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).
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.
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.
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:
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?
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?
What does it mean for any institution to give over so many of its activities to a third-party provider?
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?
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?
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
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:
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;
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;
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.
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.
Coursera and edX, the two major providers of massive open online courses, continue to partner with more institutions. On Tuesday, edX, a nonprofit started with money from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, announced it has 15 new partners, including a half dozen in Asia. Both edX and Coursera, a Silicon Valley-based company, have recently touted the global nature of their efforts. Coursera last week gained a prestigious domestic partner: Yale University, which had been taking its time to reflect.
Here's a course topic not currently offered by any of the providers of massive open online courses: "The Implications of Coursera’s For-Profit Business Model for Global Public Education." The course was proposed last week by Robert Meister, professor of political and social thought in the department of the history of consciousness at the University of California at Santa Cruz and president of the Council of UC Faculty Associations. He sent a letter with his idea to Daphne Koller, a computer science professor at Stanford University and co-founder of Coursera, and then published his letter on the blog of the American Association of University Professors.
Among the topics Meister proposes covering:
Why venture capitalists "are willing to provide an even greater abundance of knowledge in the service of greater economic and social equality than is the State of California, which clearly has the means to spend much more than it has cost your company to reach a worldwide enrollment in the millions."
The way "free MOOCs weaken the link between scarcity and quality on which the business model of all higher education, both public and private, unfortunately depends."
Teaching students to "think financially about the socio-economic spreads created by our public educational system as a potential source of private profit."
"[T]hat the for-profit logic of their online educational empowerment depends on the fact while they are consuming information, they are also producing information that Coursera can correlate with other data to predict what prices students with particular profiles would eventually pay for courses they are presently consuming for free."
The piece ends by asking Koller if she would co-teach the course, saying "I’m sure that together we could reach a very large audience indeed."
Via e-mail in response to an Inside Higher Ed question, Koller indicated that potential students might not find the course listed in the Coursera list of offerings any time soon, and that she does not consider that she was really being invited to co-teach it.
"If you've read the (rather long) letter, you'll have seen that it's not actually an invitation to co-teach a course, but rather a thinly veiled attack on Coursera and the whole MOOC model," she wrote. "When we launched Coursera we introduced a completely new model for providing learners everywhere free access to a great education. It is not surprising that a model this transformative brings out skeptics and critics, and, indeed, some caution is appropriate whenever the world changes this quickly. I am happy to respond to concrete criticism of our actions or words, but Mr. Meister's letter criticizes the model not based on what Coursera has done, nor even on what we have said we would do in future, but rather based on a speculative trajectory of his own construction. Our mission, to enable anyone around the world to have access to education, and to do what's best for students, remains clear today and will not bend in the future."