Higher Education Quick Takes

Quick Takes

November 19, 2013

Sebastian Thrun, founder of the massive open online course provider Udacity, is no stranger to controversy. The Stanford University research professor and Google fellow has previously said higher education in 50 years will be provided by no more than 10 institutions worldwide, and Udacity could be one of them. Thrun dropped another bombshell last week in a profile published in Fast Company, which claimed the “godfather of free online education” had changed course. “The man who started this revolution no longer believes the hype,” the article read. Instead of teaching hundreds of thousands of students in one session, Udacity’s future could look something like the company’s partnership with the Georgia Institute of Technology and AT&T to create a low-cost master’s degree.

In reality, Thrun’s shift is more nuanced. Call it a refinement -- not a loss of faith.

“I am much more upbeat than the article suggests,” Thrun said in an email to Inside Higher Ed. “Over the summer, we had students pay for services wrapped around our open classes, and the results were about [20 times] better when compared to students just taking open MOOCs. We have now built the necessary infrastructure to bring this model to more students, while keeping all materials open and free of charge as in the past.”

Some critics of Thrun’s vision interpreted the article as a bit of poetic justice:

“After two years of hype, breathless proclamations about how Udacity will transform higher education, Silicon Valley blindness to existing learning research, and numerous articles/interviews featuring Sebastian Thrun, Udacity has failed,” wrote George Siemens, associate director of the Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute at Athabasca University. “This is not a failure of open education, learning at scale, online learning, or MOOCs. Thrun tied his fate too early to VC funding. As a result, Udacity is now driven by revenue pursuits, not innovation.”

Beyond schadenfreude, many responses cautioned against taking the profile as a sign that Thrun was abandoning higher education:

“It’s tempting to say good riddance,” wrote Michael Caulfield, director of blended and networked learning at Washington State University at Vancouver.

“Thrun can’t build a bucket that doesn’t leak, so he’s going to sell sieves,” Caulfield wrote. “Udacity dithered for a bit on whether it would be accountable for student outcomes. Failures at San Jose State put an end to that. The move now is to return to the original idea: high failure rates and dropouts are features, not bugs, because they represent a way to thin pools of applicants for potential employers. Thrun is moving to an area where he is unaccountable, because accountability is hard.”

Others said the profile marked a premature obituary for MOOCs, which exploded onto the higher education stage as recently as in 2012:

“After a long period of unbridled optimism and world-changing claims about the transformative potential of MOOCs, journalists are now proclaiming that MOOCs are dead, or at the very least broken,” wrote Shriya Nevatia, an undergraduate at Tufts University. “This is extremely dangerous. Instead of companies taking their ambitious proclamations and working hard to make them true, they say that MOOCs have failed, before they’ve even had a chance.”

Among MOOC skeptics, Audrey Watters, an education writer (and blogger for Inside Higher Ed), cautioned against thinking the format is dead:

“The Fast Company article serves as the latest round in MOOC hagiography: Thrun, the patron saint of higher education disruption,” Watters wrote. “And whether you see today’s Fast Company article as indication of a ‘pivot’ or not, I think it’s a mistake to cheer this moment as Udacity’s admission of failure and as an indication that it intends to move away from university disruption.... So yeah, perhaps it’s easy for many in higher education to shrug and sigh with relief that Thrun has decided to set his sights elsewhere. But if we care about learning -- if we care about learners -- I think we need to maintain our fierce critiques about MOOCs.”

November 18, 2013

A faculty member at Hocking College, in Ohio, has been barred from campus as authorities believe he may be a threat to three other faculty members, The Athens Messenger reported. The campus was informed of the ban and threats Thursday afternoon, and leaflets posted on campus include the faculty members name and photograph. The Messenger said it could not reach the man who was named as the threat.


November 18, 2013

Bob Jones University, an evangelical institution that bars any sex outside of heterosexual marriage, devoted last week's four chapel services to gay issues. The decision to do so prompted much speculation and debate on social media. Randy Page, director of public relations at the university, said via email that the decision to focus on same-sex attraction came at the request of students. During one of the services, Stephen Jones, president of Bob Jones, told the students about a "totally inappropriate letter" received by one student who may be gay. Jones told "the student body that the sentiments expressed represented nothing of the spirit of Christ and would not be accepted here," Page said.

