Online Education Bill Clears California Senate

A controversial California proposal to expand the state public colleges' use of online education has passed the Senate, though it's been amended again. Early versions of the bill would have required the state’s 145 public colleges and universities to grant credit for low-cost online courses offered by outside groups, including classes offered by for-profit companies. The latest version, which cleared the Senate late last month and is pending in the state Assembly, would create an "incentive grant program" to encourage faculty and campuses to work either with each other across the state's tri-part higher education system or with private companies to offer online classes in high-demand subjects to college and high school students. Faculty representatives, which came out strongly against earlier versions of the bill, reportedly remain opposed. 

U. of Maryland University College Closes Intellectual Property Center

The University of Maryland University College recently closed its Center for Intellectual Property, citing a universitywide budget gap of $35 million that caused dozens of other layoffs. The closure of the noted center cost four people their jobs, said university spokesman Bob Ludwig.  "The decision to close the Center for Intellectual Property was basically based on a process we went through to refocus our priorities and meet our budget gap we were facing for the next fiscal year," he said. "So, through that process, it was determined that the Center for Intellectual Property was not central to UMUC's core mission." The center -- whose work was followed by experts elsewhere -- worked on "education, research and resource development on the impact of intellectual property issues in higher education," according to its website.

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.


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