with “standard lectures or with video recordings which may be one to two hours long.” Self-pacing enables the student to “achieve mastery of a concept before moving on the next” -- a pedagogical process known as “mastery learning,” for which there is much evidence of efficacy: “A meta-analysis of 108 controlled evaluations,” reported in a paper in 1990, “showed mastery learning programs to have positive effects on examination performances of students in university, high school, and upper grades of primary school.”

Frequent assessment via multiple-choice tests (which have the obvious advantage of being scored by computer and giving the student almost instantaneous feedback) means that students have “an opportunity for retrieval learning” through a practice that “enhance[es] long-term memory of facts through recalling information from short-term memory.” The authors cite a number of studies indicating that retrieval practice improves long-term retention, and note that some research suggests that it can have deeper effects: “Every time we retrieve knowledge, that knowledge is altered, and the ability to reconstruct that knowledge again in the future is strengthened. Recent studies have shown retrieval practice to also enhance meaningful learning (producing organised, coherent, and integrated mental models that allow people to make inferences and apply knowledge)….”

There’s more, though that much should suffice for present purposes. The gist of it is that the “pedagogical foundations” of MOOC instruction are at least as firm as those beneath the traditional classroom “and may actually improve learning outcomes.” This is, again, an extrapolation from work done (most of it) before the advent of MOOCs. The latter are treated, in effect, as just online education on steroids. The authors acknowledge, in passing, that the “massive” side of the phenomenon may have the undesirable effect of fostering social isolation, and note that they have not addressed “the larger questions around whether taking a collection of MOOCs could replace obtaining an education on campus at a university in all of its facets of personal development and education.”

In other words, more research remains to be done -- and the three authors seem to be in a position to undertake some of it: earlier this year, the University of West Australia began offering its first set of MOOCs.

Why stop at offering courses? Why not massive open online degrees, as well? While looking around for discussions of “The Pedagogical Foundations” – and there was precious little, apart from the thread following this summary by one of the authors – I came across a blog post with a subject line reading

MOOCs are so unambitious: introducing the MOOPhD

which I bookmarked as something to revisit as a diversion. You might reasonably assume that it is a satirical piece -- or at least I did.

Except it isn’t. The author, Jon Dron, is an associate professor of computing and information systems at Athabasca University, in Alberta, Canada. He has “had peripheral involvement with a support network for students investigating learning analytics,” he writes, and “helped to set up a site to provide resources for graduate students and their supervisors.” His remarks framing the possibility of massive open online doctoral studies are sober and completely uncontaminated by irony.

Dron brainstormed the idea with a couple of colleagues, and the very concept sounds like work in progress. The MOO doctoral candidate “would accrue a body of research publications that could be used as evidence of a sustained research journey, and a set of skills that would prepare them for viva voces and other more formal assessment methods. This would be good for universities as they would be able to award more Ph.D.s without the immense resources that are normally needed, and good for students who would need to invest less money (and maybe be surrounded by a bigger learning community).”

Much could be said about the whole idea -- let alone about how desirable its outcomes might be -- though I will forebear. But if the plan is ever realized, we must at least draw a line at the massive open online MD program. That would be just a little too much like Hollywood Upstairs Medical College.

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Academic Minute: Texting and Deployed Military Personnel

In today’s Academic Minute, Brian Houston of the University of Missouri reveals how modern communication technology is changing how military families deal with deployment. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

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Unexpected Issues in Online Education Deal

A pilot partnership between San Jose State University and Udacity, the Silicon Valley-based ed tech company, revealed some hidden costs of online education, The Oakland Tribune reports

"I get this call from San Jose State: 'Uh, we have a problem,'" recalled Mark Ryan, superintendent of a charter school in Oakland that was taking part in the project to offer for-credit online classes to students, including high school students. According to the newspaper, "It turned out some of the low-income teens didn't have computers and high-speed Internet connections at home that the online course required. Many needed personal attention to make it through. The final results aren't in yet, but the experiment exposed some challenges to the promise of a low-cost online education. And it showed there is still a divide between technology-driven educators and the low-income, first-generation college hopefuls they are trying to reach."