BJUnity, a group promoting equity for gay students at Bob Jones, called the chapel services "a farce," and noted that the university has never apologized for hostile statements made in the past by university leaders.


November 18, 2013

The Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association on Friday called off its football championship game for the year after the quarterback for Winton-Salem State University was allegedly assaulted by players for Virginia State University, The Winston-Salem Journal reported. One Virginia State player has been arrested and Winston-Salem officials said that more may have been involved. A statement from the conference said that it has barred the Virginia State football team from postseason play. Keith Miller, president of Virginia State, issued this statement: "Virginia State University has indefinitely suspended a member of the VSU football team. Further, VSU will pursue a thorough internal investigation into Friday’s incident of which the findings and recommendations will be reported directly to me. We will include both students and alumni in this internal investigation process. Based on the report, further disciplinary action may be forthcoming. Playing on a VSU athletic team is a privilege. Student-athletes who fail to live up to the ideals of our institution will forfeit that privilege. We have a zero tolerance policy toward acts of violence, on or off campus, and we take that policy very seriously."



November 18, 2013

Federal authorities have given Princeton University permission to use Bexsero, a vaccine against meningitis not yet approved for general use in the United States, The New York Times reported. Seven people at Princeton have come down with a strain of meningitis in the last year, and that strain is not covered by the vaccination approved for use in the United States. Princeton is considering the use of Bexsero, and has also started a number of other efforts, such as discouraging students at parties from sharing the same cups.


November 18, 2013

Taylor Ashton Davis, a student at Kirkwood Community College, has been charge with assaulting a professor with whom she apparently had a relationship, The Cedar Rapids Gazette reported. She was also charged with assaulting a police officer who came to campus amid a report that student was "hitting a professor." The professor, who was not named in the police report, told authorities that he had been “in an intimate relationship that he tried to end about one year ago but has been somewhat ongoing,” according to the complaint. Kirkwood says that its faculty members “are not to develop relationships of a romantic or sexual nature with a student who is currently enrolled in his/her class or program, a student who is current receiving guidance/coaching from him/her, or an employee he/she is currently supervising.” No information was available on whether the student was enrolled in the professor's courses.


Taylor Ashton Davis
November 18, 2013

The squeeze that research universities are feeling because of federal budget cuts may put their credit ratings at risk, Moody's Investor Services said Friday. The rating agency did not formally change its outlook on research universities but did warn that the budget reductions, known as sequestration, are a negative development for the creditworthiness of those institutions. “Increasing pressure on federal research funding is credit negative for research universities, especially those with less-established records that will likely be less successful in securing grants in the current strained environment,” Moody’s wrote in its weekly credit outlook report. “Many universities built up their research infrastructure, both physical and faculty, in the mid-2000s, expecting increasing grants and contracts would cover the cost of their investments,” the report adds. “Now that the anticipated funding is constrained, some universities will struggle to cover the increased fixed costs, resulting in weakening operating performance.”

Moody’s cited a survey released this week that found 70 percent of large research universities had experienced funding reductions or delayed research projects due to sequestration.

Higher education and research advocates have said the sequester budget cuts, which first took effect in March, are severely detrimental to scientific discovery and the nation’s economic competitiveness. College presidents and their lobbyists in Washington are pressing lawmakers to end sequestration, which will trigger another round of across-the-board cuts in mid-January unless Congress acts to stop it. 

November 18, 2013

Rutgers University at New Brunswick, which faced a major scandal this year over a videotape showing its basketball coach mistreating players, is now being accused of failing to deal with against the defensive coordinator on its football team, NJ.com reported. A former football player and his parents say that Dave Cohen, defensive coordinator, found him in a study hall, called him a "pussy" and a "bitch," and threatened to head-butt him. Rutgers says that Cohen apologized and was reprimanded and that it thought the matter had been resolved to the player's parents' satisfaction -- statements they are now contesting.


November 18, 2013

In today’s Academic Minute, Elena Mastors of American Public University explains the value of understanding the psychological profile of adversarial leaders in armed conflicts. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

November 15, 2013

Bowie State University has announced that it is ending student health insurance due to the increased costs associated with the new federal health care law. The university is encouraging students to either get on their parents' plans or participate in Maryland's health insurance exchange.



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