Udacity just signed a major deal with the Georgia Institute of Technology to offer a low-cost professional master's degree courses to 10,000 students at once.

New Data on MOOC Students

New data on an early MOOC course offered by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are being released today in the journal Research and Practice in Assessment. The data are about the course Circuits and Electronics, which already has been the subject of some analysis. In an article in the journal, researchers reported on the use of course resources by those who earned certificates (greatest use on weekends, when students presumably had more time and just before assignments were due), the use of discussion boards (most students were lurkers, and viewed others comments without adding any of their own), and the countries of origin of students, based on IP addresses and perhaps not completely accurate as a result (greatest enrollments from the United States, followed by India, Britain, Colombia and Spain).

Essay questioning the evidence on MOOCs and learning

As widely reported, five massive open online courses have been deemed worthy of an academic credit recommendation by the American Council on Education. The announcement by ACE has been greeted with equal parts acclaim and concern. Many see this step as a new day for increased access and reduced cost for those working toward a degree. Content costing thousands of dollars on campus may now be available for free and in the comfort of one’s own home. Others, especially in academe, continue to express concern about the nature of MOOCs and their ability to produce learning.

While no one questions the quality of instruction, it remains unclear as to how student learning by MOOC is to be measured.  Yes, there has been discussion in the media about the use of proctored exams. Yet, a poor assessment securely administered is still a problem.  Are examinations being developed from publisher test banks, or are they akin to the psychometrically validated, field tested exams that have been long used to measure other forms of non-collegiate learning? Are question banks sufficiently deep to ensure assessment variation and integrity? And, are security measures in place to minimize the likelihood of the type of cheating that has compromised other large scale testing programs (the TOEFL experience in Asia a few years ago comes to mind)?

At a time when evidence of learning is increasingly demanded by accreditors and the federal government, a determination of equivalency in instruction alone is no longer sufficient. Valid, secure learning outcome assessment must now be part of the equation as well.

Yes, the MOOCs produced by Udacity and Coursera feature some of our finest instructors from prestigious institutions. We must remember, however, that this instruction comes from outside the academy. MOOCs are not subjected to the same reviews that are part of the accreditation process for other instruction at colleges and universities. And, as we have seen, more thought must be given to the assessment process and its validity.

Would this also be the case for a course coming from within the academy? One would hope not. A higher standard is mandated when measuring the ability of non-collegiate instruction to produce meaningful outcomes. Consider that it has been standard practice for individual military students, independent study students, and those taking courses through open educational resources, as well as other forms of prior learning, to prove their mastery of specific subject matter through psychometrically validated, ACE reviewed and approved examinations. These exams are prepared by Ph.D. psychometricians, in tandem with panels of nationally prominent content specialists. They are field tested for reliability and predictability.  In the case of exams at my institution, Excelsior College,, they are also nationally normed to establish "cut scores" for the assignment of letter grades. The academic community broadly has been accepting of this type of learning validation because of the understood rigor and credibility of the methodology.

No similar attention to rigor, validity  and security is seen in the MOOCs offered to date. This is especially important as we struggle to understand why only a small percentage of students (less than 10 percent by most accounts and usually from abroad), actually complete the MOOC experience.

And yet, massive open online "courses" (doubt still exists as to whether this is what they truly are) do appear to have real value.  It can be argued that they are well-suited (and likely sustainable over the long term) as vehicles for:

1. Delivering cutting-edge continuing education, where credit is secondary to relevance for technical professionals striving to remain current and competitive.

2. Building faculty reputations through what some see as "21st-century interactive, textbooks." It is a rare professor who can boast of hundreds of thousands of "students" when preparing for a promotion or tenure review, especially at a time when traditional texts typically sell fewer than a thousand copies.

3. Creating greater institutional brand awareness. By being seen in the company of "giants," other research universities enhance their visibility overseas, which is where the majority of MOOC participants are located. (This is inexpensive PR in the eyes of many and explains the unseemly rush by some institutions to get on board).

4. Offering "free samples" of a program that will later involve real dollars. Berklee School of Music, for example, is offering an introductory guitar class to tens of thousands of interested individuals. In so doing, the prospective student can try before buying. Even if only a small number complete the course per usual, Berklee will have a greater number of potential enrollees than is typically the case with other forms of student recruitment.

With all of these promising applications, where MOOCs have yet to prove themselves remains in the area of degree completion, or even completion of enough learning to justify the awarding of credit. Traditional students (ages 18-24) and those adults who question their ability to succeed as returning students often need to interact with an instructor. Mentoring, teaching and building self-confidence are not attributes of the current MOOC. Until there is evidence of real learning here, institutions may wish to move with caution in the extension of credit toward degree requirements As the executive director of a regional accrediting body recently stated, "We will be very interested [in our visits] to learn of the basis for such decisions [by the accepting institution]."

John F. Ebersole is president of Excelsior College.

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'Inside Higher Ed' Editors Discuss Issues on MOOCs

On Thursday, Inside Higher Ed's editors, Scott Jaschik and Doug Lederman, discussed the latest developments and issues surrounding massive open online courses during a free webinar. To watch the webinar, which was held in conjunction with the recent release of "The MOOC Moment," a collection of articles and essays about MOOCs, click here.

Nonprofit colleges should be wary of new breed of for-profit players (essay)

Southern New Hampshire University is probably the fastest-growing nonprofit institution in the country, driven by the expansion of our longstanding online program.  When it comes to large-scale online programs, for-profit colleges dominate the list, which includes only a handful of national nonprofit players. 

That may change soon. Eduventures, the marketing research firm, predicts that hundreds of nonprofits will seek to move online more aggressively. A good number of them have been visiting us.

From small private tuition-dependent colleges to flagship public universities to elite high-brand schools, we have hosted institutions that are exploring how they might enter the online education market or expand their existing programs.  It’s not as easy as it was even just a few years ago, and with some frequency they ask if we might contract with them to help them grow their online programs. 

We thought about offering such a “services business” and partnering with these institutions to provide everything from marketing expertise to call center support to advising to course development and more, but discovered that we can’t.  U.S. Department of Education rules prohibit one institution from offering “bundled services” to another for a share of tuition revenue (the only sensible way to be paid since services contract and expand with enrollments).  Ironically, while the rule was designed to thwart for-profits institutions trying to circumvent prohibitions on incentive compensation for enrollment activities, it inadvertently keeps nonprofits from working together while protecting that market for a new breed of for-profit players.

While Southern New Hampshire has abandoned the idea of creating a services business, we learned in investigating it that major for-profit companies are rushing into the breach, claiming millions of tuition dollars, and blurring the boundaries between them and their nonprofit partners.  

Though for-profit colleges themselves are reeling and seeing steep declines in enrollment, bundled services providers, as I call these entities, represent a new for-profit sector quietly gaining substantial ground in higher education. Because this sector is doing so in willing partnership with nonprofit institutions, its presence is largely unrecognized and poorly understood. 

A new generation of owners and shareholders is being enriched with tuition dollars, and the nonprofit higher education sector may well be compromising its integrity and values.  This major new for-profit presence is now becoming established, is a magnet for investors, and in many ways raises more difficult questions for higher education and for regulators than did the for-profit institutions that have been so often vilified. 

Bundled services providers are for-profit companies that help institutions establish and grow online programs.  While they can help with course development and conversion, platform and IT needs, compliance and reporting, their real added value is marketing and student recruitment.  As more and more nonprofits look to expanded online programs as a way of extending their reach and offsetting loss of other revenues (state support for publics, shrinking net student revenue for privates), the BSP industry has heated up.  

Publishing behemoth Pearson acquired EmbanetCompass for $650 million. John Wiley & Sons acquired Deltek, another BSP, for $220 million. A number of new BSPs have entered the market place in the last few years -- companies like 2U, Learning House, and Academic Partnerships -- joining longer-term players such as Bisk; heavyweights like Blackboard have announced plans to jump in.

For-profit institutions also have a stake in this business, with Kaplan owning Colloquy and Ivy Bridge College being owned in part by Altius. Udacity, best known for MOOCs, recently announced a partnership with Georgia Tech that really looks like a bundled services deal if you read who will provide what, based on details provided in this recent Inside Higher Ed article. Coursera this week unveiled partnerships with nine state university systems and flagship campuses in which it will provide a suite of services and products including its MOOC platform, entire courses, technical assistance consulting, and analytics – in short, bundled services.

While for-profit institutions have yet to earn much respect from traditional higher education, the BSPs are working with scores of highly reputable nonprofits. EmbanetCompass works with Boston University, Deltak with Purdue, 2U with the University of Southern California and Georgetown, Pearson with Arizona State University, Bisk with Notre Dame -- and the list goes on. 

Eduventures estimates that about 200 nonprofits have partnerships with BSPs and another 500 will entertain such partnerships in the next 12 to 24 months. BSPs generally take 50 percent of all tuition revenues for their services, so this is a very lucrative market. 

How lucrative? According to the Texas Observer, Academic Partnerships collects 70 percent of the tuition revenue from partner Lamar University, the third-fastest growing university in Texas (it started at 80 percent), more than $33 million in fiscal 2012.  

In its partnership with Arizona State, Academic Partnerships collected just short of $4 million or 50 percent of tuition, over $10 million in its partnership with Florida International University, and $18 million, or 50 percent of tuition, for Ohio University’s nursing program. With hundreds of nonprofits hoping to grow online programming and finally shaking off their hesitancy about online education (the real gift of elites offering MOOCs), the bundled services market stands to outgrow the for-profit higher education sector over time. In short, it could be huge. 

Why do nonprofits turn to BSPs for help and thereby surrender huge amounts of tuition revenue (and effectively pass through to the for-profit world federal and state financial aid dollars)?  There are three primary reasons:

  • They have tried to launch online programs and had limited success, or they have never done an online program, so they know there is a lot they do not know;
  • They do not have the internal capacity, whether it be the right people (often the case), technology, systems, data analytics, or processes;
  • They do not have the financial resources to build capacity and support a necessary marketing effort.

So while the prospect of giving up so much of their tuition revenue is not attractive, these institutions have little other recourse.  The BSPs, on the other hand, recognize that they will make major investments to launch and grow these online programs and that over time the institutions will learn from them, so they insist on long-term contracts. Ten years is not uncommon. 

Outsourcing parts of what we do is not new to nonprofit higher education.  We often outsource food service, bookstores, and maintenance.  We increasingly outsource IT, or portions of it anyway.  Outside vendors often create our marketing materials.  We may outsource some HR functions, such as payroll. 

There is little tradition of outsourcing core academic functions and the key engagement with students that begins with recruitment/admissions and extends through the learning experience and advising. Yet nonprofits are increasingly doing just that in their partnerships with BSPs. 

I have elsewhere written about the disaggregation currently under way in higher education and could argue that this is the best example of the phenomenon.  Essentially, BSPs do the marketing, student recruitment, data analytics, course conversion, and other functional processes far better than most nonprofits can. Disaggregating those functions and paying an entity more expert than you to do them makes a lot of sense, and I could argue that doing so provides access to more students, strengthens the participating institutions by building enrollments and increasing revenues (even if they give up a good portion of them), and ostensibly allows the institution to stay focused on what it does best: develop intellectual assets that the BSPs then help to extend to the world.

Yet, the rise of the BSP industry raises a number of important questions that invite exploration by policy makers, higher education leadership, reporters, and others.  To my mind, they are as follows:

  1. Are for-profit companies in the process of claiming another large portion of the higher education pie and doing so largely under the radar screen?
  2. Are BSPs important enablers that will allow nonprofit higher education to reclaim the online marketplace from the huge for-profits, or we trading one kind of for-profit – institutions that are  easy to recognize and understand - -  for another that is more insidiously embedded within our sector?
  3. What does it mean for any institution to give over so many of its activities to a third-party provider?
  4. How will accreditors and regulators come to think about these disaggregated structures given that the regulatory environment is largely built on the notion of the integrated institution?
  5. Are institutions that enter into BSP contracts sufficiently safeguarding their authority over key functions and decisions and against the recruitment abuses that plagued so much of for-profit higher education?
  6. Are we comfortable with so much tuition revenue leaving our institutions to enrich shareholders and owners of for-profit companies?  Put another way, how much do we give away to for-profits before our institutions lose their standing as nonprofits and become fronts for what in reality become much more mixed entities?

BSPs make their profits and meet shareholder expectations by driving growth, and one could argue that when an institution contracts with a BSP there is a perfect alignment of goals: both want to see more enrollments and more tuition revenue.  If the BSP is making a lot of money, so too is the institution: an ostensible win-win. Conversely, when a BSP so entirely takes over the management of a nonprofit’s program, how much nonprofit is left?

If non-profit Institution X contracts for a BSP to:

  • convert its courses for online delivery;
  • provide all learning materials;
  • market and recruit students;
  • process admissions files;
  • hire faculty and oversee the teaching of the courses; and
  • provide assessment,

what is then left for Institution X to provide? Its name, accreditation, Title IV approval, and intellectual property in the form of the syllabuses and program.  Is that not then a kind of franchising in which the student largely engages with the for-profit side of the partnership and very little with the nonprofit?  Is such an effective hybrid program truly nonprofit?

On the other hand, many nonprofits have little alternative. They lack the combination of know-how, capital, and infrastructure they need and a BSP contract gets them in the game and generates new tuition revenues. While the contracts may be lengthy, the arrangements give them time to learn what they need and to eventually take back some or all of that for which they contract.  There is an alternative. 

I propose a BSP cooperative, a nonprofit entity in which nonprofit institutions can be owner/members. From such an entity an institution could buy all the services it needs at a lower cost with a number of benefits:

  1. Because it is a co-op it would have to distribute any “profits” back to the members, thus keeping all tuition dollars within the nonprofit sector;
  2. Institutions would have not have to surrender such large portions of their tuition revenues and, by extension, federal financial aid dollars would stay within the nonprofit sector;
  3. All co-op “profits” could be funneled back into institutions as need-based scholarship support.

Because all members are owners, the earlier cited Department of Education bundled service affiliate rule would prohibit a co-op as just outlined, but I think the idea is compelling enough that (a) the department should find a way to make such a co-op possible and (b) institutions would readily sign on if they could.  In the end, a partnership of accredited nonprofit institutions might not address all the boundary and definitional questions that the new for-profit BSP sector raises, but I would find such a partnership more reassuring than our current state of affairs.

Paul LeBlanc is president of Southern New Hampshire University.

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Harvard Dean's Departure Spurs Talk of E-Mail Dispute

The Harvard University dean who authorized searches of the e-mail accounts of some resident deans (who are something like junior faculty members) has announced she will return to the faculty. Numerous press accounts seemed to suggest a link between the departure of Evelynn M. Hammonds as dean of Harvard College, and the controversy over the e-mail searches. But she told reporters that there was no such link. The Harvard announcement said that she had decided to return to teaching and research. Hammonds will lead a new program for the study of race and gender in science and medicine.

 

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